I've gotten a lot of feedback since my rant about the Aquarium a few months ago. To sum my post up, I explained that I'd long been underwhelmed by the Aquarium and that I thought it's prices—about $100 for a family of four—were outrageous, especially since they don't include access to much-hyped "special" attractions like the dolphin show or 4-D Immersion Theater.
Some agreed with me, others disagreed strongly, noting what an engine the Aquarium is for the Baltimore economy, that the prices at our Aquarium are in-line with similar attractions across the country, and in particular, that an Aquarium membership—$159 for a family of 4—make it a bargain for local residents who visit at least 2 or 3 times a year. The most comprehensive and convincing defense of the Aquarium came, not surprisingly, from Jen Bloomer, it's media relations manager. She said, in part:
Price: Yes, it is expensive to come to the Aquarium. As you mentioned, it takes A LOT to operate our facility. Revenue from attendance accounts for about 60% of the operation costs – the rest comes from grants and other funding sources.
The majority of people in those lines that you mention are visiting tourists. A lot of research shows that many tourists come to Baltimore specifically for the Aquarium and the Inner Harbor experience. They stay, they spend money in our great town (many of them get to see their home team beat up on the Orioles) and hopefully, any negative things they have heard about this City start to fade. If you look at it from that perspective, the Aquarium is “a prized downtown attraction” because of its economic impact.
So what about the local people? We do our best to push the local community to purchase memberships – families can convert the money they spend on tickets for a one-time trip to a family membership, and come back over and over throughout the year. We offer a lot of great benefits and extra events for members.
Additionally, Dollar Days isn’t the only affordable access program we offer. Fridays after Five run from September – March, and it gives people the chance to come for $5 during the off-season when it is not jammed pack.
In addition to her gracious e-mail, Bloomer invited me and my family to attend a free screening of "Polar Express" in the 4-D Immersion Theater. I took her up on the incredibly generous—especially considering the less-than-generous tone of my rant—offer and we went to the Aquarium last week.
As I mentioned in my last post, I truly had no idea what the Immersion Theater was. Turns out, it's a lot like "The Sensorium" at the old Power Plant, where they would spray smells into the theater to augment the experience. In this case, though, the "immersion" is, well, intense, especially for 2 and 4 year-olds. For one thing, the movies shown here are in 3-D. In addition, there are various effects designed to enhance the experience. When a crocodile snaps, a poker jabs you in the back, when you step in the jungle, little plastic "snakes" whip your feet, when you hit the water, a spray douses you in the face.
All of these examples are from a preview of a jungle movie because by 30 seconds into it, both of my kids were screaming and begging for the exit. We managed to calm them and convince them to try the main attraction, but by the second poke and the third shpritz, it started to feel like a torture chamber and we ran. Jen explained that this feature really isn't intended for kids so young, but that they would show a Dora film afterwards and that was geared specifically for them. We tried it out and 2-year-old Benny stuck it out through the end, but 4-year-old Jack hated it every time he got sprayed in the face (I, frankly, did too), so we waited outside the theater.
In the hallway, I shook my head. I really wanted to become an Aquarium convert. So many people have approached me and told me that I'm missing the boat, and I guess I still am. Giving the benefit of the doubt, I imagine that older kids might get into getting poked in the back and sprayed in the face during their movie, but I seriously don't get it. And, chatting with other parents and older kids afterwards, they mostly didn't either. Again, we found ourselves chatting around the bubbling tubes in the hallway, which was the highlight for many of the kids in attendance (above).
I'm gonna keep trying, though. I'm coming around to understanding the financial end of things, and I love that the Aquarium is such a beloved institution. Plus, the people there are so friendly. I'm sure we'll have our breakthrough soon...