The massive new addition to the world's largest aquarium isn't simply a tank with dolphins leaping to and fro.
It's a Broadway-style show, complete with an ancient sailor named StarSpinner and a battle with a sea creature that can only be settled by dolphins leaping, twisting and spinning the audience out of captivity. The 1.8 million gallon exhibit at the Georgia Aquarium opens Saturday after a six-month delay, largely because the first major expansion for the five-year-old downtown attraction wasn't ready yet.
"We want to reinvent ourselves at least every five years," said Billy Hurley, chief animal officer at the aquarium. "The delay in opening was just an issue of pursuing perfection. We knew we had something great, but we wanted to make sure it was perfect."
The postponed opening hasn't slowed interest — tickets went on sale Feb. 15 and the aquarium has already sold out multiple shows in the 1,800-seat theater. Aquarium officials say they expect several hundred thousand more visitors compared to last year because of the dolphins.
The 25-minute show includes professional actors in elaborate costumes, colorful animation on a giant screen at the back of the performance tank and original music by composer Tim Williams recorded by a 61-piece orchestra at Sony Pictures Studios in Los Angeles. Each show is unique, though, because dolphin trainers vary which tricks the playful gray mammals perform to keep them engaged in the show and to keep visitors guessing what's next.
Some dolphins leap high in the air through showers spouting from each side of the theater, while others dance fin-in-hand with their trainers or swim at lightning speeds around the giant tank, stopping to pose on the edge or wave at the audience. Guests waiting in line to enter the theater get a chance to be face-to-face with the dolphins through a 25-foot viewing window in the exhibit's lobby.
The exhibit isn't without controversy. Protesters are expected to rally outside the aquarium during Saturday's opening, demanding that the dolphins be freed.
The 11 dolphins at the aquarium were brought in from attractions in Bermuda, Hawaii and the Bahamas between June and September of last year, said Michael Hunt, director of animal training. The animals are trained by positive reinforcement, getting a back rub, a handful of fish or a toy for good behavior, he said.
"It really is a process that takes months, or sometimes years, to get to the point where the show is completely finished," Hunt said.
The show costs extra on top of general admission to the aquarium. Tickets are $25.95 for children, $30.45 for seniors and $37.95 for adults.
The dolphins are visible occasionally to aquarium visitors who only pay general admission, though it's not a guarantee one of them will appear outside their 84,000-square-foot exhibit.
The Georgia Aquarium opened in 2005 along Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park, an area that had lost its luster after the 1996 Summer Olympics left town. But the aquarium's success helped attract the new World of Coca-Cola, along with multiple restaurants and hotels to the westside of downtown Atlanta.