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'Nemo' helps reel in aquarium visitors

Marlin and Dory in
Marlin and Dory in "Finding Nemo"

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LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) -- A small striped fish has helped to fuel increased business at California's Aquarium of the Pacific and Monterey Bay Aquarium, and even facilities that have not done direct tie-ins have benefited from the popularity of the Walt Disney Co./Pixar animated feature "Finding Nemo."

"'Finding Nemo' was great for us," said Hank Armstrong, communications VP at California's Monterey Bay Aquarium. "I can't tell you it increased attendance by this many people, but I can tell you we did get a lot of interest and a lot of questions to the point where we created cards for our staff on the floor so they could point people to the exhibits where Dori is or that sort of thing -- so we could connect people (interested in) the animals in the movie with the animals at the aquarium."

Armstrong wouldn't give all the credit to Nemo, Dori, Squirt and the rest of the film's cast, but he did point out that the aquarium experienced a second-half turnaround and ended up with 2003 attendance of almost 1.7 million, about 1.4% more than what was projected.

"We would have been worse off without 'Finding Nemo,' no doubt about it," Armstrong said, noting that the aquarium also tagged its radio spots with a message that said, "Now that you've seen 'Finding Nemo,' come and see the real thing."

"That may have helped, too," he said, noting that the aquarium was also involved in a "Nemo"-related promotion with online auction site eBay that offered a visit to the aquarium as a prize.

"Finding Nemo" has grossed $844 million at the worldwide box office since its theatrical release on May 30, 2003, and is the best-selling DVD of all time since being released in early November. The film was nominated Tuesday for an Oscar for best animated feature film.

"We first started working with Disney when they came here to film an interview with a marine biologist for the DVD special features," said Mary Beth Armbruster, membership manager at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California.

The aquarium ended up playing host to the film's DVD release party, and is holding "Nemo Nights" this month and next.

"Nemo" also was the theme for one of the aquarium's fall mail campaigns, which generated a 30% increase in new membership, Armbruster said.

The facility, which added baby clownfish and blue tang exhibits because of the film, has received permission from Disney to use Nemo and other characters from the film in its permanent signage, Armbruster said.

'Where's Nemo?'

One thing is certain, at both the Aquarium of the Pacific and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the most asked questions these days is "Where can we find Nemo?"

That scenario is playing itself out elsewhere as well. Said Hugh Dolly, spokesman at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Oregon: "We did open a small clownfish -- or anemone fish -- exhibit, and it was popular with the kids. And you couldn't stand by it without hearing kids say, 'Oh look, it's 'Nemo."'

The San Antonio Zoo and Aquarium features a single tank and a single clownfish (among other species) and even there, kids would notice the creature and call it Nemo, spokeswoman Dawn Campos said.

At the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington, spokeswoman Carolyn Cox said there is only one clownfish at the facility, and it is in a tank that features sea horses. But when kids notice it, they often cry out, "Free Nemo! Let him out! Let him out!"

Attendance at the facility was up last year, Cox said. She said a budgeted attendance of 410,000 was revised upward to 421,000 about halfway through the year. The final tally hasn't been determined.

"We have a lot of people asking if we have those kinds of fish," said Melissa Lee, spokeswoman for the Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans. "People come in and say, 'Where's Nemo?' or 'We want to see clownfish."'

Trouble is, the New Orleans aquarium doesn't have any clownfish, primarily because of animal husbandry issues. "It was the same thing when 'Harry Potter' came out. People wanted to know about our owls," Lee said.

The Audubon Nature Institute operates both the city's Aquarium of the Americas and the Audubon Zoo. Lee said the aquarium's attendance last year was 953,000, up more than 5,000 from 2002.

"The film has certainly increased awareness (of marine life)," said Lee, who added that clownfish plush toys were popular sellers at the facility even before "Finding Nemo" came out.

It appears that "Nemo" has had a substantial impact on merchandise sales.

"We have sold a lot of 'Finding Nemo' stuff," the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Armstrong said. "The DVD has been moving extremely well, (as have) the 'Finding Nemo' books. And on the plush side, Squirt (the turtle) was a big hit until there was shortage of supply, then Nemo became the No. 1 plush animal."

Some of the most popular items in the Aquarium of the Pacific gift shop are also "Nemo"-related, be they licensed merchandise or generic clownfish items, Padilla said. The most popular books sold are "Nemo"-related, and the aquarium has filled out and expanded its clownfish-related merchandise. The film's release also has spurred an increase in volunteerism at the aquarium on the part of children and young teens, she said.

"The film has inspired children and their parents to find out how they can do their part to preserve the ocean environment," said Margaret Brewer, volunteer services manager at the Aquarium of the Pacific.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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