WISCONSIN DELLS — Mark Schoebel never stops moving.
That tends to be the modus operandi in this area in the days leading up to Memorial Day weekend.
But Schoebel may have been busier last week than most of the entrepreneurs in the Dells who try to grab a slice of the almost $1 billion spent by tourists here each year.
When we arrived to get a peek behind the 800-foot-long, 16-foot-tall animal-themed wall he has built along Wisconsin Dells Parkway, Schoebel was using a Bobcat to move piles of gravel.
He and his crew had an island to finish for the lemurs, dozens of parrots to move to a new enclosure, a nursery to fill and pens to build for small mammals. Some
worked on a fence so the African spur-thighed tortoises wouldn’t wander onto the railroad tracks and meet the narrow gauge train that years ago offered rides at Fort Dells.
For the past two years, Schoebel, who once worked alongside Jim Fowler and Marlin Perkins on the production of Wild Kingdom, has been transforming Riverview Park & Waterworld into Timbavati Wildlife Park. The project covers almost twice as much land as the 28-acre Vilas Zoo in Madison, has a pair of giraffes, kangaroos and a feline exhibit that includes tigers, lions and leopards.
“We’re a small family business that took on a big project,” said Schoebel’s wife, Alice. “Every project we’ve ever taken on (has been) twice as much work as you thought it (would be). Every single one of us is a multitasker.”
The scope of the more than $2 million project is fitting for a community that operates at a different speed and style than most and tends to create memorable attractions that each year seem to get bigger and bolder.
Timbavati began with a one-acre zoo at Kalahari Resort in 2003 before moving to about a four-acre site at Storybook Gardens in 2004. After the 2010 season and the closing of Storybook Gardens, Mark Schoebel signed a long-term lease for his current site and has been working virtually nonstop on its transformation from water park to animal park.
“He’s just been going along at a methodical pace,” said Tom Diehl, one of the deans of Dells tourism and owner of the Tommy Bartlett Show & Exploratory. “I think it’s going to be a tremendous addition to the community once it’s done.”
Schoebel, 58, is no rookie when it comes to animals. His parents owned a fox and mink farm in Eldorado, northwest of Fond du Lac. When he was 13, the family moved to a farm near Princeton in Marquette County, where his folks raised and supplied dozens of species of animals to zoos and animal parks around the country.
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After high school, one of his first jobs was for a Minnesota company that sold domestic skunks. Schoebel was hired to de-scent 2,000 of the critters at 50 cents a piece. It took him three days but was far more profitable than the $1.15 an hour he was making pumping gas.
For more than two years, Schoebel worked for Chicago-based Don Meyer Productions. Schoebel’s father provided animals for use in the Wild Kingdom television show and it was Schoebel’s job to care for them during filming, which could take up to six weeks for each half-hour episode.
His current job is even more impressive, but would appear to be overwhelming. Schoebel exudes a calm demeanor but has drive and vision that will likely keep construction crews busy for years to come.
He wants to convert a 40-foot tower that provided access to a water slide into an elevated aviary. The former wave pool could be used for a bear habitat, and there are plans for a reptile house. He also wants plants on the property to be just as notable as the 40 to 50 species of animals that eventually will call the park home.
“We have great expectations,” Schoebel said. “I’m not trying to copy anybody.”
He’s already salvaged or repurposed many of the buildings and structures from the former water park that at one time was one of the largest in the Dells but closed a few years ago. A former concession stand is now a commissary that stores 15-pound blocks of meat for hungry cats, is a depository for recently laid Rhea eggs and will soon be home to a slick bulk dry food distribution system. An old Pepsi cooler holds lettuce, grapes and carrots. The former softball fields are pasture for giraffes, kudus, yaks and elands.
“We’re kind of creative when it comes to using the existing infrastructure to our advantage,” Schoebel said. “Nobody builds a big park or zoo overnight.”
Schoebel had hoped to fully open in June of last year, but only a portion of the park opened in August. That’s because he discovered a train that was in storage and knew it would be a perfect
fit for the park. He also knew it was going to be a lot of work to install.
Schoebel and about 10 other employees spent about 90 days bending and laying 3,000 feet of track onto more than 2,500 four-foot wooden ties.
While not as long as the route used by the Milwaukee County Zoo train, Schoebel’s train makes stops. Riders are provided cups of sliced carrots to feed various species of antelope. At another stop, whole carrots can be hand-fed to giraffes. The giraffe barn has been rebuilt and two more giraffes added after a fire Dec. 30 that destroyed the barn and killed two of the animals.
The train, like three of the eight go-cart tracks retained on the property, is accessible to those who don’t buy an admission to the animal park. Schoebel’s creation is also located across the street from Wisconsin Deer Park, a classic Dells attraction for more than 50 years but with a more North American animal feel.
“We don’t have deer,” Schoebel said. “It’ll be a different experience. They do a good job over there, but we have a broader selection of animals.”
Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at email@example.com.