When Newport Aquarium executive director Eric Rose wanted to know what visitors would like to see at the aquarium, he took a simple approach—he asked them. Using both formalized surveys and face-to-face conversations with guests, the aquarium captured what visitors would most like to see and do at the aquarium. And he found that what they want is a more immersive, interactive experience.

The response was similar for North American Properties (NAP), which also asked for visitor input when it began drafting a revitalization plan to draw more traffic to Newport on the Levee. Guests don’t only want to shop, they want to be entertained. NAP purchased the Levee property at the end of 2018 with plans for a $100 million investment to turn it into a regional attraction.

Though not part of the Newport on the Levee property, the aquarium is expected to play a major role in the revitalization plans for the neighboring Levee, which attracts more than 3.5 million annual visitors. “I speak with the (NAP) executive team weekly, and they’ve been open with us on their vision and master plan,” says Rose. “They are very genuinely interested in making (the aquarium) a community treasure. They are taking a sense of pride that this project is in their backyard. It is incredibly important to us, over the short-term and the long-term, that we have a great working partner here as far as the Levee, and even beyond the Levee, the region. There’s a lot of great things happening, not just NAP coming in, but other things. No pun intended, but rising tides lift all ships, including shipwrecks.”

The aquarium recently unveiled plans for its latest exhibit, “Shipwreck: Realm of the Eels.” Opening in the spring, the extensive new exhibit will showcase eels as heroes of the sea as they swim among the ruins of a long-ago sunken shipwreck scattered across the sea floor. The new space will also be home to hundreds of brightly colored fish and curious crustaceans as they thrive in this accidental reef.

“Believe it or not, eels and shipwrecks were of very high interest to our guests, so we anticipate this being a very popular exhibit once it’s open,” said Rose. “However, the conservation message will be very strong in this exhibit. We are telling the story of reefs and artificial reefs which are under great threat right now to a variety of causes, so it isn’t only about entertainment; we are getting our message of conservation out there as well.”

For the Dennis family, the new exhibit is just another reason to love the aquarium. The Burlington family, which consists of parents Nick and Katy and their young daughters, Molly and McKinley, are already big fans, but excited to know that they will have even more to experience in the spring.

“We are most excited about the Captain’s Quarters where we can play with the wheel of the ship and see the different kinds of eels. The aquarium is a great place to take the kids because no matter how many times we go, we always see something we didn’t see before. There are interactive things to do and there are opportunities to learn something around every corner,” says Nick Dennis.

“We are always looking at how we can bring value to our guests and continue to bring people to the aquarium,” says Rose. Presently, 55% of the aquarium’s visitors come from outside the Tristate region.

“We bring in almost a million people a year to the Newport Aquarium, so our goal is to be a thriving entertainment venue as part of Newport on the Levee, as well as being a world-class zoological institute.”

While the shipwreck is expected to be a major draw for 2020, the success of the exhibit is only a small portion of its business objectives. Rose and his team are continually planning changes and updates for the aquarium, including the aquarium’s collection plan, which works on a five-year timeline and takes into account the many years it can take to source animals, whether they come from other aquariums or from the wild.

“Guests always want something new, more to see and do, something different,” Rose adds. “It is a critical element to constantly evolve for a very demanding public whose expectations are very, very high and can get stale very, very quickly. But fortunately, we run a world-class aquarium and it isn’t a challenge or a chore for us to do it. My job is to marry the two of those—how do I really assess the needs of our public and how do we do that in a responsible, ethical, appropriate, best way possible?”

The shipwreck exhibit will be one of the biggest developments since Newport Aquarium opened in 1999 and represents an investment of over $1 million. It will fully transform the space previously known as Dangerous & Deadly into an immersive environment for guests to explore. Among Rose’s favorite details is a particularly impressive photo opportunity that will provide visitors the illusion of being underwater with the animals and fish.