It’s been years and millions of dollars in the making, but Journey to Churchill is now open at Assiniboine Park Zoo.

https://twitter.com/tsgibson/status/484743868961665025

(Ed. note: We’re not quite sure what reporter Shane Gibson meant here. He must have been too excited to tweet properly.)

As hundreds lined up to get their first peek at the $94.4-million exhibit Thursday, Assiniboine Park Conservancy COO Don Peterkin said the zoo’s biggest endeavor since— well, ever—will bring both northern experiences to Winnipeg and more visitors to the zoo.

“We had 400,000 visitors last year, and we’re projecting 525,000 this year and perhaps close 600,000 next year,” he told reporters following a special advance media tour Thursday morning. “We believe now this can become a real tourism draw.

But after a very hard winter for construction Peterkin admitted crews worked “right down to the last minute” to get ready for opening day—a fact obvious to media who watched as heavy machinery moved earth around and crews busily swept off walkways an hour-and-a-half before the gates opened at noon.

“We have a few behind-the-scenes things that will happen over the next few weeks,” he explained, noting the work will go on after hours and won’t be noticed by those taking in the 10-acre exhibit.

The hard work was well worth it, according to Jackie Mikolash, who came to the zoo on her lunch hour and was first in line to get into see the polar bears, Arctic foxes, wolves, muskox, caribou, snowy owls and seals.

“I was just overwhelmed it was just so amazing… and I’m so glad I got the experience of being there,” she told Metro. “We’re basically the polar bear capital of the world and for our zoo to be able to have an exhibit like that, that’s world class, it’s really something else.”

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