Zoo attendance bucking recession-WEB ONLY

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Zoos typically count on special exhibits and attractions to boost traffic. This year, they’re also getting help from an unlikely source – the recession.

More than half of 120 members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums responding to a survey reported year-over-year attendance increases. Consumers, it seems, are seeking more affordable entertainment closer to home, and zoos fit the bill.

The Indianapolis Zoo is not among those experiencing larger crowds. However, its numbers are holding steady this year despite an abundance of bad weather.

Through May, 328,405 visitors passed through the zoo’s turnstile – just 100 shy of the amount through the first five months of last year, zoo spokeswoman Karen Burns said.

“The weather hasn’t been so great so far,” she said. “I think that’s why we’re running neck-and-neck to where we were last year.”

Indeed, cooler temperatures and steady rainfall have saturated central Indiana. Since April 1, Indianapolis has received 20.4 inches of precipitation, the third most on record for that period, according to the National Weather Service.

Household zoo memberships also are appealing to economy-minded consumers. At the Indianapolis Zoo, they’re up nearly 2 percent, to about 35,800, Burns said. The most common membership, the family pack, runs $105 annually.

At the Cincinnati Zoo, household memberships were up more than 6 percent, to about 47,000, through May. And attendance rose 34 percent – to more than 372,000 visitors – in the first five months of the year.

Attendance is growing even as some zoos deal with funding cuts. The Kansas City Zoo’s budget was cut 20 percent last year, but attendance has increased about 32 percent over the first five months of 2008. Memberships are up about 8 percent. The zoo cut its staff and is closing an hour earlier to help reduce labor costs.

Zoos say another financial attraction for consumers is that many zoos around the country honor each other’s memberships with free or discounted admission.

General admission at most major zoos ranges from $6 to more than $20 for adults and $3 to more than $15 for children. The average admission runs about $10 to $13 for adults and $6 to $8 for children, according to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

The Indianapolis Zoo charges $14 for adults and $9 for children and seniors. Its prices are slightly higher than many zoos because it is not supported by local tax dollars.

The zoo’s special attraction this summer is the Komodo dragons exhibit, which will be on display until Sept. 7. Although zoo officials expect the exhibit to draw interest, they aren’t anticipating a major jump in attendance like they saw when the renovated Dolphin Pavilion opened in 2005.
The zoo’s attendance figures annually have topped the 1 million mark since 2003, peaking at 1.4 million in 2005. Last year, the zoo drew 1.1 million visitors.

Elsewhere, the Memphis Zoo also reported higher attendance – up 16 percent to more than 410,000 – but the Denver Zoo and the North Carolina Zoo are tracking about the same as last year. Officials say that’s still good news amid continual weekend storms in Denver and concern about natural falloff from the high turnout for last year’s debut of a new elephant and rhino exhibit.
“We’re happy that we’re holding our own when a lot of other attractions are losing attendance,” said North Carolina Zoo spokesman Tom Gillespie. “We seem to be getting more local people staying closer to home this year.”
If there’s a downside for zoos, it may be in visitors’ spending once they arrive.
“We’ve seen a little softening on the gift side of concessions and more conservative spending on private parties and company picnics,” said Denver Zoo spokeswoman Ana Bowie. “I think people are trying to be more frugal.”

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