Aquarium at the Boardwalk opened its doors to the public for the first time on 23 November 2020. The $55 million aquarium is the first attraction being developed at Branson Boardwalk, a new entertainment complex in Branson, Missouri.
Kuvera Partners, the company which developed the attraction, is comprised of a leadership team of four: Raubi Sundher, Managing Partner; Kabir Sundher, Partner; Jay Sundher, Partner and Tej Sundher, Partner.
Blooloop spoke to Tej Sundher to find out more about the unique new aquarium, as well as Kuvera’s plans for the surrounding property.
“We purchased this property at the end of 2014,” he says. “We worked with PGAV Destinations, which was a perfect fit for us because they understood the area. Initially, we did a master plan of the property, and we decided to go in the direction of the aquarium. We thought it would be a great fit for Branson, so we started to develop the front left corner of this property to build a 46 thousand square foot aquarium.
“We settled on ‘Branson Boardwalk’ as the global name for the entertainment centre itself, and the aquarium is Aquarium at the Boardwalk.”
Aquarium at the Boardwalk
The aim was to create a highly themed environment that would make visitors feel they were travelling to another world.
“We started brainstorming on different aspects; ‘How do we start this out? Where does the story begin? How do we create that emotional story arc?’”
The exterior of the aquarium is striking: a wave, surmounted with a 55-foot stainless steel octopus.
“We scaled the world, honestly, trying to find what we thought would be a remarkable exterior. In the end, we came up with a design studio called Demiurge out of Denver, Colorado,” says Sundher.
“We wanted to focus on our story, but also to take the truths of nature and expand on them. For example, Aquarius, our octopus, is obviously great at camouflage. A reflective stainless steel octopus picks up the environment around it, helping his camouflage, so we went with this large organic pattern.
“He has follow-me eyes, which is an old-school trick. As you drive down Highway 76, Aquarius will greet you and stare at you as you drive down.”
The north-west side of the exterior features a trompe-l’oeil painting by world-renowned muralist John Pugh.
Inside, the lobby is themed as a boardwalk. Here, visitors buy their tickets and are greeted by the key characters, Aquarius the octopus, and Finn, a puffer-fish.
“You take your photos – people love their photo-ops – and then you proceed,” says Sundher. “We wanted to frame that this isn’t specifically Branson Boardwalk. It’s any boardwalk USA. It’s a little shift – you really feel like you have travelled to another space.”
The boardwalk theme is continued through lenticular amusements such as The Great Clambino, who tells fortunes and the “Pucker” Fish kissing booth. There is also a carousel photo op, with seahorses instead of horses.
The style is both evocative and engaging.
Inspired by the Aquarius the Octopus and his talent for camouflage, the team have hidden nine Aquariuses throughout Aquarium at the Boardwalk to entertain children.
“Sometimes kids just run through aquariums, so we wanted to give them another reason to slow down. Something else we are aware of is that aquariums can be hard to take photos in. There is all this acrylic and it’s beautiful, but in most aquariums, you can never get that amazing photo. So, here we have really tried to focus on different things we can accentuate.”
Taking guests on a journey
The aquatic theme culminates at the end of the boardwalk in a large, stylised submarine.
“It’s a pufferfish-esque submarine that takes you on a 5D ride. Inside, there are two Triotech theatres. We have a 3-minute custom film that starts off with you going on this ride, where you meet our two key characters, Aquarius and Finn, then you go on a journey. At the end of the journey, you come across the Observation Station, which is at the very bottom of the ocean.”
“We wanted to flip people’s minds. We’re not in an aquarium looking in, we’re at the bottom of the ocean, looking out.”
Reinventing the aquarium experience
Aquarium at the Boardwalk is conceptually unique, confounding preconceptions, and reinventing the aquarium premise:
“We try to play with the type of tanks we have here; we didn’t want people to go from box to box. Some are cylinders, for example. We also felt that music was instrumental in making this experience authentically different. We worked with a composer who has done a number of film scores.”
The music, which is by Jay Flood, who composed scores for the Transformers movie, among others, adds to the sensory journey. Explaining his decision to incorporate art and music, Sundher says:
“I think people are starting to expect more from attractions.”
The separate ‘worlds’ created by the aquarium’s unusual vision each have their own custom soundtrack.
“We focused on the fish, the motion, the space,” he says. “We aligned those with the décor so that as you go through you will be met with different scores that create an emotion. That was our goal.”
Education at Aquarium at the Boardwalk
The experience is education by stealth, creating a strong emotional connection between the young visitors, the marine life and the conservation messaging through the immersive, multi-sensory ambience.
There are crawl–throughs, and three pop-ups. In addition, one wall has seven up close and personal tanks spotlighting small animals that interact with corals.
Coral reef environments are a special focus; the coral reef messaging reflects the aquarium’s commitment to preserving ocean life and its partnership with the Coral Restoration Foundation.
CRF is the largest non-profit marine-conservation organisation dedicated to restoring coral reefs to a healthy state. Over the next 20 years, CRF, NOAA, and other partners will be working to restore seven iconic reef sites along Florida’s Coral Reef-restoring a total area equivalent to 52 football fields.
Getting up close and personal
Sundher continues the walk through Aquarium at the Boardwalk:
“Throughout the attraction there are up-close and personal tanks, giving guests a good way to get a really up-close view,” he says. “Once you leave the Observation station, you’re at the very depths of the ocean. The music is very deep and bass-y to create a moment, and you go through an area we have called Glowing Waters, where all the fish emit a [bioluminescent] glow. “
“Then you go into a classic acrylic tunnel through the main tank, joining the sharks, rays and multitude of fish that swim through the ruins of an ancient city, and where one of the hidden Aquariuses can be discerned, in the form of an ancient relic.
“We’re quite excited about that as well,” Sundher adds. “We then exit, and find ourselves in the Mermaid Palace. This is where we dip into fantasy.”
Fun photo ops
Aquarium at the Boardwalk’s mermaid fortress is an Instagrammable photo op where guests enjoy fun photo ops, against a background of schooling fish, seahorses, and butterflyfish.
“We wanted people to escape. The concept here is that the mermaids are the protectors of the ocean and its corals. Our mermaids, sculpted by COST of Wisconsin, also have underwater weapons, protecting our corals.”
The team is working towards a ‘Mermaid Time’ experience, where guests will have the opportunity to become a mermaid beside a ‘real’one:
“While we wanted to embrace a kind of woman power, we didn’t want to exclude anyone, so men can be Mermen if they like.
The destination awaiting the visitors after their visit to the Mermaid Palace is an atmospheric shipwreck environment featuring the crow’s nest of a ship.
“At the front is the bow, where we have land crabs. It’s all slanted, to give the feeling of a wreck that has settled on the sea-bed. There is a kids’ crawl-through, where they pop up in the tank and get closer to the fish.”
Jellyfish and a kelp forest
The next environment at Aquarium at the Boardwalk, the Bloom Room, celebrates jellyfish; specifically moon jellies. Here, the animals are showcased in tube tanks surrounded by mirrors and lights in a maze-type art installation comprising light-up tentacles through which the visitors pass, and a mirror maze:
“We worked with Tina Fung, an artist out of Singapore,” Sundher says. “The strategy was to find artists whose work the team loved and to infuse the experience with their art. You feel as if you are in a jellyfish bloom. Again, the music connects to that.”
The Kelp Forest, a 24-foot climbing structure for kids, is next.
“I’m going to have to blame my son for this one,” says Sundher.
Luckey LLC, a design-build firm, creates Luckey Climbers, bespoke children’s climbing sculptures for institutional and commercial clients all over the world.
“There’s one near where we live. He’s on it every day.”
The structure has been designed as a one-off to fit into the aquarium’s ambience, incorporating illuminated and visual elements, continuing the institution’s fusing of artistry with fun.
Romance at Aquarium at the Boardwalk
The final area is the Coral Reef with two touch tanks, where visitors can encounter marine creatures close-up. One features rays and sharks, while the other has surging water with tide-pool animals such as anemones and starfish; a photogenic Instagrammable moment.
The visual impact of the final coral view is so strong it has inspired romantic moments, with one guest proposing to his future wife against the background of the sharks and rays.
“Someone else reached out; they want to propose in the Mermaid Palace. Another couple wants to have their whole little wedding in the Bloom Room.”
Connecting with nature
The aquarium’s theming is unique, creating a compelling world for children and their families to explore. The incorporation of art and fantastical elements is calculated to enhance the connection visitors form with the over 250 marine species.
Young children engage emotionally with Aquarius, Finn and the world they represent, making them receptive to the conservation messaging that underpins the one-of-a-kind experience, at even a very young age.
Aquarium at the Boardwalk is committed to the protection and preservation of ocean life. “We work closely the Coral Restoration Foundation,” Sundher says. “They’ve been great partners. We really want to get their message points out there, so we have given a large space trying to educate that in a positive manner, sharing what is going on.
“We wanted a balance between education and entertainment.”
PGAV Destinations was responsible for the design of Aquarium at the Boardwalk. Speaking about the project, Ned Diestelkamp, Vice President of PGAV says:
“Working with the Kuvera Partners and their entertaining approach to attractions was inspirational for the PGAV design team. This led to the creation of big, fun, and fanciful guest experiences.”
“The Aquarium at the Boardwalk is building on what is already great about the Branson attraction market: unexpected entertainment and family-friendly fun,” adds Jason Mills, Designer. “The design team constantly searched for ways to blur the lines by weaving thematic environments, unforgettable characters, and astonishing animal experiences into one very special place.”
An Instagrammable experience
The fusion of art and music to frame the animals’ environments, Sundher explains, aims to evoke emotion:
“We’re absolutely an aquarium. But we also wanted you to feel you have entered another world. That you have embarked on a journey where your emotions are amplified. This is one area where Weber Group’s work shines. Their sculpts, murals, and fixtures really capture the imagination.”
Creating that emotional connection is key, he stresses, with conservation messaging. The artist and artisan contributors provide Instagrammable environments, forging memories:
“Nothing ever happens unless it’s Instagrammable. We want to entertain, and to infuse that with vital conservation teaching. When they go home they will look at the photo they snapped, and maybe find out more.”
This concept is epitomised by a coral-winged angel photo-opportunity.
At Aquarium at the Boardwalk Sundher and his team have brought together a group of renowned painters, artists, muralists, musicians, sculptors and global aquarium experts to create a multisensory experience. One where everything is about spectacle and every spectacle concerns ocean conservation.