In the early 1960s, Columbia-area businessmen conceived of a zoo for the state capital. However, the idea didn’t get beyond the planning stages until 1969, when the state created the Rich-Lex Riverbanks Park Special Purpose District to run the proposed zoo. The zoo opened on April 25, 1974 after 5 years of planning. Within two years, it was obvious that the zoo would not be self-supporting, and the Riverbanks Zoological Society was created to help raise money for it. Notable features of the original Zoo design were the mountainous, moated exhibits for big cats and bears.
Riverbanks Zoo and Garden is South Carolina’s largest gated attraction, averaging over one million visitors each year—a considerable amount for a zoo serving a region as small as Columbia (the Columbia metropolitan area has only 800,000 people). Riverbanks is a four-time winner of the Southeastern Tourism Society’s Shining Example Award as the Southeast’s top tourist attraction and a two-time winner of the SC Parks Recreation and Tourism Governor’s Cup Award as South Carolina’s Leading Attraction.