Aquarium sets record Premier attraction: The National Aquarium reports record-breaking attendance of 1.63 million for 1995.

January 10, 1996|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,SUN STAFF

Proving once more that its reputation as Baltimore's premier tourist attraction is no fish story, the National Aquarium reported record-breaking attendance of 1.63 million in 1995.

dTC The 14 1/2 -year-old aquarium, the state's top paid tourist attraction, surpassed its record set in 1992 of 1.55 million visitors.

Last year's surge in attendance came primarily as a result of the reopening of the Atlantic Coral Reef and the shark exhibits in April, aquarium leaders said yesterday.

They also pointed to increased marketing, including promotional campaigns by the nonprofit Downtown Partnership; the debut of a new dolphin show last year; and mild weather throughout the year. The aquarium has averaged about 1.4 million visitors a year since its 1981 opening, and it welcomed its 20 millionth visitor in July.

While celebrating success, the aquarium must guard against complacency and continually expand its offerings to maintain good turnout, said Kathy Sher, deputy executive director.

"I think the staying power of the aquarium is what really tells the story and, obviously, this was a great year," she said.

"But this is going to be a hard year to match, and we can't rest on our laurels. I think most attractions find if they don't keep growing and changing and adding new things to the mix, their attendance will decline."

Maintaining attendance is particularly important to the aquarium. takes in about $20.4 million a year, more than covering its $19 million operating budget.

Through the years, some $60 million worth of improvements, including renovation of the coral reef exhibit, have proved critical to the aquarium's success, Ms. Sher said.

This year promises more new attractions. In March, it will be jellyfish, in a whole different light. "Jellies -- Phantoms of the Deep" will rely on special effects lighting to offer close-up views of the creatures as visitors rarely see them.

"They're really quite beautiful animals," Ms. Sher said, "when they're seen within the water floating, as they should be seen."

Also this year the aquarium plans to transform a small gift shop into an attraction in its own right.

Jon Greenberg & Associates (JGA), a Southfield, Mich., firm that lists among its credits design of the Warner Bros. Studio Stores, has been tapped by the aquarium to turn the gift shop into a combination of retail and entertainment.

Though on a smaller scale, the aquarium hopes to do for its shop what Warner Bros., Disney and Nike did for retailing with high-impact showcase stores. "We've challenged JGA to make the store fun, to make visits to the store as exciting and as much a part of the aquarium experience as the animal exhibits," Ms. Sher said.

At the same time, the aquarium's director, David M. Pittenger, and its governing board are devising a 10-year master plan. Among the ideas: side-by-side exhibits showing the Chesapeake Bay as it once was and the toll of pollution and overfishing; a series of two-year changing exhibits; an IMAX theater; a children's center; and a partnership with other aquariums involving exchange of exhibits, specimens and expertise.

The aquarium has a payroll of 300 and attracts tourists from every state and from dozens of foreign countries.

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