Free Family Field Trip program beginning next week in Sarasota County

Passes will be available by the morning of June 8 at county’s nine libraries, entitling families of four free admission to attractions such as Mote Marine Aquarium and Big Cat Habitat

Image courtesy Sarasota County
Image courtesy Sarasota County

Editor’s note: This story was updated on the afternoon of June 6 with new information about the availability of the passes.

From the week of June 6 through Aug. 6, families will be able to stop by any of Sarasota County’s nine public libraries and pick up a pass that will allow them free admission to five of the county’s well-known attractions, The Sarasota News Leader has learned. Those venues are Mote Marine Aquarium on Ken Thompson Parkway in Sarasota, Historic Spanish Point in Osprey, Jungle Gardens and the Sarasota Children’s Garden in Sarasota and Big Cat Habitat at 7101 Palmer Blvd., near the Celery Fields in Sarasota.

Each pass will be good for a family of four, county staff says. Library employees will distribute the passes on a first-come, first-served basis, Sarabeth Kalajian, the county’s director of libraries and historical resources, has pointed out.

A last-minute editing change delayed getting the passes to the libraries by June 6, Kalajian told the News Leader, but the passes should be available as of June 8.

Information about each family that picks up a pass will be recorded, she added in an email this week to County Commissioner Christine Robinson, noting, “(no double-dipping for multiple visits to the same attraction!)”

This new Family Field Trip program originated with an excursion community leaders took to Louisville, KY, in September 2015, where they learned about the Cultural Pass collaboration between the Louisville Metro Government and its partners. That program was designed to encourage learning in the summertime by providing children and students — through college age — the opportunity to visit local attractions for free, Robinson explained to her fellow county commissioners on Oct. 13, 2015.

During the Louisville trip — which was hosted by the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County — Robinson and Ringling College of Art + Design President Larry Thompson told the News Leader last year that they were struck by the potential for a Sarasota County program. Robinson suggested having county staff research the idea, and the other commissioners offered their support in October 2015 for that undertaking.

Five attractions have partnered on the program this year. Image courtesy Sarasota County
Five attractions have partnered on the program this year. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In a telephone interview with the News Leader on June 2, Robinson talked of the plans Kalajian announced this week. “I think this is a good start, and I think [the program is] going to be heavily used and ‘sold out’ quickly.”

“We think this is going to be very successful,” Jim Shirley, executive director of the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County, said in a separate telephone interview with the News Leader on June 2. “Everything we can do to prevent that summertime loss of learning is going to add value to our community.”

The nine libraries — as noted on the county website — are Jacaranda at 4143 Woodmere Park Blvd. in Venice; Fruitville at 100 Coburn Road in Sarasota; Gulf Gate at 7112 Curtiss Ave. in Sarasota; North Port at 13800 S. Tamiami Trail in North Port; North Sarasota at 2801 Newtown Blvd. in Sarasota; Osprey at Historic Spanish Point, located at 337 N. Tamiami Trail; Selby at 1331 First St. in downtown Sarasota; and the Venice Library Service Kiosk at the Venice Community Center, located at 326 S. Nokomis Ave. in Venice.

Creating the plan

Mote Marine's Aquarium has a variety of creatures. Image from the Mote website
Mote Marine’s Aquarium has a variety of creatures. Image from the Mote website

In a May 27 report to the County Commission, Kalajian explained that in February, staff began contacting nine venues to gain ideas about a local cultural pass initiative. Then, on April 11, “the formal Family Field Trip proposal was presented at a meeting of potential partners; meetings with individual participants followed in April and May,” she added.

In a June 1 email to Robinson — following up on details the commissioner sought after reading the May 27 report — Kalajian noted that four of the five partners for the Family Field Trip program will provide one pass per week per library for the eight weeks of the library system’s traditional Summer Reading Program. That will result in 288 passes, she added.

The fifth partner, Historic Spanish Point, offered to give five passes to each library for the same period, for a total of 360, Kalajian noted. Therefore, 648 passes will be available.

That means 2,592 people potentially “will explore an attraction this summer, right in their Sarasota County ‘backyard,’” Kalajian added.

All the participating partners plan to promote the program, as will community agencies that serve disadvantaged families, Kalajian wrote in the May 27 report.

Historic Spanish Point has exhibits to explain the history of the area. Image from the Historic Spanish Point website
Historic Spanish Point has exhibits to explain the history of the area. Image from the Historic Spanish Point website

All the partners also have agreed to evaluate the program at its mid-point, she added, “to determine if they wish to increase participation.”

A summary of the initiative will be provided after it concludes, she noted.

In an April 20 update to the commissioners, Kalajian wrote that members of her staff and those of the county’s Economic Development Department had been meeting regularly with representatives of the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County and Visit Sarasota County since October 2015 to develop the structure of the program, basing their model on facets of similar initiatives across the United States.

In her June 1 email to Robinson, Kalajian noted, “We recognize this is a modest start for the program and the demand will likely far exceed the supply of passes.”

Shirley also emphasized to the News Leader that this is a pilot program, adding that the planning group had worked hard to distinguish the offerings from other free activities available to children and families during the summer. For example, he said, the Ringling Museum of Art — the county’s top tourist attraction — already offers free admission to the public on Mondays and Saturdays during the summer months.

Jim Shirley. File photo
Jim Shirley. File photo

Shirley also pointed to the fact that this initiative is an example of “organizations meant to serve the community” finding new ways to assist families, especially those for whom the expense “might be a barrier” to visiting the county’s attractions.

Kalajian added in her email to Robinson this week that the planning group expected the libraries to be the primary sources of promoting the passes. “Given the big crowds that our Summer programming attracts, word will spread quickly,” she wrote.

After the first week of the availability of the passes, she pointed out, staff plans to evaluate the response level.

Robinson told the News Leader on June 2 that she is optimistic about expansion in the future. “Hopefully, this is just the tip of the iceberg for this program.”