The state shutdown on March 18 completely disrupted how the Phoenix Zoo conducted business. 

“When we shut down, more than 80 percent of our revenue went away, so we lost over four and a half million dollars in less than three months, because we closed during our busy season,” director of communications at the Phoenix Zoo Linda Hardwick said. “We knew we were never going to make that up. How could we adapt and do something to bring in a little bit of revenue?”

Hardwick’s team acted fast. They launched a Digital Safari educational resource within days of knowing they would be shutting down. 

Hardwick’s social media team set-up a Cameo profile for the zoo’s resident sloth, Fernando, that went viral. Cameo is a website and app where people can pay celebrities (who have profiles) to send messages to loved ones. Fernando has earned the zoo about $10,000 so far.

On Friday, May 1, Hardwick’s team discovered another possible opportunity on Facebook. They saw that the San Antonio Zoo, a fellow member of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, was hosting a drive-thru zoo event. After it sold out within days, Hardwick’s team organized an executive meeting for the following Monday. 

By Wednesday, tickets were being sold for “Cruise the Zoo” and opening day was scheduled for Friday, May 8. Much needed to be done within the few days between the executive team’s sign-off and the first parade of cars rolling through the gates. From animal welfare to technology, graphic design and operations, the team pulled through.

Thousands of Valley residents have attended the Cruise the Zoo drive-thru experience, which provides a way to visit the zoo safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of foot traffic, visitors experience the zoo by driving through it.

“It was really neat to see how fast all these different teams moved and worked together to make it happen,” Hardwick said. “The first weekend we ran CTZ we saw 650 cars each day of Friday through Monday; that’s 2,600 vehicles.”

The event has become streamlined and a completely contactless experience. Themed photos can be pre-purchased and sent to smartphones, snacks can be reserved and are distributed via color-coded stickers on windshields. 

“We chose the trails that allow for the most amount of animals to be seen,” Hardwick said. 

The event hasn’t only been enriching for humans seeking leisure outside of the home.

“We did notice that the animals started missing that guest interaction,” Hardwick said. Even though zoo staff members stepped-up to engage the animals while there weren’t guests, they didn’t seem to replace wild children for animal entertainment. 

“To see children and families hanging out of their windows and out of the moon roof, that was definitely something different, and the animals loved it. They were very curious,” Hardwick said. “It has been nice to open Cruise the Zoo so people can see animals in person because there’s definitely no replacement for that.”

Despite a limited reopening of the zoo in June, Cruise the Zoo has been extended to the first weekends (Thursday through Sunday) of July and August during the zoo’s summer hours, from 7 a.m. to 12 p.m. 

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