Shangri La may surpass the first year goal of attracting 50,000 visitors. The botanical gardens and nature center in Orange attracted 20,000 visitors in a little more than two months. People came from 42 states and a variety of countries.

Shangri La opened on March 11 and would have met the 20,000 mark by May 11, except a few rainy days in early May kept people away, said Director Michael Hoke.

Visitors at the ticket window give a home zip code so their residences can be tracked.

Hoke said people from 42 states, including Alaska, have visited the gardens.

The zip code tracking system doesn’t track people from outside of the United States, but employees have talked to people from Australia, Germany, England, Ireland, Scotland and the countries of the former Soviet Union.

The new draw to Orange has been helping other businesses and will add a bit to local sales tax revenues. Hoke said no taxes are paid on admission fees to Shangri La, but sales taxes are collected at the Garden Store and the Star and Crescent Moon Café inside.

The sales taxes go to the state, to the city of Orange and to Orange County.

Hoke said the café in Shangri La isn’t big enough to handle all the visitors, so they are going to other nearby restaurants.

He believes when Shangri La’s adjacent parking lot is completed, more visitors will come, particularly for the special night-time activities.

“Not having parking is killing us,” he said.

The Stark Foundation owns and operates Shangri La. Most of the visitors have been parking in downtown Orange at the Foundation’s Lutcher Theater parking lot. A regular schedule of shuttle buses is offered back and forth to the parking lot.

The Shangri La visitors are also going to the Foundation’s historic Stark House and Stark Museum of Art in downtown, Hoke said.

Shangri La closes on weekdays and Sundays at 5 p.m. and at 7 p.m. on Saturdays. During Earth Week in late April, several special evening activities were scheduled. Hoke said he thinks not having nearby parking cut back on the evening attendance.
Shangri La is also planning some “Beat the Heat” summer programs.

Hoke is hoping the new parking lot will be completed for those programs, but construction may be taking longer, he said.

The Foundation bought from the city the former site of the Thomen Community Center, which was originally built as a World War II hospital. The foundation demolished the dilapidated building and has cleared the lot for the parking lot construction.

The city has banned parking along the south side of 20th Street and restricted parking to residential permits along Park Avenue across from Shangri La. For the first two months, visitors used a small parking lot built for the community center, but that lot was taken out for the new parking lot.

The new parking lot will be landscaped. The city’s sales contract requires the Foundation to leave part of the property as a public park and playground area for the neighborhood.

Hoke wonders whether Shangri La’s attendance will stay at the same levels during the hot summer months. But so far, the prospect of the hot, humid Southeast Texas summers hasn’t deterred bookings. Shangri La has tour groups scheduled through June and into July.

Shangri La has a total of 252 acres, with about 25 acres landscaped and planted with flowers as botanical gardens. The plantings and flowers have changed with the seasons and weather.

A boat ride along Adams Bayou into wetlands and woods is part of Shangri La. Visitors pay a fee for the gardens and another fee for the boat ride, or a discount for both. In addition to daily admission fees, Shangri La offers individual, couple and family memberships for year-long admittance, plus a discount at the Garden Store.

Shangri La is also bringing attention to Orange. Texas Monthly magazine had a small article on Shangri La and last week, an architectural magazine had a reporter working on an article, Hoke said.