The Audubon Aquarium of the Americas will close at the end of November for at least six months as part of the $41 million renovation project currently underway on the riverfront building and nearby grounds, officials said.
Melissa Lee, a spokesperson for the Audubon Nature Institute, said recently that the plan is for the aquarium to reopen next summer as a new attraction that combines the aquarium with the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, which was shuttered in 2020 in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic.
The new name for the combined attraction will be the Audubon Aquarium and Insectarium.
As part of the upgrade — the biggest renovation of the aquarium since it opened at the foot of Canal Street in 1990 — the Entergy Giant Screen Theater is being removed to make room for the insectarium exhibits.
New lobby, exhibits
The renovation, which was announced in May, will add 17,000 feet of exhibit space inside the existing walls of the aquarium, in addition to another 2,500 square feet of breezeway space that will be enclosed. At the time of the announcement, Audubon Chief Operating Officer Kyle Burks said officials had hoped that the attraction would be able to stay open through the renovation process, or that any closure would be short lived.
The entrance to the attraction will move downriver about 90 feet. An enclosed, 60-foot tall glass lobby is being built that will be shared by the aquarium and the insectarium.
The space once used by the IMAX theater is being divided into two floors.
The first floor will be a special event space, officials said, and the second floor will be used to house the insectarium galleries, including the butterfly pavilion. Plans call for the new butterfly exhibit to have lower ceilings than in the previous space so visitors can get a better view.
The insectarium was known for serving edible dishes that incorporated bugs, such as a cricket pumpkin pie. A "cultural cafe" will be part of the new attraction, and insects will be on the menu again, according to plans from Audubon.
On the aquarium side, several exhibits are getting upgrades, including the Mississippi River Gallery, the Amazon Rainforest Gallery and the Top of the Gulf Experience.
Parakeet Pointe, the outdoor area where visitors could feed parakeets, will not be returning, Lee said. They have already been moved to aviaries at other facilities.
Additional large birds will move into the rainforest area, though.
Some animals will move
Some of the animals will move due to the construction, but most will stay in their current enclosures during the renovations, Lee said.
The two sea otters were moved to another aquarium while their habitat is being renovated, she said. Sea otters will return, but she said they most likely will be a new pair.
The moray eels and the seahorses have moved already too — some to partner facilities and others elsewhere at Audubon's facilities.
Early next year, work will start on the popular penguin exhibit and the entire colony will move into another pool that's behind the scenes, she said.
The pool allows them to swim and nest much like in their regular enclosure.
Additional animals can move to Audubon's behind-the-scenes facilities if needed, officials said.
Discount for memberships
Audubon currently is offering a 15% off membership sale, with Lee calling it a "significant discount" for new and returning members "in anticipation of the upcoming renovations."
Audubon sells annual memberships that include admission to all the facilities — the zoo, aquarium, IMAX and the nature center. Admission to the insectarium was included when it was open.
Changes at Woldenberg Park
In addition to the $34 million for renovations to the aquarium, the institute also has proposed $7 million in upgrades at Woldenberg Park, focusing on the entrances, landscaping and electrical system.
The improvements are aimed partly at making it more accommodating to the festivals that are growing in number and size in the space.
Plans before the City Planning Commission include additional green space and reworked pathways throughout the park.
A specific opening date has not been announced for the renovated attraction, but it is expected to be closed for at least six months.
The hope is that the revived attraction will drive move visits, with Lee projecting a 30% increase in annual guest totals.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the aquarium averaged 700,000 visitors annually and the insectarium averaged about 200,000, she said. The zoo is Audubon's busiest attraction, averaging about 800,000 visitors annually.
Staff writer Anthony McAuley contributed to this report.