- Looking for a different and delightful experience not far from home? Something educational and fascinating, but really fun at the same time? You’ve found it! And it’s a place I absolutely love.
- About 19 miles S-SW of Plano, in the West End Historic District of Dallas, a jewel called the Dallas World Aquarium (DWA) nestles in several renovated 1920s-era warehouses. Those brick walls housed businesses throughout the 20th century–dull stuff, like a rubber company, a steel rule and die company, and even a Venetian blind company–but nothing to stir the imagination like the world-class aquarium that opened there in the early 1990s.
- In truth, calling is an aquarium is limiting to its scope. The DWA is actually a zoo, an unusually compact (it occupies just a single city acre!), interestingly vertical, indoor zoological extravaganza, rich in diversity and creative in its presentation.
- A touch of history: according to an article in The New Republic (“The Exhibitionist” by Ben Crair, 3/4/2015), Daryl Richardson, the founder and energetic proprietor of DWA, grew up in Willis, TX, a couple of hundred miles SE of Dallas, just north of Houston. As a child he “never visited a zoo he liked.” It seems he wasn’t impressed by the barren cages so popular for zoo exhibits back then. I remember them well, and I hated them, too. There’s nothing worse than propping up a living creature in a cage that looks like a bathroom stall. Concrete floors and solid iron bars are as unpleasant to look at as they are for some poor animal being forced to live in one like a convict, forever separated from even a hint of greenery and the natural world for which it was intended.
- Although it was long after childhood before Richardson developed a passion for animals–starting with a focus on fish–once he discovered the excitement of collecting interesting species he became, quite literally, a connoisseur. Fish were the beginning, then he included spectacular aviaries in his agenda. Then came reptiles, primitive amphibians, and awesome rare mammals. The DWA is the end result, and it is a result worth the effort.
- Enough history. Today, every inch of those former warehouses contains exotic exhibits of fish, birds, and animals indigenous to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, the South American rain-forest, the Indo-Pacific, South Africa, and Borneo. Richardson didn’t just want an ordinary zoo environment, he wanted different. He wanted something that celebrated the rare and seldom seen, the kind of critters you might not encounter in a typical American zoo setting. And that’s what he has. It’s a shish kabob of international flavor, so savory with the activity of the feathered and scaled and furred creatures housed there, a simple walk through can almost cause sensory overload! But it’s an enticing overload.
- The Aquarium’s overall layout is an adventure. Because it’s in downtown Dallas, eliminating the potential for horizontal sprawl, the facility is forced into its vertical form. Pathways wind around and up, with eight-stories of plants and animals from Mayan folklore and seven-stories of creatures unique to the Orinoco River. The alley connecting the buildings contains freshwater and saltwater ecosystems. One fish tank is an enormous 20,000-gallon walk-through tunnel that surrounds you with hundreds of Indo-Pacific fishes, coral, anemones, stingrays, sharks, octopi–well, you name it and it just might be swimming or crawling by! The play of light through the water, the fluid motion of the marine occupants, and the curve of the tunnel glass lend a nice sense of immersion to visitors as they pass through.
Botanical exhibits display lush plant life, rare and beautiful birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. Peer into glass terrariums and unusual insects (think Tarantula) and poison dart frogs lurk inches from your face! Nature’s colors are eye-popping, electric in intensity, rippling off feathers, moist skin, and scales in a full spectrum display. The sounds of rustling plants, chirping birds, calling and grunting mammals, splashing water, and people chattering about the sights carries straight up through the facility so that you’re ever aware of the flow of life around you. The rain-forest isn’t just played at–within the confines of the DWA, it exists.
And it’s not just about the entertainment of a cool and beautiful environmental menagerie. Conservation is also a focus. On the lowest floor, you’ll view endangered Amazon Manatees drifting past, staring out, rising every few minutes to breathe. These wonderful animals are part of the Dallas World Aquarium’s conservation activities. The Aquarium provides medical supplies, equipment, and funding for the program and helps release Manatees back into the wild. Species of birds that don’t normally do well in captivity have been successfully bred at the DWA. Other endangered animals you can see include the Pied tamarin, the Golden lion tamarin, the Horned guan, the Harpy eagle and Bali mynah, the Asian arowana, the Radiated tortoise and Yellow-spotted Amazon turtle, and the Giant otter (which is great fun to watch when playing).
If you want to learn more about some species and engage a little in their life at the DWA, every day, from 10:30 to 4:30 there are feedings and talks about the otters, sloths, sharks, penguins, jaguars, crocodiles and more.
Speaking of feedings–the eighteen-O-one restaurant, open from 11:30 to 2:30, serves dishes from Mexico, Indonesia, British Columbia, Australia, and Fiji. The Cafe Maya serves South American food. More simple fare is available in the Jungle Cafe until 4:30 p.m.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that there is a gift shop packed with interesting items where you can find mementos to remember your incredible visit.
The Dallas World Aquarium is open from 10:00 to 5:00 daily at 1801 Griffin Street. It’s only closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Prices are: Adults $20.95 +tax; Children (2-12) $14.95 +tax; Seniors $16.95. Children under 2 are free.
- I can’t think of a more enriching place to spend a few hours. So please–go forth and enjoy!