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Under the sea: The new St. Louis aquarium is making a splash

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If you thought the literal and proverbial train left St. Louis Union Station decades ago, your mind may be changed by several thousand fish, a few otters and a single giant Pacific octopus.

St. Louis Aquarium opened Christmas Day, and tickets for its big debut sold out. The attraction is the last major element in the most recent $187 million transformation of the historic former train station in downtown St. Louis.

Thousands of visitors have streamed to the venue in recent months to take a ride in its new 200-foot-tall observation wheel, sip a beer next to a carousel and miniature golf course, and balance on an indoor ropes course.

Steve O’Loughlin, president of Lodging Hospitality Management, which paid $20 million for the station in 2012, says the new attractions already are attracting twice the number of visitors he expected — up to 10,000 people daily on a busy weekend. He’s even witnessed at least five marriage proposals at the St. Louis Wheel.

“You’re seeing St. Louis people support a St. Louis project,” he says. “It’s just fun seeing the place packed.”

As he spoke on the phone, it buzzed as he received videos of the aquarium’s new otter residents, Sawyer, Finn and Thatcher. They had just moved into their new habitat at the aquarium, and staffers couldn’t get enough of their antics.

Union Station operators hope to attract 1.5 million visitors to the aquarium and its other attractions each year. The free St. Louis Zoo, one of the most-visited zoos in the country, attracts 3 million people each year.

St. Louis-based PGAV Destinations, which has been involved with aquariums around the world, designed this project. It was built by St. Louis-based McCarthy Building Cos., which also has aquarium experience. Since the station is a National Historic Landmark, they had to preserve certain elements, sometimes relying on original construction documents.

The aquarium is operated by the zoOceanarium Group, based in Dubai. More than one official has talked about giving visitors a “hands-wet” experience.

“We really want to encourage our guests to just explore,” says aquarium director Tami Brown as she shows off a gnarled “tree” in an area that will house local river animals such as tree frogs, a milk snake and crayfish.

Brown came to St. Louis from the Greater Cleveland Aquarium in Ohio, which was built inside an 1880s powerhouse.

Touring the aquarium

Brown loves St. Louis Aquarium’s historical nods to Union Station, starting with its ticket desk menu that resembles a train station flipboard and its downsized grand lobby with changing scenery on LED ceilings and walls. Colorful discus fish swim inside a clock-faced tank; its clock face is the same size as the one on the station’s iconic tower.

Inside two spaces designed to look like full-size passenger train cars, benches rumble, and St. Louis native John Goodman narrates a historical journey, viewed through digital “windows.” The trip starts in 1894 St. Louis, when Union Station was built, and travels under the Mississippi River to the present day.

“We played up the trains so much at this point,” Brown says. “We need to transfer you from the train experience to the aquarium experience.”

The aquarium is divided into six galleries, showing off the underwater worlds of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers as well as the deepest parts of the oceans. More than 13,000 animals at St. Louis Aquarium were relocated from other zoos and aquariums, as well as rescue organizations.

Staffers gradually introduced the animals to their habitats in recent weeks, covering the clear panels with paper so the residents could acclimate to their new homes before being exposed to the shadows and noise of visitors.

Visitors can learn more about the animals with the help of large touchscreens, even “flipping” an animal to see it from all sides. They can poke their hands into a pool filled with "doctor fish," which feed on dead skin and are used at some spas to nibble at people’s feet.

“Only manicures; no pedicures,” Brown says.

A J-shaped, 250,000-gallon tank — the aquarium’s largest — holds 60 sharks and stingrays, thousands of schooling sardines and other shimmery swimmers, and one giant, grumpy-looking grouper that likes to hang out at the bottom. A wall opposite the tank opens to the midway at Union Station, providing an aquatic backdrop for special events.

Guests can interact with divers inside the tanks and also with an animated otter at the “Otter Chat,” similar to the “Turtle Talk With Crush” attraction at Epcot. An animated otter, controlled by a voice actor, can have conversations and play games with guests.

Kids can play at a large water table, experimenting with dams and water levels. They can also dress up and pretend to help sick animals or prepare food for them; in other areas, they can feed shrimp to stingrays or slices of carrot to turtles.

An ecological scavenger hunt for younger visitors includes learning experiences at 10 interactive stations.

Lord Stanley, a rare blue lobster donated to St. Louis Aquarium in June by a Massachusetts restaurant, will live in this area. (Sequined, stuffed likenesses of Lord Stanley are available in the aquarium’s gift shop, naturally.)

Making waves

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson got a sneak peek at the aquarium before it opened to the public, and loved its mix of animals, especially the stingrays, sharks and otters. She also envisions a promising future for that corner of the city, especially with the next-door soccer stadium, set to be complete by 2022.

“I see a few hours before the soccer game, lots of people in the area, some people are walking from their loft or apartment or condos, and after the game, going over, riding the wheel, taking a look at some fish,” Krewson says. “I see people coming into St. Louis from out of town, staying in the hotels. It’s just an incredible energy and a beautiful location.”

That energy has already intensified.

Aaron Snivley, general manager of Maggie O’Brien’s Restaurant & Irish Pub next door, says the establishment saw an uptick in business several years ago when redevelopment started at Union Station. It’s picked up in recent months with the opening of the wheel and other attractions.

“It’s already boosted people through the door substantially, so I can only imagine what the aquarium is going to do,” he says.

Snivley, 48, grew up watching the second rise (as a shopping mall) and then the demise of Union Station. Maggie O’Brien’s, open 40 years, felt similar growing pains.

“We kind of look at it as a payoff for us sticking it out,” he says.

Bob O’Loughlin, chairman and CEO of LHM (and Steve O’Loughlin’s father), says he wasn’t sure what would become of Union Station when his company took over.

“We knew how iconic and beautiful it was,” he says.

LHM officials tossed around potential concepts such as a train museum and even a roller coaster, eventually warming up to the idea of an aquarium. St. Louis was the largest city in the country without one, he says.

They traveled the country, visiting aquariums and contacting companies including Ripley’s and Sea Life to gauge interest.

O’Loughlin is sure St. Louis Aquarium will have staying power, citing the longevity of other family attractions such as the Magic House, City Museum and St. Louis Zoo. Families want things to do together and return to, he says, and it’s a bonus that LHM’s attractions are at iconic Union Station.

“It’s a great feeling to know you’ve taken something that literally could have been shut down, and you bring it back,” he says.

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