Riding a New Wave

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Remember when Disney owned the Queen Mary and proposed a $3-billion DisneySea park in Long Beach in the early 1990s? Then, as fast as you can say, "Mary Poppins," Disney closed shop in Long Beach, turned the keys to the Queen Mary over to the city and was gone.

Well, so long, Disney. Hello, Shelby.

With personality to spare, Shelby, a female harbor seal, is just one of the aquatic crowd pleasers that folks in Long Beach hope will draw people in droves to their world-class, $117-million aquarium at Shoreline Drive and Aquarium Way.

With Saturday's public opening of Aquarium of the Pacific, Long Beach hopes to bury once and for all the painful memories of Walt Disney Co.'s decision to drop a proposed waterfront amusement park, a decision that came in the wake of other bad economic news, including the closure of the naval base and shipyard and downsizing at McDonnell Douglas.

Boasting educational and entertainment values in equal measure, the aquarium is the latest in what has become one of America's hottest trends among cities: using exotic displays and graceful fish to help drive the economic revival of downtowns and waterfront districts.

Baltimore, with its National Aquarium, got the trend going in 1981. A few years later, the Monterey Bay Aquarium opened.

Now it's Long Beach's turn.

With waterfront land to spare and a desire to do something spectacular to erase memories of the Disney pullout, Long Beach built what it boasts will become one of the nation's leading aquariums.

Overall, the tone of the aquarium is educational. But it hopes to offer enough entertainment value to justify its admission prices: $13.95 for adults, $11.95 for seniors and $6.95 for children age 3 to 11. Children under 3 are allowed in free. Parking is $6 extra. The ticket prices are in line with those charged by other major aquariums.

There won't be any trained whales at the aquarium, but there will be more than 10,000 fish on display in the 17 major habitat tanks and 30 smaller exhibits.

Viewers can look in on wildly different forms of sea life, all swimming in and out of jagged rocks, graceful strands of kelp and coral.

Among the 550 species on display will be leopard sharks, giant Japanese spider crabs, yellowtail fish, eels, bat rays and wrasses, fish that can actually change from female to male, depending on need. Among the more interesting to look at are the cucumber fish, elegant sea dragons that resemble floating seaweed, moon jellies and sea urchins, those little spiny balls that resemble tribbles of "Star Trek" fame.

Nearly everything in the tanks but the fish will be man-made. But you'll be hard pressed to notice, because the re-creations are wonderfully realized by the Larson Co. The international design firm has worked its magic on the National, the Monterey and Chicago's Shedd Aquarium and re-created wildly realistic rain forests, shipwrecks and rock gardens for clients such as the Bronx Zoo, Disney World and the Royal Rotterdam Zoological Gardens in the Netherlands. The mussels you see clinging to rocks in aquarium exhibits were each individually painted and cemented.

The aquarium's exhibition area is large enough to cover three football fields. In addition to the exhibits, the aquarium proper will include a restaurant that overlooks Rainbow Harbor, a gift shop and a 186-seat theater.

One special feature for children will be Kids' Cove, an outdoor play area with things to climb on, such as a reproduced whale skeleton. Close by is a touch tank, a shallow pool that children will be able to reach into to pet stingrays (sans stingers).

Outside the aquarium, a pedestrian esplanade curves around Rainbow Harbor, a dredged-out lagoon that is being transformed into a working harbor providing an anchorage to two tall ships, including the Californian. A developer, OliverMcMillan, has been chosen to put in a large restaurant, an Imax theater and a retail shopping plaza across the street from the aquarium. But groundbreaking on the project won't begin until 1999, at the earliest.

Also in the works is a water taxi service that will offer $1 boat rides to Shoreline Village, a touristy collection of restaurants and small souvenir shops that anchors the other end of Rainbow Harbor, and the Queen Mary, docked at its permanent home across San Pedro Bay.

From the beginning, aquarium planners have acknowledged they would not have the budget or the expertise to compete with San Diego's SeaWorld or local attractions such as Disneyland or Knott's Berry Farm. At the same time, they knew they couldn't bore people, not when an outing could cost a family of four more than $50.

So the aquarium was designed with enough eye-popping appeal to entertain even jaded Hollywood types.

"We have a lot more competition here than they have, say, in Monterey, what with Knott's, Disney and Universal, as well as the Getty Center," said aquarium chief Warren Iliff. Among the big differences with Monterey, which focuses its exhibits on sea life off the central California coast, is the colorful re-creation of a coral reef.

"I hope the overall experience of being in our aquarium is one that creates a series of 'Wows!'," Iliff said. "We want people to have fun, but we don't ever want to be seen as exploiting animals."

The Aquarium of the Pacific re-creates, with occasionally breathtaking displays, three regions of the Pacific--the Southern California/Baja area, the Northern Pacific and the tropical Pacific.

Visitors to the tropical Pacific gallery will experience the underwater beauty of a coral reef reproduced from those observed on-site by aquarium designers in the Palau, Micronesia.

The Southern California exhibit features a stunningly simulated kelp forest.

Splashing waves (created by the aquarium's specially designed surge system), mists and cool air highlight a display of windy, craggy coastlines in the Northern Pacific exhibit. This exhibit features puffins and other diving birds, as well as masses of schooling fish and giant spider crabs.

The outside design, with its distinctive roof cut in the outline of waves, will eventually become a symbol of Long Beach, planners hope. Architects for the aquarium were from the Los Angeles office of Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum and the San Francisco firm Esherick Homsey Dodge and Davis, which designed the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Now, for some bad news: getting there.

The easiest way to the aquarium is to take the 710 Freeway south and go past the downtown Long Beach turnoff, to Shoreline Drive and then to Aquarium Way. This gets you right to the 1,500-car parking lot.

The joke is: You can't miss it. Just follow the black skid marks to the end of the freeway.

The 710 Freeway arguably is the L.A. area's meanest. The crush of commuters, lead-footed locals and 18-wheelers barreling in and out of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach provide some heart-stopping moments. A recent preview weekend was marred when a bad accident shut down all but one lane of the 710, causing many of the guests to miss a breakfast harbor cruise. You might try checking a map for an alternative route.

Once on Shoreline, if you happen to miss the signs to the aquarium, which will be hard to do, ignore a large round building decorated th paintings of whales, dolphins and her sea creatures. Yes, it would make a perfect aquarium, but it's not; it's the Sports Arena.

Still, the trek should be worthwhile, particularly for visitors from inland valleys on hot summer days. Long Beach waterfront weather is near-perfect. The city boasts that the sun shines 345 days a year, perhaps except when El Nin~o visits. On most days, a breeze blows in off the Pacific.

City fathers are counting on the aquarium being the key to a rejuvenation of downtown. With estimates that it will have to draw 1.6 million visitors per year to break even, the Aquarium of the Pacific will have to pull in big crowds from the start.

Things so far look favorable. More than 18,000 people have signed up already as charter members, at a cost of $35 for individuals, $65 for couples and $95 for families. A special preview weekend for people who signed up as charter members drew 13,000 over two days.

"The market is ready for it, and I think it is ready for the market," said Long Beach City Manager James C. Hankla.

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