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Aquarium gets techy with sea life

Florida Aquarium's new exhibit dials up phones and videos.

By MARK ALBRIGHT, Times Staff Writer
Published November 2, 2007


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TAMPA -- The next new exhibit at the Florida Aquarium won't be a tank of fish with a sign explaining the marine life doing the back-stroke inside.

Instead, what's being called the Ocean of Commotion will teem with hundreds of vivid colored creatures from the Indian and Pacific oceans, plasma screen projections and a variety of state-of-the-art digital visual effects. Kids will be encouraged to bring their cell phones to dial up biologists with answers, download informational podcasts and even send in their YouTube-style videos for sharing.

"That's how kids learn today, so we have to be there," said Thom Stork, CEO of the 12-year-old attraction, who describes the exhibit's look as "sort of like a discotheque."

The aquarium hopes to raise $1.3-million to outfit the flashy replacement for the Sea Hunt exhibit by fall 2008. It's a bold wager that a staff-designed version of high-tech learning and new-age engagement won't be branded lame by today's multitasking youth.

But the development is just as much a seminal event in the 12-year-old facility's evolution. It's the first time the aquarium board considers itself on firm enough financial footing to develop a $6-million capital program of future enhancements over the next five years. Most of the work will be financed by donations, internally generated revenue and some undetermined doses of government money.

The plan comes after years in which the aquarium ran so much red ink that hundreds of thousands of dollars in routine maintenance had to be put off.

Taken over by the city years ago to avoid a default on the $90-million construction debt, the aquarium is operated by a nonprofit company. Since Stork, a former Busch Gardens and Sea World executive, took over in 2002, city subsidies to keep the place open have been whittled from $1-million a year to $650,000 in 2007.

In the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, the aquarium generated $13.4-million in revenue partly thanks to revenue improvements from new restaurant, photographic and gift shop concessionaires. Attendance rose 11 percent to 675,000, 55 percent of it out-of-state tourists and 85,000 school groups. There was enough money left to return some unspent to the city government last year and tackle $350,000 worth of deferred maintenance.

Conceived as the keystone magnet for the commercial development of Channelside, the aquarium soon will have new history and art museums competing for patrons' attention. So just sticking with what's there won't work.

"We have to stay fresh all the time,"Stork said.

While previous administrations treated the aquarium's role as an educational facility with an environmentally correct mission, Stork has brought a showman's theme park mentality to the job.

His offer to let paying customers dive with the sharks is a daily profit center. A kids splash area made the place an popular escape for stay-at-home moms and helped double the average length of stay to four hours.

Six cute penguins were acquired to take on promotional tours and walk at eye level among young patrons like the ducks at the Peabody Hotel in Orlando. Sometimes they peck at kids' feet. Sometimes they jump in laps.

"We educate, but first you have to engage kids," he said. "We base our decisionmaking on return on investment."

Indeed, the aquarium's dolphin encounter motor yacht rides are popular enough to sell out three or more times a day. So the aquarium is seeking bids and donations to buy a $1-million catamaran with a capacity of 150.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

[Last modified November 1, 2007, 23:19:25]


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