YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

CALENDAR WEEKEND / Special Pullout Section | Cover

Riding a New Wave

Long Beach has high expectations for its stunning, $117-million aquarium, set to open Saturday.


Remember when Disney owned the Queen Mary and proposed a $3-billion DisneySea park in Long Beach in the early 1990s? Then, as fast as you can say, "Mary Poppins," Disney closed shop in Long Beach, turned the keys to the Queen Mary over to the city and was gone.

Well, so long, Disney. Hello, Shelby.

With personality to spare, Shelby, a female harbor seal, is just one of the aquatic crowd pleasers that folks in Long Beach hope will draw people in droves to their world-class, $117-million aquarium at Shoreline Drive and Aquarium Way.

With Saturday's public opening of Aquarium of the Pacific, Long Beach hopes to bury once and for all the painful memories of Walt Disney Co.'s decision to drop a proposed waterfront amusement park, a decision that came in the wake of other bad economic news, including the closure of the naval base and shipyard and downsizing at McDonnell Douglas.

Boasting educational and entertainment values in equal measure, the aquarium is the latest in what has become one of America's hottest trends among cities: using exotic displays and graceful fish to help drive the economic revival of downtowns and waterfront districts.

Baltimore, with its National Aquarium, got the trend going in 1981. A few years later, the Monterey Bay Aquarium opened.

Now it's Long Beach's turn.

With waterfront land to spare and a desire to do something spectacular to erase memories of the Disney pullout, Long Beach built what it boasts will become one of the nation's leading aquariums.

Overall, the tone of the aquarium is educational. But it hopes to offer enough entertainment value to justify its admission prices: $13.95 for adults, $11.95 for seniors and $6.95 for children age 3 to 11. Children under 3 are allowed in free. Parking is $6 extra. The ticket prices are in line with those charged by other major aquariums.

There won't be any trained whales at the aquarium, but there will be more than 10,000 fish on display in the 17 major habitat tanks and 30 smaller exhibits.

Viewers can look in on wildly different forms of sea life, all swimming in and out of jagged rocks, graceful strands of kelp and coral.

Among the 550 species on display will be leopard sharks, giant Japanese spider crabs, yellowtail fish, eels, bat rays and wrasses, fish that can actually change from female to male, depending on need. Among the more interesting to look at are the cucumber fish, elegant sea dragons that resemble floating seaweed, moon jellies and sea urchins, those little spiny balls that resemble tribbles of "Star Trek" fame.

Nearly everything in the tanks but the fish will be man-made. But you'll be hard pressed to notice, because the re-creations are wonderfully realized by the Larson Co. The international design firm has worked its magic on the National, the Monterey and Chicago's Shedd Aquarium and re-created wildly realistic rain forests, shipwrecks and rock gardens for clients such as the Bronx Zoo, Disney World and the Royal Rotterdam Zoological Gardens in the Netherlands. The mussels you see clinging to rocks in aquarium exhibits were each individually painted and cemented.

The aquarium's exhibition area is large enough to cover three football fields. In addition to the exhibits, the aquarium proper will include a restaurant that overlooks Rainbow Harbor, a gift shop and a 186-seat theater.

One special feature for children will be Kids' Cove, an outdoor play area with things to climb on, such as a reproduced whale skeleton. Close by is a touch tank, a shallow pool that children will be able to reach into to pet stingrays (sans stingers).

Outside the aquarium, a pedestrian esplanade curves around Rainbow Harbor, a dredged-out lagoon that is being transformed into a working harbor providing an anchorage to two tall ships, including the Californian. A developer, OliverMcMillan, has been chosen to put in a large restaurant, an Imax theater and a retail shopping plaza across the street from the aquarium. But groundbreaking on the project won't begin until 1999, at the earliest.

Also in the works is a water taxi service that will offer $1 boat rides to Shoreline Village, a touristy collection of restaurants and small souvenir shops that anchors the other end of Rainbow Harbor, and the Queen Mary, docked at its permanent home across San Pedro Bay.

From the beginning, aquarium planners have acknowledged they would not have the budget or the expertise to compete with San Diego's SeaWorld or local attractions such as Disneyland or Knott's Berry Farm. At the same time, they knew they couldn't bore people, not when an outing could cost a family of four more than $50.

So the aquarium was designed with enough eye-popping appeal to entertain even jaded Hollywood types.

Los Angeles Times Articles