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Elspeth Lodge/MEDILL

The gorillas at the Lincoln Park zoo are among its many attractions, drawing wildlife enthusiasts from far and wide.

Museums 'gone wild:' Attendance rising at Chicago zoos, aquarium

by Elspeth Lodge
Feb 05, 2013


Elspeth Lodge/MEDILL


Elspeth Lodge/ MEDILL

The Brookfield Zoo always has plenty of exotic animals on exhibit, including these camel.

Perhaps it was the baby gorillas at the Lincoln Park Zoo, the “Xtreme Bugs” exhibit at the Brookfield Zoo, or the popular “Jellies” exhibit at the John G. Shedd Aquarium.

According to the public awareness campaign group Museums Work for Chicago, 2012 was a year wildlife enthusiasts turned out in record numbers to visit Chicago-area zoos and the Shedd Aquarium.

The Lincoln Park Zoo, the Brookfield Zoo, and the Shedd Aquarium brought in over half the foot traffic out of just over 15 million people in an annual attendance survey of 15 major Chicago-area institutions affiliated with Museums Work for Chicago.

Wildlife attractions have been creeping up in popularity since 2009, according to the campaign group data.  

The zoos and aquarium attracted a greater percentage of people than they did in 2011 (50.4 percent), 2010 (50.9 percent) or 2009 (30.3 percent), out of total attendance rates.

That’s 8,014,468 people combined of people going to the zoos and aquarium in 2012.

The Brookfield Zoo reached its highest attendance rate in the zoo’s 78-year history, attracting over 2.3 million attendees— a 2 percent increase from its over 2.2 million attendance rate in 2010.

The Shedd Aquarium not only surpassed its 2011 numbers, but earned its place as the top visited aquarium in the U.S. And with over 1,500 species, its animal collection is the most diverse in the world.

The Lincoln Park Zoo ushered in over 3.5 million people, making it the most attended attraction of the 15 institutions.

“Shedd is a smart institution with a rich history in the city of Chicago,” said Tyrone C. Fahner, chairman of the board of trustees at Shedd, in a recent news release. “The aquarium will continue to further its mission through innovation and excellence, evolving to enhance every visitor’s experience.”

Among Shedd’s most popular attractions in 2012 was the “Jellies” exhibit which hosted over 1.1 million people and has been extended into 2013.

Jerry Johnston, vice president of guest services at the Brookfield Zoo, explained a potential reason for the record-breaking year for Brookfield in 2010: “In 2010 we opened our ‘Great Bear Wilderness’ exhibit,” he said. “That was a good draw.”  

The Brookfield Zoo’s attendance dipped slightly in 2011. Johnston revealed this was because the zoo wasn’t offering anything new to attract people.  However, in 2012, the zoo not only came back from their 2011 slump, but broke its 2010 record of over 2.2 million visitors.  

Johnston said the rise in 2012 attendance could be partially due to the “Xtreme Bugs” exhibit, a traveling exhibit that was at the zoo for one year.

Brookfield released its 2012 attendance data last month before the Lincoln Park Zoo released its 2012 attendance rate through Museums Work for Chicago.

Rebecca Schejbal, administrative director at Museums in the Park— a group of 11 museums on park district land affiliated with Museums work for Chicago— said the Lincoln Park Zoo attendance numbers were only “estimates” before 2012.

The zoo is free and open to the public and this can make it hard to track numbers. There is no turnstyle.

While they [the numbers] are still not exact, said Marybeth Johnson, vice president of communications at the Lincoln Park Zoo, they are pretty close to target.

Staffers started counting visitors last January, whereas in the past they simply estimated total attendance based mostly on event numbers, said Johnson.    

Lincoln Park Zoo spokeswoman Tiffany Ruddle said their healthy attendance rate in 2012 could have to do with the baby gorillas. And ZooLights, advertised as one of Chicago’s “must-see holiday events” by the zoo, attracted record-breaking numbers this year—around half a million attendees.  

Gary Johnson, president of Museums in the Park, said the institutions involved in the survey aren't in an attendance competition: “We all share a dedication to the same type of public service.”

In terms of the future: “I think going forward if the economy continues to improve that the numbers will continue to rise as well,” he said.