Zoo sees boost in visits from low-income families

Published 10:18 am Monday, February 20, 2017

APPLE VALLEY  — A new program allowing people to visit the Minnesota Zoo for free by showing proof that they receive public assistance cards was a hit during its first year, bringing in 63 percent more low-income visitors in 2016 than in the previous year.

The Free to Explore Program ushered in nearly 65,700 people on limited incomes last year, compared with about 40,000 people who attended through an access program in 2015.

“I think one of the things that was most exciting to me is that it changed really the face of our visitorship,” said Claire Ross, the Minnesota Zoo’s access programs coordinator. “On a daily basis, when you’d look out the window, you’d see a different demographic at the zoo than you used to.”

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Minnesota law has required since 1995 that at least one in 10 zoo visitors be “economically disadvantaged” and admitted for free rather than paying the $12 admission price for kids and seniors or the $18 for adults. For two decades, the zoo gave out free admission vouchers to Head Start programs, job centers and community-based nonprofits so they could give them to clients.

Ross said just a quarter of the 120,000 passes were used each year. There also wasn’t any way to control who actually received the coupons.

The new effort admits people for free if they prove they receive public assistance by showing an Electronic Benefit Transfer card, a Head Start acceptance letter, a Minnesota Health Care Programs card, or documentation from the Women, Infants and Children program. They also need identification and proof of state residency.

“What’s unique about the zoo access program is that people don’t need to go through an additional hoop,” said Catherine Fair, senior director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey and Washington Counties. “This gives our low-income families … learning experiences with their families outside the classroom, (which) are so invaluable.”