WOW: Wonders of Wildlife Museum, Aquarium

WOW! In a word, that’s the reaction to the Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium that opened in Springfield on Sept. 22. WOW! It’s not often that the acronym for something is also the most fitting descriptor, but in this case it is. WOW!

One superlative after another flies off the tongue as you wander, awestruck, through the massive museum. More than 1.5 miles of trails lead the visitor through the natural history museum and several art galleries and special collections before ending in the aquarium.

Which part is best? How could you possibly pick? It is all so over the top, so mind-boggling, that it will take multiple visits to soak it all in. Museum staffers say they still see something new every time they walk through.

Some readers might remember the earlier version of the museum, which closed almost 10 years ago for renovations and upgrades. People in Springfield and beyond kept wondering, “What is taking so long?”

When you visit, you’ll understand. The new museum, which is three times larger than the previous one, is being hailed as the best fish and wildlife museum in the world — right here in Missouri!

Larger than the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Wonders of Wildlife is unrivaled in scale and scope. The 350,000-square-foot complex houses more than 35,000 live fish, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds representing 800 species, and hundreds more mounted specimens displayed in lifelike dioramas. There are 1.5 million gallons of freshwater and saltwater aquariums, and dozens of mini museums tucked away in galleries throughout the complex.

‘Walt Disney of the Outdoors’

The vision of Johnny Morris, noted conservationist and founder of Bass Pro Shops, the museum is a tribute to those who hunt, fish and act as stewards of the land and water.

“Wonders of Wildlife is an inspirational journey around the world that celebrates the role of hunters and anglers as America’s true conservation heroes,” said Morris. He hopes the multisensory museum and aquarium experience will inspire generations of future conservationists.

Morris created the not-for-profit Wonders of Wildlife as a gift to the nation, intended to encourage people of all ages to engage with the natural world.

The museum and aquarium are located next to Bass Pro Shops National Headquarters in Springfield, in the heart of the Missouri Ozarks. The mother store of the popular outdoor chain has long been the No. 1 tourist attraction in the state; with the addition of the museum, it will become an even greater draw. It offers yet another option for the millions of visitors who come to nearby Branson.

Morris, who is sometimes referred to as the “Walt Disney of the Outdoors” because of his knack for creating experiences that connect people with nature, has created several other world-class attractions that draw visitors to the Ozarks.

Big Cedar Lodge, south of Branson in Ridgedale, is consistently rated as the top resort in the state. Top of the Rock Ozarks Heritage Preserve, adjacent to Big Cedar, boasts pro golf courses, an eye-popping Native American natural history and art museum, two restaurants, a drive-through cave experience, hiking trails and more.

A little further south, on Highway 86, Dogwood Canyon Nature Park offers tram tours through bison and elk herds amid stunning Ozarks scenery, trout fishing, restaurant, mill, tree house and swinging bridges, overnight lodging, and a small museum. And of course, his Bass Pro Shops around the state are often destinations in and of themselves for outdoors enthusiasts.

It’s all a long way from the modest beginnings in 1971 when Morris founded Bass Pro Shops with 8 square feet of space in the back of his father’s liquor store in Springfield. (You can see a recreation of the original shop as part of the Wonders of Wildlife museum.)

Taking the Tour

The adventure begins with an escalator ride through a herd of bison, and ends hours later with petting a stingray on the ocean floor. In between is packed with a stunning tribute to the wonders of the outdoor world.

State-of-the-art dioramas — complete with sights, sounds and smells — surround visitors as they follow the trail from the chill of the Arctic to the cold winds of the Alps and the dry sun of the African savannah. We overheard more than one person exclaiming that the mounted specimens, set in lifelike scenes and almost close enough to touch (but don’t touch!), were “way better than a zoo.”

In the Great African Hall, elephants, giraffes, rhinos, crocodiles, zebra and more are displayed in amazingly lifelike settings. More than 40 record-setting mountain sheep from around the world are posed on Sheep Mountain.

The cabin where Theodore Roosevelt stayed between 1883 to 1887 at Elk Horn Ranch in North Dakota has been authentically recreated and is hailed as the birthplace of conservation. It was during his time in the West that Roosevelt saw the devastation of our resources and wildlife, and developed his conservation ethic. When he returned to New York in 1887, he founded the Boone and Crockett Club, which leads us to the next gallery.

The Boone and Crockett Club’s National Collection of Heads and Horns was relocated from the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo., to its new home in Wonders of Wildlife. The club’s collection was originally conceived as a means of preserving specimens of North American big game species that were believed to be in danger of disappearing.

The focus of the club soon changed from collection to conservation, to saving the species. When the collection opened at the Bronx Zoo in 1908, it helped spark the conservation movement in this country.

A series of connected galleries is devoted to artwork by Charles Fritz that illustrates the famous Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery Expedition of the early 1900s. Another gallery explores the near demise of the American buffalo and honors Native Americans. A series of National Park wildlife galleries celebrate “America’s Best Idea.”

All that, and you haven’t even reached the aquarium yet!

A Watery Wonder World

Upon stepping into the Great Oceans Hall, visitors are plunged into a circular “open ocean” habitat. A three-story spinning column made up of thousands of herring form a “living bait ball” — with blacktip sharks circling nearby. Shipwreck Reef plunges guests to the bottom of the ocean floor where they can touch stingrays and gaze at a sunken ship that is now a colorful reef.

You’ll experience a river full of piranhas; walk through an underwater tunnel surrounded by giant river fish and another underwater tunnel teeming with saltwater species; explore a cypress swamp, tropical rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef; and come face to face with jellyfish, iguanas, snakes, eagles, owls, sharks and more.

You’ll see boats of Ernest Hemingway, Zane Grey and other legendary anglers, learn about our fishing U.S. presidents, and browse through the two fishing halls of fame.

As you progress through the exhibits, you’ll understand why it took more than 2,000 painters, sculptors, woodworkers, iron workers, taxidermists, illustrators, designers, scientists, biologists, engineers and others more than nine years to create the elaborate details that make this such an immersive experience.

The final exhibit is a mural of the Ozarks, with this conservation message: “Full circle. Remember, we all live down stream!” And that, folks, is what Wonders of Wildlife is all about.

A Gala Grand Opening

To kick off the opening of this world-class attraction, a world-class lineup of politicians, musicians, celebrities and conservationists joined together for a gala celebration on Sept. 20.

Former Presidents George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, the Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and several state politicians were among the luminaries on the stage along with Johnny Morris.

Kevin Costner shared a personal and entertaining tribute to Morris, as did several prominent conservation leaders. The Concert for Conservation featured John Anderson, Dierks Bentley, Luke Bryan and other performers, all of whom donated their time.

Before You Go . . .

Wonders of Wildlife is open daily except Christmas. For details about admission prices, tour options and directions, visit www.wondersofwildlife.org. Annual memberships are available.

Timed entry is being offered to ensure the best experience for visitors; advance purchase online is strongly recommended to avoid delays.

Museum hours are from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily (5 p.m. on off-peak dates to be announced). Discounted rates for school field trips will be available. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes.