First it was butterflies. Then mirror and laser mazes. Last month, sharks, sea lions, otters, penguins and thousands of sea creatures were added.

They are all part of Odysea in the Desert, a concept conceived by Israeli-born developer Amram Knishinsky. In addition to Butterfly Wonderland and Odysea Mirror Maze, both of which opened in 2013, the 35-acre entertainment destination includes Odysea Aquarium, which opened in September; Dolphinaris Arizona, which is owned by Ventura Entertainment, an entertainment company based in Mexico, and opened Oct. 15; and Polar Play, an indoor ice playground for children and adults where everything – including the bar – is made from ice. The entertainment destination, which is on land owned by the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, will soon include restaurants and retail shops, as well as a courtyard featuring music on the weekends. “Eventually we’re turning the area into a new town square,” Knishinsky says. “It’s a gathering place, you can come and enjoy all the activities.”

A passion for aquariums

Odysea Aquarium represents a lifelong passion for marine life for Knishinsky, which began as a child growing up in Ramat-Gan, Israel. Although there is no beach in Ramat-Gan, he recalls travelling to the beaches of Tel Aviv during summer months. “That’s how we spent the summer,” he says, learning how to swim and being introduced to some of the species in the Mediterranean. He also served in the Israeli Navy.

When traveling for business or pleasure, he found himself making it a priority to visit the local aquarium. After noticing that all aquariums in the United States were nonprofit – they were either paid for by municipalities, local residents or philanthropists, he says – his entrepreneurial spirit was intrigued and he and his team eventually developed the country’s first for-profit aquarium, Kentucky’s Newport Aquarium, modeled after the Sydney Harbor Aquarium in Australia. It was sold about nine years ago and is still in operation.

When deciding to develop the Odysea Aquarium, Knishinsky and his team wanted to create a place that was different from other aquariums throughout the world. “I’ve probably seen every [aquarium] in America and abroad, from Paris to Osaka, Japan,” he says. “I’ve seen many of them to give me a good perspective as to what I wanted to do and what makes each one of them unique.” The process helped him see what is “available elsewhere and how we can do it differently,” he says.

Visitors to Odysea Aquarium follow a journey that begins with a drop of water falling from the sky into lakes and rivers and then to the ocean. The more than 30,000 animals and 500 species are organized by their habitats, such as fresh water turtles, a 60-pound catfish and baby Siamese crocodiles in the American Rivers exhibit and piranha and bigtooth river rays in the Rainforest Rivers exhibit. “We have probably one of the largest fresh water exhibits in the country,” Knishinsky says.

The aquarium’s habitats have large windows and feature a variety of sizes, including cylinders and tunnels. “The opportunity to walk around [the aquarium] and get different perspectives is what makes us unique,” he says.

Other unique features include bathroom mirrors replaced with acrylic windows that allow a view into the shark tank, an escalator ride surrounded by an aquarium designed to make “people feel like they were going down to the bottom of the ocean” and the first-ever indoor SeaTrek experience, an underwater ocean-walking adventure that doesn’t require scuba certification.

Other features include a 37-foot long tide touch pool; a South African penguin habitat with a Penguin Interaction Program; a 3-D documentary called “Underwater Giants”; and a Living Sea Carousel, where guests sit in rotating stadium-seating theaters for a 20-minute presentation on divers, sea turtles, sea lions and seals and sharks.

Although the aquarium – which is 200,000 square feet and holds more than 2 million gallons of water – is for profit, a foundation has been formed that will allow for an educational component that includes field trips, research, scholarships and internships, Knishinsky says.

Future plans for Odysea in the Desert include a rainforest and amphibian exhibit as part of Butterfly Wonderland that is currently under construction.

Knishinsky and his team are also about to embark on developing the 53 acres to the north, he says, with hotels; Paradise Earth, a rainforest aviary; and a “Jurassic Park” type of attraction, featuring animatronic dinosaurs.

Odysea in the Desert is an entertainment district anchored by animal-related projects.

An entertainment district anchored by animal-related projects “makes us unique,” Knishinsky says. “It’s not a place for another roller coaster.”

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