Wonders of Wildlife was named America’s Best Aquarium this month by voters in a USA Today poll. That’s the fourth time. What are the elements that make WOW stand out?
Johnny really poured passion into this place. It’s a journey around the world. We really pride ourselves on making sure that every species that we have here is something special and unique. We take you from open ocean in here, where there’s species in this habitat that you would not normally find together – but in our thoughts of open ocean, they say it’s one big ocean, and we’ve got goliath groupers and sharks and all kinds of species in here that cohabitate.
Many local attractions draw primarily from tourists within driving distance. Is that true for WOW, and what impact do you anticipate with rising gas prices, now averaging $5 per gallon?
We’re definitely a drive market here. Some 80% of the United States is within a day’s drive to Springfield. We’re in a great location, a great way for families to get away because of those rising gas prices and airfare and other things that may impact your typical summer travel. They can get here a little more affordably. We’re also very conscious with our local market. We have programs – our Just for Neighbors offer is for locals, and they get a discount off our admission when they buy it online. New this year, we have an after 3 p.m. summer nights ticket. That’s been a really popular way to come and enjoy it and save a little bit.
Does being next to the flagship Bass Pro Shops store draw an international crowd?
That is definitely a draw for guests to come visit, both internationally and domestic. We do have a reach at Wonders of Wildlife for international markets as well, not only here on property with some of our digital programming. Mission Conservation is a way that we bring WOW to families at home that maybe can’t get here, especially during COVID. That program saw our guests playing as far away as Cook Islands in the South Sea, London, all over the world. That’s a partnership with several other conservation organizations that have a much greater reach than what we could ever imagine.
Construction began last month on the city’s $26 million Grant Avenue Parkway project. That’s promoted as a pedestrian and bike connector between Bass Pro and downtown. How do you see that impacting the WOW visitor experience?
The new connection is going to just make access far easier for guests to get here and really connect two hubs, for the city, downtown and the Bass Pro campus. It’s a natural fit, I think, and it’s going to be really great for guests.
What investments are on the horizon for WOW?
Just in the last few months we’ve opened the American Museum of Fly Fishing, which relocated part of their exhibits from Vermont. That’s a free exhibit to guests; it doesn’t require admission to WOW. The Nature’s Best Photography also opened during the World’s Fishing Fair. It was a physical addition [of 10,000 square feet]. That’s a tribute to Winland Smith Rice, who is the late daughter of FedEx founder Fred Smith and who was an avid conservation and nature photographer. Following her passing, Nature’s Best Photography was established. That exhibit has been in the Smithsonian in [Washington,] D.C., for years, and now it’s right here at Wonders of Wildlife. We have a new jellyfish exhibit that’s under construction and should be opening in a few months. We have a new digital aquarium out at Campbell [Avenue] and Sunshine [Street]. That’s just going to really put us even more so on the map and invite guests in to enjoy everything that we have to offer.
You came to WOW from SeaWorld. In your decades of experience in attractions with animals, what are the changes you’ve seen in the industry?
We start to see a change in just the general thought process of what animals in captivity need. Everything from training techniques to acquisitions are much more heavily regulated. Everything we do here at Wonders of Wildlife, if it’s regarding an animal, animal health is first. We have a veterinarian that is on property three to five days a week. These guys get probably more physicals and care than we do. Our animal care team does a lot of behavioral things with them to make sure that they are stimulated and appropriate for their species and habitat.
The latest survey data yield results.