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Want to swim with sharks and stingrays? A look inside the new aquarium at Ridgmar

Sharks and lizards and birds: sneak peak SeaQuest Ridgmar

Interactive exhibits are key to new aquarium opening in Ridgmar Mall, a key to redeveloping the struggling mall.
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Interactive exhibits are key to new aquarium opening in Ridgmar Mall, a key to redeveloping the struggling mall.

The stingrays and sharks are gliding in their saltwater. The parakeets are fluttering about in their tiny aviary.

And Stormin’ Norman, the 85-pound African spurred tortoise, is roaming the grounds, ever so slowly.

All those creatures and many more are ready to greet guests at Fort Worth’s newest attraction, SeaQuest Interactive Aquarium.

The aquarium will officially open to the public Nov. 11 on the lower level of Ridgmar Mall, part of a multimillion-dollar makeover of the struggling shopping center that developers say will take several years.

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Braley Burke holds her daughter Jayde Grimm looking at a very big snake at SeaQuest, the new aquarium on the lower level of Ridgmar Mall on Wednesday, November 1, 2017. It is expected to be a popular attraction and one of the key ingredients in the effort to redevelop the struggling Ridgmar Mall. Joyce Marshall jlmarshall@star-telegram.com

Although some of the SeaQuest displays aren’t quite finished, area residents who have bought one-year memberships (which cost $30 to $100, depending on the number of family members) are being invited to take a sneak peek at the animals anytime during normal mall hours.

Please feed the animals

As its name implies, SeaQuest specializes in fish and other water creatures. Guests are invited to feed little cups of shrimp to the white-spotted bamboo sharks, or krill to the stingrays. Or for an extra fee, customers can put on a wetsuit and swim with the sea creatures.

About 50 people work at the aquarium, including many handlers who on any given day may be seen walking through the hallways with a lizard, bearded dragon or some other tame beast on their shoulder.

Four-year-old Sparrow Pequeno, who visited SeaQuest this week with her mother, said the parakeet exhibit was her favorite attraction. She stepped into the birds’ enclosure with a small cup of bird seed, and within seconds many of the dozens of blue, white and yellow parakeets were playfully swarming her for beakfuls of food.

As she giggled and held the cup in her tiny hand, about seven or eight of the birds landed on her forearms and took turns eating the seeds.

“We have seen other interactive bird exhibits, but in this one the birds land on you, and that makes it special,” said Sparrow’s mom, Lisa Pequeno of Azle.

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Members have early access to SeaQuest, the new aquarium on the lower level of Ridgmar Mall on Wednesday, November 1, 2017. It is expected to be a popular attraction and one of the key ingredients in the effort to redevelop the struggling Ridgmar Mall. Joyce Marshall jlmarshall@star-telegram.com

Another guest, Andrea Bradford of Crowley, said the parakeet exhibit is also a favorite of her two young children, Carl, 6, and Abby, 3.

“The kids always want to catch the birds when they see them in a yard or a park, and they never can,” said Bradford, who home-schools her children. “Here, the birds come right up to you.”

Largest aquarium

SeaQuest, a private company headquartered in Idaho, also has aquariums in Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. Fort Worth is its third location and its largest, general manager Cody Wood said while offering a handful of guests a tour this week.

The aquarium occupies the space of seven vacated stores on the mall’s lower level, below the food court.

Guests enter at a gift shop and walk in a U-shaped pattern through themed neighborhoods, including an Amazon Rainforest, an Egyptian Tomb, a Shark Lagoon and a Caribbean Cove.

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Spectacled Caiman at SeaQuest, the new aquarium on the lower level of Ridgmar Mall on Wednesday, November 1, 2017. It is expected to be a popular attraction and one of the key ingredients in the effort to redevelop the struggling Ridgmar Mall. Joyce Marshall jlmarshall@star-telegram.com

Many of the animals were rescued, including some that were abandoned exotic pets, Wood said.

The aquarium quarantines the animals in special tanks and cages until they are acclimated to the smells and sounds of a shopping mall and ready to interact with humans, he said.

Once the animals are in the public areas, rather than just in a recreated native habitat, the focus is on keeping the creatures comfortable with being touched and fed by humans, as part of an educational experience.

For example, the sharks are not placed in tanks where they will interact with humans until they are accustomed to the feeding patterns at SeaQuest and not threatened by people in the water, he said.

“The sharks know they don’t have to be constantly looking for food,” Wood said. “They know they will be fed at the same time every day, so they are not as territorial.”

Mall makeover

The opening of SeaQuest is an early step in the makeover of Ridgmar, where 40 percent of the stores have closed in recent years.

Illinois-based GK Development bought Ridgmar in 2013 with plans for a major redevelopment. Artist renderings recently published by the company’s design firm, InPlaceDesign, show the portion of the mall formerly occupied by Neiman Marcus being torn down and rebuilt with an emphasis on residential units, restaurants and outdoor green space.

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General Manager Cody Wood at SeaQuest, the new aquarium on the lower level of Ridgmar Mall on Wednesday, November 1, 2017. It is expected to be a popular attraction and one of the key ingredients in the effort to redevelop the struggling Ridgmar Mall. Joyce Marshall jlmarshall@star-telegram.com

No timetable for the improvements has been publicized, and no other new tenants have been announced. Ridgmar Mall’s master plan features 1.4 million square feet of space on 75 acres.

GK officials did not respond to requests for an update on the company’s plans this week.

But retail industry observers have said it’s becoming common for indoor malls such as Ridgmar — which was built in 1976 near Interstate 30 and Green Oaks Road, near Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base — to place less emphasis on department stores and more on attractions and entertainment to attract foot traffic.

At Ridgmar, anchors Neiman Marcus and Macy’s are closed — with Neiman Marcus moving to Fort Worth’s new upscale The Shops at Clearfork. Dillard’s has closed its first floor and converted its second floor into a space for clearance-only racks.

Ridgmar’s other two anchors, J.C. Penney and Sears, remain open. But those companies are having well-publicized struggles with declining revenue nationwide, and the long-term future of the stores is uncertain.

As many as 25 percent of traditional malls in the U.S. are in danger of closing by 2022, according to research by financial firm Credit Suisse.

Ridgmar also has spent about $3 million renovating the Cinemark Ridgmar 13 and XD. Also, popular clothing retailer H&M has opened a location there.

This report includes information from the Star-Telegram archives.

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796, @gdickson

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