If you’re among the 417-landers who have spent the past seven or so years wondering what the heck is going on inside the site of the former Wonders of Wildlife (and if it will ever, ever open), we have quite the update for you.
The attraction, whose name has been changed to America’s Wildlife Museum and Aquarium, has been undergoing an expansion and renovation that is leading to a 315,000-square-foot wonderland of all things conservation. The attraction is scheduled to open in spring 2016 (Editor's note: Since the publication of this article, the museum's opening was rescheduled for 2017, and the name is officially Johnny Morris' Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium), but during a press preview 417 Magazine got a glimpse at what is already underway at the museum and aquarium.
The plans were unveiled by Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops, and the project was funded by private dollars that came primarily from the nonprofit Johnny Morris Foundation. And in true Bass Pro fashion, the attractions are nothing short of over-the-top.
An example: One enormous room highlights the way fish habitats can be formed by things like a sunken ship. To make you feel like you’re walking through a shipwreck, the walls and ceiling are covered in barnacles and large artificial fish and sharks “swim” overhead. The lights are low and mostly glow out of the tanks, which makes it feel like you’re undersea. And in the center of it all is a two-story floor-to-ceiling cylindrical tank housing a ship’s mast and gorgeous saltwater fish. At the base of the tank, visitors will get to dip their hands into a shark and stingray touch tank.
So Much Variety
The shipwreck is just one room of many, each with a theme that displays marine life from just about every habitat across the globe: oceans, lakes, streams, rainforests, swamps and more. There is an Amazon River area, plenty of saltwater fish, large river fish, an octopus, jellyfish, sharks, rays, enormous crabs, nocturnal creatures and so much more—35,000 animals in fact, and not all of them water-dwellers.
That means you can be in one room watching eels slither in and out of logs and then find yourself peering down a sinkhole into an underwater cave. A treehouse-like area features a faux-rickety wooden hanging bridge and a room that’s home to owls while a nearby outdoor display holds a black bear. Venomous snakes are right underfoot in clear cases in the floor that you walk over (shudder!). One tank is even filled with tens of thousands of fish that will be constantly swimming in a bait ball formation—which will be a sight to see for sure.
Anglers will enjoy some of the non-living attractions at the aquarium too, as famous fishing boats from across the globe will be on display in addition to all the living critters.
Get Right In There
The coolest part of the aquarium is the focus on immersive displays. There are several of them, big and small, throughout the space. You can poke your head up into small tanks to get eye-to-eye with the fish. Or you can walk through a tunnel and be surrounded on all sides with river monsters. A large, round room features tanks along the entire perimeter and even overhead, and the low light in the space means that the tanks glow all around you.
This place is impressive. And it should be. The same team that consulted on the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago (and many others) lent their expertise to designing America’s Wildlife Museum and Aquarium, which was designed by aquarium architect Michael Olesak.
Big Attractions, Relocating to 417-Land
Pulling inspiration from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the spot will be home to beautifully designed dioramas depicting mammals from across the globe, from North America to Africa and the Arctic. There will even be youth programs for kiddos interested in conservation. And part of the museum will be home to the Boone and Crockett Club’s National Collection of Heads and Horns exhibit, moving here from its current home in Wyoming. Also moving here is the International Game Fish Association’s Fishing Hall of Fame, which currently calls Florida home.
Itching to Go
If all of this sounds pretty incredible—especially for 417-land—that’s because it is. We were impressed by the rooms we saw in the finished or semi-finished parts of the aquarium. The downside? We have to wait about a year before we can see the finished product. America’s Wildlife Museum & Aquarium is scheduled to open next spring (Editor's note: The Wonders of Wildlife is open, and it was well worth the wait!).