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Florida Aquarium opens with a splash No-gimmick museum said to rival Baltimore facility


Tampa -- In the land of Weeki Wachi mermaids and Shamu the Killer Whale, the newest attraction is a shell-shaped symbol of aquatic substance.

After 10 years of planning and construction, the $84 million Florida Aquarium opened yesterday with a pledge "to inspire a profound commitment to living in harmony with the environment."

Its creators say they believe their building has dethroned the National Aquarium in Baltimore and other aquatic museums to become the finest facility of its kind in the nation.

They add that they are particularly proud they were able to build it without resorting to gimmicks or show-biz theatrics characteristic of many of the theme park attractions nearby.

"This aquarium is first and foremost an education place," president and chief executive officer John Racanelli said during the opening ceremonies.

"This is a center for learning, for being stewards of our environment, for developing a greater level of care and respect for what's important about Florida's fragile habitats.

"Yes, it will be a place where people can be entertained and moved, but also one we hope where they will come away with a greater appreciation of what's wonderful about this state."

Chuck Davis, one of the lead architects for the project, said he tried to integrate exhibits and architecture without creating a stereotypical tourist trap.

"I'm totally disinterested in the sort of pastel baloney of Florida," he said. "The whole state is covered in shades of pink."

"Our culture is tired of the Disney mold," he continued. "Regardless [of] how well it's done, in my opinion, it's largely trivial. What I think people are looking for is a combination of entertainment and information of real substance. It's not just riding on roller coasters."

More than 350 schoolchildren, acting as schools of fish, took part in the opening ceremony, broadcast live on NBC's "Today" show. As a sign of the aquarium's strong emphasis on education, the children were also the aquarium's first visitors.

In all, the building received about 10,000 visitors its first day and was expected to have more than 25,000 during the three-day opening weekend.

Planners predict it will draw 1.85 million visitors during its first year, one of the highest attendance figures for any aquarium in the country and 300,000 more than Baltimore's gets.

The Florida Aquarium is part of a wave of aquatic museums coming in the next five years. New aquariums will be opening from Charleston, S.C., to Long Beach, Calif., and others are being expanded in Monterey, Calif., New Orleans, and Boston. Just this week, the New Jersey Aquarium announced a major overhaul of its 2-year-old building, which has had trouble attracting visitors.

But the proliferation is not expected to have an adverse impact on Baltimore's 14-year-old aquarium -- as long as it continues to offer a high-quality experience to visitors.

Local officials point to the construction of the marine mammal pavilion and the upgrading of the coral reef and shark tanks as examples of efforts to remain competitive with the newer attractions.

The Tampa aquarium, which charges $13.95 for adults and $6.95 for children, is one of the largest and most ambitious of the latest crop of aquatic attractions.

A sprawling three-level complex overlooking the Port of Tampa, between Ybor City and the downtown business district, Tampa's aquarium is painted in vibrant colors taken from the sea and sea life: including coral, aquamarine and salmon.

Its most prominent feature is a giant glass dome whose shape suggests a seashell.

Inside there are 4,300 animals and plants, all native to Florida. Four distinct exhibit galleries focus on the state's diverse habitats by tracing the route of a drop of water from aquifer to ocean. The galleries depict Florida wetlands; bays and beaches; coral reefs and the ocean waters off-shore.

The building is different from Baltimore's in that it was not designed to feature any one show-stopper species such as dolphins or beluga whales. Exhibit designer Joseph Wetzel said he wanted to put the emphasis on habitats more than individual species, because "habitats can be saved; individual species can't."

Also, in keeping with the facility's serious educational mission, aquarists have made every effort not to exploit living creatures.

For example, there are no displays that give visitors a chance to touch living creatures because staffers were concerned that such exhibits tend to put creatures under too much stress, according to learning lab manager Dena Leavengood.

The aquarium uses many different kinds of technology to convey its message, including hand-held "audio wands" that give visitors a detailed descriptions of each exhibit.

The Florida aquarium is similar to Baltimore's in the sense that both are seen as catalysts for economic development. It is the first phase of a $300 million waterfront revitalization campaign that will include an entertainment complex, shops and a new cruise ship terminal that opens tomorrow.

Mr. Racanelli said he believes the lifelike habitats planned by Wetzel Associates represent "the best work that's been done in exhibit design" in the aquarium field.

Although more work is still being done, he said, the design team of Hellmuth Obata Kassabaum and Esherick Homsey Dodge and xTC Davis has created a facility that "will arguably be the best aquarium that's been built to date in this nation."

Nicholas Brown, who retired recently as director of Baltimore's aquarium, attended yesterday's opening. When asked if Baltimore's aquarium has indeed been dethroned. Mr. Brown was diplomatically noncommittal.

"This is a different approach," he said. "It's like comparing a blonde to a brunette. You can't say one is better."

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