It closed its doors for good back in 2002 amid allegations of animal mistreatment, but the former JungleLand Zoo property on US 192 in Kissimmee is now poised for a renaissance in the hands of its new owner, Florida businessman Arvind Nandu.
Nandu, president of Benzer International, Inc., and the owner of a host of area businesses – including two I-Drive gift shops and what was the first indoor flea market of its kind in Orlando – closed on the nearly 7-acre tract on Dec. 26 for $550,000.
Nandu says he has a number of visions for the property, but is not yet sure which tact he will take.
"I'd like to do something different from what I have done in the past," he told GrowthSpotter. "There are several possible routes, each tourist-driven, but one thing is for sure: it will be unique."
Originally Alligatorland Safari Zoo, which opened in 1977, the attraction became JungleLand in 1995 and was best known for its iconic 126-foot alligator and its big cat shows – until one of the stars went rogue. A lioness named Nala escaped her enclosure in 1997, fleeing into the nearby wetlands. She was captured without incident two days later, but not before the story went global.
Languishing since its closure, the site has become something of an eyesore amid the tourist corridor. A trio of businessmen, an animal exhibitor and wildlife rehabilitator among them, nearly purchased the property in 2015 with intent to resurrect the attraction into a new zoo with a focus on animal education, but never closed on the deal.
The zoo's enormous alligator was demolished in 2014, a fact that JungleLand's new owner laments. Nandu has had his eye on the property for more than two years, but the seller, JungleLand Zoo Partners, "wanted more than I was willing to offer."
Burdened with extensive code enforcement fines of $1.1 million, Osceola County Commissioners agreed to a reduction to around $50,000 to help facilitate the sale.
Christina Morris, executive director of the W192 Development Authority, looks forward to working with Nandu as he brings the decaying property back to life, beginning perhaps with a grant for demolition. The authority allows business owners to apply for such incentives online. Morris says they'll match approved projects up to $75,000.
"I think it's exciting that we have investors interested in helping us to rehab long-overdue blighted properties," Morris told GrowthSpotter. "And I believe his vision falls in line with that of the W192 Development Authority. They have created an environment to stimulate the private sector – and this new business will bring increased economic activity in the corridor."