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Louisville Zoo trains will keep chugging at a different zoo — and a bourbon distillery

Roberto Roldan

The Louisville Zoo’s out-of-use blue and yellow trains will get a second life at a Texas zoo as well as a distillery closer to home.

The Zoo recently sold the two trains for more than $470,000 combined. Miniature trains were used to transport visitors around the park from the first day the zoo opened in 1969 until 2019, when an underground mine collapsed close to a portion of the track. Louisville Metro officials estimated that moving that part of the railway would cost more than $1 million.

The trains put up for auction weren’t the Zoo’s first. These trains were first rolled out in 2013 and designed to look like North American steam trains. They can carry up to 21 people in various compartments outfitted with hardwood benches. Usually, a tour guide with a microphone was stationed at the back.

Stephanie Moore, assistant operations manager for the Louisville Zoo, said many Kentuckians reached out after news of the plan to sell the trains became public. They shared fond memories of visiting the park, making the decision to part with them more difficult.

“We heard from lots of grandparents who came as younger children and brought their kids and their grandkids back to ride the train,” she said. “We actually had one family reach out and ask if they could purchase a bell off of the train, because their grandfather had worked at the Zoo and one of his jobs was operating the train.”

This month, the trains are expected to depart the Derby City for two destinations: The Fort Worth Zoo and the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Franklin County.

The Fort Worth Zoo already has one train, known as the Yellow Rose Express, that carries visitors from the entrance/exit to the Texas Wild! exhibit that features native plants and animals.

A spokesperson for the Fort Worth Zoo said having Louisville’s blue train will allow them to do maintenance and tune-ups without any downtime. They hope to upgrade their track in the future to run two trains simultaneously.

For Buffalo Trace, the Zoo’s yellow train will be a new feature alongside its main attraction: bourbon. The sprawling 130-acre property also has a botanical garden and a view of the Kentucky River.

Amy Preske, a public relations manager with parent company Sazerac, said the distillery grounds used to have railroad tracks and “it was of critical importance to the prosperity of the distillery back in the day.”

“We are very excited to bring a train back to the distillery,” she said in an email. “We are looking forward to showcasing the important role of the railroad to our 300,000 [annual] visitors.”

Preske said plans for the train at the Buffalo Trace Distillery aren’t finalized yet, but they expect it will be operational, not just for display.

Louisville Zoo officials say the decision to sell the trains was ultimately a financial one. The Zoo does not have the money necessary to bring them back to life, and the sale could help fund future improvements.

The first chunk of the proceeds, roughly $177,000, will go to paying off a loan the Zoo received from the city. Louisville Metro is currently holding on to the rest of the money, but Moore said the hope is that the money will be reinvested back into the park.

“Our mission is to better the bond between people and our planet,” she said. “We always have animal welfare and animal exhibit improvements in mind for any type of funding we have available.”

Moore said the zoo would like to use the funding for renovations to the MetaZoo space and proposed new exhibits for animals native to Kentucky.

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