Imagine a nighttime party featuring dinner with more than 70 courses from top-notch restaurants, unlimited beer, wine and liquor, five stages with different bands and a wildlife art auction.

Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo’s annual Zoofari party will be held this year on Nov. 7, after hours when the kids have gone home. The food, liquor and music at the annual fundraiser can be enjoyed for $70 when a ticket is purchased in advance through the zoo’s Web site.

Of course, there’s the added benefit of feeling like a VIP zookeeper. Animals may not be entirely visible at night but a cacophony of natural animal sounds makes it clear that you are in a zoological park. But you don’t have to worry about cleaning their cages!

But if you don’t live in Tampa, Fla., don’t despair. Most zoos, as well as some aquariums, hold annual fundraising events that allow you to eat ‘til your heart’s content, enjoy great music, and “even cut a rug”—all for a price that’s no more than the cost of a nice dinner and a movie.
(Looking for cheap ways to entertain the family, check this out.)

The trick is finding out about the party. Many zoos and aquariums don’t extensively advertise these events, tailoring publicity to members. But looking under the event section of your local zoological attraction’s Web site will usually turn it up.

So, if you can’t afford to go on vacation in this depressed economy, a zoo party could serve as the highlight of your staycation. Of course if you are on vacation, a zoo party can add some local color, particularly because you will have the ability to sample high-quality regional cruise from top restaurants.

During the next two months, zoo parties are being held throughout the U.S., including Tucson, Ariz.; Nashville, Tenn.; Brownsville, Texas; Atlanta; Cincinnati; Sacramento, Calif.; San Francisco; Jacksonville, Fla.; Columbia, S.C.; San Diego; Topeka, Kan.; Little Rock, Ark.; and of course Tampa.

Most of the events cost $100 or less, and some zoos even charge as little as $40 per person, like an upcoming event in Jacksonville. The dress code is usually casual, but some animal parks, like the Philadelphia Zoo’s June party encourage more formal attire. Some zoos even have several events. The Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, for example, hosts an annual beer tasting festival, while the Florida Aquarium (also in Tampa) hosts a sushi taste-off, a wine festival and adult parties for Halloween and New Year’s Eve.

Your admission ticket usually benefits your local zoo or aquarium and helps fund their operating costs, along with its conservation and educational missions.

Lowry Park Zoo Acting Executive Director Craig Pugh says that the zoo made $150,000 in 2008 from the Zoofari event, its biggest fundraiser of the year. Because every restaurant donates the food and servers, every dollar raised went directly to the zoo.

“It’s partying with a purpose,” Pugh says.

More than 50 restaurants are expected this year. Pugh says they will feature menu items from the Tampa area’s top restaurants.
“People are looking for a good deal these days,” Pugh says. “Zoofari offers an exceptional value.”

Below are some of the upcoming events.  If you don’t see your local zoo on the list, check their Web site. Fall, spring and summer are the prime times for zoo parties.

  • Topeka, Kan. | Zoobilee, Topeka Zoo | Oct. 3, 6-11 p.m. | $50 per ticket
  • Tucson, Ariz | Zoocson, Reid Park Zoo | Oct. 10, 5:30 p.m. | $75 per ticket
  • Atlanta | Jazzoo Atlanta, Zoo Atlanta | Sept. 26, 6:30-11:30 p.m. | $100/person, $75/person for two people, $70/person for group
  • Columbus, S.C. | Zoofari, Riverbanks Zoo and Garden | Oct. 3, 7-10 p.m. | $85 per ticket
  • San Francisco, Calif. | Fur Ball, San Francisco Zoo | Sept. 26, 8 p.m to midnight, $75 per ticket
  • San Diego, Calif. | Celebration for the Critters, San Diego Zoo | Sept. 26, 7:30 p.m. to midnight | $100 per ticket
  • Jacksonville, Fla. | Brew at the Zoo, Jacksonville Zoo | Oct.9, 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. | $40 per ticket
  • Tampa, Fla. | Zoofari, Lowry Park Zoo | Nov.7, 7 to 11 p.m. | $70 per ticket

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