Disney helps city create $27 million fun house for kids Museum for children plans to be among the best in nation

Arriving in a submarine

Interactive exhibits aim to draw tourists by thousands in '98

November 05, 1995|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,SUN STAFF

Picture pint-sized, budding artists dipping electronic brushes into buckets of vivid electronic colors and painting murals on a huge clear wall.

Imagine elementary school students zooming in on their planet, their country, their block, their backyard through images beamed from a satellite in space.

Or performing everything from concertos to Chinese gong solos in the Big Music Room, or creating magazines and comic books about themselves, or frolicking in a subterranean world, or electronically watching their faces age or change races on a computer screen.

It's child's play, Disney-style, and it's coming to Baltimore.

Port Discovery, a high-tech, hands-on, $27 million extravaganza, promises to redefine fun for children and their parents, while providing education masquerading as entertainment.

In interviews last week, the museum's leaders offered the first public glimpses of design plans.

The ideas have been six months in the making, as Walt Disney Co. specialists worked quietly with museum leaders on the first children's museum designed by the creative maestros who gave civilization Disney World, Disneyland and Epcot Center.

While the concepts remain preliminary, the Disney imprint permeates Port Discovery. And its leaders promise nothing less than the premier children's museum in America, where most of an estimated 300 similar museums have opened only within the past decade or so.

"We are being designed by the world's foremost creator of entertainment for children, so we expect the best," says Lawrence Kessner, the museum's executive director. "That Disney name is very powerful, and we think their magic and their creativity will translate into the nation's best children's museum."

It's a hopeful expectation -- shared by City Hall, local boardrooms, hotels and restaurants and attractions east of the Inner Harbor. All are hoping the museum at Market Place will have a powerful commercial spinoff.

Projecting about 1 million visitors a year, Port Discovery has drawn widespread support -- and $8.3 million -- from sources including the city, the state and NationsBank, which contributed $3 million.

Largely because of the high expectations inspired by Disney's involvement, museum leaders expect no difficulty raising the remaining $18.7 million. At least $10 million is expected from a capital campaign, $5 million from corporate sponsorships, and the rest from public coffers.

The stakes run high: Baltimore and Maryland have lost market share in the tourism industry, lag behind the national average in tourist spending and have struggled to keep visitors more than a few days.

Tourism leaders view expanding and diversifying the area's offerings as crucial to staying competitive and boosting the city's $1 billion-a-year tourism trade.

That means branching outward from the Inner Harbor tourist center. But past efforts have sputtered, then failed.

The Power Plant, for which the city is reviewing three developers' proposals, has been dormant for five years.

Only a tiny fraction of the Inner Harbor hordes ever make their way across President Street to the City Life Museums, slated for an $8.4 million expansion by April. The nearby $25 million Fishmarket nightclub complex and the neighboring Brokerage both failed in the late '80s.

Since then, the city has sought a major attraction to revitalize the Market Place area and spread the breadth and reach of the tourism trade. These hopes now center on Port Discovery.

"We could really break down the barriers between the Inner Harbor, with 18 million visitors a year, and the Market Place area," says Douglas Becker, chairman of the Port Discovery directors and president of Sylvan Learning Systems Inc. "We're trying to create a catalyst for the entire Eastside revitalization to open the flow of development around the Inner Harbor."

Enter the Columbia-based Rouse Co., to serve as the project's development manager, and Walt Disney Imagineering, the corporate giant's design arm, to dream up and build exhibits.

But don't look for Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck to greet you at Port Discovery's scheduled opening in early 1998. Disney is designing and building the $12 million in exhibits, but not as a traditional Walt Disney attraction, such as its theme parks, or as a retail outlet for its merchandise.

Rather, Port Discovery, a nonprofit venture, aims to blend the Disney wizardry and entertainment expertise with lessons about life in a setting that enthralls children and their parents.

As envisioned, the adventure would begin even before families enter the 80,000-square-foot, two-story brick complex.

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