ATLANTA — When the Georgia Aquarium opened nearly four months ago, supporters hoped for a haul of 2 million visitors in the first year.
But they landed an even larger catch — more than 1 million people in its first 98 days. The planners now say 3 million visitors for the year is no longer fishy thinking.
Like a whirlpool, the aquarium that claims to be the world’s largest has been drawing visitors to downtown Atlanta from all over. Packaged with nearby attractions, including the newly renovated High Museum of Art, the aquarium is helping Atlanta experience what officials say is the largest tourism boom since the 1996 Olympics.
“The product is unbelievable. It’s drawing many people downtown,” said Spurgeon Richardson, president and CEO of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, of the aquarium. “When those people come downtown, they see the CNN Center and take that tour, they have dinner downtown, they walk around Centennial Olympic Park and see the Children’s Museum. All the numbers are up as it relates to downtown.”
The popular “Inside CNN” studio tour recently underwent a $5.5 million overhaul to make it more interactive. Another big local draw, the World of Coca-Cola, continues to draw visitors. Atlanta also received a boost in conventioneers and sports fans after Hurricane Katrina forced the Sugar Bowl and several meetings to move from New Orleans. But the aquarium — which opened Nov. 23 — has played the largest role in bringing tourists to Atlanta lately, Richardson said.
The travel booking Web site Expedia.com reported an increase in Atlanta hotel bookings between December and February, higher than for the same time period in years past. Expedia spokesman David Dennis said he believes the increase is attributable to the aquarium.
The aquarium is considered a major draw because of its sheer size and its special inhabitants, including a pair of juvenile whale sharks, which as adults are known as the world’s largest fish. The aquarium says it is the only whale shark exhibit in North America. Also featured are five beluga whales, two of them rescued from an amusement park in Mexico, in an 800,000-gallon tank.
The aquarium was designed to hold 8 million gallons of water and 100,000 fish. By comparison, Shedd Aquarium in Chicago — the nation’s largest indoor aquarium for decades — has 5 million gallons and about 20,000 fish.
“Some of the top aquariums in the United States, none have had two months of over 300,000 attendants,” said Jeff Swanagan, the aquarium’s executive director. “When we see this kind of data we’re getting, we’re not even in peak season yet, it tells us we’re more than an aquarium.”
If You Go…
Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau: http://www.atlanta.net/ or (800) 285-2682.
Georgia Aquarium: 225 Baker St.; http://www.georgiaaquarium.org/ or (404) 581-4000. Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Check website for extended hours on selected dates. Adults, $22.75; children, $17.
World of Coca-Cola: 55 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive; http://www.woccatlanta.com/ or (800) 676-2653. Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (until 6 p.m. in June, July and August); Sundays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults, $9; children, 4-11, $5.
Inside CNN: Studio tour at CNN Center, Centennial Olympic Park Drive and Marietta Street; http://www.cnn.com/studiotour/ or (877) 426-6868. Tours depart daily, every 10 minutes; reservations are recommended. Adults, $12; children 4-17, $9. Children under 4 not permitted.