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Toronto's age of aquarium: a new attraction fights the crowds

The new Ripley’s Aquarium Canada has been a huge success.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

When Samantha Simpson took her nephew out for their big day on the town over the new year break, Hunter insisted on wearing his life jacket. The two-year-old was still buckled up when leaving the aquarium three hours later.

Hunter must have heard the news. Toronto has jumped into its age of aquarium with both feet.

Ms. Simpson's only complaint was there were too many other people almost as keen as Hunter to get close to the fish. "He had trouble seeing things," Ms. Simpson said.

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Since opening at the base of the CN Tower in October, Ripley's Aquarium of Canada has had to do more crowd management than marketing. This coming week during the school break, it will open doors an hour earlier at 8 a.m. to absorb some extra flow.

It's the city's first major attraction to open in a quarter-century, so it's reasonable to ask if all the ticket sales in this city that's far from the sea might just be put down to the fact that we finally have something new to look at.

But considering that tourist season hasn't even begun, it seems a safe bet that the aquarium will keep exceeding its quotas. And visitors are willing to pay up; admission fees are close to $30 for adults and $20 for youth. (Kids aged 3-5 can get in for $10).

Beyond being just something new to look at, it's located square in the centre of the booming South Core district, where condos and hotels are growing like kelp (the latter up to 30 centimetres a day, apparently). Taking a cue from the younger demographic of its neighbourhood, the aquarium has tried hard to expand on the already wide visual appeal of iridescent fish, translucent jellyfish and perfectly sleek reef sharks. Parties here tend to feature live bands and cocktails as much as birthday cakes.

It's a grown-up formula for lasting success and a model other attractions might learn from.

"Oh, I want to swim in there," says a 14-year-old girl as she looks into the two-storey kelp garden on a Wednesday afternoon in February. Strands of kelp and dozens of fish are swaying rhythmically in a tank meant to simulate the effects of a coastal B.C. swell.

The girl's mother, Tanja Sassi, organized the trip for her children's home-schooling group from Oakville. The kids were particularly excited for this field trip, but they had to wait.

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"We wanted to come earlier. They told us not to come until they could schedule us in," Ms. Sassi said. "It's been too busy."

"We are overwhelmed by the popularity," confirms Peter Doyle, the aquarium's general manager. He projects it will cruise past its target of two million visitors a year. To compare, the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago welcomed just over two million visitors last year, making it that city's most popular cultural attraction.

In response, the aquarium has lengthened operating hours for its 365-days-a-year schedule, letting people in half an hour before the posted opening time of 9 a.m. and putting no time limit on those who enter as late as 9 p.m.

Mr. Doyle says the extended evening policy has attracted an unexpectedly high number of young adults, many, presumably, from the aquarium's neighbouring condo towers. "They come here for a date night or before heading out to the clubs," Mr. Doyle said.

Mr. Doyle says it has also sold more annual passes than expected, raising the question of what admission lines will be like in the summer when loyal locals have to contend with the bulk of the 10 million overnight tourists Toronto hosts each year.

Tourism Toronto vice-president Andrew Weir uses the term "tourism campus" to describe the aquarium's location, being hard against the CN Tower, Rogers Centre, Air Canada Centre, Railway Museum, Steamwhistle Brewery and convention centre. He notes that the new Delta Toronto hotel at the corner of Lower Simcoe St. and Bremner Blvd. is slated to open its 567 rooms by the end of this year.

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The location, at the end of Union Station's Skywalk, was no accident. "We waited a long time for the right central site to become available," Mr. Doyle said.

The aquarium will host events such as overnight stays, cocktail parties, sit-down dinners, live bands and yoga in front of the trance-inducing jellyfish.

Such extras are unnecessary for many.

"This is the best field trip we've ever had," comes a voice from the group from Camelot House, a Burlington agency for adults with intellectual disabilities that's visiting the same Wednesday afternoon.

Camelot president Bonnie Silvia explains the marine visuals are something other attractions can't match. "We have many students with autism. For them, watching a school of colourful fish is like nirvana," she said.

Mr. Doyle says that the average visitor stay, at close to three hours, has been longer than expected. It seems Ripley's underestimated not just how many Torontonians would come, but how long they would want to marvel at how rippling stingrays look graceful even when bumping into each other, appreciate how well-named the goliath grouper is, wonder how something that looks as much like a tube sock as the mundane electric eel could generate 600 volts of electricity, reach down to touch the 450-million-year-old shape of a horseshoe crab shell or to just stare into the inscrutable eyes of a sand tiger shark.

And it can't hurt that Ripley's first winter has been one that left Torontonians particularly ready for some exposure to a kind of marine life not pulled through an ice fishing hole.

Of the bright, ornate tropical creatures swimming through the Rainbow Reef gallery, Mr. Doyle points out: "These are things you don't get to see every day."

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