Landlocked Kansas Citians Love To Dream Of Big Aquariums, But Settle For Smaller Ones

Aug 11, 2016

A group of kids at Sea Life Kansas City.
Credit C.J. Janovy / KCUR 89.3

As part of our 30/30 Vision series, KCUR takes a look at three of Kansas City’s grandest ideas from the last 30 years. We also looked at magnet schools and the Wizard of Oz theme park.

It’s understandable that landlocked Kansas Citians would dream about aquariums. Back in early 1993, when the voters of Kansas City, Missouri, were asked to approve “riverboat” gambling, boosters harbored visions of a casino-fueled entertainment boom – including an aquarium – along the Missouri River. Voters approved.

As we know, the casinos would never actually be boats, and would never be actually in the river, and all the aquatic life along the river … remains in the river.

That’s not for lack of trying.

Aquarium enthusiasts John and Carol Kuhns started a group for fellow hobbyists in the early 1970s and later incorporated as Friends of the Aquarium, hosting exhibits at the Flower, Lawn & Garden Show and at the zoo. When the city began considering proposals, John Kuhns says, “We used to go sit in the meetings, but I don’t know if the city really had an overwhelming desire for an aquarium.”

Developers apparently did.

In 1995, a Dallas company called Tarlton Aquastar presented plans for a $25 million, two-story, 60,000-square-foot aquarium called Underwater World. 

Five years later, in 2000, fearing Kansas City was losing out on the aquarium race to places like Duluth and Tulsa, Oklahoma, three former mayors joined what The Star described as “a private, blue-ribbon task force” charged with shaping a proposed $50 million Great Rivers Aquarium.

“Charles Wheeler and Dick Berkley were members of Friends of the Aquarium, and we had a lot of the movers and shakers,” Kuhns remembers. “But near the end, seems like the more movers and shakers we got on our board, the less forward momentum we had.”

By 2008, Kansas City was just trying to keep up with Mission, Kansas, where Tom Valenti had secured $63 million in taxpayer-backed STAR bonds from the state of Kansas for a proposed retail, office and housing development at Shawnee Mission Parkway and Roe Avenue. That included plans for a 1.5-million-gallon saltwater aquarium. Valenti hoped to finish the project by 2010.

Today, the big dreams for that land include an eventual Walmart, but so far it remains a plot of weeds.

Union Station leaders, meanwhile, were talking about building a $40 million, 1-million-gallon aquarium; and The Cordish Co. and other developers were proposing an aquarium north of the Sprint Center.

The Kansas City Star described the situation as “an aquarium race.”

The winner was Merlin Entertainments of the United Kingdom, which opened Sea Life in Crown Center in 2012.

Merlin is a global attractions leviathan but Sea Life is considerably smaller than all those plans city boosters considered, sharing what used to be the first two floors of the Halls department store with Legoland. But the tanks lining its dark blue hallways and faux-wharf warrens are filled with enough Dory lookalikes and touch-able starfish and child-sized sharks to keep busloads of kids entertained for a little while, anyway.

And the latest entry in the waterworld quest? Earlier this month the Kansas City Zoo floated the idea of city-backed bonds for a new aquarium.

Some dreams never die.

C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.

This story is part of KCUR's series called 30/30 Vision, in which we examine Kansas City's past to reimagine its future.