Just below the stores and eateries of the American Dream mall complex in East Rutherford, N.J., lies a whole world ready to transport visitors to an underwater fantasy version of New York City.
There, the Statue of Liberty holds a clamshell high, overlooking the Babbling Broo Bridge. You can catch "The Piranha of the Opera" on Broadway or check out the BarRicuda Club while sharks and stingrays float by.
And the Big Apple theme doesn't stop there. From a fish-filled subway train to a crab hanging out in front of a couple of Jets and Giants football helmets, there's something fun for locals and tourists alike in each tank at the New Jersey SEA LIFE Aquarium, set to open on Tuesday.
The 25,000-square-foot "City Under the Sea"-themed aquarium contains about 3,600 animals and about 150 species, Rich Weddle, the aquarium's curator, told Travel + Leisure during a visit to the facility. The aquarium's largest tank, which contains several tunnels visitors use to walk around and through the exhibit, is about 186,000 gallons and has about 2,000 animals inside, including nine sharks and four stingrays.
"We're normally trying to recreate a slice of nature in each tank. We've started at that point, but then added these touches of whimsy to it, an homage to New York and New Jersey," Weddle said. "It really appeals to the younger guests and really engages them very easily… The Statue of Liberty, the iconic New York buildings, the subway themes, it's all things that kids recognize and appreciate."
Many of the features were designed to be interactive, encouraging visitors to get up close and personal with the tanks and the animals in them.
"For a lot of the tanks we [tried to] really make the experience more intimate," Weddle said. "Some of them have bubbles you can stick your head in, some of them have tunnels you can walk through… We try [to] make as many opportunities for engagement as we can."
The aquarium may be ready to welcome fish fans everywhere, but it's been a long road. The project was initially expected to open in the Spring of 2020, but was delayed due to COVID-19.
"We started construction and then we paused construction because of COVID, and then we had to start again," Weddle said. "It was a lot of work to get to this point, but now seeing guests on the floor really enjoying what we've done is fantastic."
Tickets are on sale now. Visitors will be asked to reserve a date and time for arrival however there is no time limit for the duration of their time at the attraction. The aquarium recommends all visitors wear face masks and practice social distance while visiting.
In addition to the aquarium, a LEGOLAND Discovery Center New Jersey will also open on Tuesday, featuring a Miniland with interactive games, a 4D Cinema, several areas to build and play with Legos, and an interactive ride.
Alison Fox is a contributing writer for Travel + Leisure. When she's not in New York City, she likes to spend her time at the beach or exploring new destinations and hopes to visit every country in the world. Follow her adventures on Instagram.
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