By  on November 23, 2005

ATLANTA — The dramatic Georgia Aquarium, the world's largest, opens here today and it's the biggest thing to happen in the city since the 1996 Summer Olympics.

City officials are banking on it as the cornerstone attraction of a downtown revitalization that aims to lure tourists and suburbanites and boost business.

The aquarium was made possible by The Home Depot founder and philanthropist Bernie Marcus, who donated more than $200 million of the $290 million cost. Along with the World of Coke museum, set to open next door in 2007, the aquarium is part of an effort to create a new downtown experience —one that pulls together sites such as Centennial Olympic Park, CNN Center and Philips Arena.

City officials are looking to the aquarium as a tool to help spur Atlanta's growth and ability to attract business. For the past 20 years, the city has gained 100,000 residents a year, to its current 4.2 million population. Along with the downtown attractions, recent developments include Atlantic Station, a $2 billion retail, residential, entertainment and office development north of downtown. A branding campaign, in the works for the past 18 months, just announced its slogan, "Every Day Is Opening Day," and the message soon will be publicized through an $8 million advertising blitz.

The city also is vying, with Charlotte, N.C., and other cities, to be the home of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

The aquarium, a 550,000-square-foot building, designed by Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback and Associates, appears like a giant blue-and-white ship breaking through a wave. Guests enter a huge atrium through a walkway of fish that leads to five galleries — River Scout, Cold Water Quest, Ocean Voyager, Tropical Diver and Georgia Explorer.

The galleries have a total of 8 million gallons of water and 60 habitats. Among the 100,000 residents, the stars include the beluga whales Niko and Gasper, and the only two whale sharks in North America, Ralph and Norton, both some 15 feet long.

The well-fed sharks swim peacefully with other species, such as stingrays that float and flap like silent, silvery ghosts at unexpected moments. The fish surround guests, who move through a 100-foot-long glass tunnel. The effect is like a beautifully lit, scuba-diving expedition without the wet suit, and with the added value of a dreamy, soaring soundtrack. Educational information is available at the touch of computer screens, and some exhibits have in-tank cameras so guests can zoom in to study specific creatures of interest.The Tropical Diver gallery has a viewing area larger than an Imax theater, with seating where visitors can lounge mesmerized by jellyfish, sea horses and the jewel-colored residents of tropical coral reefs, interrupted only by the occasional wave crashing overhead on the glass ceiling.

The aquarium's ballroom can accommodate sit-down dining for 1,100, with enough space to host functions for more than 8,000 people. A dining "dream team," led by Wolfgang Puck, will handle special events and catering.

The facility is expected to draw 2 million visitors a year. Events all week culminated in The Big Splash, a black-tie and tennis shoes gala Nov. 20. to show off the aquarium to Atlanta's corporate movers and shakers before it opened to the public. At $450 a ticket, the event raised more than $4 million for the Marcus Institute's program for children with developmental disabilities.

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