The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk has begun construction of a 4D movie theater and a large new seal exhibit, part of the popular attraction’s advance response to the rebuilding of an adjacent railroad bridge.
On Nov. 11, the Aquarium’s five harbor seals moved into a home-away-from-home – on view to guests in the former “Go Fish!” exhibit – so construction could begin on a 150,000-gallon, two-story habitat on the site of the seals’ original display in Newman’s Own Hall. (At 30,000 gallons, the seals’ temporary home is actually larger than their original 19,000-gallon exhibit.)
Additionally, walls went up Nov. 13 around the Aquarium’s employee parking lot and work began on a 179-seat 4D theater.
Both the new seal exhibit and theater are expected to open in late 2020.
“These are significant projects, but they have been designed and timed to have the least impact on our animals and on our guests,” said Dave Truedson, the Aquarium’s chief operating officer. “It’s critical that we do them now, simultaneously, so that we can be prepared for the Walk Bridge effects.”
During construction, the minimal impact on visitors will be an eventual temporary shift of the Aquarium’s main entrance. During some periods of construction, visitors will enter the Aquarium down steps at North Water and Marshall streets (the site of its original main entrance from 1988-2001). School buses will still unload at the current bus circle.
The projects are occuring in response to the replacement of a railroad bridge that runs between the Aquarium’s main building and its IMAX Theater. Called the Walk Bridge, the swivel bridge was built in the 1880s. In recent years, it has sometimes stuck open, shutting down MetroNorth’s New Haven Line and Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. The multi-year replacement of the bridge, expected to begin in 2021, requires removal of the Aquarium’s iconic IMAX Theater and a riverfront structure that is home to the “Meerkats” exhibit and the seals in their temporary space.
Aquarium leaders negotiated with state and federal officials in 2018 for a “functional replacement” agreement to build a new theater and fortify elements of the Aquarium to be impacted during the bridge work. Capped at $40 million, the agreement involves federal and state dollars. No money will come from the City of Norwalk.
“We thank the City of Norwalk and the Connecticut Department of Transportation for being responsive to the impact that the bridge project will have on the Aquarium,” Truedson said. “Minimizing the significant economic damages that will occur due to the project is critical if the Aquarium is to remain one of the state’s largest tourist attractions and an economic driver for the city and state.”
The dual projects were designed by the architectural firm Beyer Blinder Belle. Owner’s rep is CSG Construction Solutions Group, with construction managed in a joint venture of AP Construction and O&G Industries.
These are the first changes to the seal exhibit since The Maritime Aquarium opened in 1988, and the result will make it the Aquarium’s largest exhibit. The new seal exhibit will reach up to the original exhibit’s balcony level and be fully enclosed by a new exterior wall. At 150,000 gallons, the seals’ new home will be 40,000 gallons larger than the Aquarium’s signature shark-filled “Ocean Beyond the Sound” exhibit.
Barrett Christie, director of Animal Husbandry, said the larger, deeper, enclosed exhibit will help to protect the seals from noise and vibration of the Walk Bridge work. Its design is based on behavioral animal studies and on recommendations from other member institutions of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums.
The 4D Theater will be built in conjunction with SimEx-Iwerks Entertainment, which will provide 3D digital projection, proprietary 4D sensory seats and other in-theater special effects, as well as a selection of educational and seasonal films. The new theater will be multipurpose, capable of 2D and 3D digital screenings, and have a stage for lectures and other presentations.
As currently planned, spectacular movies will continue to play daily on the Aquarium’s six-story IMAX Theater screen through December 2020.
“How to maintain our quality guest experience is part of every brick-and-mortar discussion,” Truedson said. “We ask for patience and understanding through the construction periods. But guests also will see some fun creative offerings, as work progresses, that actually take advantage of the situation.”
The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk is a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to educate visitors about – and to create stewards for – Long Island Sound. It accomplishes this by allowing visitors to get close to some 300 species native to the Sound and its watershed, including sharks, seals, sea turtles, river otters, jellyfish and other animals. One of the top places for family fun in Connecticut, the Aquarium also features standards-based educational programs, public study cruises out onto the Sound, and Connecticut’s largest IMAX movie theater.
Press release developed by The Maritime Aquarium (https://www.maritimeaquarium.org/newsroom/posts/new-seal-exhibit-and-4d-theater-under-construction-in-response-to-walk-rr-bridge-project).