It was re-affirming to see the numbers for The Florida Aquarium’s most recent fiscal year. The Channel District attraction took in revenue of $11.8 million, the best ever performance in its nine-year history. As a result, the city’s subsidy was lowered (from $850,000 to $750,000) for the current operating budget.
What was re-affirmed is that the Aquarium can be both educational – and fun. And marketed mainly as the latter. It didn’t open that way and debuted to disappointment.
While attendance – 608,000 compared with 582,000 in 2003 – was up, that’s only part of the equation. Visitors also lingered longer and spent more in the gift shops and restaurants.
A key reason is the new Explore A Shore, a 2.5-acre play area for kids that has been a magnet for moms and young children. The key catalyst was Thom Stork, the Aquarium’s president, who overcame some staff doubters and pushed hard for the $2-million addition. Statistics show that visitors have doubled their stay on average – from two to four hours – since Explore A Shore’s introduction in March.
Prior to his arrival in 2002, Stork had been in senior management positions with Busch Gardens and Orlando’s SeaWorld. It shows.
Moreover, the upturns in revenue and attendance have been achieved without compromising the integrity of the environmental education that remains at the heart of the Aquarium experience.
But Stork knew the stark reality: Whatever your educational benefits, first priority is to up the turnstile count.