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Milwaukee Recreation program guide magazines are a sight familiar to all

By Bobby Tanzilo

This piece is exclusive to Milwaukee Recreation and cannot be reproduced elsewhere without permission.

Maybe you see it in stacks at your local library, or perhaps it lands in your mailbox, chock full of fun and informative classes, and engaging sports and activities.

I’m talking, of course, about the seasonal Milwaukee Recreation Guide, published my Milwaukee Recreation – a department of Milwaukee Public Schools – four times a year in a now-familiar magazine format.

“Every season, we mail a copy of the current Milwaukee Recreation Guide to every residential address in the city of Milwaukee,” says Milwaukee Recreation Marketing Manager Brian Hoffer.

“This is approximately 248,000 copies per season. If city of Milwaukee residents are not receiving the booklet in the mail, we would like them to complete a short form at so we can follow up.”

The booklets are also available at Milwaukee Recreation community centers, all MPS schools and Milwaukee Public Libraries.

The guides have even traveled the globe, as seen in this image:

Recreation Guide Story - OnMilwaukee

The regularly produced guide as we know it today, dates to at least the early 1970s, with pamplet-style guides going back much further.

Although Milwaukee Recreation has published some version of its guide for decades, the format hasn’t always been the fulsome magazine we see today.

It would appear that the first installment of the current iteration dates to the early 1990s.

Earlier, a variety of shapes and sizes were tried, which makes pinpointing a specific start date for any given format difficult, as they sometimes came and went.

The format most used in the years just before the magazine was a letter-sized booklet, folded in half for mailing.

Just like the changes to the guides, the menu of choices they’ve offered have also changed over the years.

Around 1986, for example, you could expect to find swim and water aerobics classes alongside country folk dancing and beginning bridge lessons, as well as musical instrument lessons. There were also informative “adulting” classes like “HMOs: What They Are and How to Choose Them.”

There was also a spice craft class, in conjunction with “Put Spices in Your Life Day,” a curling club, arts workshops, cooking for kids, needlecraft, first steps in dance, baton and cheerleading, aerobics for kids, drill team, jazz dance, tap dance, ballet and modern dance, creative movement ... the choices are mind boggling and seemingly endless.

There was a full slate of youth sports, plus after-school programs and “Latch Key Services” for kids whose parents were at work at afternoon school dismissal.

If you weren’t afraid of a little chill, you could sign up for the all-new cross country skiing program, or take outdoors classes in everything from basic canoeing to hunter safety to clinics in biking, backpacking, boating, rock climbing, gardening and a birdhouse competition.

The list of Milwaukee Recreation’s recreation centers and All City Program locations that year was impressive, filling an entire page of the guide.

In 1997, after another area recreation department had a contest asking residents to spot the phony offerings among its class list – resulting in a boost in enrollments – Milwaukee Recreation had some similar fun in its winter guide that year.

Recreation Guide Story - OnMilwaukee

Folks who correctly picked out the snowflake identification and defensive sledding classes, as well as a teleportation field trip, earned a $20 gift certificate.

Today’s guides, honestly, aren’t much different (though all the classes nowadays are real offerings). There is quite literally something for everyone.

And assembling them hasn’t gotten much easier, says Hoffer.

“The production of each guide is truly a team effort that begins approximately three months before each booklet is published,” he says. “Our program supervisors find, interview, and hire all class instructors. Together, they develop class descriptions and select dates, times, and locations for every class.  

“The supervisors then enter the information into RecTrac, the software platform we use for class registrations. Once all of the class details are finalized, one individual on our marketing team – Claire McHugh – is responsible for the coordination, production, and layout of the booklet.  

After McHugh exports all the class information from RecTrac and follows a production timeline that includes three proofs of each booklet, a "last look" copy is sent to everyone on the Recreation staff to review and approve.

Only then is it sent to the printer.

Milwaukee Recreation Guides

While most users take advantage of the Milwaukee Recreation website to register for classes and activities, the printed guide – speaking from experience – is indispensable for browsing to get a sense of the breadth of programming available.

Milwaukee Recreation knows that, says Hoffer, and it’s been a key to the guide's longevity.

“We know that over 80 percent of our customers register online,” he says, “but the guide is still the starting point for many customers. They will often read the booklet and circle their favorite classes before registering online.

“The guides have always been popular, and we would like to continue producing them so the public can learn about the outstanding classes and services provided by Milwaukee Recreation every season.”

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