© 2022 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
KCUR FM is currently operating at lower power. KCUR HD1 and HD2 are off air while Kansas City PBS performs repair work. Signals will be restored this afternoon.

Born Before 1995? You Might Remember The Kansas City Zoo's Great Blue Whale

Kansas City Zoo Archives
The Great Blue Whale was installed in 1967. It was made up of 18,000 pounds of concrete and reinforcement rods.

The Great Blue Whale was removed from the Kansas City Zoo in the 1990s, but it still holds nostalgic value for Kansas Citians.

If you visited the Kansas City Zoo anytime from the late 1960s to the early 1990s you’ll probably remember the Great Blue Whale. The giant concrete play structure was made up of 18,000 pounds of concrete and metal rods.

The Whale so well known that I have clear memories of the whale — which is impossible since I wasn’t born until 1995.

The Great Blue Whale was removed from the Zoo in the 1990s, when the zoo went through major renovations. At the most, I may have caught glimpse of it from my stroller.

Credit Claire Banderas / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Sharon Martin, a preservationist at the Kansas City Zoo, holds up a photo of the Great Blue Whale where she says it would be located today.

Lisa Campbell — who really did experience the whale — said she visited the zoo with her family often in the 1970s.

“We would run through the whale and fall down on its squishy padded tongue on purpose,” she remembers. Campbell said her memory of the whale is vivid, and while she knew it was cheesy, it was a big part of her zoo experience.

“I would touch the inside of its mouth and pretend it was real. I even remember dreaming of it,” she says.

Most people remember this big whale with the squishy tongue and a small fish tank in the back. In Facebook groups across the internet and on #ThrowBackThursday pictures from the zoo Facebook page, people have loved to reminisce about their memories of the whale — and its apparent distinct smell of pee.

But, Kansas City kids from the 1950s and 1960s might remember a different whale. It turns out the Great Blue Whale had an ancestor named Winnie.

Credit Kansas City Zoo Archives
Ernest Wessley, an employee of the Kansas City Parks Department, built Winnie the Whale in 1956. In an article from The Kansas City Star in that same year he says he thinks the whale weighed two tons.

Winnie the Whale was introduced to the zoo's children's area in 1956. A Kansas City Star article from February 1956 says William T.A. Cully, the zoo director at the time, drew Winnie one afternoon while he was bored. Ernest Wessley, a utility maintenance employee for the Kansas City’s park department, took Cully's sketch and created the concrete whale, which was 16 feet long and 7 feet tall.

According to the Star article, Winnie the Whale was supposed to be painted blue. But, in 1961 a different Star article describes Winnie as pink.

Eventually, the time came for Winnie to be replaced by a younger, larger model: the Great Blue Whale from my fabricated memory. In her book, Kansas City Zoo: A Wild 100-Year Adventure, Ruth Seeliger writes that the new whale was installed as an entrance to the children’s area in 1967.

“The smiling mouth of the whale will beckon children to enter and explore the ‘wonderful land of the young,’” the design plans say.

Credit Unknown Artist / Kansas City Park Department Board of Park Commissioners
Kansas City Park Department Board of Park Commissioners
A sketch from the Kansas City Park Department plans shows what the Board of Commissioners envisioned when they designed the Great Blue Whale. They said the kids could imagine they'd been 'swallowed by the whale and cast out into the land of enchantment.'

The plans explained that the “small fry” will get to see “water spout as high as the clouds” and hear the “exhilarating cry of ‘Thar she blows.’” A slight exaggeration on the a small fountain of water that came out of the whale’s head and the tape recording heard inside the whale.

The Great Blue Whale stuck around as the children's area expanded and even changed it’s name to “Touchtown” in 1976. In the the 1980s, the Great Blue Whale was renamed Orca and painted black and white, which according to zoo archives, was quite upsetting to many visitors.

In the early 1990’s, Touchtown and all of its exhibits closed, including the Great Blue Whale/Orca. The zoo went through major renovations after getting a $50 million bond from the city to revive and expand it.

Back in 1956, Cully and Wessley had big dreams for Winnie the Whale. “Mr. Cully and the other parks department men are very proud of the whale,” the 1956 star article says. "They think it may last forever.”

Well, that didn't happen, but memories of the whales live on with all who were swallowed up as kids — and even with those of us who just thought we were.

Claire Banderas is an intern for KCUR 89.3. 

KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and powerful storytelling.
Your donation helps make non-profit journalism available for everyone.