GRANT PARK — Aided by some notable births of popular and endangered animal species and the launch of several initiatives aimed at being more accessible to a larger pool of visitors, attendance at Zoo Atlanta has jumped 29 percent since 2011.
Attendance has been so strong and is expected to remain so, the zoo is projecting to hit the 1 million visitors a year, by 2015, Raymond B. King, Zoo Atlanta's president and chief executive said in an interview with East Atlanta Patch.
"Over two years, we grew attendance 29 percent," said King, a former SunTrust Banks Inc. executive who took over the zoo 2010. "A million is in our eyescopes."
That would continue a trendline of rising numbers since 2009, when the zoo hit an attendance plateau of about 675,000.
By 2011, that had jumped to 805,000.
Last year — despite continued concerns about the economy — it grew another seven percent to 866,000 visitors.
Some of that growth has been marked by recent births — Po, the Panda as well as the Sumatran tiger cubs — which garnered not only local, but worldwide interest.
That the environment and conservation programs are increasingly getting more attention in elementary and high schools, also has contributed in the higher attendance rates, King said.
But another key factor is the statewide library access program launched in 2011, King said.
First instituted in the Atlanta-Fulton County Library System, before being rolled out to libraries statewide, the access program lets borrowers rent out DVDs about the zoo and its offerings. That allows the borrower to receive a family pass for four to the zoo, free of charge.
That program alone, resulted in 55,000 visitors last year.
"We're seeing that from every county in the state," King said, adding the initiative is part of Zoo Atlanta's drive to be accessible to as many as possible. "It reflects the fact that we really are the state’s zoo."
The zoo, which has an annual budget of about $16 million, also is embarking on some major initiatives long-term and short-term, that King is factoring into getting attendance to hit the 1 million mark.
In the short-term is the long-awaited change to the reptile and amphibian complex. Zoo Atlanta, which embarked on a multi-million dollar campaign when he started, plans a redesigned structure.
The project is designed to modernize the complex, as the structure, more than 50 years old, is the oldest edifice at the zoo.
The zoo is expected to make a formal announcement later this year.
"This will be a big step for the zoo," King said.
Longer-term, probably 20 years into the future, is to move the main entrance from Cherokee Avenue onto Boulevard.
In between those short-term and long-range initiatives, the zoo is looking to improve the customer experience through exhibits that allow for more hands-on use, he said.
For example, a recent program that gave visitors the ability to feed giraffes proved to be extremely popular at the zoo, which is looking for additional opportunities to create that interactivity.
"We would like to make it more hands-on," King said.
Another goal is to expand the zoo's conservation work. While it spends a fair amount of resources on conservation already, much of that is skewed toward panda programs as a result of its agreements with China as a result of its panda program.
Zoo Atlanta's positive projections are in sharp contrast with its neighbor in the park, the Cyclorama.
Atlanta's Civil War museum and home to the massive painting that depicts the Battle of Atlanta, the Cyclorama struggles to attract visitors.
The city is considering whether or not moving it to another location in Atlanta might help turn its attendance numbers around.
Grant Park is fighting to keep it in the neighborhood.