Memberships: The Gift That Gives All Year Long!
Rachel Buttner writes for Daily Vacationer – dedicated to exploring places to go and things to do in and around Philadelphia. Follow Daily Vacationer Jr. starting in January 2015 to discover fun locations and events for kids in the Greater Philadelphia area.
It’s that time of year again, and we are already being bombarded with requests for Christmas lists and racking our brains to come up with gift ideas for others. Between ads for this year’s “Hottest Toys” and the huge catalogs arriving in the mail, it’s hard to decide which things our kids will adore playing with and what will become just more stuff around the house. Tack onto that the stress of trying to find something that a niece, nephew, grandchild, or friend’s child will enjoy that they don’t already have, and you may find yourself wishing it was January already.
Now we’re definitely not knocking toys and especially not books, but we think that there are some great alternative gifts instead the expected physical stuff. One of our favorite things to give (and receive!) are memberships. Memberships to zoos, museums, aquariums, national parks, etc – they all give the opportunity to have fun, discover new things, and make wonderful memories throughout the entire year!
Before purchasing a membership for someone (or even for yourself) do your research to make sure that it’s the right fit for the intended person or family. Here are few things that we look at when considering memberships:
1. Pick Something Interesting to the Recipient
A lot of times this one is easy to figure out and match up. You have a child or a grandchild who is obsessed with animals, so you buy them a zoo membership – simple! Unfortunately it’s not always that easy. Instead you have children with varied favorite interests or possibly no interests at all that stand out as a favorite. But by paying attention, you may surprise them with something fantastic. Really any place with animals is an obvious crowd pleaser: aquariums, zoos, wildlife preserves, etc, but don’t forget to check out the endless museum options out there as well. Art, science, history, archeology, trains, helicopters – there’s really something out there for everyone. For younger kids, a well put together children’s museum is almost always a great option. And don’t skip over the idea of a garden or arboretum membership thinking they might be too boring. Every one we have ever visited has been filled with children of all ages enjoying the changing seasons, running around play areas built in, and using their imaginations to transform outdoor sculpture and tucked away corners into places of discovery and excitement. Another place not to overlook: cultural museums – they often have the best events and children’s programs. The Swedish museum by us currently has a Pippi Longstocking exhibit and boasts wonderful children’s programs that often include live sheep in the building. Favorite television shows or book characters can also help narrow down options. A fan of Little House on Prairie might be thrilled with a historic village, while a Thomas the Tank Engine lover might go nuts over a train museum.
2. Make Sure It’s Age Appropriate
Near us we have one of the most famous science museums for kids in the country. It’s absolutely fascinating! However, if your children are under the age of four, then you’d be able to count on one hand how many things that they would be able to enjoy in the whole huge building. Instead we would recommend the natural science museum across the street that is not as well known, but has a whole floor devoted to the four and under set. Likewise, we also have one of the most popular children’s museums in the county, but if your kid is 8 or over, they will really be too old to enjoy it. Ask around and you may be surprised to discover where people’s kids are having the most fun. Even the most dry sounding places often have the most vibrant areas and activities for kids. We discovered a small art museum with a room devoted to total hands on creativity and play from infants to middle schoolers. Check out a location’s events calendar to see what ages they offer programs for. Don’t exclude the idea of a membership because you think a child may be too young either. Often ages 2 or 3 (and sometimes 5 and even 12!) and under get in places for FREE. Our recommendation for the best place to bring even the youngest children: an aquarium. The constant graceful motion, bright colors, and proximity of the fish to the guests fascinates even babies who are still developing their eyesight.
3. Choose the Right Level of Membership
Most places offer memberships in tiers. It’s important to see what is offered at each level to figure out if you should stick with a basic membership or if it will pay off to go higher. Usually the higher in membership levels you go, the more people you can take with you to a location, so make sure the person you are buying the membership for is able to bring enough people with them (an individual membership for a child won’t work very well if it doesn’t include a parent and possibly their siblings depending on the age). Our best recommendation is to try to include the whole family. When financially possibly, we like to buy levels high enough to bring ourselves and a friend or two along with us. Different levels can have other benefits too, such as discounts at the location’s gift shops, special hours, discounted or free parking, and invitations to exclusive events or programs. Places often let you upgrade your membership at any time, so you can start at a basic level and move up if you find you’re wanting more.
4. Get the Best Bang for Your Buck
Choosing the right level of membership is a big part of this, but there are other things to consider when purchasing a membership too. Make sure you read all the benefits and take into account everything members receive as benefits and, sometimes more importantly, what they don’t receive. You may truly think a location is great and that the membership price sounds wonderful, but if you have to pay $20 bucks for parking every time you go even though you’re a member, it may be more than you were anticipating. A fantastic way to really get your membership to pay off is to research the reciprocal benefits that it can get you. Many places are enrolled in societies and associations that give discounted or free admission to members of other locations within the association. For example, a membership at our city zoo gets us into a different local zoo for free and another one at a 25% to 50% discount depending on the time of year. You can use these reciprocal benefits strategically if you do enough research. We purchased a membership at a tiny overlooked garden that cost us very little but was a part of the American Horticultural Society, and we can now get in for free at other larger gardens and arboretums that have much higher admission and membership price. Make sure that you read all the fine print and restrictions when it comes to reciprocal benefits. Always call ahead of time just to make sure of a location’s policy.
Some of the reciprocal programs and their locations:
5. Add to the Fun
In the case that your child is already a member at their dream location, you can always explore ways to expand on their membership and give them even more at a place that they already love. As we mentioned before, you can always upgrade a membership to allow a current member even more benefits. A great way to expand on a zoo membership is to “adopt” one of the animals in the child’s name. You can also look for special programs or events that are offered but not included in the membership. Behind the scenes and overnight trips and tours are especially fun for kids already loving a certain museum or adventure park or aquarium.
Rachel and her family are always heading someplace new and exciting. Thanks for telling us more about choosing and giving a membership! One tip I would add – since most memberships expire a year from the purchase date, instead of actually purchasing the membership for your recipient, give them the money and let them purchase it themselves on the date of their first visit.