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Off the Deep End

Colorado's Ocean Journey is banking on expensive special effects to drive home its conservationist message.

Families who eat at the Rain Forest Cafe and Cafe Odyssey, who've ridden the Colorado Wave at Water World, who subscribe to the Discovery Channel and are counting the days until Denver's Niketown store opens and the next Star Wars movie debuts--these families may demand nothing less.

When the Flemings first met with Odyssea, the coalition of architects who would design the Ocean Journey building, Petersen-Fleming recalls, "we took out a piece of carpet and a piece of concrete and said, 'This is what we don't want to see.' Then we squirted them, we got them wet. We made them close their eyes and smell things. We put heat on them, we made them cold." Today huge letters spell out the immersion message on an aquarium wall: "The River Is Your Journey. Escape."

Commercial America has found the immersion experience to be a big hit--in everything from nightclubs with imported sand and palm trees to sporting-goods stores that let customers try out their climbing gear on a phony mountain wall.

Likewise, a good aquarium can deliver fun along with a strong environmental message, says Howard Garrett, a Colorado native and Miami-based advocate for marine mammals in captivity. "People need to take responsibility for their world, and that doesn't have to be a drag," he says.

But some in the museum world fear that visitors, drowning in simulacra, will learn to be more wowed by an exhibit's whiz-bang technology than by its contents. The hushed natural history museums of the past, where kids could view ratty stuffed wildlife and rows of dusty arrowheads inside a glass case were about as high-tech as a lightbulb, but the relics on display did have a certain authenticity--what's known in the museum trade as the "aura" of the real.

"There are concerns about turning everything into a representation of something else," says Christina Kreps, director of the museum studies program in anthropology at the University of Denver. "It's part of the malling of America; everything becomes a theme park. I'm not a Luddite; I'm not saying no to technology. But there is concern that people--especially kids--will start expecting museum exhibits to be delivered with bells and whistles. There is that marketing mentality: Give people what they want," says Kreps. "Well, people also want to astral-project."

But Kreps, who has worked with the World Wildlife Fund in Indonesia and advised Ocean Journey on its Kampar River exhibit, commends the aquarium's conservation lessons. "I think it's great that Ocean Journey wanted to do this, even though all their sponsors are these big corporations," she says. "US West, Channel 9 and the others have actually been pretty cool when Ocean Journey wanted to do things."

By contrast, she recalls, timber company and big museum donor Weyerhauser told an environmental museum in the Pacific Northwest that it could discuss the issue of deforestation in other parts of the world, but not in Weyerhauser's own backyard.

Could the $93 million spent on Denver's newest tourist attraction have done more good for ecological projects in the field? "Possibly," says Kreps. But in order to keep generating money for environmental causes, "you have to educate people," she says. "Frankly, most people are not going to sit down and study this issue like academics or the people who work at museums and aquariums. So the question is, 'What are [Ocean Journey's] greater goals?'"

With the marketing buzz now reaching rainforest pitch, most of Denver is convinced that Ocean Journey will be a success. But it wasn't always that way.

Early donations paid for a staff, a marketing study and over $2 million in design costs. In June 1995, Ocean Journey bought seventeen acres of land for a mere $5 per square foot; the earliest contributors benefited from the area's "enterprise zone" status, which afforded them healthy tax breaks. But when Ocean Journey ventured into the bond market in 1995, buyers--spooked by the poor attendance at a new, debt-saddled aquarium in Tampa, Florida--balked.

A year and a half later, Thermo Companies, a downtown developer, backed Ocean Journey with a $17 million letter of credit. The Mayor's Office of Economic Development fronted a $600,000 loan, and the city guaranteed a ten-year, $7 million Housing and Urban Development loan for the aquarium--an odd use of federal housing funds, critics said. "Well, obviously HUD doesn't agree, because they lent us the money," Hinsvark responds cheerfully. In February 1997, bond buyers finally bit the bait.

"Bill and Judy didn't have the funds to build a for-profit facility like this," Hinsvark says. "They took an idea they loved, and in order to get it off the ground, they had to create a [nonprofit] company. In the process, they essentially orphaned their baby to a board. That takes a lot of faith." Today the Flemings--who lived and promoted their dream for eight long years--are listed as Ocean Journey's founders. As part of the aquarium's 140-employee staff, they no longer sit on the board. "They've made the transition real nicely," says Hinsvark. "And they have their respective important positions in the organization."

Bill is now Ocean Journey's curator of mammals. Judy is a corporate fundraiser. "You know what's kind of fun?" says Petersen-Fleming. "I guess I got good at this fundraising thing. I could never do it for anything other than this project that I'm so passionate about. But the more money you raise, the more things you can do to help us grow."

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