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Atlanta Takes the Plunge

Sunday, December 18, 2005

RESEARCH QUESTION: Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus largely bankrolled the $290 million Georgia Aquarium, which opened last month near Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park as the world's largest aquarium. We wondered: Are more than 100,000 animals and 8 million gallons of water worth the $22.75 ticket price? And when it comes to fish tanks, does size really matter?

METHODOLOGY: The night before our Tuesday visit, we logged onto the aquarium's Web site to buy tickets and choose an arrival time -- administrators limit per-hour entries to minimize crowds, though everyone can stay until closing. Our 10 a.m. time slot avoided the worst of Atlanta's rush hour, but we spent 15 chilly minutes in a security queue. Inside, we explored until the 6 p.m. weekday closing time, when we discovered our nasty $16 parking bill ($8 for four hours or less).

RESULTS: The aquarium's five inventively designed galleries have a marvelous diversity of animals and an almost theme-park vibe, using light, music and decor to set moods of adventure, mystery and elegance. It's also engagingly interactive in places, and the big critters -- especially the five beluga whales and the two enormous whale sharks -- are mesmerizing.

On the downside (and we heard this complaint from a few other visitors), our attempts to identify and learn about the creatures were occasionally frustrated by the aquarium's decision to forsake detailed informational signs in favor of human "interpreters." Where the interpreters were plentiful, they taught us more than we would have learned otherwise. But where they were absent, swamped or unsure of their facts, we left with unanswered questions. Touch-screen info stations helped in several spots.

Our first stop, the kid-friendly Georgia Explorer gallery, stood out for its interactivity, shrimp-boat theme and friendly staff. We didn't even mind soaking a sleeve in a desperate attempt to lay a finger on a bonnet-head shark in one of five touch tanks.

The mossy forest decoration and overhead stream at the River Scout gallery were cool, but we saved the aquarium's top attractions -- the Ocean Voyager and Cold Water Quest galleries -- for after lunch (a passable burger with a stale bun and fries, a tasty lemon meringue tart and a fountain drink was about $14).

At Ocean Voyager, we were enthralled by a tunnel through the world's biggest aquarium tank, which holds 6.2 million gallons and nearly 100,000 fish. Another viewing window was the size of a drive-in movie screen, and it gave knockout views of sawfish, giant grouper and schools of tiny golden trevallies that swarmed the whale sharks. Of the trevallies, we wondered: "Um, guys, should you get so close to the mouth?"

Still, the Cold Water gallery was our favorite, with its enormous, robotic-looking Japanese spider crabs, playful otters, creepy octopus and sea lions zipping around like chunky torpedoes. Our all-aquarium favorite? The belugas, whose graceful motions seemed almost choreographed.

Kids might like it, but we didn't think the theater's "4-D" cartoon musical -- akin to "Finding Nemo" with a witty conservation pitch -- was worth an extra $5.50, even if the theater does splash you with water. To our tired eyes, the Tropical Diver gallery also seemed less distinctive than the other four. The dramatic lighting on the jellies and the huge living reef tank (complete with a crashing, overhead wave) were striking, though.

CONCLUSION: It's a little pricey, but the Georgia Aquarium is well worth a visit. The "biggest" status largely derives from the Ocean Voyager tank, which has more than three-quarters of the aquarium's water and most of its fish. And it works: We felt immersed in a slice of ocean.

A tip: Buy your tickets online and print out the bar-coded e-mail attachment to skip the line at the admissions counters. Weekends and holidays are selling out in advance, as are some time slots on weekdays.

-- Ben Brazil

The Georgia Aquarium (225 Baker St.) is within walking distance of two stations on the MARTA rail system: the Peachtree Center stop on the north/south line and the CNN Center stop on the east/west line. Info: 404-581-4000,http://www.georgiaaquarium.org.

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