After violence in March, the Kansas City Zoo will experiment with a new policy for free days

04/30/2014 1:34 PM

04/30/2014 7:34 PM

To reduce crowds and avoid violence on free days at the Kansas City Zoo, officials will experiment with a coupon system to stagger attendance.

The zoo will mail a postcard to every household in Jackson and Clay counties that will allow them to choose one free day to visit the zoo in July, September and November this year. Households will be randomly assigned to a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday.

The change is a response to gunfire and fighting that marred the last free day on March 18, when a crush of about 19,000 people proved to be too much. Similar problems arose on a free day in 2013, when attendance was more than 29,000.

Clay County Commission chairwoman Pam Mason, who heads the zoo’s tax district commission, said the new policy is the result of consultations between city and zoo officials and is tentative.

“Are we completely satisfied? I don’t know yet until we see how it works,” Mason said Wednesday. “This policy is only for the remainder of 2014. This will be re-evaluated to see if the citizens like it. We’ll see how it works. I do believe it’s definitely a step in the right direction.”

A spokeswoman for Mayor Sly James said Wednesday that he supports the new policy and “sees it as a good balance between ensuring public safety and promoting an outstanding public amenity.”

The zoo’s website says the animal park will be increasing staff for security as well as concessions, shows and rides. Mason said the zoo also will invest in more surveillance cameras.

“We always have some level of security when we go to any public building,” she said. “We want everybody to have a good time.”

Residents of Jackson and Clay counties were promised four days a year with free admission to the zoo in exchange for their approval in 2011 of a 1/8-cent sales tax to support the zoo. The zoo designated four dates when anyone in those counties could get in for free.

The new system, which the zoo is calling “Postcard to Adventure,” is designed to allow families greater flexibility. They will have four days to choose from in each of the designated months instead of just one set day.

Zoo director Randy Wisthoff said that could actually increase the number of people taking advantage of free days, but it will reduce attendance pressure on any given day.

“If you get too many people in any environment, it’s not as much fun,” Wisthoff said. “Once we get over the 10,000 mark, it starts to put stress and strain on the operation. Trying to keep those crowds down to more manageable numbers will be a better experience for everybody.”

On March 18, large groups of teens began arriving late in the day at the zoo. With as many as 600 teens and young adults gathered outside the entrance, officials decided to close the zoo at 3:30 p.m., a half hour early.

Fights broke out at the entrance and in zoo parking lots, police said, and two gunshots were heard. No one was injured. Jackson County juvenile authorities later charged a 16-year-old boy with possession of a handgun, disorderly conduct and a probation violation.

The postcards will have perforated sections for each of the remaining free days this year. The system will allow the zoo to better keep track of where attendance is coming from.

People should bring the postcard to the zoo along with a photo ID or utility bill on their designated day of the week.

If the designated free day doesn’t fit people’s schedule, they will be able to exchange their postcard for one valid for one of the other weekdays. More information is at

www.kansascityzoo.org/postcardtoadventure

.

The rules say the head of household must present the postcard coupon. Wisthoff acknowledged that is to help ensure that minors at the zoo are accompanied.

“It’s the same rule if you have a Friends of the Zoo membership,” he said. “We think the best experience is when there is adult supervision.”

It will cost the zoo district $75,000 to $80,000 to print and mail postcards to about 380,000 households in Jackson and Clay counties. But Wisthoff said that is close to what the zoo was spending on marketing and overtime for the previous free-day system.

And he said it is a relatively small expense to fulfill a promise to voters who created a tax district that generates as much as $12 million a year for the zoo.

Zoo marketing director Julie Neemeyer sought input about the new policy through social media and found the coupon system got the best reception.

Comments were generally favorable on the zoo’s Facebook page Wednesday, but one person complained about the lack of free days on weekends. The zoo discontinued weekend free days after fights and arrests on a Sunday in April 2013.

One casualty of the new system will be free ridership on the Metro bus line that serves the zoo, which previously was provided on free days.

Zoo attendance topped 882,000 last year, and officials are aiming at breaking the million mark soon.

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