Sandy • The toddler's face was squashed against the window. Her hands pressed against glass that separated her from an exhibit home to several penguins at The Living Planet Aquarium.
Entranced, the girl studied the birds as they slipped off the edge of rocks into a tank of water. Her eyes widened, watching the penguins zip through the water, leaving trails of bubbles behind.
"Mommy, they can fly!" she said, eyes locked on a penguin flapping its arms under water, before her mother corrected her about the flightless bird's abilities.
Such was the scene at the aquarium on a recent weekday a facility that expects to draw 460,000 visitors in 2012 and is preparing to break ground on a state-of-the-art complex in Draper.
On Wednesday, the aquarium's supporters will gather to celebrate construction of a 136,000-square-foot, two-story facility at 12047 S. Lone Peak Parkway. The new aquarium, scheduled for completion in December 2013, will be nearly three times the size of the current facility in Sandy and will be renamed The Loveland Living Planet Aquarium.
The aquarium will remain open in Sandy until Sept. 8, 2013, and will close for a few months while everything is moved to the new location. The $20 million expansion is possible because of several factors: a large growth in the number of people who visit the aquarium each year, donations, grants and a $13 million bond from Draper City that will help pay for the building.
The aquarium's founder and CEO Brent Andersen said the new facility will be "world-class." It will feature a climate-controlled environment for each ecosystem housed in the aquarium, including hot, humid conditions in a South American rainforest exhibit and desert conditions in a Utah exhibit. The building will hold up to 62 exhibits, including a 300,000 gallon shark tank with a 40-foot walk through tunnel. Fish and animals from the marine, freshwater, and rain forest ecosystems will be on hand for visitors to view, he said.
A 400-seat banquet hall, café and a gift shop are also part of the location's blueprints. The facility's upper floor will feature classrooms, access to exhibits and Utah's first 4-D theater. That means visitors who take in a movie won't only see a shark popping out at them in 3-D, but they'll feel an actual spray of water on their faces when the shark on the screen swims by, giving them a more interactive experience, said Andersen.
He said the reason for building an aquarium in land-locked Utah is simple: It provides a venue to enhance community education.
"I think it impacts everyone, no matter where you live … to understand how we are connected in the world," Andersen said.
Murky waters • The aquarium's expansion to Draper marks a milestone in what has been a long journey to becoming a popular Utah attraction.
In 1998, Andersen, a marine biologist, announced plans to build a $40 million aquarium with hopes to open 2002 through raising funds from private donations and publicly issued bonds. But that didn't happen.
The Salt Lake City Council agreed in 2001 to buy 4 acres at 336 S. 500 West, where the aquarium would be built once it raised funds for a $67 million, 90,000-square-foot facility.
By 2004, when little headway had been made in fundraising goals, then-Mayor Rocky Anderson urged the Salt Lake City Council to rescind the aquarium's lease on the downtown property. He called the attraction a risky venture. Despite the aquarium's struggle to meet fundraising benchmarks, the City Council extended the lease for several months while the Salt Lake County Council debated putting an aquarium bond on a ballot for residents to vote on.
The County Council in August of 2004 decided not to put the aquarium on a ballot.
The City Council in February 2005 agreed to continue holding downtown land for the aquarium through June 2008. Council members decided if enough money was not raised to build the project by 2010, the city would take back the land.
A preview exhibit for the aquarium at The Gateway, which opened in 2004, moved to Sandy in June 2006. Also in 2006, aquarium backers again proposed a $34.5 million bond for the 2006 Salt Lake County ballot, but the County Council nixed the idea.
The aquarium made headlines again in 2007, when it fired its financial clerk in February of that year for theft. The clerk was later charged in connection with stealing $5,300. Around the same time as the theft charges in 2007, 10 members on the 12-member aquarium board resigned citing irreconcilable differences and problems with management.
Despite the controversy, attendance at the aquarium in Sandy continued to grow. In early 2012, Draper agreed to issue revenue-financed bonds for the aquarium, in an effort to bring the attraction to the suburbs. At Wednesday's groundbreaking, the aquarium will at last be closer to a permanent home.
A new beginning • Parents like Shaylyn Peterson are excited for what the aquarium's future holds.
The Stansbury Park mother visited the Sandy location recently with her two children, ages 2 and 4. The field trip was a chance to show her kids things they don't normally get to see, she said.
"It is a great learning experience for the toddlers to see it in person rather than in a book," she said, calling the new facility in Draper "a great opportunity for Utah."
Andersen, a Sandy native, always had an idea of building a massive aquarium, but didn't know how he would execute it.
"Since I was a little kid I've always had a fish tank … and it kept getting bigger and bigger I guess," Andersen said.
He said he's proud that attendance at the aquarium has grown, even during the recession.
"To be successful in the best of times is good, but to be even more successful in the worst of times speaks volumes," he said.
The Loveland Living Planet Aquarium
When: Wednesday at 10 a.m.
Where: 12033 S. Lone Peak Parkway, Draper