Disney magic for the Inner Harbor

March 16, 1995

Ever since the 1980 opening of Harborplace, the Inner Harbor has been a successful hub of tourism and specialty retailing. In contrast, entertainment has generally fared disastrously. The Powerplant, which once housed an urban indoor amusement park, is padlocked. So is the Fishmarket, which failed as a mall of music bars.

Well, if you don't at first succeed, try and try again. That's what Baltimore is now doing with the help of a leading entertainment conglomerate.

Bran Ferren, one of the chief magicians at Walt Disney Imagineering, is hoping to score big in a Baltimore doubleheader. He is designing the gimmickry for the main exhibit hall of the Christopher Columbus Center, which is scheduled to open to the public in the spring of 1996. His company will also devise the entertainment-based exhibits for Port Discovery, the new Baltimore children's museum that is slated to open in 1997.

"This is world class, this is not just another attraction," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke beamed yesterday at a press conference, where Mr. Ferren's latest assignment was announced.

The $25 million Port Discovery project is now moving full-speed ahead, thanks to the recent acquisition of the bankrupt Fishmarket complex by the city. That renovated one-time wholesale fishmongers' hall two blocks north of the Inner Harbor will be the centerpiece of the new children's museum. Some exhibits may also be housed in the nearby Brokerage complex, which will house retail spaces and offices for organizations doing work with children and families.

Describing the planned complex as "a marriage of education and entertainment," Douglas Becker, chairman of the new museum, said he wants "Port Discovery to be the departure point for a voyage of lifetime."

"This is a non-profit learning institution and it's going to be lots of fun," promised Mr. Becker, president of Sylvan Learning Systems Inc., a fast-growing nationwide testing and tutoring organization.

Mr. Ferren said he would assemble a design collective of half a dozen people to work with the Port Discovery project. The approach would not be pedantic, he promised. With the right kinds of hands-on exhibits, "you don't have to teach kids to learn, they will learn all by themselves," he said.

Port Discovery is an exciting concept. If it is done right, it could fill a major gap in the Inner Harbor's present mix of offerings and provide a reason for visitors to stay in Baltimore one extra day.

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