The White River Junction train ride opened at the “new” Indianapolis Zoo in 1988. As originally designed, the ride was to travel around the Plains biome, including views of African, Australian and American plains animals. Due to growing budgets, the American plains area was pushed out to a later phase, and some temporary support structures were built in the area.
Ultimately, the American plains never materialized, and the temporary support structures remained and grew. A relocation and expansion of the Afican elephant habitat in 2002 necessitated rerouting the train tracks. Original plans called for large trestle bridges to provide vista views of the new elephant exhibit and other plains animals. Unfortunately, the bridges were value engineered out of the plans and the tracks were run around behind the elephant exhibit with barely a look inside. As a result, approximately 2/3 of the views on the 10-minute White River Junction train ride are of the back side of maintenance buildings or large concrete animal housings – not a very exciting ride.
When I served as the Attractions Manager at the zoo, one part of my job was to create the audio recordings that would play on the trains as they made their grand circle tour around part of the plains and the maintenance buildings. The narration would change periodically depending on the messaging of the zoo being promoted at the time.
Over the years, I had countless ideas for how to improve the ride experience, however funding was never available to pay for such ideas. While I may not have had control over the physical scenery that could be viewed along the ride, I did have control of the audio. In 2005, I decided to take the ride in a new, more entertaining direction.
Enter Gene Giraffe and Ellie Elephant. Gene and Ellie were characters I invented who lived at the zoo and would broadcast a radio talkshow. Working with a fellow zoo employee with an artistic background, I secured funding to commission life-sized, 2-dimensional cutout cartoon versions of Gene and Ellie who welcomed guests as they queued up for the ride at the station.
In addition to Gene and Ellie, another colleague and I scoured the zoo grounds as well as a local junkyard to find anything we could use for free as props along the back side of the ride. We devised several simple scenes along the tracks to add some visual interest.
Tying it all together was the audio recording that played during the ride. Guests would tune into “The Gene and Ellie Show” as they rode around the tracks. The narration cleverly gave facts about some of the animals that guests could see, and spent the back half taking calls from listeners, discussing conservation, and making jokes.
I wrote the script, found the voice actors among fellow zoo staffers, managed the recording sessions and edited everything together into the final product. I even make a brief cameo at the 5:42 mark as the voiceover in a commercial for the Polly Horton Hix Animal Care Complex – that happened to play at the exact time the train passed by the building of the same name.
Take a listen below:
In 2007, “The Gene and Ellie Show” was retired after just two years. In an attempt to improve the ride, we made the decision to run the trains in the opposite direction. This change was made in order to place the views of the few animals that could be seen from the ride at the end of the experience rather than the beginning.
With the trains running in the opposite direction, the recording of “The Gene and Ellie Show” no longer lined up with what guests would see. Though a temporary narration was put in place, I always intended to re-record a new version of the show. I left the Indianapolis Zoo later that year and with my departure, Gene and Ellie faded into history. Much like the “temporary” support buildings from 1988, the “temporary” narration below remained for another 5 years after my departure. Sadly, to my knowledge, Gene and Elli have never returned.