The National Aviary broke ground April 22 on the newest phase of its planned expansion, the FliteZone, an interactive theater designed to showcase birds in flight and other programs.

The theater will seat about 225 people and will be equipped with video, sound and theatrical lighting facilities, along with areas for bird flight demonstrations. Audience members will be able to interact with the birds as they fly around the interior.

“The FliteZone Theater will be the nation’s first indoor educational theater to incorporate free-flight bird demonstrations as part of conservation education programming,” said Patrick Mangus, executive director of the National Aviary. “Conservation-focused classes and presentations will be designed to help educate visitors about individual bird species, and about the importance of wildlife, biodiversity and the preservation of natural habitats.

Laura Ellis, of the Aviary, said that people attending the groundbreaking were interested and supportive of the new space, and were given a tour of the still-unfinished penguin exhibit to see the expansion first hand.

“It was well attended and I would say there is a lot of excitement building for this new space,” Ellis said. “These programs have a much greater impact when they see the animals flying around in person.”

The is just the latest development in the Aviary’s planned $26 million expansion, which includes a new penguin habitat, expanded gift shop and staff offices, a café and three multi-purpose classrooms. An eventual new main entrance and exterior is planned as well.

Future phases of the Helen M. Schmidt FliteZone Theater development will include the creation of a Rooftop Raptor Encounter space for bird of prey lure-flying demonstrations. Construction of the FliteZone Theater will be completed by fall 2010.

Current construction on the new penguin habitat will be completed Memorial Day Weekend.