NORWALK, CT – As prowling sharks and even cartoon ice-age animals begin popping off the screen in The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk’s new 4D Theater, new and exciting opportunities similarly are taking form as the Aquarium completes its most significant and broadly supported expansions.
The Feb. 22 ribbon-cutting ceremony to officially open the 169-seat theater celebrates much more than a new movie experience for Aquarium guests. The debut also changes how and where guests enter the Aquarium, modernizes the guest experience, and opens up an ocean of new opportunities for how the Aquarium can fulfill its mission.
“These are milestone changes for this institution,” said Jason Patlis, the Aquarium’s president and CEO. “We now have a state-of-the-art 4D Theater that, beyond offering impactful movies several times each hour, is also a multipurpose asset available for lectures, educational presentations, special events and more – something we’ve sorely needed as we try to tell the full story of our connections to Long Island Sound and the ocean beyond.”
Gov. Ned Lamont welcomed the educational opportunities now available with the theater.
“It’s been a tough year, particularly for the kids; particularly for the kids who weren’t able to get out; for kids who found that Zoom was not the ideal way to learn,” Lamont said. “We have an extraordinary opportunity right now to make it up to them. We’re going to get these kids back engaged; back engaged with each other. We need them coming to the Aquarium. … We need them having that type of experiential learning that helps them get back in the game with their friends, and learning and touching and smelling and feeling and everything that 4D is all about.”
Beyond that, the 4D theater – and a new 150,000-gallon seal exhibit that will become the Aquarium’s largest display when it opens in May – also are manifestations of the strong support shown to the Aquarium by the City of Norwalk, State of Connecticut and federal government.
The city, state and federal agencies all backed the Aquarium in undertaking the simultaneous projects as a vital response to the coming replacement of the Walk Bridge, a railroad span over the Norwalk River that runs within feet of the historic Aquarium building. Building the new bridge will require removal of the Aquarium’s former IMAX movie theater and would have posed risks to guests (and seals) at the Aquarium’s original indoor-outdoor seal exhibit.
Funding for the 4D theater and the fully enclosed seal exhibit came from a $40 million “functional replacement” agreement between the City of Norwalk and State of Connecticut negotiated because of the Walk Bridge project.
Norwalk Mayor Harry W. Rilling welcomed the new facilities of – and opportunities for – The Maritime Aquarium, which he cited as an important cultural, economic, educational and conservation asset for the city.
“The Maritime Aquarium is not just a favorite stop for our residents, but serves as a regional tourist destination that draws thousands of people to Norwalk every year,” Rilling said. “The Maritime Aquarium is an important piece of our history and culture. I am thankful for the partnership between the City, State and Aquarium that made this project a reality. Future generations are now ensured they can enjoy all that the Maritime Aquarium has to offer.”
State Sen. Majority Leader Bob Duff of Norwalk similarly lauded the Aquarium’s importance.
“The Maritime Aquarium is a centerpiece of what makes Norwalk a great place to visit and raise a family,” Duff said. “As a new tourism attraction, the 4D theater will ensure our aquarium remains a destination.”
James Mason, Principal Property Agent for the Connecticut Department of Transportation’s Division of Rights of Way, also acknowledged the cooperation between the Aquarium and governmental agencies.
“From the very beginning, The Maritime Aquarium’s leadership demonstrated its commitment to educating children about the ecology around them. They made it clear that the survival of the Aquarium was paramount and partnered with the City and the Department in finding mutually beneficial solutions,” Mason said. “The use of the Functional Replacement Provision allowed the Department to collaboratively meet its goal without usurping the cultural, economic and educational importance of The Maritime Aquarium to the City of Norwalk and the State. It has been a satisfying experience to work with the individuals from the Aquarium and the City involved in this effort.”
Patlis noted that the new theater is a multipurpose asset also capable of 2D and 3D digital screenings, and is an exciting new location for lectures and other Aquarium special events. The theater also is available for multimedia corporate presentations and other rental opportunities.
“We intend to take full advantage of this exciting new resource, with animal and art talks relating to our new exhibit called ‘A Slug’s Life: Facing the Climate Endgame,’ plus a spring lecture series, and other special presentations,” he said.
Combined, the new 4D theater, new entrance and new seal exhibit are the biggest change in 20 years to Connecticut’s second-largest family attraction, which draws some 500,000 guests in a normal non-COVID year. Back in 2001, The Maritime Aquarium opened a three-story addition to give space to a larger gift shop, the Cascade Café and two marine-science classrooms.
“The expansion in 2001 was critical to offering a more comfortable guest experience and to our becoming an important STEM-fulfilling resource for school children, but the exceptional sensory experiences with the 4D movies and the powerful impact of the new seal exhibit go directly to our mission of educating and inspiring our guests about the marine world,” Patlis said. “Our guests appreciate the café and gift shop, but they will come to The Maritime Aquarium for the thrill of the 4D movies and to bond with our ambassador seals.”
Those new experiences, Patlis said, directly support The Maritime Aquarium’s mission of inspiring people of all ages to appreciate and protect the Long Island Sound ecosystem and the global environment.
The 169-seat theater premiered with two films that play hourly throughout the day: BBC Earth’s “Shark: A 4D Experience” and, for pure family fun, “Ice Age: No Time for Nuts 4D.” Guests wear 3D glasses that make images seem to leap off the screen, while also experiencing sensory special effects, such as bubbles, snow, wind, mists and more.
Tickets for a 4D movie are $7 per person ($6 for members) in addition to Maritime Aquarium admission: $26.95 adults; $24.95 seniors (65+); and $19.95 for children (3-12). Under the Aquarium’s COVID-19 protocols, guests are required to make their purchases in advance online for timed-entry tickets at www.maritimeaquarium.org.
The opening of the theater shifts the Aquarium’s main entrance back to its bus circle, at Ann and North Water streets. Guests enter with the options of going to the theater, to the Aquarium or to the new Sound Bites coffee shop proudly serving Starbucks’ full menu of hot and cold drinks. Pastries and other items from a rotating lineup of area bakeries are sold as well. (The Aquarium’s Cascade Café remains open on weekends with a broader selection of food and drink.)
“We look for ways big and small to support the local community, and welcoming some of the area’s wonderful bakeries to provide a steady supply of pastries and other foods to the Sound Bites coffee shop is a delicious idea,” Patlis said.
The IMAX Theater is now closed, with the final movies shown on Jan. 18.
The new 4D Theater was built and will operate in partnership with SimEx-Iwerks Entertainment, the expert in integrating the highest-quality 3D high-definition projection with in-seat and in-theater effects to create fully immersive experiences. SimEx-Iwerks has successful partnerships with more than 40 museums, zoos and aquariums across North America, including the Central Park Zoo, San Diego Zoo, and Chicago’s John G. Shedd Aquarium.
Learn show times, prices and more – and reserve tickets – at www.maritimeaquarium.org.