Consumers visiting animal> attractions this summer can count on encountering lions and tigers and -- bargains.
While most of the leisure attraction industry, including amusement parks and museums, struggled to draw consumers during the recession, many zoos and aquariums reported record attendance. The North Carolina Zoo, for example, saw its highest attendance in 13 years during its last fiscal year, which ended June 30. In total, 749,627 people visited -- 20,210 more than during the previous year.
The combination of low entry fees and proximity to home at zoos and aquariums are a draw for people on a budget, says John Gerner, the managing director of Leisure Business Advisors LLC, a Richmond, Va.-based consulting group. Here s how to save:
Become a member
With perks like free parking, food discounts and special exhibit access, zoo or aquarium memberships pay for themselves quickly. You can cover a membership easily in two visits, says Jon Wassner, a co-author of America s Best Zoos.
At the San Diego Zoo, it takes just one. A family of four would pay $132 for a single-day visit, including admission ($37 per adult, $27 per child) and rides on the Journey Into Africa tour ($10 per adult, $7 per child) and Skyfari air tram ($4 per person). Buying annual adult and kid memberships is $31 cheaper> ($89 for a dual adult membership, $29 per child membership) -- and comes with a year of free entry, free tours and rides and other perks.
Members also typically get discounted admission to other parks in the affiliate network, says Rudy Socha, the chief executive of visitors guide Zoo and Aquarium Visitor. If you join the Brevard Zoo in Melbourne, Fla., for example, you can get free admission or 50% ticket discounts at more than 120 Association of Zoos and Aquariums affiliates nationwide, including Alabama s Birmingham Zoo and the Oregon Zoo in Portland.
Before becoming a member, check the listed benefits to make sure you can get the most from the membership, and assess what else you might still need to pay for, such as food and souvenirs.
Buy in at group-discount sites
Memberships and single-admission tickets occasionally turn up at group-buying sites. These sites routinely offer discounts of 50% or more at local businesses and attractions. (The catch: Enough people must decide to buy in for the deal to go through.) A Livingsocial.com spring promotion on an annual membership for two to the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle sold out, with the maximum 501 people grabbing the $40 -- 50% off -- deal.
Some institutions prompt visitors to spend more by offering discounts for add-ons and special exhibits. Make sure you are paying for what you want. At the New England Aquarium in Boston, standard adult admission is $22, while an IMAX ticket for Sea Rex 3D is $10. Purchasing an aquarium and IMAX combo ticket is $28, a $4 savings.
Check with the city or town visitors bureau, as well as with the zoo or aquarium itself. Zoo or aquarium admission is often packaged with other local attractions in tourist day or weekend passes, Socha says. The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta has a range of combo tickets for area attractions. An adult visiting the aquarium and Zoo Atlanta would pay $40.50 for a dual Penguins and Pandas pass, instead of $46 by purchasing admission individually. Check the time limits on multi-attraction passes first to make sure you won t have to race through, or tackle four popular tourist attractions in just a few days.
Review the calendar
Regular discount days and special events help zoos and aquariums draw in visitors during slower times, Wassner says. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago offers free admission on select Mondays and Tuesdays throughout the year. On July 15, the Dallas Zoo is offering Dollar Day, with $1 admission instead of the usual $12.
Check again at the last minute
Visiting is something a family might do spur of the moment, Gerner says. Zoos and aquariums know that, and so often run impulse promotions on nice days. Check the park s web site and (if it has one) Twitter feed before leaving home to scoop up last-minute deals. The Los Angeles Zoo recently tweeted about coupon code WORLD10, which gets visitors Music in the L.A. Zoo tickets at the member rate: $12.50 instead of $16.50.
Visit in the off-season
Don t mind walking in cooler or rainy weather? Admission may be cheaper during the spring and fall, Wassner says. Visitors to the Bronx Zoo in New York from Nov. 1 through April 1 can get free admission to the Congo Gorilla Forest, regularly a $5 add-on. Buying an annual pass at that time (good for a year from purchase) is also $4 cheaper, at $75 for one person.
Unlike other off-seasons, slower times at zoos can offer better experiences. Some animals -- especially the big cats -- sleep their way through the summer heat, and are likely to be more active in the spring and fall when the climate is cool, he says. There are also fewer crowds, offering a better view of popular exhibits.
Look for freebies
Not every park charges for access. The Smithsonian s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., is always free. So are the St. Louis Zoo, the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, Wis., and the Cape May County Park & Zoo in New Jersey, among others. Keep in mind, however, that special exhibits may still carry a fee.