Zoos and aquariums are knee deep in visitors this summer, forcing some facilities to accept early reservations and others to close their doors to additional patrons after selling out of tickets.
Several aquariums, including Chicago's John G. Shedd Aquarium and the Georgia Aquarium, have been so busy lately that they resorted to a system that requires visitors to call a day in advance and book a ticket for a specific time the next day.
"The attendance figures are pretty much through the roof," said Rudy Socha, chief executive of Zoo and Aquarium Visitor. "When Georgia Aquarium first opened they were so swamped that no one could see the exhibits. It took them a while to figure out what the right flow of visitors was."
Zoo and aquarium experts say that an ongoing recession has at least temporarily changed the way Americans vacation, prompting many of them to stay closer to home.
And attendance numbers show that many favor zoos and aquariums over more expensive amusement and water parks. More than one million people visited the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium before the Fourth of July -- the earliest the 73-year-old zoo has hit that benchmark. The facility also reported a record number of visitors in June.
And the North Carolina Zoo saw its highest attendance in 13 years during its last fiscal year, which ended June 30, with 749,627 people visiting, 20,210 more than the previous year.
"About 175 million people visit zoos each year," said Allen Nyhuis, co-author of America's Best Zoos. "This is more than professional sports combined, including baseball, basketball, football and hockey."
So how do you avoid the crowds and actually have a chance to see the exhibits? Nyhuis recommends buying a membership, which may be cheaper than purchasing same day tickets for everyone in your family -- depending on where you live.
For example, for a family of four to visit the San Diego Zoo, it's actually cheaper to buy a membership -- but only if you live in Southern California.
An $89 membership for two adults features two free guest passes, which can be used for the children -- a $39 savings over the daily price of $128 ($37 per adult and $27 per child.) The membership also includes store discounts and free passes for the aerial tram and Africa tour. If you don't live in Southern California, however, an annual membership is a hefty $250.
With a membership, you can also visit a zoo or aquarium during less busy hours, including early morning and late afternoon, when the animals are more active. Some, like the San Diego Zoo, are even open in the evening during the summer.
It's also good to keep in mind that some of the most popular zoos are those that offer free admission, including Washington D.C.'s National Zoo, the St. Louis Zoo and Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo.
The busiest facilities, in terms of the number of annual visitors, tend to be zoos at Disney's Animal Kingdom, Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay, Fla., the San Diego Zoo, the aforementioned three free zoos, the Bronx Zoo, Chicago's Brookfield Zoo, the Denver Zoo, and Columbus' Jack Hanna Zoo, Nyhuis said.
Many zoo and aquarium memberships come with deep discounts to other facilities, known as reciprocal arrangements. In some cases, visitors can get in free to nearby facilities. For example, there are five different zoos in Ohio. By joining one, visitors get in free, or at a substantial discount, to the others, Socha said.
Zoos and aquariums can be reluctant to disclose who their partners are, but visitors can obtain this information by joining the facility as a member, he added.
It's also useful to remember that some zoos and aquariums offer free tickets to visitors through partnerships with local hotels, Socha said. For example, the Georgia Aquarium has a relationship with the Marriott in downtown Atlanta, he added.
Just make sure to reserve your tickets in advance.
Summer vacationers stampeding zoos and aquariums