The COVID pandemic forced the Roger Williams Park Zoo to close for several months in 2020, but it may have also contributed to record-breaking attendance in 2021.
The Providence zoo had 834,960 visitors last year, an increase of 23.5% over 2019, and the most visitors the 150-year-old zoo has had since it started keeping track, the zoo announced this week.
"After the challenges we faced with COVID in 2020, we were optimistic but cautious; we didn't know what to expect in 2021," Ron Patalano, the zoo's interim executive director, said in a news release. "And as we celebrate our 150th birthday this year, it's heart-warming to know the Roger Williams Park Zoo is recognized as a valuable community asset in New England."
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A combination of popular attractions and a cooped-up population's desire to leave home apparently contributed to the increase. Vicki Scharfberg, director of marketing and public relations, noticed a lot of families pushing strollers through the zoo last year. She believes parents were eager to get their children away from their television and computer screens.
"I do think the fact we are a safe, family-fun outdoor attraction was a godsend to a lot of people," Scharfberg said in an interview.
Aided by pleasant fall weather, the zoo's annual Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular was a tremendous draw, setting a record of 168,850 visitors, according to the zoo. That beat the previous record, which was set in 2015, by 20%, according to the zoo.
The zoo also had a strong turnout for its Holiday Lights Spectacular, which was in its second year.
"Both of those blew out our expectations," Scharfberg said.
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The zoo, which has been tracking attendance since at least 1986, enjoyed the strong turnouts despite restricting the timing of visits to prevent overcrowding. It has also seen a reduction in student field trips and visits from youth programs that have been operating with reduced capacity.
Scharfberg couldn't say if the zoo's attendance uptick is part of a broader trend since she hasn't seen full national number, but she noted that zoos in Miami, Oklahoma and Tampa also reported strong years.
Roger Williams Park Zoo is supported and managed by the Rhode Island Zoological Society and is owned by the City of Providence.
Last year also marked a transition for the zoo. In September, executive director Jeremy Goodman left for a job as president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium. His replacement, Stacey Johnson, is scheduled to start in March.
The zoo is planning special events to celebrate its 150th anniversary this year, according to Scharfberg.
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This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Providence's Roger Williams Park Zoo set attendance record in 2022