Longform

Off the Deep End

Page 5 of 7

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."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Gayle Worland