Como Park Zoo and Conservatory this year is offering parents a unique way to shop during the holiday season -- or maybe just catch a movie before it goes to DVD -- without having to tow the kids along.
The St. Paul zoo on Friday inaugurates a new drop-and-shop program that lets parents leave their kids there for four full hours while they shop, dine or play.
The program, which also runs Dec. 1 and 9, is part of Como's ongoing efforts to meet community needs while offering different ways to experience and enjoy the zoo -- particularly during the quiet winter months when attendance falls off from crowded summer days.
"We get loved to death during the summer, but from October through April we think about what we can do to increase visitorship," said Michelle Furrer, director of the zoo and conservatory.
Noon Year's Eve will be held again this year on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1, a daytime family-style take on the annual midnight celebration. And then there's the popular Valentine's Day dinner at the conservatory for grown-ups in February.
Como also hosts summer camps for kids, and science-technology programs for schoolchildren and preschoolers.
The drop-and-shop program offers day care with an educational twist. Staffers will guide kids on a scavenger hunt through the zoo and conservatory, acquaint them with animal visitors and lead them in games and crafts.
There's no maximum age, but kids should be at least 3 years old and toilet-trained.
"We see it as a win-win situation for parents and kids," said Katie Olson, the zoo's public programs coordinator. "Kids get to run off some energy while parents run their errands."
The zoo draws about 2 million visitors each year, making it the state's most popular arts and culture attraction, just behind the Mall of America and the National Sports Center in Blaine. It's free and open every day of the year, including Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The zoo and conservatory's budget this year is $7.2 million. Furrer said that 40 percent of its revenue comes from the city, which owns and manages it. The balance comes from Como Friends, the zoo's nonprofit partner, as well as voluntary donations at the door, fees and event revenue.
The zoo is finding new converts everywhere: It has about 65,000 fans on its Facebook site and last week Amanda the orangutan was busy tweeting during Give to the Max Day, the annual philanthropy fundraiser. The zoo took in $16,500 from 217 donors, said Jackie Sticha, president of the nonprofit Como Friends.
Como Friends has helped secure several million dollars in private and public funds for the zoo in the 12 years since it was formed, Sticha said. Much of that funding is used to upgrade capital projects or extend popular programs, such as science-technology courses for school-age kids and preschoolers.
For instance, she said, funds from the Friends were used to provide saltwater rather than freshwater in the polar bear exhibit -- a $1 million expense that will equip the zoo to get a polar bear cub from the Canadian government, should that opportunity arise.
In addition to being popular with people, Como lately has become something of a boarding house for displaced bears. The polar bear exhibit, which opened two years ago, features resident males Buzz and Neil and now also includes Berlin, who was moved to Como last summer after her home zoo in Duluth was flooded. She's recovering after a recent health scare.
The zoo also is putting up two brown bears and a grizzly bear from the Roosevelt Park Zoo in Minot, N.D., which also was hit by devastating flooding.
Furrer said that 2013 promises to offer more excitement for visitors. April will bring the opening of Ordway Gardens, a new and fully accessible wing of the conservatory that will feature Japanese gardens and bonsai year-round. The highly anticipated Gorilla Forest exhibit will open in June, adding a family group of four and a bachelor gorilla to the two bachelors already there.
In the meantime, Como officials are anxious to measure the interest in the drop-and-shop program.
"We're really excited to try this out and see how it goes," Olson said. "A lot of people don't know we're open all year. Winter is a great time to come."
Kevin Duchschere • 651-925-5035