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Adventure Aquarium opens new "KidZone"

Adventure Aquarium opens new "KidZone"

CAMDEN - Bigger isn't always better, especially when it comes to attractions for Adventure Aquarium's smallest visitors.

"KidZone," which opens Saturday, is the aquarium's most child-accessible exhibit space yet. The underwater windows are closer to the ground, the rooms encourage interaction, and the sea creatures are relatively small. But they all have their quirks.

Any child who remembers the film Finding Nemo will recognize the display's orange-and-white clown fish, or the outgoing cleaner shrimp - which, given the opportunity, will climb on your hand and inspect your cuticles.

Every seaborne critter has a different shape, color, and role to play, and "KidZone" features rooms modeled after watery environs: freshwater rivers, beaches and shores and, finally, the deep blue ocean, where some of the strangest creatures live in collective symbiosis.

"It's life on the reef," said husbandry director Marc Kind, the expert in charge of the sea animals. "It's not unlike the Serengeti , except it's a little more complex, a little more intricate, and a lot more colorful."

The goal of "KidZone" is to bring all that color - the upside-down jellyfish, the scaly, crocodilian caiman, the purple and green coral mounds - down to the physical level of children ages 6 and younger.

"We tend to do things big," Kind said, referring to Adventure Aquarium spectacles like "Shark Realm."

"A lot of those animals, for our little guests, can sometimes be overwhelming," he said.

"KidZone" gives the youngest marine enthusiast the chance to get up close and personal with a variety of less-intimidating creatures. Accompanying the exhibit tours are the AquaPals, a team of friendly animal characters led by an excitable shark named Gill. And they're not just friendly faces: Each has a secret to tell about its species. (Lizzie informs visitors that hippos can't swim - they just bounce along the river floor.)

Some of the most inviting displays place children right among the fish.

Pop-up exhibits include a fish tank with two child-size glass viewing bubbles underneath - the fish whiz energetically around the spectators - and another where visitors peer up at glow-in-the-dark flashlight fish, whose luminescent eyes blink on and off. It's "analogous to being outside in the woods with 15 fireflies flying around their head," according to Kind.

"KidZone," more than the exhibits that came before it, was designed with plenty of space for strollers and exploration, and open sight lines for parents.

"Mom and dad can have a little bit of freedom with letting the kids move around," said Kimberly Horishny, guest experience manager at the aquarium and a co-organizer of "KidZone."

That's important, because between the sea stars, the lionfish, the dragon-faced ribbon eel, and all the rest, there is plenty to see.

Contact Matt Huston at 215-854-5289 or mhuston@philly.com.

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