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New Loveland Living Planet Aquarium is a whale of a project

From humble beginnings sprang an extraordinary idea — now about to be realized — to build a world-class aquarium in land-locked Utah.

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He acknowledges that his vision sometimes ran up against architectural and design realities.

"Yes, that happened a lot of times," he said with a laugh. "I spent a lot of time working with the architects. The way my design process works is very different from the way the architects’ design process generally works. It was a little bit of a learning experience for both me and the architects."

At a glance

Loveland Living Planet Aquarium

Grand opening » Tuesday, March 25, at 10 a.m.

Where » 12033 S. Lone Peak Parkway, Draper

Tickets » Adults, $15.95; students 13-17, seniors and military, $12.95; children 3-12, $10.95; children 2 and younger get in for free; call 801-355-3474 or visit http://www.thelivingplanet.com for more information.

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Robinson said he would sometimes pitch ideas "and I’d see their brains kind of melting out of their heads as they tried to wrap their minds around it."

BWA architect Lyle Beecher said it "was quite a process to collaborate with some of the thoughts and ideas that they had. Ari is a very creative display and set designer, and we just turned around and helped bring together the reality of it being housed in a building."

It wasn’t so much the design that presented the challenges, it was designing on a relatively strict budget, with an eye toward making admission relatively reasonable.

"If there was any mind-melting going on, it was us looking at the design that they wanted to portray and figuring out how are we going to make that work within the budget restraints," said BWA architect Gary Gowers.

The $24 million construction cost includes a $14 million bond from Draper; a $2 million state allocation; a $2.5 million gift from the Loveland Family Foundation; and $5.5 million from corporate, private and individual donors. The aquarium is projecting at least 530,000 visitors a year, and continuing operations will be funded by gate receipts and gift shop and cafe sales.

There’s enormous attention to detail. There are big details, like the 40-foot sculpture of a whale shark suspended from the ceiling above the entrance and the 40-foot, 26,000-pound Plexiglas tunnel that will allow people to traverse the 300,000-gallon shark tank. There are small details like the "bubble" that allows youngsters to pop their heads inside smaller tanks and the re-creations of various sea creatures that were sculpted for some of the 74 exhibits.

"We got a couple of actual mussels and barnacles from the coastline of California," Robinson said, "and then we made molds and cast these and hand-painted them."

It’s fun, but it’s also designed to be educational. In addition to the 156-seat 4-D theater (that’s 3-D with the addition of movement and aromas), there are three large classrooms, where children visiting on field trips can meet with marine biologists.

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Education is a major part of the aquarium’s mandate.

"Having an aquarium here in Utah is almost more important than having one on the coast because it’s something that kids here would otherwise never see," Robinson said. "If they can come here and understand how important it is to have good stewardship over nature — that’s what I’d like kids to kind of get inspired about."

spierce@sltrib.com Twitter: @ScottDPierce

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