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The San Antonio Zoo’s answer to the pandemic-spawned slowdown — allowing families to drive along the zoo’s walkways to see the animals — has kept the landmark attraction in business.
When officials announced the Drive-Thru Zoo in late April, tickets for the first tours sold out in 90 minutes, said Tim Morrow, the zoo’s president and CEO. Since then, the tours have brought in more than $1 million in revenue.
On May 1, opening day, 893 vehicles drove through the zoo, pausing to watch the bears, giraffes and other inhabitants. At that point, the zoo had been closed for six weeks because of stay-at-home orders aimed at stopping the spread of the coronavirus.
The 106-year-old zoo was in deep financial trouble, and it furloughed 400 of its 700 workers. The animals’ only visitors were their caretakers.
“We’re burning through $300,000 to $500,000 a week to take care of animals and infrastructure, even when we’re closed,” Morrow said. “We’re not like Six Flags. We need to take care of the animals. I tell people all the time, ‘It’s like your pet. You can’t just go on vacation with your pet at home for 10 weeks.’”
But nearly 21,000 families toured the zoo in their vehicles in May, paying entrance fees of as much as $65. The tours’ success allowed the zoo to bring back all the furloughed employees.
Given the Drive-Thru Zoo’s popularity and the public’s ongoing concerns about COVID, officials decided to continue the tours even after the facility reopened to pedestrians.
The zoo developed a hybrid model that alternated between vehicles and visitors on foot. For safety reasons, the two groups do not intermingle.
Visitors can do the Drive-Thru Zoo on Friday and Saturday nights, but plans are to switch to a Friday-only Halloween-themed tour starting Sept. 18.
On a recent Friday night, families drove along the wide walkways, past the limestone enclosures for the lemurs, jaguars, bears, tigers and kangaroos — the property was a limestone quarry before it was a zoo. As they inched forward, obeying the 4 mph speed limit, they listened to narration from the zoo’s app on their smartphones.
One disadvantage of driving through the zoo is that the animals aren’t always visible in their enclosures, and stopping would back up traffic.
“All lemurs are social and extremely vocal,” the narrator on the zoo’s app said, breaking up the silence next to the lemur enclosure. “Some of their calls can be very loud and echo through the rainforests of Madagascar, or the zoo, as the case may be.”
“Even if you didn’t see an animal, just driving through the zoo is such a surreal experience, especially for people who have been coming here their whole life and never imagined that they would be driving through where they had been walking the past 50 to 60 years,” Morrow said.
“This is the greatest thing since sliced bread,” said James Hudnall, who was touring the zoo on a recent hot summer night with his wife, Janice, and grandson Payton, 8. “It would be so hot walking around. We are in our air-conditioned vehicle, COVID free. It’s everything we need to be safe and enjoy the full zoo experience.”
Morrow said an unexpected upside of the Drive-Thru Zoo is that it is bringing people who can’t walk or have difficulty doing so back to the zoo.
“A lot of people, grandmas and grandpas, hadn’t been to the zoo. They couldn’t do it because of the heat or the hills or whatever the mobility issue was,” Morrow said. “So they have been able to come out with their grandkids in the car, which has been really fun for us.”
Jennifer Kane, a San Antonio interior designer, has driven through the zoo three times with her twin sons, Colton and Carson, 5.
Kane said the Drive-Thru Zoo also offers her an opportunity to see the animals herself, something she couldn’t do during pre-pandemic zoo visits because “I was always chasing my sons.”
The drive-thru lasts between 30 minutes and an hour, depending on how many times visitors stop.
Eating in their cars and trucks is also an option for visitors. The zoo has created pullout lanes where they can buy hot dogs, Dippin Dots ice cream and funnel cakes. Other drive-by concession stands sell plush animals and zoo T-shirts.
So far, the zoo has garnered $1.3 million in revenue from the Drive-Thru Zoo, not including money from selling food and souvenirs.
Before the pandemic, Simmons drove around the zoo in his own automobile to help set up private events, such as weddings. He said the idea came to him one evening in early April after authorities ordered the zoo to close.
“I was thinking, ‘How could we re-create our business? What do we have on hand to open up to the public?’”
His answer: Use the 56-acre zoo’s pathways to allow guests to drive by the animal enclosures.
Simmons took his idea to management, and the first Drive-Thru Zoo took place a month later.
The month-and-a-half closure, along with a plunge in pedestrian visitors of as much as 70 percent, likely will result in a $5 million loss in 2020, he said. Before the pandemic, the zoo had expected to make a $2 million profit this year.
Unlike many other zoos, Morrow said San Antonio’s receives no contribution from the city to support its operations, leaving it entirely dependent on admission fees, food and concession sales and fundraising. However, the city did contribute $306,000 to the zoo in the fiscal year ending this month for marketing to attract tourists and locals. The money comes from a tax on city hotel rooms.
The zoo’s current financial struggles aren’t unique. A top official of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums said most of its 240 members have been hurt.
“It has been a crisis for us working through the pandemic,” said Craig Hoover, the association’s executive vice president. “There was a period where virtually all our members were closed. For most of them, they were closed for an extended period of time in the spring, when revenue generation is typically high because of Spring Break, school trips and those sorts of things.”
Hoover said 207 of the AZA’s members are open in some capacity, while 25 remain closed. More than 10,000 workers at the zoos and aquariums have been furloughed or laid off over the last several months, and thousands of seasonal workers were never rehired.
He called the Drive-Thru Zoo an innovative idea and said several other zoos — in Phoenix, Cleveland and Toronto — also have offered their own drive-thru tours.
The Phoenix Zoo remains closed to foot traffic, so its drive-thru event, called Cruise the Zoo, has been almost its sole source of revenue during the pandemic. So far, it has generated more than $1 million, said Bert Castro, president and CEO of the Phoenix Zoo.
Castro said the zoo’s wide pathways allow for vehicular traffic, something the Phoenix Zoo shares with San Antonio.
“The majority of zoos don’t have the physical layout that would allow for a drive-thru experience,” Castro said. “Fortunately for San Antonio and Phoenix, that has been a plus because we’ve both been able to do that.”
Morrow said he wants to bring back drive-thru next year, in part because it attracts a wider audience to the zoo, including those who have difficulty walking.
Zoo officials plan to offer the Drive-Thru Zoo through Oct. 30. With dusk coming on earlier, they want to reserve daytime hours for traditional visits, which bring in more revenue because zoo-goers stay longer.
“The walk-through experience allows guests multiple hours to stroll the grounds, shop, eat and take part in our animal connections or tours,” said Hope Roth, the zoo’s vice president for marketing, sales and communications.
How do the zoo’s animals react to the flow of cars? And how does vehicle exhaust affect the animals?
Roth said the zoo has consulted with animal care managers, specialists and veterinarians about the Drive-Thru Zoo. Their conclusion: Heavy vehicular traffic on the zoo’s pathways wouldn’t endanger the animals.
For decades, she said, the zoo’s staff and others have used automobiles to make deliveries, perform maintenance and care for animals without causing any harm. She also noted that the zoo is in an urban area surrounded by heavily trafficked roads, including U.S. 281, which cuts through the zoo.
“Our animal care staff consistently monitors the health and safety of our animals, and their well-being is our top priority,” Roth said. “Other zoos in the country run trains, trams, golf carts, rides and even buses through their facility, as do drive-thru safaris.”
Roth also said the effect on the park’s walkways, which were designed for cars as well as pedestrians, was minimal from the extra traffic stemming from the drive-thru tours.
Zoo officials, he said, asked themselves a big question before launching the program: “How are we going to make this work so that we are not so far in debt that we can’t do anything, paralyze ourselves or end up going away?”
Despite the drive-thru lifeline, Morrow said there are no easy answers to the zoo getting back to strong financial footing.
“It is going to be a long-term process before we get back to some normalcy,” he said.
Randy Diamond covers tourism and the travel industry. To read more from Randy, become a subscriber. [email protected]
Randy Diamond’s love of travel began as a 12-year-old when he started collecting travel brochures. His coverage areas at the Express-News include aviation, tourism, and the travel industry. He writes the weekly travel column, the Wary Traveler, aimed at helping road warriors chart a smoother journey. He has a special eye for the quirky side of travel. Previously he has worked as a crime reporter for The New York Daily News, a State House reporter for The Record in Northern New Jersey and the tourism and insurance reporter for The Tampa Tribune and Palm Beach Post in Florida. He has also covered the world of institutional investing for two financial trade news organizations: Pensions & Investments and Chief Investment Officer.
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