New Jersey Aquarium adds displays to lure visitors Camden: Pioneer aquarium seeks to emulate Baltimore by providing more for visitors to experience.

March 26, 1997|By knight-ridder news service

CAMDEN, N.J. - When it opened five years ago, the New Jersey State Aquarium was a "pioneer" on the Camden waterfront - a successful one at first. Nearly 600,000 visitors passed through its doors in the first four months of operation. During the next 12 months, 832,000 attended.

Then, attendance sank.

The new aquarium's exhibits weren't as colorful as those at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, and the waterfront was missing attractions to lure visitors outside of the region. Only 447,000 came to the Camden facility in fiscal 1995.

"The bad thing about pioneers is that they often end up with arrows in the back," said Michael I. Crowther, president and chief executive officer of the aquarium. "We were in the middle of nowhere - with nothing on the waterfront but a jail."

Now the aquarium seems on the way to addressing its problems - if not solving them.

Attendance on the rise

Attendance rebounded to 510,000 visitors last year, as more people came to see colorful new exhibits, such as the $3.75 million "Ocean Base Atlantic," and others combined aquarium visits with shows at the new Waterfront Entertainment Centre nearby.

Now, the Camden attraction is going after visitors beyond the Philadelphia-Camden region with dramatic new exhibits and other attractions to make a day-trip more worthwhile.

A fierce-looking tiger shark will be introduced to the 760,000-gallon Open Ocean tank this year, making the aquarium the only one in the nation to display the huge predator. Large bluefin and yellowfin tuna also will be added to the tank. And Peruvian Humboldt penguins will be brought in for an outdoor exhibit.

The penguin habitat will be next to another coming feature: the permanent $5 million, 3-acre Camden Children's Garden that will be completed next year and filled with exhibits drawn from children's literature, folk tales, and local history and geography.

The garden, though still in the planning stages, will probably include an enclosed carousel; a water garden; Mr. McGregor's garden, from the story of "Peter Rabbit"; a miniature train ride known as the Garden State Express; and an "Eagle's Nest Lookout" tree house with a climbing rope.

The Children's Garden education programs will emphasize horticulture and the land.

Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to visit the garden and the aquarium, which will be connected to Penn's Landing by the newly renovated RiverLink Ferry, offering 20-minute cruises along the waterfront.

The ferry will make crossings seven days a week, beginning Monday.

Service will continue through Nov. 30, and on weekends in December and over the holiday week, Christmas to New Year's Eve. It offers many upgrades over the old Riverbus service, including a new sound and video system that will inform passengers about waterfront events.

Crowther said the ferry, the aquarium, the children's garden, and the entertainment center will give visitors more reasons to come to the Camden waterfront.

"The average aquarium visit is two hours," said Crowther. "If you're going to attract people for a two-hour visit, you need to attract them from your primary geographic market, or you have to attract them from outer markets by having something in addition to yourself."

Without changes, "we could not get people to travel three hours to the New Jersey State Aquarium for a two-hour aquarium experience and then expect them to drive three hours back home and be satisfied."

Crowther said Baltimore's aquarium and the surrounding Inner Harbor offer "a two- or three-day experience." An average of 1.5 million people visit the Baltimore aquarium each year. A record 1.6 million visited last year.

"We had to bear the brunt of the burden of attracting visitors to the area where we are, entertaining them, and sending them home satisfied," said Crowther.

"More than anything else we needed neighbors. We could have been a very successful aquarium with our initial design if we were in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. But being where we are, we need to work a little bit harder, be more creative, offer more than what people expect," he said.

Crowther said people who purchase tickets to the aquarium will receive automatic admission to the children's garden. And those who buy tickets for the garden can view the aquarium's outdoor exhibits.

"The children's garden is exciting and vibrant enough to succeed as a stand-alone attraction," he said. "Coupled with the aquarium, it's a home run for the waterfront."

Poison dart frogs

In addition to the other changes, the aquarium will open a poison dart frog exhibit by the Memorial Day weekend. The exhibit will contain five species of the brilliantly colored frogs.

The Camden facility is at present exhibiting goby fish and Banggai cardinalfish.

It is the first aquarium in the nation to breed four different species of gobies and the only one to raise the Banggai cardinalfish in captivity.

"We're only 5 years old," said Crowther, as he rattled off a list of venerable Philadelphia attractions. "We came out of nowhere, we were put in difficult circumstances, and we are succeeding."

Pub Date: 3/26/97

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