It’s big, it’s bold, it’s far better than before.
The newly reopened former New Jersey State Aquarium in Camden has been renamed Adventure Aquarium, and has revamped itself into a far more colorful place – literally and figuratively – to live up to that name. The original concept of the aquarium – indigenous New Jersey fish only – has now expanded well beyond the state’s largely gray and brown specimens to include fish of every hue.
The $40 million remake even includes two already-popular newcomer hippos, both female, named Genny and Button, and the chance to swim with sharks. The for-profit destination is now the Camden waterfront’s great hope for significantly increased tourism.
At a recent opening event, John Matheussen, CEO of the Delaware River Port Authority, expressed that hope in no uncertain terms: "We want this place to be a world-class destination, one that will help make this region a great place to work, live and play."
The aquarium, impressive unto itself at nearly 200,000 square feet, is just the foundation of a larger commercial vision. Ohio-based Steiner & Associates, operator of the destination, plans a complex complete with restaurants, shops, and homes near the Adventure Aquarium.
"Camden is back on the map, and will become a destination point for America," said an optimistic David Wechsler, executive vice president of Steiner Entertainment at the recent opening event. "This place shows that dreams do come true."
Greg Charbeneau, the new executive director of the Adventure Aquarium, believes the attraction will offer plenty of "memorable moments" for visitors. "Accidental learning" is another of the executive director’s goals. "We hope and expect that much will be absorbed (by visitors) without benefit of lectures and traditional learning. Here, it will be entertainment leading the way to knowledge," he says.
There’s no doubt that this renovated waterworld is not your grandmother’s old aquarium. One new attraction is a huge case chock full of jellyfish, which are actually quite beautiful in their gelatinous configurations, as illuminated by blue lights.
Another show-stopper case contains the unpleasant-looking Japanese sea nettles whose stinging "arms" extend 10 feet. Nearby, the Japanese crabs are not the sort you’d like to meet on the beach.
Try this piece of trivia at your next cocktail party, gleaned from the huge octopus tank: An octopus of considerable size can squeeze through an opening no larger than one of its eyes.
There are penguins, grey seals, and clownfish but there is no doubt about who the superstars of the Adventure Aquarium are. Hippos Button and Genny pack a hefty 3,000 and 2,900 pounds respectively.
A visit with these aquatic divas is enlivened by their antics. Who knew that hippos could be fun? Button and Genny put on quite a show, doing handstands, turning over and over, seeming to stare at visitors as if WE were the attraction.
These first ladies of the water are the first hippos ever to reside in an aquarium, transported here from their former home in Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Most visitors make a beeline to see the hippos, who live in the West African River Experience, so be prepared for crowds. Wee ones may whine, "But I can’t see!"
Other Adventure Aquarium highlights include:
– The 40-foot shark tunnel that lets visitors be surrounded almost 360 degrees with to get up close and personal with the sharks
– The West African Experience, an environmental immersion complete with free-flying birds, African porcupines, thousands of fish species and yes, those hippos again
– 20 species of coral reef fish in all their Technicolor glory, acquired from the Florida Keys, among them 200 snappers, 200 bar jacks, 400 pilchards, porkfish, squirrelfish, trumpetfish, and angelfish, along with garden eels and spiny lobsters
Other must-sees include the aquarium’s entry exhibition, Irazu Falls, a 20-foot waterfall that flows into a pool filled with ducks and fish from South America; the Caribbean area’s reef environment that includes a faux but convincing shipwreck; and the Jules Verne Gallery for a remarkable undersea experience.
As equally charming as the hippos are the African penguins, who cavort outdoors in their own habitat. Kids in particular seem to enjoy this experience as much as any other at the aquarium.
The bold and brave may want to sign up for the unique opportunity to swim with the sharks. Yes, right with them. But be prepared to fork over $115 for the privilege of snorkeling the perimeter of the shark tank and entering the stingray lagoon. You’ll learn that you are actually quite safe.
Two minor cautions: it takes a while to grow accustomed to the dim lighting of the labyrinthine Adventure Aquarium hallways. The low lighting is dramatic but occasionally daunting. And don’t expect to cover the Adventure Aquarium fully in one visit of a couple of hours. Its collection of 6,000 creatures, great and small, is wonderful but somewhat daunting. This is a place to come back to again and again.
Adventure Aquarium, 1 Aquarium Drive, on the Camden waterfront. Open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets are timed. $16.95 for adults, $13.95 for seniors, children 2 to 12. Tickets can be purchased at 866-451-2782 or visit www.adventureaquarium.com.