This review is based on my visit in April 2013.
Grapevine SEALIFE Aquarium is the fourth United States location for the Sealife chain, opened in 2011. Grapevine is the largest of the four at 45,000 square feet and is situated on 2 levels. Since it opened, the chain has added a fifth location in Kansas City, Missouri, and will open a sixth in Charlotte, North Carolina in 2014. It is located in Grapevine, a suburb of both Fort Worth and Dallas, Texas, and is about 17 miles from either downtown. The aquarium is inside the Grapevine Mills Mall, a massive indoor shopping complex. The part of the building it occupies is on the exterior perimeter, and that part of the façade of the mall has been refurbished with a simple modern form that features blue painted silhouettes of sea life. One of the mall entrances is adjacent, and once inside the interior façade of the aquarium space is covered by a floor-to-ceiling mural of larger-than-life fish and corals. The entrance to the aquarium is from the interior of the mall only, and once inside the doorway through the mural an attractive bright modern lobby painted in white and blue with more murals of sea life acts as the ticketing and reception area. From here, the aquarium unfolds along a one-way circuit through many small exhibit rooms, most of which have low light levels and reasonably realistic theming in contrast to the bright modern look of the exterior and entrance. Like the other locations in the franchise, this one is aimed at young visitors; however, the quality of the exhibits and the informational graphics are not as dumbed-down as I imagined they might be. Species identification signs are simple computer monitors set in the walls with color graphics of the inhabitants, but each screen has more information about each inhabitant (the information slowly cycles for each species) as well as geographic locations and an endangerment scale. These signs are in both English and Spanish. In general, each exhibit focuses on animals that would be found together in the same region or habitat, and many exhibits are grouped in themes so that the arrangement is not completely random and unrelated, although the overall progression through the facility is a bit scatterbrained. The theming is not top-of-the-line and certainly not subtle, but it is also not cheap or temporary; despite its mall location, it does not feel like an aquarium that could be packed up and shipped out to the next location at the drop of a hat. It is not a facility with pedestal tanks or roll-away tanks behind glass windows. Most of the exhibits are of a small to small-to-medium size, with only a single larger one, but most have a good amount of variety and theming. By my count, there are 32 exhibit tanks, with just 4 containing fresh water. I will describe each themed section of the aquarium as they are encountered along the visitor path. Unfortunately, my visit was very rushed so that I did not have time to wait for the computer monitors to cycle through the inhabitants of each exhibit, so this review will lack species identification.
The lobby mentioned above has one exhibit, a small open-top reef tank with tiny colorful fish that is roughly triangular in shape. Inexplicably, a simulated dinosaur skull (plesiosaur?) is set in the middle of it, with its toothy jaws rising above the water surface; I suppose it acts as a precursor to the 360-degree Ocean Tunnel and Dinosaur Dive sections seen later, which feature simulations of this exctinct species. The fact that this tank is low and has one side open to the mall makes me concerned that young casual passers-by can plunge their junk-food-encrusted hands into the habitat!
Shoaling Ring is the first exhibit room along the exhibit path, and is a modern oval room with abstract painted coral graphics. Its only exhibit surrounds the room: a narrow cicular tank stretches around the circumference of the room and is filled with barred flagtail. A current is created in one direction to encourage the inhabitants to swim in one direction against it, circling the room. The only lighting comes from within the tank, which illuminates the background mural inside, and some projected water patterns on the floor.
Harbor is next, in a room that recreates the underside of a pier in a sportfishing harbor, probably like those around the state’s Gulf of Mexico coastline. The first three tanks are tiny, set in a wall that simulates stacked wood crates; each has a little bubble window (one contains some sort of shrimp). Next is a small square open-top tank with a few small fish species and an anchor chain emerging from it, near the center of the room. The last tank is better, a longer curved open-top tank with simulated pier columns surrounding it. Some items of flotsam and jetsam and rocks line the sandy bottom to reinforce the theme of the tank.
Mangrove Forest is a room with two tanks and a small rectangular window that previews the large 360-degree Ocean Tunnel exhibit seen later. The room is surrounded by bright abstract graphics of mangroves painted on the walls, that are the hallmark of the chain’s presentation. The depiction of mangroves becomes more realistic and three dimensional surrounding the tanks themselves: the first tank is the larger of the two and is a long shallow open-top one with roots emerging from the water while the second one is a small bubble tank set in a nearby simulated mudbank.
Stingray Bay is next, a large room filled with simulated palm trunks, palm frond-lined unbrellas, and backed by a sunset mural with palms in silhouette. The single exhibit is an open-top octagonal tank in the center of the room for rays and small sharks; it is not intended to be a touchtank and the height and shape of the containing panels make it so that an adult visitor would need to stretch to touch the water surface. On the backside of it is a stairway that leads to a deck, part of which hangs over the tank; that part has a see-through floor, but visitors get a much clearer view of the rays from above when they simply lean over the railing to look down. The room is a two-story volume and visitors can look down at the exhibit area from a mezzanine above later in the journey.
Shipwreck is a nicely themed room of tropical reef tanks set amidst the simulated cargo hold of a sunken galleon. The first of its five tanks is a nice quarter-round open-top with a child-sized pop-up dome window inside for a great intimate look at the small inhabitants (including Banggai cardinalfish) for small visitors. A small bubble tank set in a rocky wall is followed by a larger round column tank with simulated coral and an anchor that can be viewed on all sides. Next is a larger wall tank with a curved window that is nearly floor-to-ceiling height; inside is a scene of a rocky coral reef wall and a ship steering wheel. Last, another small bubble tank is set in some more rocky reef walls. All five tanks here feature a limited selection of mostly small reef fish.
360-degree Ocean Tunnel is the star attraction of the aquarium, its largest tank. This nice habitat is viewed from a curved floor-to-celing window set within a simulated rocky reef frame at the end of the shipwreck room. Then the tunnel begins, comprised of two short angled sections. The first section is the better one, with full immersion provided by a nearly circular tube window that also has a window comprising the flat floor that visitors traverse and can look down a few feet to the sandy bottom. The second section is less immersive, with a half-round tube rising above the rocky walls surrounding the walkway; a bubble window is also set within rocky walls between the two short tunnel sections. The tank is dominated by the simulated life-size skeletons of a few plesiosaurs; although this theming device is memorable and adds fun to the display, it is unnecessary. However, it may be useful to young minds for sparking a connection between the current live animals they see on display and the extinct animals they often learn about. Ignoring the skeleton inside, the tank itself is a good display full of activity, including sharks, with a sandy bottom interrupted by rocky and reef outcrops and backwalls that are dimly lit so that the extent of the large tank is reasonably difficult to comprehend.
Dinosaur Dive is the next room, and it is dominated by another large curved floor-to-ceiling window that views the 360-degree Ocean Tunnel habitat. This window is set in a desert-like rocky cave with simulated fossils emerging from the rockwork on the walls. A model of a plesiosaur hangs above the space. Nearby, murals illustrate sea creatures that only exist in the fossil record. A small rectangular tank set in the smooth rockwork was empty during my visit; if it follows the formula of the Arizona SEA LIFE aquarium, it normally holds giant Pacific octopus. A second small tank set within the wall with a bubble window reveals a nice scene of some small fish that have a view into the 360-degree Ocean Tunnel habitat beyond.
Jellyfish Discovery is a small room dominated by graphics of jellyfish; the single rectangular wall tank for moon jellies in an abstract setting is a standard display technique replicated in a hundred other facilities. The color of the tank lighting transitions from red to blue at the same time that the hanging jellyfish-shaped lights in the room do the same. From here, starirs or an elevator are used by vistirs to reach the second floor of the aqaurium and continue the journey.
Clownfish Caves is the first room of the second floor and is a simple square room with a single large round column tank. It has a reef outcrop inside and simulated coral and anemones; clownfish and a few other bright troical reef fish inhabit it. Giant simulated anemone arms surround the outside of the tank, while similar ones hang from the ceiling and act as light fixtures that turn from red to blue, similar to those seen downstairs in Jellyfish Discovery. Two short hallways lead out of this room; one to the Shark Walk, and one to the Seahorse Temple.
Shark Walk is a small section of the aquarium that I understand was orignally an upcharge attraction but is now included with admission. Why anyone would want to pay additional money to see this is beyond comprehension, and indeed Joe Q. Public seems to have agreed, since there is no sign that it is not a regular part of the visitor path. It consists of two rooms and a connecting hallway. The first room is a room filled with graphics about sharks; the abstract and attractive graphics continue down the hallway to the second room, which is a small modern hexagonal room with more graphics about sharks. Set in the floor are six small windows where visitors can stand and look down into the 360-degree Ocean Tunnel habitat seen earlier, which includes sharks. This view is about as exciting as watching grass grow, and visitors have already had the chance to look below their feet in the first section of the tunnel seen earlier. Despite these observations, now that it is part of the regular visitor path it is a nice feature.
Seahorse Temple suddenly transports visitors inside a vaguely Mayan-esque dark jungle-ly room to see two average small half-column wall tanks for seahorses, followed by a larger curved-window tank set within a simulated stone temple wall for more seahorses.
Freshwater Swamps is the room that is intended to be the regional-focused exhibit that each location in the chain seems to have, although this one focuses on a habitat that is more common away from Dallas toward the Southeast of the country. The room is filled with abstract murals of the swamp and dominated by several simulated cypress trees with moss-cloaked branches obscuring the ceiling. Three nice adjoining open-top tanks with curved viewing panels set within simulated rocky stream walls create a nice setting for American freshwater fish, while a fourth smaller tank is set on a rocky pedestal and is a unique concave shape that can be viewed on all sides.
Rockpools/Touch A Creature is the first part of a large hall that is the final exhibit room. A small, exceedingly fake coral reef outcrop contains a shallow habitat that kids can plunge their hands into, while across from it are three touchpools for various tidepool denizens that are within staffed counters. Nearby is a small round tank with another child-sized pop-up bubble window within and a few reef fish. All this is set within a contemporary room with bright abstract reef graphics, modern white globe pendant lights, and an indoor playground with a nautical theme dominated by a yellow submarine play structure. The end of the room is open to the Stingray Bay space seen earlier on the first floor, and a hallway leads to the Dive Discovery Cinema, a small room that screens educational videos. Stairs or an elavtor lead back down to the first floor and its gift shop and exit to the mall.
Grapevine SEALIFE Aquarium is not especially inspiring for an aquarium fan who has seen many other facilities, but it is a satisfactory experience created with care and provides a good introduction to aquatic creatures for small children. It is an asset for those who live in Dallas/Fort Worth, but they have other options: both the Dallas World Aquarium and the Children’s Aquarium at Fair Park are in the same metro area and offer different experiences, so that collectively the metro area has a strong aquatic collection. It is better than most zoo aquariums I have seen. I rank it at number 38 of the 48 aquarium facilities I have visited; none of its individual exhibits make my top 25 individual exhibits list for fish however. At $19.00 general adult admission, it is overpriced by at least $5, but there are many discounts and options available. I have posted pictures in the gallery.