Visitor traffic rebounds as Duluth aquarium prepares to open new exhibit

The interactive exhibit is designed to teach visitors about humans' relationship with water.

Jason Wilson, left, of St. Paul and Chris Thompson of Minneapolis, both with the company KidZibits, install replicas of the Aerial Lift Bridge and Enger Tower at the end of Lake Superior on the new Great Lakes Water Table on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021, at the Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth. The Great Lakes Aquarium is on track to post the strongest attendance figures it has in years, exceeding its previous best in 2018. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

The Great Lakes Aquarium had modest expectations for 2021, with projections that its visitor numbers likely would be down a quarter from what they were prior to the pandemic. But Jay Walker, the aquarium’s executive director, said the museum is now on pace to post its strongest annual attendance in 18 years.

To date, the aquarium has welcomed more than 169,000 guests this year, and as it prepares to open a new exhibit later this week, Walker expressed confidence its annual attendance will top 182,000 and could climb to as high as 185,000.

Reflecting on the aquarium’s success this year, Walker said: “I think a lot of it was people wanting to get out after the lockdown, and part of it is just the draw of our aquarium.”

Allison Iacone, the aquarium’s communications director, noted that many people have continued to shun long-distance air travel, opting instead to visit drive-to destinations usually within 150 miles of their homes. That made Duluth a natural pick for many people from the Twin Cities market.


Great Lakes Aquarium attendance 2000-2021.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

She also said families were drawn to the aquarium because of the many safety measures it has adopted, such as maintaining a one-way flow of visitors, required masking and the adoption of sometimes-whimsical social distancing protocols, such as asking guests to maintain at least a sturgeon’s length from other visitors or drawing puddles on the floor that are meant to contain just one party of guests at a time.

The aquarium also limited the number of visitors who could be in the building at one time, resulting in some occasional lines, but relatively short waits, according to Iacone.

“It was clear families were looking for safe things to do, and I think it gave people confidence that we were paying attention to those kinds of details,” she said.

Walker said he and his team had anticipated 2020 would be a big year, as the aquarium marked its 20th anniversary. But he described it as “kind of a gut punch,” as the pandemic forced a five-month closure.

SEE ALSO: Duluth zoo, aquarium left with no ticket sales, plenty of hungry mouths to feed during COVID-19 pandemic Both organizations will receive federal assistance to help meet animals' needs.
“To come out of this so strong on the other side, makes us all feel a little more optimistic about the future,” Walker said.

The aquarium has invested $144,000 in a new exhibit slated to open on Saturday called “H2O: Watersheds at Work.”

As part of that 2,000-square-foot project, the aquarium replaced its ever-popular original Great Lakes Water Table. A new upgraded version of the table still features working locks and boats but is set at a lower height and positioned to better accommodate children and wheelchair-bound visitors.


Crews work on installing the new Great Lakes Water Table in the new exhibit, “H2O: Watersheds at Work,” on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021, at the Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth. The aquarium has welcomed just over 169,000 guests this year. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

The aquarium waited until after the summer to begin replacing the water table, since it has long been a family favorite, with some guests who fondly remember playing on it as youngsters now returning with their own children in tow.

“We knew how critical this is to the aquarium experience,” Walker said.

But the water table is just part of the new interactive exhibit which Walker said strives to insert the human story into the story of water. It looks at people’s use and reliance on fresh water for transportation and sustaining life. It also examines how people have taken strides to reduce pollution and properly handle water-borne waste, such as that processed through the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District wastewater treatment facility.

The exhibit explores the path of water through the community of Duluth, as well, in part of the display called “Water on the move.”

Chris Thompson of Minneapolis, with the company KidZibits, holds a miniature model of Enger Tower that is being installed on the new version of the Great Lakes Water Table on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021, at the Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune


“Our watershed is so awesome and unique. We wanted to make it a place-based experience,” Walker said.

“Of course we’re a tourist attraction, but we also have a mission to teach people more about the place where we live,” he said.

Walker stressed the importance of continually opening fresh new exhibits at the aquarium to stimulate and maintain visitor interest.

Iacone said that playbook seems to be working.

“We feel like we’re poised for growth,” she said. “We want the aquarium to be on visitors’ must-do list.”

Iacone is already looking ahead to the next milestone — 200,000 guests in a year — and said the aquarium may get there soon.

Julie Marano of Duluth, Great Lakes Aquarium interpretive content developer, uses a razor knife to smooth out edges on a rendering of wild rice in the exhibit, “H2O: Watersheds at Work,”on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021, at the Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Great Lakes Aquarium executive director, Jay Walker, stands near the new exhibit under construction called, “H2O: Watersheds at Work,” on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021, at the Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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