Designed by PGAV Destinations, America’s newest aquarium is the centerpiece of a $187 million family entertainment attraction in downtown St. Louis. The Aquarium and other new attractions are housed in the National Historic Landmark train shed at St. Louis Union Station, which originally opened in 1894 as the biggest and busiest train terminal in the nation.
“Marrying the concepts of train travel and the world’s waterways was one of the most unique, thematic challenges we faced,” said PGAV vice president Emily Howard. “We utilized the simple, common thread of “a journey” to tell a story that celebrates the legacy of Union Station, as well as a conservation-centric tale of the journey of water from the sky to riverways, ocean, and back again.”
Working locally with owner Lodging Hospitality Management, operator zoOceanarium Group, and construction contractor McCarthy Building Companies, PGAV Destinations designed the new Aquarium to celebrate St. Louis’s past and present, showcasing the city’s global impact via the nearby Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. Visually rooting the visitor experience at the Aquarium in early train travel, the journey transports visitors to the Mississippi to learn more about the incredible animals found in St. Louis, then heads downriver to see unique creatures from around the world’s waterways and oceans. Leveraging a wide variety of live animals and cutting-edge technology, the Aquarium aims to inspire a passion for conservation in its visitors, knowing that what they do here in St. Louis affects the global waterway ecosystem.
The 120,000-square-foot aquarium spans two stories and includes environments filled with more than a million gallons of water. Its one-of-a-kind exhibits feature more than 13,000 aquatic animals from fresh water and marine environments around the world. The aquarium brings together state-of-the-art technology, animal care, education, and conservation with the excitement of aquatic creatures.
Visitors enter the Aquarium through the Grand Lobby, where a curved 4-K LED screen arches high overhead to unveil a stunning video show featuring marine life. The lobby’s centerpiece is a discus fish habitat with a working clock that mirrors the landmark clock tower at Union Station’s Market Street entrance.
An immersive, virtual train ride on one of two full-size replica passenger rail cars takes guests inside the aquarium. The ride honors St. Louis Union Station’s railroad past with a multimedia experience that rumbles through a trip to the rivers and oceans of the world, narrated by actor and St. Louis native John Goodman. When the train doors open, visitors find themselves at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers where they can see the fish that inhabit America’s great rivers, such as alligator gar, paddlefish, sturgeon, catfish, and many more.
In the Global Rivers section of the aquarium, guests can dip their hands into a basin filled with doctor fish, which will nibble on their skin as natural “cleaner fish.” It’s the first of many hands-on experiences at the aquarium. A habitat filled with exotic fish from the rivers of South America is next door to a tank swirling with Red-Bellied Piranhas. Visitors can pop into an acrylic bubble inside to see what it’s like to “swim” with the fish. Every exhibit inside the aquarium includes an interactive touch screen with details on the different species. A scavenger hunt also operates on touch screen kiosks throughout the attraction.
“It’s essential in Aquarium exhibit design to provide a hierarchy of information for different types of visitors,” said PGAV architectural designer Andrew Schumacher. “Whereas some guests enjoy simply watching the animals, others may want to read a panel about their biology, while others might want to engage with an interaction to understand their behavior, or ask an interpreter in-depth questions. We’ve crafted an experience which caters to every kind of learning style.”
Playful North American river otters – named Sawyer, Finn and Thatcher after Missouri author Mark Twain’s famous characters – frolic in a two-story environment including a deep pool, waterfall, and a land-based play area. An animated Otter Chat gives guests a chance to take part in an interactive talk with Tommy the Otter and learn more about their lives in America’s rivers.
Hands-on opportunities continue on the aquarium’s upper level where touch tanks are filled with stingrays and invertebrates. Visitors can feed the rays or take part in a turtle feeding. Nearby, Lord Stanley, the rare blue lobster named for the NHL’s Stanley Cup in honor of the St. Louis Blues’ 2019 championship, lives in his own habitat. A water table gives little ones a chance to splash and learn about the rivers, and a calming room is available for family members with sensory needs.
Every day is shark day at the St. Louis Aquarium. The massive Shark Canyon exhibit reveals multiple views of more than 60 sharks and rays in a 250,000-gallon environment. Two J-walls arch high over the heads of visitors and scuba divers regularly interact with guests from inside the habitat. Highlights include sandbar sharks, nurse sharks, lesser devil rays, and many other aquatic residents. A goliath grouper and a curious puffer are crowd pleasers.
The Deep section of the aquarium takes visitors down a simulated bio-luminescent hallway on a journey through the depths of the world’s oceans. Animals in The Deep include jellies and a young giant Pacific octopus. The area’s fascinating leafy and weedy sea dragons are described as “sea horses with flair.”
“Visitors will leave the St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station with wet hands and a greater understanding of the planet’s rivers, oceans, and aquatic life,” said Tami Brown, the new attraction’s executive director. “They will be able to feed turtles and stingrays and interact with invertebrate animals in our touch tanks. Our staff also will have a variety of other animals such as sloths, reptiles, and birds to explore with the guests.”
Opening along with the Aquarium is the St. Louis Aquarium Foundation’s Conservation and Education Center (CEC). The Foundation is the Aquarium’s non-profit partner, working to provide access to the Aquarium to underserved students and communities, and to offer educational programs and field trip opportunities. The Foundation is also an advocate for water stewardship. The CEC is filled with hands-on exhibits and an art installation created from recycled plastic water bottles to call attention to conservation.
Beyond the Aquarium, Union Station has also welcomed numerous attractions master planned by PGAV Destinations, with most receiving design work by the creative studio as well. These attractions include a 200-foot-tall Ferris Wheel, 36-foot-wide St. Louis Carousel, 18-hole mini golf course, retro-style Soda Foundation diner, A-Maze-Ing Discoveries Mirror Maze, a brand-new indoor high ropes course, outdoor and indoor plazas, outdoor playground, and the new repurposed shipping container vendors.
More than 1 million visitors are expected to enjoy the St. Louis Aquarium annually.