Odds are, no one was expecting the new aquarium at Concord Mills to come anywhere close to matching the scope or scale of the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta.
But beyond that, few people in the Charlotte area really had any idea what the inside of Merlin Entertainment’s Sea Life Aquarium was going to look like. Until Thursday.
The 36,000-square-foot facility – on the back side of the massive mall in Concord – opened at noon to its first wave of paying customers, lured by the promise of 5,000 sea creatures, from sharks to stingrays to jellyfish.
Generally speaking, early guests were impressed by the presentation. Among the highlights: a 180-degree acrylic “ocean tunnel” that simulates looking up from the bottom of the sea floor; an interactive touchpool filled with hermit crabs and starfish (all safe to handle); and the giant Pacific octopus, which just arrived Wednesday.
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“When you say that there’s an aquarium at Concord Mills, most people are gonna think there’s a fish tank at Concord Mills,” said Heather Gaydeski of Huntersville, as she exited with her daughter Isabella, 9. “But it was really cool. We’re big Disney fans, and it’s very Disney-esque.”
That said, no adult guest seemed awestruck by the animals.
The blacktip reef sharks at Sea Life Aquarium are only about 4 feet long (although they are expected to grow to 5 feet), and the majority of the creatures are far smaller than the many toddlers who turned out with their parents on opening day.
So some had mixed feelings about the ticket prices – $21 for adults, $17 for kids 3-12, free for 2 and younger.
“It’s a little on the expensive side,” said Julie Transou of Charlotte, who brought a 3-year-old boy she was baby-sitting. “But this was good for a smaller-size aquarium.” Transou and others said their entire visit took about 30-35 minutes.
Sea Life marketing manager Jack Stevenson did say the aquarium has 10,000 square feet of space available for expansion, and that new fish and different creatures may arrive throughout the year. He also said traveling exhibits will be hosted beginning in 2015.
All of these things could help push sales of the $55 annual passes, which Stevenson said are selling well. And though he wouldn’t provide specific figures, he said Sea Life met its goal for advance ticket sales (early-bird admission was $16).
“We’re just happy to be able to provide an education and entertainment component to what’s already a well-established center for shopping and dining.”