Fish Shtick

The new, tastier Downtown Aquarium opens with some mouth-watering temptation.

Since the beginning of modern time, Denver has played catch-up with other cities. At some point, "cow town" became an unacceptable tag. This was before "fish city" was even a seedling of a thought in the minds of the visionaries, and long before Landry's Restaurant Inc. reopened the shuttered Colorado's Ocean Journey as the Downtown Aquarium. No, Mooville wasn't ready for aquariums back then. We had to wander more plebeian development paths first.

"To hell with this Stapleton," Mayor Federico Peña thundered in the first spasm of the identity odyssey. "We need a goddamn mammoth airport to draw people to Denver and inspire airlines to make us their hub." Thus was born DIA. Soon thereafter, at the Quebec Nordiques' yard sale, we bought the mess and re-landscaped it as the Colorado Avalanche. We craved a Major League baseball team, so we made the worst one money could buy. Finally, the community looked at what had been done and asked, "What's missing?"

It was time. Colorado's Ocean Journey, our very own $93 million aquarium a thousand miles from the ocean, opened June 21, 1999, with great fanfare. There were fish by the thousands, shore birds, river and sea otters alike. More than 5,000 people ooohed their way through the seventeen-acre, three-story complex that day, giving the group that spawned it hopes of drawing the 1.1 million visitors a year projected as necessary to cover costs. Boosters said that even if attendance somehow fell 30 percent short of projections, the operation would stay afloat. Well, it didn't. Traffic sank because -- to put it bluntly -- Ocean Journey sucked.

Christopher Smith

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700 Water Street, grand opening, Thursday, July 14; 10 a.m. ­ 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 10 a.m. ­ 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, $7.95 - $12.95 until 6 p.m.; $6.95 - $9.95 after 6 p.m., 303-561- 4450, www.downtownaquariumdenver.com

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A large portion of the space was dedicated to Colorado river wildlife, when anyone with a penchant for trout could drive twenty minutes and study them in their natural habitat for free. And the inexplicable presence of two Sumatran tigers? It just didn't add up. So in April 2002, Ocean Journey filed for Chapter 11 , bobbing in a $57 million sea of red ink.

But one man's sarcophagus is another man's bobsled, and in a bankruptcy court auction the following March, Houston-based Landry's Restaurants Inc. hooked the fish bowl for a cool $13.6 million. Landry's -- a company that owns and operates Landry's Seafood House and Joe's Crab Shack as well as a multi-million-dollar Houston aquarium-cum-amusement center -- pledged to make $20 million in improvements to Denver's facility. However, the Texans' designs hit a wall last year when they disagreed with the city over property value. Finally, the newly-christened Downtown Aquarium is poised for a grand opening on Thursday, July 14.

Improvements include more than 250,000 gallons of new exhibit space as well as some 4,000 aquatic newbies. "We are adding piranhas," says Scott Hulgan, a Landry's spokesman, ticking names off a long list that includes alligator snapping turtles and reef sharks. Perfect. Moreover, the Colorado River exhibit has morphed into the North American Wilderness display, and Rainforests of the World has taken root where the tigers once roamed. And it's not just about gawking. You can now pan for gemstones, and there will be an interactive tank where landlubbers can feed stingrays.

Then, after you've gotten your visual fill of all that marine life, you can sample some of the species. This is Landry's, after all, and you'd best believe seafood is on the menu at the brand-new chain eatery. Afterward, you can drown any guilt you might have from consuming the Little Mermaid's pals with cocktails at the adjoining Dive Lounge. Raise your mojito as you contemplate the fake coral on the walls and give a toast. To Fish City! We have arrived.

 
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