Pandas spur zoo to attendance and membership records in 2018

Panda power was in full display at the Calgary Zoo in 2018, when the zoo surpassed record attendance and membership sales.

Guests from China produced a stampede of visitors to city zoo

The Calgary Zoo's panda cubs, seen here celebrating their third birthday in 2018, helped the zoo set attendance and membership records last year. (Nelly Alberola/Radio-Canada)

The arrival of a family of giant pandas to the Calgary Zoo last spring created a stampede of visitors once the guests on loan from China were introduced to an eager public.

Overall, the zoo surpassed previous records for both attendance and memberships in 2018.

"We got 1.48 million visitors — that's a lot of people," Calgary Zoo CEO Clement Lanthier said Thursday.

The zoo sold 100,000 annual memberships and saw an average of 4,065 visitors every day.

Lanthier said attendance actually came in slightly under the 1.5 million visitors the zoo expected.

"We were severely hit in August when the wildfires in B.C. moved a lot of smoke within Calgary for almost 10 days, so that  impacted dramatically our attendance," he said.

"Everything in Calgary went into a stall because the smoke was so intense."

Revenue exceeds expectations

Even with slightly lower-than-expected attendance, he said, the zoo is in good financial shape, thanks to visitors shelling out cash for panda stuffies, panda T-shirts and food.

 "On the revenue side, we are ahead of what we had budgeted."

The previous record year at the zoo was 2012 when 1.45 million visitors came to see the penguin exhibit, suggesting black-and-white attractions are the quickest way to stay in the black.

"We also had the ring-tailed lemur, which was also black and white, and the snow leopard — arguably they're black and white — so maybe that's the way to go forward," Lanthier said with a laugh.

He doesn't anticipate another attendance record in 2019, however.

"Typically, with the second year of any attraction, panda or anything else, you have a little decline of the attendance."

Ten-year plan

The adult pandas, Da Mao and Er Shun, along with their cubs, Jia Panpan and Jia Yueyue, are housed in a 2,000-square-metre, indoor-outdoor habitat.

The furry foursome was shipped to Calgary from Toronto in April and spent about a month in quarantine.

The two adults are on loan to Canadian zoos from China as part of a 10-year deal signed in 2012. The cubs were born in Toronto in 2015.

It cost around $30 million to house the pandas in Calgary, including $14.4 million for the exhibit itself. Expanded parking lots, washrooms and restaurants were also required to accommodate more visitors.

The adult pandas are to remain in Calgary for the next five years, while the cubs are expected to return to China before their parents.