Springfield, MO

Promised Land Zoo is growing its footprint by over 700 percent.
Promised Land Zoo is growing its footprint by over 700 percent.

Branson zoo owners expand territory

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Branson is about to get a little wilder. Jeff and Diane Sanders, owners of Promised Land Zoo in Branson, recently purchased 65 acres between their 9-acre zoo and Ball Parks of America.

The couple plan to add a drive-thru zoo on the property and animal shows in a newly constructed theater. They’re also transforming what most Branson residents simply call the “old amphitheater” – a concert venue that once hosted musicians like Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn.

“It’s an abandoned concrete eyesore now,” Diane Sanders said. “We are taking something that everyone drives past every day, and thinks is ugly, and now it’s going to be our parking lot. It will be repurposed.”

The revitalization fits into a larger puzzle of some $800 million in the project pipeline managed by the Taney County Partnership. While not all projects may go through – and the estimates do not include Johnny Morris’ development work around Big Cedar Lodge – property is getting snatched up in that central undeveloped area in the middle stretch of Highway 76.

In addition to the Promised Land Zoo expansion, Branson Planning and Development Director Joel Hornickel said Faith Life Church bought 70 acres to the west of the zoo and behind its main campus on Highway 76.

“They’ve obviously purchased that land with the hopes of expansion. There are a few other parcels where nothing is really going on,” Hornickel said.

The Sanderses are self-proclaimed city folks who sold their construction company in Chicago – which they started in the 1970s – moved to the Ozarks in 1992 and opened Sanders Construction Co.

“We grew up in the city. We had a dog once,” she said.

But they’ve always been active: In addition to their own five children, they’ve served as a foster family to 40 teenage boys. They kind of stumbled into the zoo venture.

“We did a job for an exotic animal breeder and he paid us in wild mountain Himalayan sheep. And then my oldest said, ‘Well. I’ve always wanted llamas,’” Diane said. “Then my husband came home and said, ‘We have a herd of zebras coming,’ and then we had to move.”

They slowly opened up their country farm to visitors in 1997.

Now, their business specializes in animal encounters – interaction and connection that can’t be achieved through television sets. Promised Land Zoo visitors can hold sloths, dingos, African cats, spring-tailed lemurs and kangaroos. The owners currently have 30 different animals for experiences and the list always is expanding.

They also rescue animals, including Elvis the alligator found in a bathtub in Branson and the largest albino Burmese python in captivity – initially thin and malnourished, she is healthy and close to 20 feet in length and now “magnificently beautiful,” Diane said.

The couple will handle their own construction, and the development team comprises their children. The family also operates a drive-thru zoo in Eagle Rock southwest of Branson.

“We have a special and unique development team that grew up in a zoo that knows how to take animals into every decision,” she said.

This year, they plan on opening a cafe and gift shop dubbed The Depot, as well as a giraffe encounter since they now own two young giraffes. They also plan to build a 200-seat theater for animal shows and take advantage of the space between shows with keeper talks and videos about conservation.

The size of the new property led them on a nationwide search for custom buses – trams for guided tours – and they almost traveled to San Francisco to purchase two.

“Well, they sold. So, then we had none,” she said.

Then they learned of a Branson company, Table Rock Customs, that does vehicle customization.

“The options are endless. We have a long list of different things we want to do in different phases. We want to put a llama trek where you can take a llama on a guided tour – or how about a camel?” she said.

The city’s Hornickel said the zoo is an appropriate use of the heavily wooded property, which is also a natural drainage way.

“They will have less of an impact than any number of things,” he said. “Just as they did with their initial project, they want to preserve as much of those natural features of their property as possible because it adds to the natural experience of visitors.”

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