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Downtown Aquarium Houston Review of Downtown Aquarium Houston

Discussion in 'United States' started by geomorph, 18 Apr 2010.

  1. geomorph

    geomorph Well-Known Member 10+ year member Premium Member

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    Downtown Aquarium Houston is a nice attraction in the shadow of the skyscrapers with several unique features. It is a sister facility to Downtown Aquarium Denver, although not a clone; in fact the superior Denver location was built independently and acquired by the company that built the Houston one later. That company is a restaurant chain called Landry’s that also has a small brand of restaurants called Aquarium; both Downtown Aquariums have an Aquarium Restaurant, and there are two others in Nashville, Tennessee and Kemah, Texas. The company also owns a larger brand called Rainforest Café, with 25 locations that usually have several nice small aquariums in their décor. Downtown Aquarium Houston is composed of a large modern building with a cascading waterwall on its façade that houses several facilities: the first floor is the Aquarium Adventure Exhibit (the main focus of this review), the gift shop, and the lobby and bar for the Aquarium Restaurant; the second floor is the Aquarium Restaurant; and the third floor is a special events reservation area, Nautilus Ballroom. Outside the building is a pleasant bright landscape of small plazas that compose the Amusements area, with rides and games and fountains; the rides include a carousel, ferris wheel, and a small-scale train called Shark Voyage which views an aquarium exhibit in a separate building not seen from the main attraction.

    Here is an aerial view of the property; in the foreground is the main building and Amusements area, while behind the freeway is the tall smokestack of the Shark Voyage building:
    [​IMG]

    The Aquarium Adventure Exhibit is located entirely indoors with artificial lighting, on an exhibit path of small rooms that is divided into 8 themed areas. By my count there are 40 exhibits along this route (including some non-aquatic ones), mostly small sizes. The rooms and habitats definitely rely on cultural theming, which is achieved with a blend of realism and stylization, and every exhibit has at least one attractive species identification graphic with informative facts. There is also a good system of atmospheric sound effects throughout.

    The first themed area is called Real to Reel, and is the attraction’s entry composed of two rooms with an industrial age underwater lab style-a-la-20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. One room is a round room that screens a short introductory video about the aquarium, while the other emulates an engine room with sea creature images projected on its curving back wall and a round column tank in its center filled with lookdowns. One wall has two twin small round wall tanks for small moon jellies.

    Louisiana Swamp is next, a long dark room with a canopy of leaves and branches overhead and a dilapidated cabin to one side. In the middle is the Wishing Pond, a small coin toss in a watery depression formed by cypress knees. The largest exhibit is a long open-top tank with a rocky back ledge for small American alligators and turtles. Next to this is a smaller similar arrangement for an alligator snapping turtle. Two small wall exhibits are imbedded in an exposed river bank, one for American bullfrog and one for red swamp crayfish. Another small exhibit for two species of tree frog is housed in a box exhibit next to the cabin. Lastly, a nice open-top tank houses fish of the swamp; these include spotted gar, black crappie, largemouth bass, blue catfish, bowfin, carp, and sunfish.

    Shipwreck is a room recreating the hull of an old wooden ship and has 5 wall tanks. The first is a typically cramped rocky habitat for giant pacific octopus, while the others are more successful. One is a small one for sea anemones and sea stars, while a larger one is for black margate, black bar soldierfish, and sabre squirrelfish. Larger still is a fine long coral reef tank with live corals including leather finger, leather cup, cup, mushroom, hammer, and staghorn corals. Fish inside include clown fish, flame hawkfish, pajima cardinal fish, goby, pink skunk clownfish, yellow eye tang, yellow tang, anthias, bangaii cardinal fish, blue streak basslet, six line wrasse, and blue tang. Rounding out this nice selection are giant clam, bulb-tip anemone, brittle star, coral banded shrimp, hermit crab, and turbo snail. The largest tank is at the scenic bow of the ship and contains 4 species of grouper (Queensland, goliath, red, and black) as well as green moray eel and neon goby.

    Rainforest is a narrow dark leafy passage with small exhibits. There are 4 wall tanks for archerfish, piranha, South American rainforest (a small selection of yellow belly cichlid, earth-eater, algae-eater, and Jack Dempsey), and a larger rainforest fish assortment (Niger catfish, redtail catfish, tiger shovelnose, peacock bass, and silver arowana). There is also a small shelf tank for polka-dot stingray. Several non-fish exhibits are here too; a wall terrarium for blue poison dart frog, one for emerald tree boa, and one for prehensile tailed skink, as well as a small harpwire enclosure for a bird perch which rotates its residents between four parrot species.

    Rainforest Interior:
    [​IMG]

    Sunken Temple is a successfully realized themed area of several rooms that evokes ancient cultures of Central and South America. It starts with its largest tank first, a long one with an upward curving panel that forms a half-tunnel. Inside is a close temple-like backdrop that contrasts well with the bright residents. These residents are a nice selection of porkfish, emperor snapper, panther grouper, eyestripe surgeonfish, blue tang, unicorn tang, sailfin tang, clown trigger, creolefish, naso tang, golden puffer, French grunt, and Kemps Ridley sea turtle. Nearby is a small half-circular wall niche tank for lionfish and foxface. Also in another temple-like room setting behind glass is a habitat for reticulated python (the individual is 23 feet long and 300 pounds). An archway leads to a scenic side room of the temple whose backwall is mysterious face with glowing eyes; where the mouth would be is a shelf tank for electric eel, and a soundtrack of simulated electric charge plays in the room. 5 other small exhibits are in the same room; terrariums for spiny tailed lizard, tarantula, and milksnake, and small tanks for Caribbean seahorse and axolotl.

    Sunken Temple entry with large tank:
    [​IMG]

    Gulf of Mexico is a single exhibit, the largest tank in the exhibit path (but not in the facility). As modern tanks go, it is on the small side of large tanks. It is nice exhibit and dominated by simulated oil platform supports, the real version of which the aquarium defends as a benefit to the environment since they have expanded the range of many fish and supported aquaculture research and sportfishing activities. This tank contains many large specimens and the species include red snapper, cobia, black drum, tarpon, sheepshead, amberjack, horse-eye jack, and redfish. There is also a nurse shark here that is perhaps the largest I have seen; unfortunately the maze of platform supports seemed to be impeding its turnaround capabilities in the tank.

    Discovery Rig continues the oil or gas plant theme of the previous room and is the aqaurium’s contact experience. There is a small central open top circular tank for touching small rays and sharks, with a unique pop-up window inside accessed from a child-sized cave. There are also two other rocky curved small touch tanks, one for horseshoe crabs and one for sea stars and others. Both of these have a very small round column tank next to them; one had a sea star and a clownfish and a blue tang, the other had a mermaids purse. Another half-round column tank attached to the wall is nearby, but not for contact; it contains small tropical fish including bird wrasse, sailfin snapper, hogfish, soldierfish, anthias, leaf-lip grouper, coral beauty angel, blue ring angel, and freckled hawk. An old-fashioned diving suit for posing for pictures completes the room.

    The final themed exhibit of the Aquarium Adventure is a non-aquatic one and is a horrible finale to a pleasant experience. It is called White Tigers of the Maharaja’s Temple. It is a prison that defies my understanding of what AZA accreditation means. 4 white Bengal tigers are rotated into this exhibit inside a temple-like room for both visitors and tigers, separated by floor-to-ceiling glass panels. The tiger habitat is composed of simulated bright stone walls and floors, a raised formal stone small swimming pool, an ugly Buddha-esque statue, and a small rambling stone waterfall in the back of the room, which has a fairly low ceiling and no natural lighting except for a few tiny windows. There is no outdoor off-exhibit yard or skylit bedrooms that I can find. The upside of all this is that visitors get very close views of the tigers! However, the experience is claustrophobic and has little to do with the focus of the facility, so it certainly comes across as a circus sideshow. A far better use of this space would have been to feature a large impressive tank of fish than the ones already seen; it would be cliché but entirely appropriate. After the tigers, the exhibit path ends in the gift shop, which has one additional small round window into the Gulf of Mexico exhibit tank.

    White Tigers of the Maharaja's Temple:
    [​IMG]

    The first floor lobby of the Aquarium Restaurant has a few exhibits as well. One is a round column of bright small fish, while the other is a massive three-story column with a small reef feature at the bottom. This tank has several moray eels as well as various medium fish that choose various levels to swim. The staircase up to the restaurant, and the Nautilus Ballroom above it, circles around this tank and provides a dramatic entry. The restaurant is large and surrounds a large rectangular floor-to-ceiling tank of 150,000 gallons with rocky and simulated reef outcrops; it contains a varied assortment of animals including small sharks, rays, grouper, and a sea turtle. This is the tank that should have been located downstairs as the finale to the Aquarium Adventure Exhibit! Oddly, there is also a small wall tank for seahorses that is easy to miss.

    Aquarium Restaurant interior:
    [​IMG]

    The Amusements area outside is centered on an open-air station for the Shark Voyage train ride. The ride is about 15 minutes and travels from the station underneath the adjacent freeway overpasses; the aquarium property extends across several acres here and is mostly occupied by its shaded parking lot. A recorded narration plays during the ride. The train passes a beach scene of a large simulated shark, caught and hanging by its tail from a scaffold. After passing beneath the overpass, the train enters an older brick former industrial building which has been rehabilitated to house the Shark Voyage. Inside is a large dark acrylic tunnel exhibit, 200,000 gallons, with rocky outcrops inside and many species of large shark, including zebra, whitetip reef, blacktip reef, sand tiger, and sawfish. Fortunately, the train stops in the tunnel for about 4 minutes, and the train cars have windows in their canopies for enjoying the views up at some of the sharks swimming above; unfortunately, light creates glare from the end of the tunnel, engine fumes build up inside, viewing time and position is limited, and the engineer gets off the engine and starts taking pictures of each group for sale later! After the train restarts and exits the tunnel, it continues its route at the edge of the parking lot to another scene, this time a lagoon in front of a shack. Suddenly, an explosion of water bursts from the lagoon and a giant simulated shark head pops up, similar to the Jaws ride at the Universal theme parks! Then the train goes back under the freeway and back to its station. To see the actual exhibit again from another row, another ride is required and visitors must endure the rest of the mundane experience. In addition, the train is a separate attraction price and is not included with admission to the main exhibit, unless a more expensive pass is purchased.

    Shark Voyage exhibit tunnel:
    [​IMG]

    Downtown Aquarium Houston is a nice facility but does not compare favorably with many other aquariums. It loses major points in my book for its brutal tiger exhibit and separately priced and controlled shark exhibit. However, despite its obvious commercialism, it contains several very fine and scientifically presented smaller habitats, and its intimate but adventurous themed exhibit path certainly seems to evoke interest in its subjects for younger visitors. None of its exhibits make my top lists, and I rank it at number 20 of the 40 aquarium facilities I have visited (that list includes marine parks and zoo aquariums too). Adult admission to the exhibit is $9.25 and is priced right; adult admission to the Shark Voyage train ride is $4.99 and is a ripoff. An all-day pass to the exhibit and the three rides is $15.99 and is priced right, allowing several rides on Shark Voyage. Of course, admission to the fine tank in the restaurant is free, just go up and walk around it and the waitstaff will not hassle as long as visitors stay out of their way! The hours of this facility are particularly enjoyable; they are open much later than most aquariums, so visitors can make this their night activity while visiting the rest of downtown during the day, a rare treat in the aquarium world! I have posted additional pictures in the gallery.
     
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  2. jbnbsn99

    jbnbsn99 Well-Known Member

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    Thanks so much for the review. I have been meaning to get down to see it, but every time I visit Houston I seem to skip it. I had a feeling that the White Tigers would detract from the place, and that is one reason I haven't visited.
     
  3. SMR

    SMR Well-Known Member

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    An outstanding and fascinating review. Thank you geomorph.
     
  4. geomorph

    geomorph Well-Known Member 10+ year member Premium Member

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    jbnbsn99, it sounds like you should go see it but turn around right before the tigers! Another reason to visit is an adjacent park with a small monument dedicated to George Bush, The Senior!?!
     
  5. Arizona Docent

    Arizona Docent Well-Known Member 15+ year member

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    Quote from the review "...simulated oil platforms, the real version of which the aquarium defends as a benefit to the environment..."

    I wonder how this argument stands up in light of the current (catastrophic) gulf oil leak?
     
  6. geomorph

    geomorph Well-Known Member 10+ year member Premium Member

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    Yes it will be interesting to see if they remove the signs that defend them!
     
  7. NAIB Volunteer

    NAIB Volunteer Well-Known Member 10+ year member

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    I do not like the layout of this aquarium at all. Besides the awful tiger enclosure, the amount of fake plants, concrete replicas, and statues take away and distract you when viewing the exhibits.
     
  8. Wurm

    Wurm Member

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    One thing I'll say about this facility outright: it had the most meticulously clean and sparkling aquatic exhibits of any zoo/aquarium I've ever been to. Everything was immaculate - no algae, virtually no scratches, even on acrylic, etc. Freshwater, saltwater, didn't matter! This is an incredible feat, not to be dismissed, and probably not appreciated by many (or anyone) outside the industry who has never labored over the daily removal of marine algae or tried to buff an acrylic viewing panel.

    I won't even begin to try and defend the white tiger exhibit or the liberal use of fake plants, corals, statues, etc., but overall I found this to be an impressive facility for the size and venue. This is NOT your traditional aquarium, and it seems to me that it was never really intended to be.
     
  9. geomorph

    geomorph Well-Known Member 10+ year member Premium Member

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    Wurm, do you have experience in the aquarium maintenance field? It sounds like it! I agree that the exhibits were obviously well-maintained!
     
  10. vogelcommando

    vogelcommando Well-Known Member 10+ year member

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