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No more free Zoo holidays: Houston tradition scrapped for 12 free Tuesday afternoons

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If you want to spend New Year's Day with Baylor the baby elephant at the Houston Zoo, you'll have to pay to get in now. Photo by Tony Bullard
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The Houston Zoo is no longer free on five holidays. Instead it's free after 2 p.m. on 12 Tuesdays.
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Will kids be able to make it to the Zoo's free days during the school year? Courtesy of Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

A holiday tradition for many Houston families is coming to an end — due to a new Houston Zoo policy.

You'll no longer be able to hit the Zoo for free family fun time the day after Thanksgiving or New Year's Day. The Houston Zoo is eliminating its five annual free admission holidays (Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Columbus Day and President's Day were all also free-admission days under the Zoo's old popular policy) and replacing it by making the first Tuesday of every month a partial free day instead. The first Tuesdays will have free admission after 2 p.m. (with the zoo closing at 6 or 7 p.m. depending on the time of the year). 

The first free afternoon admission day under the new plan will be this Tuesday, the day that most people will be returning to work or school after a long holiday weekend.

"I loved taking my kid to the Zoo on New Year's," Conroe resident Cathy Yangley told CultureMap from a Labor Day weekend party in Houston Sunday night. "A bunch of the families in our neighborhood would get together and go. All the kids would be together running around and the moms and dads could relax a little. It was a great day. It was time when everyone could be there.

"There's no way we'll all be able to arrange our schedules to do that on some random Tuesday."

On a Q&A explanation page about the free day switch up on the Houston Zoo's website, the reasoning is noted as, "We saw two important reasons to change our free day policy. For one, with our original schedule our 5 free days each year fell on recognized holidays. Since parking is limited in Hermann Park, the holiday free days resulted in severe traffic congestion in Hermann Park, the Museum District, and the nearby Texas Medical Center.

"This resulted in a traffic management issue for the Houston Police Department and for METRO Police who had to be called in on overtime duty. The traffic congestion also created potential delays for emergency vehicles on their way to emergency rooms at Ben Taub and Memorial Hermann hospitals."

Houston Zoo spokesperson Brian Hill told the Houston Chronicle — which had the first interview on the new policy — that sometimes 30,000 to 50,000 people would hit the Zoo on the free holidays, while a typical Tuesday sees only about 5,000 visitors. 

"It seems like they're making the free days — or free afternoons — when nobody can come," Yangley said. "My kids are in school on a Tuesday and my husband's at work. The holidays are what made it special."

On its website Q&A, the Zoo answers that type of concern with this counterpoint: "We believe that by spreading out the opportunity for free admission to 12 times each year instead of only five over crowded holidays that our guests will have a better experience when they visit and enjoy each visit more."

Regular Zoo admission prices are $11 for anyone over 11 and $7 for kids ages 2-11 (1-year-olds and babies are always free). Seniors 65-and-over pay $6. The Houston Zoo is privately run as a non-profit.

What do you think of the new free afternoon admission first Tuesdays switch? Are you going to miss the old free holiday setup or relish the lessened crowds?

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