Winnipeg's zoo gave a sneak peek of its brand new entrance on Tuesday.

The $5.5-million, 11,410-square-foot facility is located just east of the old entrance on Roblin Boulevard and features a large glass-panelled plaza with a visitor services centre and gift shop.

“Inside this gate we are putting the finishing touches on Journey to Churchill, which will be the premiere polar bear and northern species exhibit in the world, and we know how important it is to make a great first impression,” said Margaret Redmond, president and CEO of the Assiniboine Park Conservancy.

The zoo, which closed to the public on Monday, will reopen July 3 with its biggest attraction welcoming visitors — the Journey to Churchill exhibit for polar bears, Arctic fox, muskoxen, snowy owls and seals in expansive new habitats.

”On July 3, we will welcome visitors back to the zoo through this beautiful new facility and would like to thank the City of Winnipeg for having the foresight and vision to help make this possible,” said Redmond.

'Bright new era,' says mayor

Mayor Sam Katz, who was one of the dignitaries on hand Tuesday for the sneak peek, said he can't wait to bring his family to the new zoo and suspects he will be spending lots of money on toys in the gift shop.

Assiniboine Park zoo

The Assiniboine Park Zoo's new $5.5-million, 11,410-square-foot entrance is located just east of the old entrance on Roblin Boulevard and features a large glass-panelled plaza with a visitor services centre and gift shop. (Meagan Fiddler/CBC)

“The zoo enters a bright new era with the opening of the beautiful and spacious new main gate to the zoo that will not only welcome visitors, but give them a sense of the gem of an experience that awaits them inside,” he said.

“Many generations of Winnipeggers and visitors have enjoyed the Assiniboine Park Zoo and now, many more generations are sure to learn from and enjoy it, as well.”

The Assiniboine Park Conservancy, expecting large crowds to see Journey to Churchill, has taken steps to reduce lineups to get into the zoo.

People will be able to buy tickets ahead of time through the zoo's website and the new entrance will have four automated ticket kiosks.

Admission prices going up

The zoo is raising gate admission rates in time for the Journey to Churchill opening. Starting July 3, adult gate admission will go up from $10.24 to $18.50, not including GST.

The gate fee for seniors and youth (aged 13-17) will go up from $8.24 to $14.81, while the fee for children between the ages of three and 12 will go up from $6.62 to $10.

Gate admission is free for children under the age of three. Zoo officials are changing the free admission age from two to three.

"We still are below all other major zoos in Canada," Redmond said.

Zoo officials showed reporters the adult admission rates at the following facilities:

  • Vancouver Aquarium: $27.61
  • Calgary Zoo: $23
  • Toronto Zoo: $26.67 (summer rate)
  • Bowmanville Zoo: $20.35
  • Biodome de Montreal: $17.86
  • Granby Zoo: $35.95
  • Ripley's Aquarium: $29.98
  • Assiniboine Park Zoo: $18.50

Zoo officials also noted that the higher gate price is still below the $24 adult admission rate at the Manitoba Museum and the $25 charged for two hours at Sky Zone, a local trampoline centre.

Staff with one daycare contacted by CBC News on Tuesday said they aren't happy with the admission increase, but they are still planning a field trip to the zoo.

Officials with another daycare said they will reduce the number of children they take to the zoo from 45 to 30.

The Assiniboine Park Zoo says it will offer family and group rates, as well as provide grants to those who cannot afford the admission rates.

"We're also in the process of establishing something, we hope very soon, called Park Share that will be an endowment fund that we will grow over time," Redmond said.

Some zoo visitors like Coleen Smitke, a grandmother of three, said the increased admission prices will be worth it.

"The number of people I saw at the [Red River] Ex walking around with $45 wristbands on — I think I'm going to get a lot more education value, a lot more out of the zoo," Smitke said.

Janet McLeod, whose 11-year-old son Neil is looking forward to the new exhibit, said she is willing to pay more as well.

"Unfortunately for some that means they won't come as often, perhaps, but maybe one good time is better than three not-so-good times," she said.