Chicago Botanic Garden: steady growth and big plans
Colleen Milks and her 5-year-old daughter, Grace in the arid greenhouse at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe. Parking rates were increased this month for non-Cook County residents. | Rob Hart~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 22, 2013 6:17AM
GLENCOE — The Chicago Botanic Garden’s attendance has blossomed over the last four years, and may be poised to pass the 1 million per year mark soon and keep growing, with kid-friendly programs bringing new fans.
Attendance at the Glencoe attraction, 1000 Lake-Cook Road, rose to 955,000 in 2012, a 29 percent increase over the four years since the 2008 economic crash.
The combination of two new seasonal offerings – the Butterflies and Blooms butterfly tent and the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden – helped keep the Botanic on target with about a 1,000-person increase over the previous year.
That growth seems weak compared to the 2012 jumps at some area museums and zoos. The Chicago Children’s Museum rose 10 percent, Chicago History Museum, 9 percent, Brookfield Zoo, 8 percent, Adler Planetarium, 4 percent, and the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, 2 percent.
2012 also saw the Field Museum dropping 3 percent. The Chicago Art Institute, while holding steady in 2012, has dropped 22 percent since 2009.
Some of the institutions on the rise were coming back from off years. It can be an up-and-down existence for many attractions, which often depend on temporary exhibits to swell attendance, said Harriet Resnick, vice president of visitor experience and business development at the garden.
“We’re slow and steady, investing in the long term,”she said.
The census of separate specialty gardens has risen from 5 to 26 in the last few decades, and almost all of it is free, except for a $20 parking pass (or annual membership). Walkers and bicyclists don’t have to pay anything to get in.
One of the few extras with a price tag may have driven new visitors to the Botanic Garden. The $5 ticket to the new butterfly garden didn’t dissuade 52,000 people from entering its tent in 2012. It was a potent combo with the adjacent free plant-an-pick-it-yourself Grunsfeld garden, said Kathy Johnson, teacher and student program director.
“Its easily accessible,” Johnson said. “It’s close to the parking lot, and little legs need to take only so many steps.”
If they still had energy, they could see insects, tadpoles, fish and birds a short distance away at the Kleinman Family Cove, which also debuted in 2012, as well as several other free family offerings.
About 15 percent of those who went to the butterfly tent also hit the model railroad exhibit, Garden spokesperson Gloria Ciaccio said.
The trains also cost $5, but in combination, the total was discounted to $8 (Both tickets go up a buck in 2013).
Next year, the Garden will continue to add new programs to entice families. Every Friday morning, “stroller fitness” will welcome parents of kids, six to 24 months old, for a 15-minute walk-and-push to a different part of the garden each week, capped by a short horticultural lecture.
The Garden’s summer day camps will become more user-friendly to working families. The 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 a.m. hours will be augmented this summer by before- and after-care, stretching the day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The garden has several popular winter programs, and some offerings that last all year. Those include visits to, and tours of, the greenhouses, and classes for both adults and children. About 5,000 people attend sessions ranging from art to yoga.
The Garden is raising funds to expand its learning center, to be flanked by two new gardens designed by top architects Peter Wirtz, of Belgium, and Mikyoung Kim, of Boston. A planned greenhouse expansion is also the object of donations.
Even with the completion of these projects, the fact that flowers don’t bloom outdoors in the winter is beyond debate, and the garden is quieter when the snow flies.
There’s a plan for that.
“During the colder season, we plan on creating an indoor orchid show,” Resnick said, using the hotel-business term for slower times. The show will run mid-February to mid-March, starting in 2014, she said.
And it will be big, she said.
By necessity, as well as economy, the show has to happen during the winter, because orchid fans abound, both locally and willing to travel.
“There will be a lot of people to manage, and a lot of cars to park.”