With the opening of Ripley's Aquarium in the year 2000, Smoky Mountain visitors and residents alike will be able to view some of nature's most exotic undersea life. When completed, the $42 million, 100,000-plus square foot marine attraction will be home to thousands of fish and other types of aquatic life from around the world. More than 1.3 million gallons of water (mostly man-made sea water) will accommodate the various exhibits and displays located throughout the facility..
Once inside, visitors will find themselves in a unique environment that combines state-of-the-art technology with up-close views of exotic salt water specimens, such as the giant octopus with eight-foot long tentacles, the sea dragon and the giant spider crab, the largest crustacean in the world.
The centerpiece of the aquarium will be an underwater acrylic tunnel in which visitors will ride through 700,000 gallons of water on a 320-foot moving glide path. The journey will bring viewers just inches away from large sharks, poisonous ocean predators and numerous varieties of tropical fish whose beauty will definitely impress spectators.
Tours of Ripley's Aquarium will be self-guided, and guests should plan on as long as two-and-a-half hours to do it justice. The complex will be laid out in a way that takes spectators along a definite route, but still leaving room for flexibility.
Overall, Ripley's Aquarium is planned as a multi-sensory experience in which guests will be able to see and hear underwater wonders, as well as touch such ocean inhabitants as sting rays and horseshoe crabs. In some of the larger tanks, aquarium divers will actually be in the water, interacting with many of the life forms.
As part of its mission to combine education with entertainment, Ripley's will also operate on-site classrooms and a theater where on-staff educators will use lectures and films to expand both visitor and student knowledge of the sea and its residents. Intern study programs will eventually be developed for those seriously interested in careers in Marine Science.
The Gatlinburg aquarium will be the second such facility to be opened by Ripley's. The first premiered in Myrtle Beach in 1997, and ultimately, ten such attractions are planned to be in operation worldwide by 2005.
Besides the exhibits of sea life, visitors will also find Ripley's Cargo Hold gift shop and a deli-style restaurant complete with an outdoor veranda. There will be meeting rooms as well as banquet and wedding facilities available on the property.
Bob Masterson, President of Ripley Entertainment, spoke about the decision to bring an aquarium to Gatlinburg. "We decided that this was something that would be entertaining for most of the public," Masterson said. "We're expecting more than 1.3 million visitors each year," he said, going on to say he believes it will eventually be considered a "landmark" in East Tennessee.." The governments of Sevier County's communities are hoping that it will be a logical move for the local economy as well since the aquarium will employ over 240 local residents.
Inevitably, comparisons will be drawn between Ripley's Aquarium and the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga. Masterson, however, sees this as an apples-oranges situation. He points out that the Chattanooga facility is primarily a freshwater aquarium in contrast to the mainly saltwater offerings of the Ripley's attraction.
The bottom line, is that the people who come to see the Gatlinburg aquarium enjoy themselves. "We're in the business of presenting entertainment, where you spend time doing something interesting," he said. When one considers the prospect of getting up-close and personal with a jellyfish or an Amazonian piranha, "interesting" might just be a bit of understatement.