Aventura firm closes on $60M Jungle Island deal, plans new attractions this summer

Rendering of Jungle Island. Inset: John Dunlop
Rendering of Jungle Island. Inset: John Dunlop

Aventura-based ESJ Capital Partners has closed on the $60 million lease transfer of Jungle Island, and plans to begin soon on its multimillion-dollar renovation of the Watson Island attraction. 

Bern Levine sold the lease for the 18-acre park to ESJ, a deal that has been months in the making. It includes the assumption of about $45 million of existing park debt to the city of Miami, Miami-Dade County and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and to a private lender, Arnaud Sitbon, ESJ’s president and co-founder, said.

John Dunlap, CEO of Iconic Attractions Group and president of Jungle Island, will continue to operate Jungle Island. ESJ is already working on the multi-phased renovation and redevelopment of the park, beginning with zip lines with views of downtown Miami, the park and Miami Beach. The redevelopment will take about two years, Dunlap said.

ESJ, an asset management firm with European backers, will also add children’s rides, animal exhibits, a private beach club, water slides and a multi-acre Crystal Lagoon, as well as food and beverage upgrades. Jungle Island is in the permitting process for its Crystal Lagoon, and work on the zip lines is already underway, Sitbon said. ESJ is also considering using renewable energy with the intent of becoming energy independent. The beach club will open by the end of the year.

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“We wanted to make the park more experiential in nature in an environment which is safe and fun,” Dunlap said. “Miami has grown up as a city around this site.”

Jungle Island welcomes about 450,000 visitors a year, and Dunlap said the goal is to increase that number by several hundred thousand visitors a year.

Levine bought Parrot Jungle in 1988 when it was located in Pinecrest, and moved it to Watson Island in 2003. While Jungle Island has been making payments on loans tied to the park’s 1998 move from Pinecrest, it still owes money on past payments. The park will be required to make mandatory payments starting in 2020, plus $2 million to ZooMiami.

The Miami City Commission approved the lease transfer in November. Bilzin Sumberg attorneys Suzanne Amaducci-Adams, Phillip Sosnow, Albert Dotson, Vicky Leiva and Javier Avino represented the seller, a group led by Levine.

The island is also home to Island Gardens, a mixed-use development that’s currently under construction. Developer Mehmet Bayraktar opened the first phase of the project, a superyacht marina, last year, and plans to deliver phase two by next year with two luxury hotels, residences, retail and restaurants.