The Minnesota Zoo set an attendance record in the last fiscal year, fueled by the opening of the popular Russia's Grizzly Coast exhibit and a nationwide increase in zoo attendance.
About 1.35 million guests visited the zoo from July 2008 to June 2009, a 16-percent increase over the previous year. Zoo memberships, now totaling 44,229 households, also reached a record high.
"People are voting with their feet," zoo Director and CEO Lee Ehmke said in a statement. "Attendance and membership levels are at an all-time high, our conservation and education programs are thriving, and the positive 'buzz' around the Zoo has been underscored by a number of significant awards for our efforts in exhibit design, marketing, innovation in education and conservation impact."
The zoo, based in Apple Valley, spent $30 million to renovate the Central Plaza and open the Russia's Grizzly Coast exhibit last year.
The exhibit attracted attention for its two amur leopards, one of the rarest animals in the world. Conservation experts estimate that only a few dozen remain in the wild. Ehmke said the zoo will receive a male amur leopard from the Czech Republic this summer to begin breeding efforts.
The previous attendance record of 1.29 million was set in the 1994 fiscal year, when the opening of the zoo's animatronic dinosaur exhibit coincided with the release of the movie Jurassic Park. After dipping slightly in the mid-90s, zoo attendance rose sharply. In the past five years, the number of visitors has increased by more than 40 percent.
Nationwide, most zoo directors have reported increased attendance, according to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. "Because of the weak economy, most people are not taking extended vacations or going far from home," spokesperson Jackie Marks said. "Zoos provide an alternative vacation."
Zoo officials expect that attendance will remain strong. Woodland Adventure, a new outdoor nature-based play area will open on July 11. The zoo will also open a new indoor African rainforest exhibit, featuring bats, crocodiles, monkeys, and Red River hogs in the summer of 2010.