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Fish photos provided by Chad Engler (DiveTulsa.com)

Wildlife World Aquarium: Building a world class aquatic experience in the Sonoran Desert. (4/9/2008)

The only public aquarium located between Albuquerque and San Diego is coming to the Valley late this year.

At a time when other companies may be scaling back, Wildlife World Zoo is moving forward with the largest capital expansion in its 24-year history. While the rapid pace of construction along the zoo's eastern edge might amaze zoo visitors, the actual planning for the aquarium began 7 years ago with the purchase of 16 acres on the SW corner of Northern and Sarival Avenues. Even then, zoo officials recognized the need for a new entrance and parking complex due to tremendous growth and the eventual expansion of State Route 303 at Northern.

In addition to a new entrance that will provide 10,000 sq ft of retail space, the actual aquarium will consist of three more exhibit buildings with a total of 33,000 square feet under roof. As many as 400 species of animals will eventually be housed in a unique campus-like setting that features indoor and outdoor exhibits. Each building has a different animal theme: Diversity of Life in Water, Wild and Wonderful, and Aquatic Predators. The entrance and first two aquarium buildings are nearly complete. The final and largest exhibit building, also well underway, will house a restaurant and bar featuring a 30-foot diameter shark tank and stingray feeding pool. The project's design is the product of the aquarium design team from the local architectural firm Deutsch Architecture Group. At completion, the aquarium will exhibit unusual species such as seahorses, stingrays, penguins, Giant Pacific Octopus, sharks, and the largest fresh water fish in the world -- Arapaima! The design features not only fish but aquatic mammals, reptiles, and birds, too. Future aquarium additions already in the planning stages will include sea lions and otters.

At opening, the aquarium will contain approximately 135,000 gallons of water spread over some 60 indoor exhibits. There will also be numerous outdoor exhibits including the zoo's 5th ride attraction, a Log Flume Ride. Like its predecessors, the African Safari Train, Children's Carousel, the Australian Boat, and the idearc media Sky-ride, the flume ride will be integrated into live animal exhibits. At 1500 feet long, riders will be guided around 3 monkey islands and through a 20-foot long acrylic tunnel surrounded by South Pacific Reef fish. Riders are then soaked as they drop from a maximum height of 3 stories. The tunnel is the largest section of acrylic ever installed in Arizona. At a cost of $100,000, it weighs approximately 3 tons.

As a private institution, Wildlife World Zoo relies solely on gate attendance and retail sales to generate its operating and capital budgets. "We are proud to say that in nearly a quarter century of serving Valley residents, zero tax dollars have been spent building and operating Wildlife World Zoo. The same will be true for this new aquarium," comments zoo director and founder, Mickey Ollson.

Oversight of day-to-day construction has been the responsibility of Assistant Zoo Director, Mike Demlong. "Bringing the ocean to the Sonoran Desert is quite a challenge. Currently, we are about 70-80% complete." Although opening day is months away, many of the exhibits already have water in them. "There have been several attempts by others to build a world class aquarium in the Valley -- it is gratifying to play a part in making it finally happen," says Demlong.

Aside from meeting construction deadlines, zoo staff members are engaged in building life support systems in preparation of housing many new aquatic species�some of which are arriving daily. Designing, building and maintaining life support systems for hundreds of aquatic animals rests with Aquarium Project Manager, Jeff Faucett. A veteran aquarist, Faucett has helped launch aquariums at Moody Gardens in Galveston, TX and the Oklahoma State Aquarium, in Tulsa. "The Wildlife World Aquarium will be unlike any other," says Faucett. "We've taken the best features from aquariums across the U.S. and tried to make them better."

Others on staff are involved in promoting the project to Valley businesses looking for a unique marketing opportunity. "The Wildlife World Aquarium presents unique sponsorship and marketing opportunities for Arizona's family oriented businesses looking to connect with hundreds of thousands of visitors of all ages," says Ollson. "Organizations looking for a unique setting for meetings and celebrations will be pleased with what we'll have to offer." The new facilities and resulting courtyards will enable Wildlife World to expand educational program offerings and to provide beautiful venues for special events. The zoo already has over 75,000 students visit each year as part of its special reduced pricing for school groups.

As for the future, Ollson looks to the past. "Over the last decade, many communities have opened aquariums with substantial fanfare and public support only to see these projects succumb in subsequent years to waning attendance and crushing debt. We have a design, budget, and plan in place to avoid repeating that history here." The Wildlife World Aquarium project includes immediate plans for expansion to help avoid a "sophomore slump" by ensuring that significant new animal attractions come online several years in a row." Furthermore, the phase-in schedule provides financial flexibility to adjust construction timetables faster or slower depending upon local and national economic conditions and early phase aquarium revenues. Consequently, each phase will be used to fund future phases without the weight of assuming insurmountable debt, which has doomed aquarium projects in other communities. At the same time, regular aquarium expansions should help to maintain public and media support.

Located along the western edge of the Phoenix metropolitan area in Litchfield Park, the Wildlife World Zoo first opened its doors in 1984. It has received accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) since 1988 and joined the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) in 2004. Today, Wildlife World displays over 2600 animals representing more than 400 species to nearly 400,000 visitors, including some 75,000 students annually. As a private institution, Wildlife World Zoo receives no public tax support, grants, or financial donations.

The Wildlife World Zoo is located at 16501 W. Northern Ave., Litchfield Park, AZ 85340. We are open 365 days a year, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Daytime admission is $16.99 for adults and $8.99 for children 3 to 12, children two and under are free. For more information contact Mickey Ollson, Zoo Director, or Antoinette Cancellaro, at (623) 935-WILD (9453) or visit www.Wildlifeworld.com.


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