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No fish story: Aquarium draws million in 3 months

Attendance has been far beyond Georgia Aquarium's expectations

By David E. Williams

Richard and Pat Rainey tour the aquarium with their grandchildren Courtney and Elijah Usher.


Atlanta (Georgia)
Entertainment (general)

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- The Georgia Aquarium opened in November to great fanfare and high expectations -- with organizers predicting it would draw more than 2 million visitors the first year and pump millions of dollars into the Atlanta economy.

It's gotten off to a fast start, welcoming its millionth guest Wednesday, 98 days after opening its doors.

"They pulled us out of line, and that was the first we knew about it," said Richard Rainey, who was visiting with his wife, Pat, and grandchildren Courtney and Elijah Usher.

The surprised family was greeted by Deepo, the aquarium mascot, and cheering staff and volunteers, who loaded them down with two big stuffed animals and a table full of gifts from their sponsors.

"It's cool," 6-year-old Elijah said after a behind-the-scenes tour led by Aquarium Executive Director Jeff Swanagan. He said one of his favorite things was getting to help feed Ralph, one of the two giant whale sharks that meander through the 6 million gallon Ocean Voyager exhibit. (Take an interactive tour of the aquarium)

Aquarium spokesman Dave Santucci said attendance has been about 25 percent higher than expected.

"We would have probably not have expected to hit this for at least another month based on our original projections ... which were optimistic to begin with," he said.

Between 5,000 and 6,000 people visit on an average weekday, and that number jumps to about 10,000 on weekends and when school is out, Santucci said.

He said people should order tickets online to avoid having to wait in the walkup line, which sometimes snakes around the building.

"If you walk up on a day that's sold out, we usually put up sold-out signs, and people still line up anyway, and they may line up for hours until we have enough no-shows that we can let people in," he said.

Fire inspectors say the building can hold up to 8,000 people at a time, but Swanagan said that would make things too crowded.

He said the aquarium draws the line at about 4,800, so people will be able to move around comfortably.

The aquarium also stopped selling annual passes in January after 290,000 people bought them. Swanagan said they did not want it to have the feel of "a private club."

The Raineys and their grandkids are from the Atlanta area, but visitors have been coming from every U.S. state and all over the world.

Nicole Herman, who lives in Schwyz, Switzerland, learned about the aquarium on the Internet. The 16-year-old asked her father, who lives in the Atlanta area, to take her when she came to visit.

"I heard it was the world's biggest, and I figured it would be fun," she said.

Jean Bailey and her family drove from Anderson, South Carolina, about two hours away "depending on whether or not I speed," she said. She said they would be going straight home because her grandchildren were already missing their naps.

"He's so excited," she said as 22-month-old Jaxon squealed and tried to grab the pink, yellow and purple fish as they swam by.

A study conducted before the aquarium opened estimated it would bring $172 million into the Atlanta economy in an average year. The World of Coca-Cola attraction, which is scheduled to open next door next year, is expected to boost that number to $200 million. (Full story)

"I think probably for us the most exciting thing, for us, is seeing so many people walking around downtown," said Danica Kombol, marketing director of the Imagine It! Children's Museum of Atlanta. "It's making downtown a real destination for families."

She said attendance at the museum, down the street from the aquarium, has jumped 70 percent since it opened, and the number of memberships has risen 125 percent since November.

Sam A. Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamer of Commerce, said hotels and restaurants are also benefiting.

"We've never had a must-see tourist attraction, and the Georgia Aquarium definitely is that," Williams said. "And it's only been three months, so I think we're going to see the popularity increase even more when the World of Coke opens next door."

Swanagan said the aquarium, and its 8 million gallons of water, was "a major theme park attraction under one roof," and that plans call for bringing in a lot more fish.

Moreover, "I'm very pleased with the natural behavior I'm seeing," Swanagan said of the aquarium's live-in residents.

He said shrimp in the Tropical Diver exhibit have set up "cleaning stations," and that fish "line up like they're at a car wash" to get cleaned, just like they do in the wild.

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