Off the Deep End

Dessert at the opening gala of Colorado's Ocean Journey is sure to be tasty, and a clever trick for the eye: a milk chocolate seashell filled with vanilla-bean mousse, then topped with an edible pearl.

The delight of illusion, after all, is the secret to a splendid soiree--and key to a modern aquarium.

Part funhouse, part zoo, Ocean Journey is billed as "edutainment." Fantasy laps onto the shores of reality here: Waterfalls plunge over concrete walls carefully sculpted to resemble volcanic rock; fake salamanders hide under hinged stones that unsuspecting visitors will open with a shriek. The aquarium harbors real trees, artificial trees and real trees that are dead.

In the Colorado exhibit, living mushrooms climb over a living tree.
In the Indonesia exhibit, fake mushrooms dot a manufactured tree.
"It's interesting to try to tell the difference between the two," says Ocean Journey CEO Jim Hekkers.

In fact, at Ocean Journey--set to open sometime in June--a lot of things are not what they seem.

The aquarium was designed to convey an environmental message--with the backing of big corporate money. It was intended to be educational--but is filled with bells and whistles that could be a high-tech distraction.

The pricey admission to the aquarium's May 22 black-tie gala--ranging from $600 per individual to $100,000 for the presenting sponsor, the law firm of Holme Roberts & Owen--certainly hasn't deterred Denver's A-list from signing up. The crowd will include such civic boosters as jeweler Tom Shane and businessman Charlie Gallagher, along with the top brass from corporations like US West, which donated $5 million and fifteen years' worth of in-kind services (like installation of its phone service) to become Ocean Journey's primary sponsor. Proceeds from the gala will be funneled into environmental conservation projects and "Ocean Passages," a program that will provide free admission to 50,000 low-income schoolchildren each year.

"Most of these people [attending the gala] have already given money" to the actual building of Ocean Journey, says gala chairwoman Kalleen Malone. "They've coughed up even more to be a part of this evening."

The party, featuring entertainment by a troupe of Balinese dancers and singer Linda Ronstadt, will bathe its guests in special effects. Upon arrival, each couple will receive binoculars donated by Invesco Funds Group, along with a "passport" to their evening's aquatic adventure on the Platte. The 1,500 guests will sip cocktails in the aquarium, then move to a 30,000-square-foot tent in the parking lot. The tent, says Malone, will be decorated "to create a sense of being immersed, of being underwater."

Volunteers organizing the event chose its theme, "Let the Journey Begin"--which, somebody discovered only after it was too late to change, is also the slogan for the U.S. Navy. Plans for the dinner menu also hit an unfortunate snag when it was discovered that the main course, Chilean sea bass--masquerading as stylish seafood--is actually a species protected by the Chilean government under its real name, Patagonian toothfish. ("You see it listed on menus as Chilean sea bass--because they would be busted if they listed it by its real name," explains a spokesperson for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "And anyway, who would want to eat something called a toothfish?")

The chef has now settled on baquetta sea bass. It's a compromise that nobody seems to mind.

US West Presents: Colorado's Ocean Journey, as it is officially known, started out nearly a decade ago as a few scribbles on a cocktail napkin at a sushi bar in Japan. Today it is one of the most expensive aquariums in the nation, a $93.7 million, 106,500-square-foot home to Sumatran tigers, nurse sharks and custom wave machines.

In 1991, after years of training and studying sea and land mammals in the U.S., Asia and Africa, Ocean Journey founders Judy Petersen-Fleming and her husband, Bill Fleming, came home to Denver.

"Denver's great," says Petersen-Fleming, a third-generation Coloradan whose father, a Golden geologist, owned an oil firm. "I don't think you could come with two smiles and a cocktail napkin anywhere else in the country and find the open arms we did.

"It took a long time, though--don't get me wrong."
Former mayor Federico Pena and the Denver Zoo had proposed an aquarium for City Park in the 1980s, but that idea was squelched by surrounding residents. When the Flemings announced their intentions nearly a decade later, aquarium plans were already on the drawing board in Littleton and Westminster. Soon, however, Ocean Journey's fundraising success beat out that of its rivals.

"What we did differently was that we really reached out to the private sector in a big way," Petersen-Fleming recalls. "We went into a law firm and said, 'Just help us any way you can to get our nonprofit status and we'll put your name on an exhibit!'"

A dynamic woman who wears cowboy boots with her jeans and sweaters, Petersen-Fleming has a way of getting people excited about an idea and a magic enthusiasm that plays well at presentations and fundraisers. Intuition told her to find "passionate people who also had some power." "Actually," she says, "it was a guy in Japan who told us, 'Find the best financial person and the best law firm you can, get them passionate about the project, and everything else will fall into place.'"

By the time Debra Hinsvark came aboard as chief financial officer in 1995, the Flemings and executive vice president Nancy Yelverton had built a strong board with some of the city's top movers and shakers, including chairman (and avid scuba diver) Bob Malone, the state chairman of U.S. Bank, and Dick Robinson, CEO and chairman of the board of Robinson Dairy.

"Because of that, we were beginning to get the corporate philanthropic community interested in us," says Hinsvark. Ocean Journey eventually netted about $30.5 million in cash pledges from businesses, foundations and individuals. Among the top contributors: United Airlines, Pepsi, the Gates Family Foundation, TCI/Bob Magness Family, the El Pomar Foundation and the Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado.

By comparison, 159 science and art nonprofits in the six-county metro area received only $17 million in corporate cash sponsorships and in-kind contributions in 1997, according to a survey by the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District.

"We have a lot of community support, so we have a lot of signs that say 'Gift of,'" says Hinsvark. "And I think that's really great."

In concept, the first Ocean Journey plan was very different from what was finally built on seventeen acres across the Platte River from Six Flags Elitch Gardens.

The Flemings originally wanted to focus on the Colorado River, which is the most intensely used river in the country, supplying water for 25 million people and 3.5 million acres of farmland. Western rivers are uncharted territory, at least in the aquarium business. "Nobody had looked at the river and drainage systems of the western portion of the United States," Bill Fleming says. "Our original concepts were: journey, flowing water, connecting people here in Colorado to the ocean to show them what we do here affects the oceans."

To keep the money flowing, however, Ocean Journey evolved into the story of two rivers--the Colorado and the Kampar, located on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

"What we learned from years of experience," Petersen-Fleming explains, is that "if we'd just shown our own backyard story, shown people how important the Continental Divide is, well--people get bored. They do. They need to see what's not familiar, what's super-exotic. So we decided to take them to the other side of the world. Everybody knows about the Amazon and the South American rainforests--but few people know that Indonesia has the world's second-biggest rainforest. It has more diverse animal species than anywhere in the world."

The Flemings wanted their nonprofit aquarium to carry a strong environmental message--but Colorado trout weren't sexy enough to do it alone. "Indonesia gives you some wonderful stories to tell," says Hekkers. "Any good teacher will try to find the most interesting thing to reach students. That's what we're trying to do.

"From the marketing standpoint, you're not going to get anywhere with gray and brown fish," he says. "It just won't work."

Yet the Tennessee Aquarium, which Hekkers helped open in 1992, attracts a million visitors every year just by focusing on the humble freshwater rivers of the South. And California's Monterey Bay Aquarium has been hugely successful featuring local cold-water fauna--"dull fish and algae," as one expert describes it.

Ocean Journey is banking on 1.2 million visitors in its first year--about the same attendance for the Colorado Avalanche and the Denver Nuggets combined--and about 1 million a year thereafter. Four out of every ten guests are expected to come from within a 100-mile radius of Denver; tourists should make up the rest. Over the past four years, the aquarium's price tag grew from $75 million to $93.7 million, thanks to higher construction costs, some additional high-tech gizmos, indoor and outdoor sculptures and increased financing costs, says Hekkers. To justify that kind of money, the Colorado River story must carve its own niche in the cultural-attractions landscape.

So although Ocean Journey is one of the few places to see Colorado's state fish--the threatened greenback cutthroat trout--the aquarium has added some frisky otters and Sumatran tigers Bali and Java as insurance.

"I think sometimes investment counselors and bankers think, 'Oh, we've got to get a tiger in here to really pack 'em in,'" says Leighton Taylor, one of the leading aquarium consultants in the nation. "Ninety-three million dollars is a lot of money to spend to show trout--I suppose that's what somebody told them."

Along with granddaddies like Chicago's Shedd Aquarium and the New England Aquarium in Boston, there are some fifty aquariums in cities across the country, including Dallas, Texas; Royal Oak, Michigan; Aurora, Ohio; and at the Mall of America, in Minneapolis. Ripley's Believe It or Not plans to sink $500 million into ten new aquariums. In Las Vegas, at least two casinos house spectacular fish shows; the Mirage Hotel, home to one of the better dolphin facilities in the country, features a glass wall with live sharks swimming in a coral reef behind the reservations desk.

Thirty more cities now have public aquariums under construction or in the fundraising stage, and many of these cities, like Denver, lie half a continent away from an ocean. Civic developers drool over these high-tech fish zoos much as they would an anchor department store, says Jane Ballentine, spokesperson for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.

"They're seen as a great tourist draw that will spill over into nearby restaurants and hotels," says Ballentine. "Cities are seeing aquariums as a way to increase their economic viability."

The first urban pioneer was the National Aquarium in Baltimore, built in 1981 and credited with revitalizing that city's dingy Inner Harbor, now jammed with restaurants, shops and a hopping nightlife. The spectacular Monterey Bay Aquarium, built in 1983 on the site of an old fishery on John Steinbeck's crime-plagued Cannery Row, now attracts more than two million visitors each year and holds the world's largest population of marine life outside the ocean itself.

The term "aquarium" was first coined in the 1840s, about the same time that P.T. Barnum purchased the Boston Aquarial Gardens and took the show on the road to New York. Barnum stuck a stuffed monkey torso into a large fish's mouth and called it his Feejee Mermaid. "People loved that," says Taylor, also the author of a book on the history of aquariums. In those Victorian days, saltwater fish tanks in the parlor were all the rage, and many middle-class Englishwomen developed an avid fascination for sea life. "There are charming pictures of Victorian ladies collecting algae," says Taylor. But marine biology was still in its infancy; when exotic underwater creatures went on display in Barnum's tanks, they were billed as evidence of "God's glory."

In 1964, San Diego developers launched their own oceanarium, twentieth-century style. Since then, Sea World has drawn millions of visitors each year with its combination amusement park and aquatic displays, juxtaposing roller coasters and the circus thrills of dancing dolphins and Shamu the killer whale. "Sea World and places like it," writes Susan Davis in her fascinating book Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture and the Sea World Experience, "are carefully constructed, expensively maintained artificial worlds that most of the time fairly successfully conceal their own extreme artificiality."

Why are people willing to shell out big bucks--in the case of Ocean Journey, $14.95 for adults and $12.95 for senior citizens and kids ages thirteen to seventeen--for a couple of hours of looking at fish? For starters, many of the baby boomers who are now taking their kids on Sunday outings grew up on Jacques Cousteau reruns. And people respond well to the "wild factor"--museums where the collection doesn't simply hang on a wall. "The animals we see in zoos are kind of like us," Taylor explains. "They have brown eyes and hair. But with the animals in aquariums, it's like seeing alien life forms."

From their marketing strategies to their education programs, new aquariums are more likely to have replaced the Flipper allure with a Free Willy sensibility. Groups in Florida and elsewhere are campaigning for the release of orca whales that were wrenched from their ocean families and put in tanks to do tricks for ogling humans. Exhibits like Sea World's "dolphin in a bikini" four decades ago have given way to a far more politically correct conservation message.

"It's a big responsibility to keep live animals in captivity. You've got to do it right," says Taylor, who preaches about the hazards of the aquarium craze, especially when it comes to for-profits. "I think some are being built for the wrong reasons--as investments. What I'm afraid is that some of the business-driven aquariums are not going to do well, and fish are going to get sick." If that happens, he says, the news will spread and all aquariums will get a bad rap.

The Flemings wanted their aquarium built from the inside out, with habitat-driven exhibits that are the next best thing to the wild for their occupants. "The exhibits are only stimulating [for people] if the animals in them are stimulated and active," Fleming says.

So the river otters can play on a (manmade) abandoned beaver dam; the arowana fish will have a cage of crickets dangling above its pool so it can jump out of the water to snatch an unsuspecting insect, much as it does in its native Indonesian waters. Tigers Bali and Java, who can dive in a pool or sun themselves on rocks in a veritable Sumatran-tiger Truman Show, will have their very own sound system. A computerized loop of jungle din, recorded in the wild, will repeat sounds in the same sequence only once every four years. "We wanted them to hear periodic sounds--like the sound of a wild pig," says Fleming. "They may love that. They may investigate or ignore the sound completely. It's just like us. We have a wall of sounds around us--the phones, people going by--but we pick and choose what we want to pay attention to. If that background noise was gone completely, it would be bothersome."

The tigers like to swim and will dog-paddle in a glassed-in pool to the amusement of Ocean Journey visitors. On land--open land--a 300-pound, full-grown Sumatran tiger can jump vertically about fifteen feet in the air and run twenty miles per hour.

The aquarium's press kit advertises that "Ocean Journey chose these mammals to show that water is essential to much more than fish." Critics have labeled the tigers a marketing ploy and an indulgence by Fleming, a former tiger trainer for Sea World. But as the forest's top predator, the tigers "are certainly a very prominent part of the ecosystem," argues Ocean Journey's life sciences director Scott Nygren. "That's the trend--to display a complete habitat, and from there it's easier to convey a conservation message."

All of the animals--finned or furred--who come to Colorado Ocean Journey first must go through a four- to six-week observation and quarantine period in the laboratories behind the aquarium. They're now slowly being introduced to their permanent exhibit-homes. "The animals set their own schedule," says Nygren. "We want to slowly condition them to their new environment so they don't freak out."

Nygren manages the curators who will oversee Ocean Journey's 300 fish, bird and mammal species, fifteen of which are on the endangered-species list. A veteran of Sea World and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Nygren also supervises the life-support engineers who treat and pump the 1 million gallons of Denver tap water circulating through the building every 48 minutes. About one-third of Ocean Journey's water supply is for the freshwater creatures; the remainder is made into artificial seawater. In an expensive (seven cents per gallon) two-day process, the water is stripped of its copper and chlorine, then mixed with a recipe of sea salts in a 30,000-gallon basin before being diluted for use in the saltwater tanks.

Ocean Journey has purchased all of the fish for its Indonesia exhibit from wholesalers at prices ranging from $1 to $1,000. But most of the sea creatures for the Colorado side were plucked from the ocean by hand.

Ocean Journey secured a permit from the Mexican government to remove 8,000 live fish from the Sea of Cortez, the 600-mile strip of saltwater between Baja California and the Mexican mainland. In exchange, the aquarium will conduct a study comparing the fish population in its 25,000-square-meter collection area with three similar-sized control areas. Non-commercial fish "are a pretty abundant resource" in the Sea of Cortez, says Nygren, "but they really don't have a handle on how abundant."

The aquarium looked for colorful fish with entertaining or quirky behaviors, such as the yellowtail sturgeon, which defends itself with a little blade near the base of its tail, or the jawfish, which digs a burrow in the ocean floor and sticks out its head to watch the world float by.

Saltwater fish are very difficult to breed in captivity, so collectors need to go to their original habitat. Still, environmentalists are generally not concerned about fish removed for educational institutions. "Compared to the incredible volume of fish taken out of the sea for commercial and recreational fishing, the numbers of fish collected for aquariums is really insignificant," says Carl Safina, director of the Living Oceans Program for the Audubon Society.

On a busy commercial fishing day, thousands of eighteen-foot motorized fiberglass boats, called "pangas," blanket the Sea of Cortez. Mexico has fishing regulations on the books, "but enforcement has been very lax," says nationally known marine biologist David Powell, who has seen a dramatic decline in sealife there over his forty-year career.

Ocean Journey will mention the dangers of overfishing in its exhibits and plans to establish a fund to help conservation efforts in the Sea of Cortez, which no longer receives rich river nutrients from the Colorado because of the river's many dams and diversions. The aquarium will also contribute conservation funds on behalf of its cute-and-cuddliest residents: sea otters Taylor and Gracie and tigers Bali and Java, whose big-cat brethren are highly endangered.

Apioneer of the "immersion" approach, Ocean Journey will channel its visitors between red canyon walls, spray them with mist and surround them with smell-o-vision scents and the authentic twitters and shrieks of wild birds. Immersion is a growing trend in aquariums, an attempt to create "a parallel universe," says Taylor.

"It's like a film," he says. "You've got to get people to suspend their disbelief" and make them think they're in a Sumatran rainforest rather than a stone's throw from the murky Platte. "It's a great trend, because what you want to do is involve people rather than have them looking passively through glass, as if they're in front of a Nordstrom's shoe display."

One of Ocean Journey's most spectacular effects (the brainchild of Judy Petersen-Fleming, like most of the anticipated crowd-pleasers) is the flash flood exhibit. Every two and a half minutes in the Colorado desert area, the lights will dim, and visitors will hear the rumble of approaching thunder and rain, then a clash of lightning even more authentic than the recording in the fresh-produce section at Safeway. Suddenly, 2,500 gallons of water will come crashing toward the crowd and smash into a plate of clear acrylic. "It's really a dramatic exhibit" demonstrating a unique natural phenomenon, Hekkers says. "It's hard to understand that power of a flash flood, because if you're in one, you probably won't survive."

"If people have an 'experience,' it may have more of an impact on them," Petersen-Fleming explains. "When I walked through the jungles of Sumatra, I realized what an impact it had on me, and I wanted to share that with people." More cynical adults might be distracted by the manufactured trees and other effects, but "when I take kids through, they say, 'Wow, I didn't know the trees are so big in the rainforest.'"

"The first time people come in," adds Ocean Journey publicist Robin Morgan during a hasty press tour, "it's like sensory overload."

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."

Her development job, of course, no longer puts her in daily contact with animals--at least the kind without money. "I missed that more the first couple of years," she confides. "We had been with animals every day for our whole lives. When we first came back [from Asia], that's when it was really hard--because nobody knew what an aquarium was, nobody understood our passion to educate kids. It was hard in those days, because nobody thought it would ever happen."

Throughout the years of planning, the Flemings made contact with "another crazy guy who wanted an aquarium in Denver" --Jim Hekkers, a Colorado native who had left the state to join the marketing departments of the aquariums in Chattanooga and Monterey Bay. "In trying to get people interested in aquariums, I realized that at some point I'd have to go away," says Hekkers. "I didn't think it would happen in Denver."

But in 1997, Ocean Journey brought him back to be its second president. (The first, Jeff Dorsey, returned to head Columbia/HealthOne after just eight weeks. "Our first thought was to get a really strong businessperson in there," says Petersen-Fleming, "but then we realized it's more important to get someone who's in love with aquariums.")

Now Hekkers oversees the day-to-day operations of the facility and still writes a weekly column for the Denver Rocky Mountain News, an Ocean Journey sponsor. Petersen-Fleming makes weekly appearances as a "reporter" on Channel 9.

The Flemings both say they wouldn't want the aquarium's top job. "It's a big job, and [Hekkers] doesn't sleep all that well," says Fleming, whose curly, graying hair drapes over the collar of his fleece pullovers. "We wanted to focus on our original concepts--the animals, the integrity. Those are the things that we believe in the most."

"I think you would kind of stifle or suffocate me if I had that role," adds Petersen-Fleming, who sees herself more as a creative visionary than an administrator. "We didn't have a family when we started. We weren't even going to have children until this thing opened--but our kids [now ages two and five] had other things in mind. If we didn't have this incredible staff and the leadership of Jim, we wouldn't have a life outside of Ocean Journey. I think we have the best of both worlds. We have our two daughters--and if you want to know the truth, they're our priority."

But Petersen-Fleming still talks about Ocean Journey like a parent, referring to it as "this other giant baby that we've gestated for eight years." When the aquarium doors are opened and the newest Fleming baby begins interacting with the world, she admits, she'll probably experience some postpartum depression.

Ocean Journey promises to announce its exact opening date at least one month in advance. In the meantime, the Denver Zoo is bracing for a temporary dip in admissions, says spokeswoman Angela Baier. The 103-year-old zoo pushed back opening day for its Komodo Dragon exhibit from the summer to November 10, "to give the aquarium its time in the sun and not to go head-to-head with that competition," she says.

Thanks to the mild winter and publicity surrounding the births of polar bear cubs Berit and Ulaq, zoo admissions are already up 15 percent this year, says Baier. Five years ago the zoo opened its own answer to an aquarium: the Tropical Discovery building, a collection of exotic snakes, fluttering bats and brightly colored fish in a jungle-ized environment.

Still, a visit to the zoo and Ocean Journey are very different experiences, Baier says. "The aquarium is an intimate indoor experience. The zoo is eighty acres outdoors, with larger animals. People can ride a train, pack a picnic, let their kids run. It's like Montana versus New York."

"It's unfortunate in some ways that nonprofits like this rely on admissions so heavily and you end up looking at things competitively," adds Hekkers. "We're all in the same arena; we're trying to reveal the natural world." Hekkers has sat down with his management counterparts at the zoo and the Denver Natural History Museum. "They've been really supportive. They probably worry about an attendance impact, but I think in the long haul, it's more like the pie grows bigger for Denver rather than you split the pie up."

The Ocean Journey slice of the pie seems very hot. The aquarium is already "pretty much booked through the summer" for evening corporate events, "and we've had a lot of inquiries about weddings and wedding receptions," says Hekkers. Guests at the opening gala will be able to bid on a millennium party package at Ocean Journey for New Year's Eve. Veteran sports marketer Mike Blake, formerly with the Denver Nuggets and the Colorado Avalanche, heads up the aquarium's publicity department.

Petersen-Fleming envisions an active education program at Ocean Journey complete with all-nighters where kids can lay their sleeping bags over windows in the floor that reveal nurse sharks swimming below. In the building's design phase, "the structural engineers kept telling us that we couldn't walk on sharks," she says. But she repeatedly sent them back to the drawing board. "That taught me," she says, "never to take no for an answer."

Down on the Platte, looking toward opening day, the Flemings still sprinkle their aquarium talk with words like energy, direction and vision. Ocean Journey already has a long-range planning committee in place and is eyeing the notion of building an additional gallery for temporary exhibits down the line.

"For me," says Petersen-Fleming, "if Ocean Journey keeps its entrepreneurial spirit, I could stay here forever.

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Gayle Worland