By Bob Uphues
Unseasonably warm temperatures last month, especially around Christmas, led to the busiest December in the history of Brookfield Zoo and the most visitors ever on days when the zoo has hosted its Holiday Magic festival of lights event.
Sondra Katzen, director of public relations for the Chicago Zoological Society, said 244,808 people attended the zoo in December, about 18 percent higher than the previous December attendance record of 206,669, back in 2012.
Katzen noted that December's attendance figures in 2019 topped those from May.
The vast majority of those December 2019 visitors – 228,664 people -- came during the 14 days Brookfield Zoo stayed open late for its Holiday Magic event.
On nine of the 14 days, attendance was greater than 15,000 and on five attendance topped 20,000, with traffic gridlocked near the zoo on at least three of those days.
"No matter how many police officers you throw at this, if the cars are bumper to bumper, they're not going anywhere," said Brookfield Police Chief Edward Petrak. "So, it's a tough situation."
According to one email obtained by the Landmark from Petrak, residents called to complain about having to park and walk six blocks to get to their home on Rockefeller Avenue.
Residents also complained of two-hour backups on Prairie Avenue, with one person saying it took 45 minutes on Dec. 26 to drive from the circle at Eight Corners to the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad tracks.
Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel said that for the first time he could remember, there were reports of zoo visitors parking along Parkview Road, Groveland Avenue, West Avenue and Forest Avenue in Riverside and walking to the zoo's South Gate.
"We hadn't seen that in the past," Weitzel said.
Weitzel said Riverside police responded to four traffic accidents during the big backups, none of them serious, and a couple of traffic altercations, which resulted in no arrests.
"It was hard for the officers to get there, weaving their way through traffic, Weitzel said.
In recent years, Brookfield Zoo has tried to communicate better with patrons as well as with officials in surrounding towns when they expect big crowds, directing patrons to the North Gate, where parking is more plentiful and won't affect a residential neighborhood.
Local police share that information online and through email blasts with residents, to prepare them for the vehicular onslaught.
"We want to be a good neighbor," said Katzen. "When you have that many vehicles, we understand that the situation is not great."
But, sometimes weather, special events and the zoo's capacity to move cars through the entrance gates combine to create the kind of terrible traffic jams that took place on Dec. 22 and Dec. 26, the two busiest days of Holiday Magic.
On Dec. 22, almost 31,000 people attended Holiday Magic and on Dec. 26, attendance reached almost 35,000.
Weitzel said northbound traffic on First Avenue stretched from 31st Street to at least 47th Street. Meanwhile, Brookfield police surveillance cameras showed eastbound traffic on 31st Street backed up bumper-to-bumper well past Maple Avenue, more than a mile from the zoo's North Gate. The eastbound traffic often blocked the Maple/31st intersection, making it close to impassable for north-south motorists.
In response to the traffic on Dec. 26, Brookfield police used barricades to discourage non-resident traffic from using residential streets in the Hollywood section. Petrak said that it was hard to tell how much effect those barricades had from Dec. 27-31, because attendance never again reached Dec. 26 levels.
"It's just the unpredictability of the crowd they get on any given day," said Petrak. "The crowds didn't hit that threshold where we start to get jammed up in the residential streets."
Katzen confirmed that Petrak and Jennifer Baader, the Chicago Zoological Society's vice president of government affairs, are expected to meet later this month to talk about possible changes in protocols to help lessen the traffic impact on high-attendance days, which happen sporadically and infrequently during the year.