PORTAGE, Michigan | The Air Zoo is not your typical air museum. Although it contains more than 50 historic aircraft it has much more including amusement park style rides, full motion flight simulators, 3D and 4D theaters along with historical exhibits and educational activities for kids of all ages.
It was back in the late 1940s that two aviation enthusiasts met and married. Pete Parish had been in the Marine Air Corps and Suzanne was a member of the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) during World War II. They soon began collecting airplanes that included an AT-6 trainer that Sue had flown as a WASP.
After acquiring several aircraft the couple received an offer from a friend. If they would start a museum he would give them a WWII Grumman Bearcat. They accepted his offer and quickly added a Wildcat and Hellcat to the collection prompting the name Air Zoo. The Air Zoo was founded by the Kalamazoo Aviation History Museum in 1977 and opened Nov. 18, 1979.
In 1986 the museum tripled its size to 45,000 square feet, which included a larger exhibit hall, a video theater, a new museum store and a larger library. Then in 1994 the museum expanded again by moving its existing flight and restoration center to a newer and larger building.
On May 1, 2004, the Air Zoo opened a new 120,000 square-foot facility containing 360-degree full-motion flight simulators, a 4D theater, indoor amusement park rides, a 3D space shuttle ride to the International Space Station, traveling exhibits from the Smithsonian Institution and, surrounding the display area, a hand-painted indoor mural.
In 2011 the museum continued adding new exhibits and things to do with an 18-hole disc golf course, an indoor Century of Flight Ferris Wheel, a Paratrooper Jump and the flight simulation Corsair Challenge that lets visitors fly over Southwest Michigan in the fall.
Entering the museum visitors are greeted with a WWII P-40 Warhawk fighter plane hanging from the ceiling. The plane once owned by museum co-founder Suzanne Parish is painted pink and blue.
After purchasing tickets, visitors enter the main exhibit floor where they are greeted by a wide variety of historic aircraft in colorful settings. Included in those exhibits are such historic aircraft as a very rare WWII Curtiss XP-55 Ascender and an SR-71B Blackbird long-range reconnaissance aircraft used during the Cold War. One portion of the display floor is dedicated to Navy aircraft and is painted to resemble the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. The main exhibit floor also has several amusement park style rides and the Missions 4D movie theater.
Leaving the main exhibit floor visitors enter the East Wing that has a large collection of WWII aircraft along with several displays relating to space exploration. Called “Space: Dare to Dream” this interactive exhibit features a replica space shuttle and astronaut suit and tells the story of those who worked to find the answers to questions about space exploration. The East Wing also has artifacts and displays telling the story of women in aviation.
The Fly Buy Museum Store near the entrance is a large gift shop featuring hundreds of aviation related items including books and clothing.