September 4, 2006
After spending the morning high in the air climbing the Purple People Bridge, Mom and I decided to dive down under the sea and take in the Newport Aquarium. The Newport Aquarium is located at the Newport on the Levee complex, however the Aquarium actually predates the Levee. The Aquarium opened up in either 1998 or 1999 as the sole tenant on what would later become Newport on the Levee. As such it faced unique challenged during construction, like the the obviously temporary stairs from the temporary parking lot. The aquarium would present the Cincinnati Zoo with its first local major competitor in the animal exhibit industry since 1992. (Kings Island had a Wild Animal Habitat from 1975 to 1992). The zoo had already long since begun the transformation from utilitarian exhibits to full themed environments, so by coincidence, when the Newport Aquarium was announced, the zoo just happened to announce a renovation to its own aquarium. Unfortunately for the zoo, a construction accident would delay the zoo's aquarium, giving the new Newport Aquarium the spotlight all by itself. At first, I was worried how the Aquarium would fare, I mean teh Zoo offered a complete animal exhibit experience for about $13, and the Aquarium was charging about $16 for just its own specialty area. I need not have been concerned as the Aquarium has been a great hit ever since it opened.
So, on this day, Mom and I walked from the Purple People Bridge to the courtyard in front of the Aquarium. It was already almost 2:30 and the Aquarium was posting a 6:00 close. I was glad to see the queue maze in the courtyard was empty, so I was able to walk right up to the ticket window. I see that tickets are now $18 with a slight discount for seniors and children. My employer participates in the FINS program,which means all I need do is show my employee ID and I get a preferred rate. How neat, the tickets even have my company name printed on them. We bought some tickets, then headed into the building. We entered through a large spacious lobby, but never mind that. We breeze right past the ice caps off to the right which conceal the elevator. Ice caps, is that a reference to icebergs, and that there is a whole lot more to see down below? Well, let's find out, we head to the admission lane, tickets are scanned and torn, and we go through the turnstile. Immediately beyond the turnstile is an escalator that takes you down from the entrance level to the exhibit level, all the while speakers above the escalator make submerging noises as if you were a diver diving under the sea. Its an impressive entrance effect.
At the bottom of the escalator the Amazing Pictures people attempt to pull you aside for a quick photo, they use a sharks mouth prop to stage the photo. This area also has the main restrooms, which you would be wise to stop at as it will be quite some time before you see another set. The first exhibit has changed from being jellyfish to an effect that is something of a water tunnel where you go walk between to large windows with water swirling around you. The first gallery is a round room titled "World Rivers", in the center of the room is a round tank with more traditional displays along the sides. In one spot there is a video monitor that shows clips from each of the feature rivers, while the river lights up on a world map. A barrier has been erected to make sure people walk around the border of the room. The entire aquarium is designed around one continuous path, just follow the path and you will see everything. This area shows fish that are representative of several world rivers. At the end of the section, they use one of their favorite transitional pieces which is a water tunnel. In these areas the glass surface extends up both sides and goes completely over your head to immerse you in the exhibit. Exiting the tunnel the carpet turn to a rock pathway. You are now in the "Shore Gallery". You know I thought they had banned strollers in the aquarium, and parents must temporarily exchange their strollers for kid carrier backpacks. I know they had introduced hours where that restriction is relaxed, and I guess this was one of those times. The main feature of the Shore Galley is an animal touch pool, where you can touch various sea creatures under the watchful eye of a keeper. The area also contains a Tide Pool which is a neat thing to see because it goes from low to high tide within a matter of minutes. Coming out of the Shore Gallery you come to the Theater.
The theater was originally intended to show a 3D pirate movie, an entertainment attraction if you will, to help balance the educational tone of the facility. That pirate movie lasted a matter of weeks if not days. However, the movies legacy remains. To this date the theatre looks like the deck of a pirate ship. Wooden floor, wooden benches, the sides of the room look like the sides of a pirate ship complete with rigging. On the left wall is a sky blue mural, and on the right side is a city scene with facades of the towns buildings, and the pirate still stands on a balcony. If you look up at the projectionists booth, it looks like a higher deck of the ship, complete with ship's wheel. The clever one was how they handled the sails which would have totally blocked the movie. So the mast extended up from the floor, and comes up to a level about even with the bottom of the screen, and then another mast hangs from the ceiling with a bit of sail attached to it, and that hangs down to about even with the top of the screen. Clever idea. These days the movie shown is a documentary,and the movie alternated with live animal viewing. The movie screen raises out of the way to reveal a window into the shark tank. This is billed as a preview of the shark tank you will visit much later in the day. If you are lucky you might get to see the Dive Show instead with divers in the shark tank.
The theater also is a crowd flow disrupter because now instead of a continuous chain of people, you are asking them to wait in a queue until the next showing, with showings every 15 minutes or so, show them the movie and the live narrated animal exhibit, then release the audience as a group to continue along in a big clump. It takes a bit to spread everybody out again. You next head through another transitional water tunnel to enter the "Bizzare & Beautiful" section. Here you can see the octopus, that is you can see the octopus if no one has rudely taken a flash picture of it. The octopus hates bright lights, and will hide in his cave if someone takes a flash picture. Yes, they have signs to that effect, yes they tend to get ignored. An even more unusual exhibit is the "Flashlight Fish", this area is in its own room where there are no lights on. At first you just see a cave in the water,but if you look closely you see little flashes of light all over the place. This area ends with a big floor to ceiling,wall to wall exhibit with all kinds of beautiful fish. also in that area is a center tank which has amongst other things, clown fish. I've found Nemo!.
The exhibit ends not with a water tunnel but with a mural of a group of fisherman who have caught a real long snake like animal as well as some wall murals, some of which are lit with UV light. This is the "Dangerous and Deadly" exhibit. You know stuff like electric eels, snakes, and other animals who share a common bond of being deadly. The second half of this gallery has been converted to house their relatively recent turtle exhibit. All kinds of turtles from the big giant tortoise, whom we were evidently lucky to see take one step, to a lot of different kinds of more traditional sized turtles. We rounded the corner and came to the Ohio Riverbank. One wall still had the turtle exhibit, but the other side seeks to simulate a section of the Ohio River and the aquatic life that is common in that environment. From there you go directly into Gator Bayou where alligators are the feature exhibit. The path in this section is made to look like a wooden bridge over the Gator Bayou, complete with plexiglass panels so that you can see the animals swim under you. This area also provided a unique entertainment, that of watching people reach the glass portion of the bridge and come to a stop, afraid to move on, especially little kids. I had recently stood on a glass bridge 140'in the air, so this was nothing.
At the end of Gator Bayou, you can see the pathway continue on to the left towards the Amazon, but a temporary looking barrier has been erected forcing you to turn right. You turn right and come out of the original aquarium building, While the original aquarium is done mostly in subdues blue tones with subdued lighting, this expansion area is in earth tones, with lots of lights admitted through use skylights up above. The are starts with a rest stop where one could use the restrooms, and a children's play area. You then go through a doorway into the Rainforest. The feature exhibit of the Rainforest is the otter. The otter has a large open natural environment area complete with cleverly designed bleachers that allow you to sit and rest while enjoying the otters. At this point the Aquarium has a bit of an identity crisis. Along the walls are clever interactive exhibits where if you put our hand on the clawprint of an animal, it makes that animals sound, but these are for mammals. You then pass a unique snack bar, it offers both snacks for humans and for birds. The bird snacks come in the form of a shot of nectar out of a pump for $1. You can then take your nectar through the chain curtain barrier into the Aviary. Pardon me, a bird aviary in the aquarium??!!?? The keepers will assist if you would like to feed the birds nectar or attempt to get one to land on your finger. If you do get one on your finger, an Amazing Pictures photographer is on the spot to get a photo of it which they will attempt to sell you later in your visit. You leave the aviary through another chain curtain and then through another door. You come into a plain looking hall, and I noticed a stairway going upstairs is blocked off, with a sign "Future Exhibit Space", You then go down a short blue hallway as you transition back to the original building then a jaunt to the right takes you to the Amazon.
The next two areas are fully immersive underwater environments complete with the wrap over water tunnels. The first one is a flooded Amazon forest environment, then you go through a little cave, and come out looking at their Coral Reef environment. After the Coral Reef, you come to a room that would not look out of place in an art museum. The center of the room is dominated by a round sofa which is directly under a unique chandelier, the chandelir meant to look like a jellyfish, and all the display cases in this area are framed with fancy picture frames. Welcome to Jellyfish Gallery. This, as they say is the calm before the storm. You see that you leave Jellyfish Galley, there is nothing for you but the shark tank in Surrounded By Sharks. Here you have a long curvy water tunnel so that the sharks can pass right over your head. As if that wasn't enough the second half of the area, the floor of the tunnel is also glass, which means you really have a full immersive experience as you walk through a plexiglass tube through the shark tank. The area is made to look a lot bigger than it really is thanks in part to a giant mirror at the end of the tube. The mirror has an inscription. "The most dangerous predator". From here you can head to a little dead end that has bubble hole shaped windows which allow another unique glance into the shark tank, or you can head to Sharky's cafe. It used to be Lighthouse Cafe, but really all that has changed is the nautical code of signals flags have been removed. The area offers a concession stand, restrooms, and the pick up booth for those Amazing Pictures people. What I find funny about it is people come to the food area and think its a halfway point, when in reality you are almost to the end. Doesn't stop them from selling overpriced food and drink.
We walked through the cafe and reentered the animal exhibit area. This is their newest attraction Shark Central. Gone is the big aquarium in the center of the room where you could crawl under it and stick your head up inside the middle of the tank using a domed window. Not the feature exhibit is the shark touch pool. Baby sharks to be sure, but still you get to pet a shark. There are plenty of keepers here to assist in teaching you the proper two finger technique. Yes, I did pet a few types of sharks while I was in Shark Central. I was a bit surprised at how deep into the tank you had to stick your arm to touch the sharks. I also noted they don't seem to have any Purell dispensers mounted after this exhibit area. You then pass the exit elevator, but don't take the elevator, or you will miss one of my favorite rooms.
Welcome to Kingdom of the Penguins, have a seat on the bleachers facing a big floor to ceiling window into the sub arctic world of the Penguin. There is even a snow capped mountain. Hee is where I like to just sit for awhile and relax watching the unique any funny behavior of the penguins. After the penguins you pass through another turnstile, then ride an escalator up to the exit level. There is one more exhibit where you get to walk through a 'behind the scenes' area along the top of the shark tank. Don't worry there is a net from the top of the safety rail to the ceiling to prevent falling in. Its one more unique look at the sharks before you head out the exit doors.
The exit doors, of course lead to a big gift shop. Lots of aquatic animal plush here to by, as well as a full line of souvenirs. Just try making it through this maze of a gift shop without a purchase, and trust me they have it laid out so you have to pass by just about every item in the store. At the other end of the gift shop, another doorway leads back out to the courtyard.
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