Take a Dip in the New Children's Aquarium at Fair Park, Which Opens This Friday

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Photos by Danny Fulgencio
Out back, the Stingray Bay at the Children's Aquarium at Fair Park gives visitors the hands-on experience of feeding the rays.
Till Monday afternoon I hadn't been in the Dallas Aquarium at Fair Park since I was, oh, maybe 11, 12 years old. This much I recall of the '36 building: It was a dank, dreary, malodorous wall o' tanks that were kept at several arms' length by handrails designed to make actually seeing the fish an acrobatic feat of derring-do's and don'ts. Next to, say, the Shedd in Chicago or even the Dallas World Aquarium in the West End, it had come to resemble a fish store on its last fins. And so it closed. For a $10 million reboot, we were told, as a kids' attraction.

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Gregg Hudson, Dallas Zoo general director (at right), shows off the new and improved aquarium.
On Friday, during a sneak peek timed to coincide with the opening of the State Fair of Texas, it will reopen as just that: the Children's Aquarium at Fair Park. The bones of the original building are still recognizable, but the guts are not. Several new exhibits have been added to augment the tanks -- including a "touch tank" filled with horseshoe crabs and sea urchins and sea stars and so forth, an under-water petting zoo. There's a "schooling exhibit" containing some 200 lookdowns swimming in circles; a wave exhibit intended to show the impact of the ocean on the shoreline; and an octopus's garden. Benches have been installed near the shark tank, now a spectator sport.

There's now, out back -- the Cotton  Bowl to the left, the Texas Star to the right -- a covered, wooden-decked outdoor Stingray Bay where you can feed some 20 cownose stingrays. Next to that: another enormous tank filled with Southern rays and bonnethead sharks, the kinder, gentler cousin to the hammerhead. That addition alone would merit celebration -- at last, another Fair Park destination.

But to the most important improvement of them all: Gone are the handrails that kept kids at a three-foot distance from the tanks that line the walls, and the floors have been raised by more than a foot. "Kids," says Park and Rec's assistant director and Fair Park's biggest fan, Willis Winters, "can now peer right into the tanks."

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In a tank next to the stingray feeding station are eagle rays, Southern stingrays and bonnethead sharks.
Winters is, rightfully, so proud of the new aquarium he gave Unfair Park a tour Monday afternoon; we fed the rays -- very, very cool. Along for the ride was Brian Potvin, the aquarium curator -- a former city employee now in the employ of Dallas Zoological Management, which took over the aquarium at the same time it snatched the keys to the Dallas Zoo. Potvin will become a familiar face in coming days; he's anxious to meet and greet visitors to the forgotten attraction on the fairgrounds.

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Brian Potvin, curator of aquatic husbandry for the Dallas Zoo and the Children's Aquarium at Fair Park, perched in the window to the octopus exhibit
Winters says he's been trying to get this done for years, since he started working for the city in '93. Back then Park and Rec looked at building a brand-new facility to replace the '36 original, built by a team of architects for the Texas Centennial Celebration, and the '66 salt-water add-on. But guesstimates put the cost at $75 million. A extreme-makeover Plan B ran $30 million. Zoo Director Gregg Hudson hit upon the idea of a children's aquarium -- since, Hudson says, so many visitors to the aquarium were mothers pushing strollers anyway. The city decided: Go young, or go home.

The Children's Aquarium now highlights fish native to Texas -- hence such tank-toppers as "Trinity River Road Trip" and a "scene" set beneath a Gulf Coast oil rig. The wings (salt water to the left, fresh water to the right) remain, but almost everything's been replaced -- down to the filtration system and equipment, designed to cut water use from 16 million gallons a year before the redo to four million gallons now. Says Potvin, "We wanted to meet, then exceed, the bar set by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums." He'll also give back-of-the-house tours: "We want to show people what we do."

The Children's Aqauarium opens Friday -- but keep in mind, it'll be a soft opening. Several tanks won't be full; some exhibits won't be operational. The grand opening isn't till December, but Winters, Hudson and Potvin wanted to show Fair-goers their new attraction. For those who can't wait any longer, Danny's slide show is right here. Dive in.
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