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Science museum has hosted more visitors than expected. That’s good for taxpayers

Grand opening for Frost Museum of Science

The Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum had its grand opening Monday morning, May 8, 2017. After several events leading up to the opening, the doors officially opened to the public after five years of construction and $305 million in costs.
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The Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum had its grand opening Monday morning, May 8, 2017. After several events leading up to the opening, the doors officially opened to the public after five years of construction and $305 million in costs.

Miami’s new downtown science museum seems to have a magnetic force.

The long-delayed Patricia and Philip Frost Museum of Science is drawing far more visitors than originally expected — and that’s without free-admission days.

As of Oct. 31, more than 525,000 had visited the museum, which opened May 8, said CEO Frank Steslow, putting the museum on track to far exceed its original hope of at least 750,000 visitors in the first year.

“We’re delighted with the success we’ve had since opening,” said board executive committee member Michael Spring, director of the Miami-Dade Department of Cultural Affairs and senior adviser to the mayor.

But will visitors remain strong once the first blush has passed?

“The first year does tend to be the best year for a while; there is an immediate bump of interest,” wrote Gillian Thomas, former Frost CEO and now interim CEO at the Washington-based Association of Science-Technology Centers, in an email. “The second year tends to dip and then the numbers generally start to rise again”

The situation at the Frost could be different, she said. Because Miami’s museum didn’t open until May, it missed out on school groups and summer campers. Also, the Frost’s schedule of changing programs encourages repeat visits. “I would be surprised if they didn’t increase their visitors,” said Thomas. “They seem to be doing a great job.”

The museum is counting on a bump, basing projections on 990,000 visitors for fiscal 2018, which ends in October. More-than-expected visitors have translated into slightly higher operating costs, including staff for ticket sales and cleaning, Steslow said. But the high number of visitors has also contributed to additional revenues, and the museum is projecting a $1 million annual surplus for fiscal 2018.

In addition, the museum is hoping to announce several major gifts in the coming months, Steslow said. Just last week, the museum announced it has been selected by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Wells Fargo to receive a $289,000 grant from the Resilient Communities program for education and restoration related to sea-level rise.

The solid numbers mean relief for county taxpayers, who gave the Frost a $49 million bailout after a shortfall in private fundraising threatened to halt construction. In exchange, the museum, funded by $165 million in county-bond revenue, gave up a promised operational subsidy of $4 million a year. That means the museum must draw enough visitors and generate enough revenue to cover operating costs.

The early crowds may come as no surprise to visitors who stood in long ticket lines in the museum’s opening weeks. About 60 percent of those early-month visitors were locals, many coming when school was out. But, said Steslow, “the number of young adults was higher than we had expected. We didn’t see much of that at the old museum,” which was located in Coconut Grove.

To encourage return visits, the museum has hosted special programming, including a Halloween Monster Mash complete with underwater pumpkin carving. It also introduced a new planetarium space show, and increased its laser shows from one night per month to two. It also changes exhibits, recently introducing shows on the brain and on monster river fish.

Visits by school groups are slated to pick up in January when every fourth grader in Miami-Dade County comes once for free, thanks to support from Baptist Health. In early 2018, the museum also plans to begin targeting tour operators that work with cruise lines.

Once inside, visitors are generally pleased, according to social media reviews. On Facebook, the museum earns 4.1 of 5 stars, based on 2,000 reviews. The museum fared less positively on Google (3.7 stars based on 783 reviews), TripAdvisor (3.5 stars, based on 205 reviews) and only 2.5 stars on Yelp, based on 229 reviews. The center’s aquarium, architecture and planetarium get positive mentions, especially for those with small children. Parking cost and museum signage were often cited as drawbacks.

“We’ve discussed the online reviews at the board level,” said Spring. He also noted that generally, people unhappy with an experience are more likely to comment on it. “The museum has a good attitude of ‘let’s learn’ from the comments. You have to take it constructively.”

Steslow said his team is doing just that. A parking promotion is planned for the holiday season. And because more young adults have visited than expected, curators are looking for programming to appeal to that group. In the current pairing of exhibits, The Brain is aimed at adults, while Monster Fish is aimed at children.

Finding your way and signage have been a particular challenge given the museum’s vertical nature and its four buildings. “We’ve gone through several iterations,” he said. “We’re trying to see what works before we invest in a permanent solution.”

Miami Herald writer Andres Viglucci contributed to this report.

IF YOU GO

Visitors are urged to buy tickets online to cut the lines. Advance reservations for planetarium shows are required, and those are often booked by the time visitors arrive at the museum.

Miami-Dade residents receive 15 percent off one-day tickets, bringing the cost to $24.65 for adults, $17 for ages 3-11. In addition, county residents can check out free passes at Miami-Dade libraries.

Annual memberships cost $85 for individuals, $165 for families and include parking discounts.

The museum is open 365 days per year, including Christmas.

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