New center transports visitors to heart of Everglades

New center transports visitors to heart of Everglades
Mark Cancel, 13 and Bryce Whalen, 14, of Lantana experience the Nature's Symphony After Dark exhibit at The Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge new visitors center. The exhibit is part of the center and its new $1-million, state-of-the-art Everglades Exhibition. (MARK RANDALL, SUN SENTINEL)
The building brings the world around it inside: cypress trees, marshlands, Florida deer, alligators, airboats. It's the entire Everglades experience, all under one roof.

The new Visitor Center at the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, which opened to the public on Saturday, showcases several exhibits that bring people to the heart of Florida's largest wilderness with replicas of habitats, documentaries about the "River of Grass" and virtual tours.

"It's amazing you can sit here and experience the Everglades at night," said Rose Murray, who lives west of Delray Beach, as she took in the exhibit "Nature's Symphony After Dark." "I'm in this room, but I feel a world away."

The exhibit features a round, dark room where the voice of a grandfather narrates to his grandson the sounds and stories of the Everglades when night falls.

Dozens of residents attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony of the $1 million building. The new center replaces an old office and a much smaller visitors center that was severely damaged by Hurricane Wilma.

On Saturday, visitors enjoyed tours of the wooden marsh trail and the cypress boardwalk at the refuge. But the excitement was all contained inside, at exhibits like the "Virtual Airboat Tour."

"The staff said, 'How can we make something that's really interesting for everyone?' " said Refuge Manager Sylvia Pelizza.

Refuge staff teamed up with the South Florida Water Management District to create a center that focused on the environment and on conservation.

The center will offer environmental programs for school groups and hopes to create after-school and summer programs.

"If they can get there, they can get the Everglades experience," Pelizza said.

The refuge was established in 1951, and in 1986 it was named after Marshall, an influential conservationist in South Florida. The 147,391 acres contain one of three water conservation areas in the region. It is intended to provide flood control and water storage and is part of what remains of the original freshwater Everglades.