CLEVELAND -- Twenty-five years ago, the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo got a landmark addition in the form of The RainForest, an environment of total immersion not only into the animal world, but also, the feel of the jungles of Costa Rica, Panama, Brazil and several other locales.

From the exotic plant life to the unique animals and environmental experiences, including a live rainstorm at timed intervals, The RainForest has given guests of the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo the opportunity to visit a different part of the world without having to leave the city.

“The RainForest really changed Cleveland Metroparks Zoo because what it did is really make us a realistic year-round attraction,” Zoo executive director Chris Kuhar said. “It’s a huge indoor space. You can come in the winter and wander around for an hour, two hours just in that one building. If you’re getting cabin fever, you can come out to The RainForest.

“It really changed the zoo. It was the first real attempt at immersive design, so it was the first time where we said, ‘We’re going to put you into that space. We’re going to make you think like you’re somewhere else, that you’re not in Northeast Ohio.”

Still the largest capital project ever undertaken by the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, The RainForest is home to more than 10,000 plants and 600 animals from Asia, Africa and The Americas. One of the largest spaces of its kind in the United States, The RainForest has 50 specimens of 15 bird species that free-fly in the aviary.

Additionally, it has a 25-foot waterfall at the entrance, a Discovery Center, weather stations and plenty of other interactive stations for zoo goers of all ages to enjoy.

“It’s a very striking experience,” Kuhar said. “Right away, you know this is unusual, and you’re going through and animals can be anywhere as you’re walking through that space, so it completely changes your experience. It sets the tone that animals and habitat are important.

“It’s still one of those iconic spaces for our zoo because it gives us an opportunity to immerse you and we talked about conservation, where we put those cultural elements in there where we tried to connect people with wildlife and conservation, so it’s an exciting part of our zoo.”

The RainForest’s legacy goes far beyond the two-acre footprint it holds at the front of the zoo.

Because of The RainForest, decision-makers have been inspired to create other immersive environments for animals around the zoo, including Wolf Wilderness, African-Elephant Crossing, Rosebrough Tiger Passage and the newest project, Asian Highlands, which is expected to open in 2018.

Asian Highlands will feature new spaces for the snow leopards, amur leopard, red pandas and a new animal to the zoo, takin.

“It’s going to be a great new dynamic space,” Kuhar said. “We’re going to take it a step further with Asian Highlands, a series of complicated spaces, great for the animals, great for the message, really important conservation messages about how exciting these animals are and how you can make a difference.

“That’s really what it’s all about, being positive. Conservation can often be a depressing message. We want to make it exciting. We want to empower people and make them excited about the animals and the environment.”