With its miles of coastline and intricate network of rivers and lakes, South Jersey has always been a place closely connected to the aquatic world. That relationship to the sea is celebrated on the Camden waterfront, where Adventure Aquarium is home to more than 15,000 aquatic species, including the largest collection of sharks on the East Coast.
Built by the state in 1992 to bring new family-friendly attractions to the city, the aquarium was the first in the world to exhibit hippos. The chance to visit with Button and Genny in Hippo Haven is one of many attractions that keep crowds coming to the premier aquarium, which was acquired in 2007 by Herschend Family Entertainment, owners of Tennessee’s Dollywood theme park and the Harlem Globetrotters. Although the company is national, in Camden the aquarium is a local institution.
“Our commitment to bringing families together is at the core of who we are,” says Vince Nicoletti, Adventure Aquarium’s executive director. “We’re all about helping people experience wonder, and we’ve grown by investing in world-class exhibits.”
In just under 15 years, that growth – in terms of attendance, offerings and guest satisfaction – has increased tremendously. More than a million visitors a year flock to the aquarium’s exhibits, which take up more than 200,000 square feet and require more than 2 million gallons of water.
“In the last few years alone, we’ve invested $2 million in a dining experience, opened the Camden waterfront’s first beer garden and introduced a new colony of little blue penguins,” Nicoletti says. “And we’re still the only aquarium in the world exhibiting hippopotamuses.”
The Adventure Aquarium is a destination for travelers from near and far who want an up-close experience (from a super unique perspective) with the ocean’s fiercest predators. The popular Shark Bridge invites visitors to climb an 81-foot, V-shaped rope suspension bridge across the aquarium’s 21-foot-deep Shark Realm. That 550,000-gallon tank houses a massive collection of hammerhead sharks, sand tiger sharks, sandbar sharks, nurse sharks as well as less-frightening ocean-dwellers like stingrays and blue tangs.
This popular exhibit is one of the newest initiatives in a wider mission to bring families fun and entertainment – and also education.
“One of the most important aspects of our purpose is to contribute to the community’s understanding of wildlife and conservation,” Nicoletti says. “It’s our hope that we can inspire families to learn more, care more, and do more for animals and their environment.”
It’s an education that begins even before kindergarten, which is why this year the Adventure Aquarium has created the Pre-K Pass: a free membership for anyone ages 2 to 5.
“Kids that age are completely filled with wonder when they’re here. To invite them in and feed that enrichment is really important to us,” Nicoletti says. “All you need to do is register, and that child can experience the wonder of the aquarium 365 days a year free of charge. This is how we’re partnering with parents to build a lifelong love for the underwater world.”
Of course, it’s not just kids who get to experience the amazement of the deep. The aquarium hosts corporate outings, proms, weddings and other special events, where guests experience a unique venue, and get the opportunity to learn about aquatic creatures and habitats, some of which are very nearby.
“Everyone can connect directly to the ocean where much of our conservation work is done,” Nicoletti says. “Finding ways to deepen that connection to the ocean and shore is part of our bigger picture.”
Photo: Christy Schultz
Adventure Aquarium has long been a close partner of organizations throughout Camden, including Cooper’s Ferry Partnership. “Partnering with the city has always been important to us, because we see ourselves as a community institution,” Nicoletti says.
As part of their commitment to the city and its residents, the aquarium hosts a number of annual events, including a “safe trick-or-treat” event each fall. “That was a challenge the city was looking to solve, and we think it’s a great initiative,” Nicoletti adds. “We also host an annual holiday toy drive where we distribute more than 3,000 toys to kids in the community.”
A portion of admission ticket profits – roughly $85,000 annually – goes back into community organizations, and a project to help clean up the waterfront has resulted in more than 2,000 pounds of trash being removed from the Delaware River.
Adventure Aquarium is an invaluable partner in Camden’s redevelopment, says Kris Kolluri, CEO of Cooper’s Ferry Partnership.
“It’s so unique, so successful and so focused on visitor experience,” Kolluri says. “They’ve done a great job embracing and working in the community. A lot of our corporations and businesses talk about the best way to get engaged and involved in the community, and the aquarium is a great example of a business that’s done a phenomenal job of that.”
Photo: Christy Schultz
Many agree that Adventure Aquarium’s success is a victory for the whole city.
“The Adventure Aquarium’s success is a good indicator that Camden is flourishing and our waterfront has become a must-see destination,” says Camden Mayor Frank Moran. “More than a million visitors a year are coming to the aquarium, more than 4,000 people are now working on the Camden Waterfront, and we are realizing new opportunity like never before. Camden is experiencing unprecedented investment as restaurants and other businesses are now opening. There is a tremendous energy building, as people of all ages and diverse cultures are coming to our waterfront. We welcome the foot traffic and the mingling of people adds to the vibrancy of our city.”
That vision is shared outside of Camden as well.
“Adventure Aquarium is an engaging, family-oriented attraction that serves thousands of New Jersey families and brings a wealth of tourists to our great state every year,” says New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy. “I am proud that such a renowned institution devoted to educating and entertaining so many generations of New Jerseyans calls Camden home.”
And as Camden continues its renaissance, the aquarium is helping to bolster its reputation as a city on the rise, Nicoletti adds.
“Camden is a vibrant city with a lot going for it, and that’s the Camden we’re showing to over a million people annually, over half of whom originate from outside the state,” he says.
As a generation of people who grew up visiting the waterfront begins to establish their own homes and families, says Bryan Morton, Founder and Executive Director of Parents for Great Camden Schools.
Adventure Aquarium’s role in Camden’s growth is becoming even more evident.
“It’s a generational thing,” Morton says. “People who grew up going to the aquarium for proms and class trips have a different experience of the city of Camden overall. I think it’s why there are more millennials and young professionals moving into Camden. They have nothing but positive experiences in the city and on the waterfront, and they feel like it’s at a turning point.”
Arrrr You Ready for Pirates at Adventure Aquarium?
Adventure Aquarium has created a swashbuckling new adventure for 2020. Pirates Ahoy! Treasures Under the Sea will open soon.
The Caribbean Currents exhibit, which is home to hundreds of brightly colored tropical fish, eels and seahorses, is transforming into “Pirate’s Passage,” where Pirate Darkbeard will lead guests on an engaging quest to find sunken treasure: gold, gems and booty. Objects belonging to Darkbeard will be featured in each exhibit window, with signage providing details of his everyday life. Darkbeard’s love of fish is documented in “Fish Tales,” a private journal about all his favorite sea animals. A Gallery of Pirates tells the stories of real historic pirates. The pirate theme continues into the Ocean Realm Theater, where a Crow’s Nest featuring spyglasses, sails, ropes and rigging provides kids with tons of fun (and parents with great photo ops).
To celebrate the opening of the newly re-built exhibit, the limited-engagement Pirates Ahoy! program will feature pirate characters and guest encounters,
scavenger hunts, puppet shows, games, merchandise and pirate make-overs, plus meet-and-greet presentations of pirates’ feathered friends: parrots.
The fun, and your chance to get your booty to Adventure Aquarium, begins soon, mateys!
Win four tickets to the Adventure Aquarium! Click here for details.