On a holiday weekend, the line at the National Aquarium in Baltimore grows long before most Marylanders get out of bed.
For much of last summer, the line was frustratingly slow as well. It wasthe first year after the original building on Pier 3 was joined by the Marine Mammal Pavilion on Pier 4, and the swirl of visitors between the two resulted in crowd control problems no one had anticipated.
But this year, aquarium officials believe they have overcome most of the congestion with the help of a computerized ticket center that issues timed-entry tickets so visitors know exactly when and where they'll be able to get in.
Part of the process is a "double-entry" system in which two-thirds of all visitors enter the aquarium through the 11-year-old building on Pier 3 and one-third enter through the Marine Mammal Pavilion on Pier 4.
The aquarium is also completing $1 million worth of physical improvements, including a series of new exhibits inside the Marine Mammal Pavilion that will give people more to see before and after the dolphin demonstrations that take place five to seven times a day.
"It's working a whole lot better than last summer," said Paula Schaedlich, the aquarium's senior director of education and interpretation.
"Our attendance is up. Our revenues are up, and we've reduced our lines. We're finding we can get more visitors through and give them a better experience at the same time. We can tell it's working because complaints are down, and the rain forest isn't so backed up."
Ms. Schaedlich said the chief source of last year's congestion was that the original aquarium building leads visitors through a one-way sequence, and the 1,350-seat Marine Mammal Pavilion disrupted that steady flow by sending out periodic "surges" of people after every dolphin demonstration.
On peak attendance days, when people from the Marine Mammal Pavilion tried to walk back into the Pier 3 building across the bridge joiningPiers 3 and 4, "we had a nightmare," she said.
Under the new dual-entry system, the computer determines which visitors will tour the Pier 3 building first and which will see the dolphins first.
The aquarium staff worked with a consultant from Walt Disney Enterprises to develop the state-of-the-art ticket center and computer system, which cost nearly $1 million. It's "the most sophisticated ticket system of any museum in the country," Ms. Schaedlich said. "We don't know of anybody who goes to the lengths we do."
One big improvement is the way it accommodates members who are allowed to visit at any time, she said.
Under the old system, the aquarium set aside a certain number of tickets for members, predicting when they might visit, she explained. If that number did not arrive, the tickets weren't sold, and the aquarium lost revenue. Under the new system, any tickets not used by members can be sold at the last minute to the people waiting in line.
"From the point of view of efficiency of selling tickets, we're up 500 to 1,000 people a day from last year," Ms. Schaedlich said. "We feel it's because we were able to release tickets we have previously reserved for members that didn't use them."
The new exhibits on Pier 4, meanwhile, were designed by Cambridge Seven Associates to encourage people to linger there after a dolphin demonstration, so they don't all crowd into Pier 3 at once.
The first exhibit to be completed, "Portraits in Conservation," opened last month. It supplements the existing underwater viewing window of the dolphin tank with graphic panels about marine mammals from around the world -- including Hawaiian monk seals, California sea otters and West Indian manatees -- and the ways they are endangered. Other displays focusing on marine mammals will be completed this summer and next in the undercroft beneath the 1,350-seat stadium.
The aquarium is the most popular attraction in Baltimore that charges admission, drawing more than 1.5 million visitors a year. Officials have announced plans to close and repair two of the chief exhibits on Pier 3 -- the Atlantic Coral Reef exhibit and the Open Ocean shark tank -- in the fall of 1993. The rest of the aquarium will remain open for the duration of the repairs, which are expected to take 12 months to complete.
When the repair project gets under way on Pier 3, visitors will find more to see on Pier 4, Ms. Schaedlich said.
The new exhibit will also round out the message of the Marine Mammal Pavilion, said architect Peter Kuttner.
"The National Aquarium in Baltimore has been focused on dolphins and beluga whales," he said. "We want to say that there are all kinds of marine mammals and there are many ways they are threatened by the environment. We're purposefully trying to show marine mammals from around the world so people realize it's a global issue."
Ms. Schaedlich said ticket sales were down slightly in the first four months of 1992 compared with the same period of 1991, after the Marine Mammal Pavilion had just opened and was attracting large crowds.