A new $15 million aquarium attraction is being planned for the Phoenix area, from the company behind the LEGOLAND theme parks. U.K.-based Merlin Entertainments Group, which also owns the Madame Tussauds wax attraction chain, plans to build SEA LIFE, a 26,000-sq-ft indoor aquarium inside the Arizona Mills Mall, located in Tempe.  

In addition to shopping and food courts, the mall is home to other interactive attractions such as an IMAX Theater and a high-end video game parlor/bar. However, the mall has taken a hit recently due to the recession with several major retailers, such as Virgin Megastore, closing their doors. The aquarium will occupy the space formerly occupied by Hi-Health and will feature 12 different habitat zones housing over 30 separate display tanks. 

The company has 31 similar aquariums in Europe and opened its first U.S. location in California two years ago, with plans to open additional locations. “Merlin is one of the few major companies in the sector which is continuing to invest in both new and existing attractions around the world, with the U.S. one of our primary development markets,” says Glenn Earlam, the company’s managing director for midway attractions. With the ideal location being within a mixed retail and leisure setting, Earlam says that the firm’s development teams “are reviewing sites across the U.S. in line with our aggressive growth plans.” 

While every indication points to this project actually being built, the announcement reminded me of several ‘whatever happened to’ theme park projects that were all over the news a year ago. Remember the estimated $600-million Coyote Canyon Theme Park which was intended for a 350-acre site near Florence? The developer’s project website is still online, but hasn’t been updated for over a year and most of the page links are broken.  

Meanwhile, developers of the $850-million Decades Musical Theme Park, intended for Eloy, have also seemingly gone into hiding since then-Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano and the Arizona Legislature passed a special bill in 2008 specifically to create a 950-acre attraction district along with a $750-million bond issue. The project could still make its originally intended 2010 groundbreaking, but according to the bill, they still have to raise $100 million of private money first in order to access the bond.  

However, just because these two over-achieving projects haven’t yet gained traction, there’s no denying that Arizona is a tourist state and that unique attractions such as SEA LIFE can be built. Just look at the $125-million Musical Instrument Museum being built in north Phoenix, which we profiled in our July issue.