By Jennifer Longdon
Photos by Jerry O’Connor (Dolphinaris), Yvette Mallari (Aquarium and Butterfly Wonderland)
Nestled in the shadow of the McDowell Mountains is the 35-acre OdySea in the Desert complex. The site along the northeastern 101 loop owned by the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, features three anchor attractions: Dolphinaris, OdySea Aquarium and Butterfly Wonderland.
A variety of restaurants, shops and amusements are set around a one-acre central courtyard featuring greenery, multiple water features and live entertainment. It’s an ideal spot for people-watching or regrouping after visiting one of the big attractions. The restaurants are a mix of local favorites and national chains. Not yet opened at the time of our visit, Polar Play is billed as “the coolest place in the desert.” This indoor playground for all ages is kept at 23 degrees.
We visited all three anchor attractions and spent some time wandering the complex to scope out accessibility. We found well-marked accessible parking, although during peak times, it could be full. There were well-marked, easy paths of travel and staff eager to ensure everyone feels welcome.
Each of the anchor attractions has group pricing and unique areas to host events. There were some access issues but overall we found new venues eager to learn how best to serve all their guests and willing to make appropriate changes and accommodations for a better experience for everyone.
Dolphinaris is designed as a saltwater lagoon, home to eight bottlenose dolphins. The habitat is made of five interconnecting pools. Diners on the Modern Grove patio overlook the enclosure. We were joined by 360 Fitness Center members, Tom Jacobs and his daughters, 13-year-old Ava and 11-year-old Kate, for an encounter with Liko, one of the four male dolphins.
Still wearing street clothes, the Jacobs had a chance to get their first up-close look at the dolphins and break the ice in the dry viewing area. Mischievous Liko swam by the observation window for photos, flirting and splashing. Although it’s clear accessibility has been considered, this is one place where folks who cannot reach over the wall will find it lacking. Wheelchair users and little people can look but not reach.
For the safety and well-being of the dolphins, everyone getting in the water must remove all jewelry, change into a provided wetsuit and shower to remove any lotion or perfume. The changing rooms include a large accessible space roomy enough for a wheelchair user and an assistant containing a transfer bench. The rows of double-stacked lockers have several lower lockers specifically designated for people with disabilities. The brand new restrooms are easy to navigate and very accessible. There is a family restroom that includes a shower with a transfer bench. One of the five interconnected dolphin habitats is equipped with a pool lift.
After everyone had changed and showered, we reconnected with Liko and his trainer, Krysta. The first 15 minutes of the encounter were strictly educational. At last, it was time to get up close with Liko and the Jacobs stepped into the pool. Ava is on the Autism spectrum; she has limited speech and anxiety in social situations. Where her sister, Katie charged ahead, Ava hung back at first although she was clearly fascinated by the 400 pound dolphin. Krysta led Liko through several behaviors, weaving in information about dolphin anatomy and habitat in the wild and conservation efforts. She made an effort to draw Ava into the action. Before the end of the encounter Ava was shaking hands, receiving kisses and playing basketball with Liko.
This attraction is not without controversy, mostly centered on the ethics of keeping such large, curious and social creatures in the Arizona desert to perform for the entertainment of humans. Dolphinaris’ response is that these well-tended dolphins were born in human care and only interact with human visitors when they choose to do so.
There was a clear bond between each dolphin and its human trainer. One could argue that the accessible habitat creates an opportunity for people with disabilities that they might otherwise experience.
The animals are closely monitored and visitor interaction time is strictly limited. The 900,000 gallons of salt water is kept at 75 degrees year-round and filtered every 90 minutes through silent gravity pumps. The habitat provides sun, shade and shelter in case of bad weather like dust storms.
Krysta told us, “If you can create a connection with these animals, then you care more about conservation and the condition of the oceans.”
With the Jacobs wrapped in large fluffy towels, we headed for the Beach Club, an upgrade to your experience and available for group events. The Beach Club features typical pool grill fare, roomy cabanas, two large hot tubs and a swimming pool—all with a great view of the dolphins. The pool and one hot tub have pool lifts and a ramp leading to the upper tier cabanas. The pool is separated from the dolphin habitats by a thick acrylic wall. The dolphins, curious about humans, often play along this window with people in the pool.
Regarding the experience, Tom Jacobs said, “When we got home we talked about our new dolphin buddy. Kate and Ava seemed to talk about touching the dolphin. Feeling its tummy came up the most in the conversation. Kate was also interested in the fact that the noise the dolphin makes comes out of the blow hole and not the mouth. Not sure why she liked that so much.”
“The kids and I truly enjoyed the event,” Jacobs said. “We would recommend it to families. It is super fun and a great way to learn about dolphins.”
Photos by Jerry O’connor / Loren Worthington / Yvette Mallari
Nine huge globes suspended from the ceiling teeming with fish captivate the moment you enter the lobby. The exhibits officially begin upstairs, but go to the restrooms first—both the men and women’s restrooms feature viewing windows into the shark tank. Then, head upstairs to the exhibits.
The experience at OdySea is designed to be linear, from the small fish that inhabit local lakes and streams, then rainforest exhibits, then the oceans. The pathways are clearly marked; gentle blue light outlines the floor. The atmosphere is largely tranquil but the cavernous setting and concrete surfaces amplify the squeals of eager littles. If auditory stimulation is an issue, plan accordingly.
We found most of the exhibits easily accessible. Large risers are placed in front of exhibit windows, but staff are quick to move them aside to accommodate wheelchair users. There were two areas where we found no easy solution: the large otter enclosure has a huge window for underwater viewing. However, the otters spend much of their time on land viewed through an elevated area requiring a step with no alternatives. The pools with the stingrays and starfish were equally inaccessible for those unable to lean over the walls.
Animal ambassadors including a sloth, macaw, and more often appear for human interaction, especially in places where lines begin to form to help pass the wait time. There are plenty of places to rest and enjoy the exhibits containing roughly 40,000 animals.
Along the way, the 3D theater holds 300 people in stadium seating and wide aisles for wheelchair users. We enjoyed “Underwater Giants,” a 10-minute film on whales. Later, the Living Sea Carousel, a rotating theater that can accommodate five wheelchair users in each section, takes a 20-minute ride around several screens and exhibits. Neither have closed captions but scripts are available in advance so those who cannot hear the narration can read it or have it read to them.
It was in the Living Sea Carousel where we met Boudreaux and Valor—sea turtles with disabilities. Boudreaux lost opposite front and back flippers after becoming entangled in fishing nets. Valor’s injury, a condition known as “bubble butt,” caused him to lose control of his buoyancy so that he is unable to dive for food. Many of the animals that live at OdySea are rescues with permanent injuries. Look closely for others during your visit.
Visitors leave the upper level and descend into the oceans via an escalator encased in an acrylic tube. The mood is enhanced by ethereal music and ocean sounds as sharks and rays glide overhead. Those who must take the elevator ride in silence past schools of fish painted on the walls.
Do plan on spending some time in the Great Barrier Reef tunnel; it’s as close as you can get to being inside the exhibit yet stay dry.
Along the way, we met Natalie Bailey, a zoologist and Supervisor of Guest Relations who said, “We like to make the OdySea experience special for everyone. So please call in advance so we can make accommodations.” We shared our observations about access and hope to see them integrated in the future.
Entry times are scheduled for a smoother guest experience. Buy your tickets online before you go to minimize your wait time. Plan 2-3 hours to see all the exhibits. odyseaaquarium.com
Your trip to the conservatory starts with a 3D film about the life and migration of the most common local butterfly, the monarch. This 15-minute film runs continuously. Closed captioning is available with 15 minutes notice.
Take some time in the Butterfly Emergence Gallery to watch butterflies emerge from the neat rows of cocoons and marvel at their fragile, nearly transparent wings. The butterflies hang upside down, gravity pumping blood into their shriveled wings until they fully open then they’re moved into the conservatory.
The conservatory is a kaleidoscope of 3,000 butterflies with climate that mimics a rainforest, warm and humid. We welcomed this during our winter visit but wonder how visitors will fare in the muggy heat of summer.
We asked Assistant Curator Nancy Compton for advice on how to best enjoy the conservatory. “Spend some quiet time in a sunny spot and just see what happens,” she said. In doing so, we were enchanted by our colorful visitors flitting around us endlessly. Time seems to slow here.
Roughly 40 species of butterflies are regularly found at Butterfly Wonderland with another 30 or so species seasonally displayed, timed to arrive for their emergence into adulthood. The staff are eager to point out any new arrivals and share facts about the butterflies on display. During our visit, the White Morph was present. This large all-white beauty is found on a single farm in El Salvador.
Sounds of water moving through the koi pond and the low hum of the climate control creates gentle white noise over the tranquil music that plays throughout. This is a great place to sketch, photograph and just sit as you observe the butterflies perched among the lush plants. We noted the butterflies tended to land more often on people dressed in greens and reds.
The butterflies are protected by monitored double doors at the entrance and exit to ensure that none of them wander out of the conservatory. You’ll need to remain vigilant so as not to accidentally crush any butterflies at rest on the ground.
Although there are other displays—bees, a tidal pond and for some reason, scorpions, we found these to be more of an afterthought than worthy of a trip.
We did encounter some access issues. There is a path made of uneven stones near the bee enclosure not easily traversed by some with mobility issues and one of the ramps onto the upper tier is marked as non-ADA compliant, leaving a single path up and down for wheelchair users. butterflywonderland.com
There’s not an easy straightforward answer here. A basic family trip to this new entertainment complex will start in the $100 range and grow from there. Entry pricing ranges from under $20 for Butterfly Wonderland to $59 for a land encounter at Dolphinaris.
The pricing is dynamic; it changes based on the day and time of your visit. Ask about discounts for students, military and seniors. Packages abound from upgrade packages that take you behind the scenes or combo tickets to enter multiple attractions. Then there’s the gift shop and food service.
Each venue has space and pricing for group events.
While no place is perfect, we found every establishment in the OdySea in the Desert complex willing to make accommodations. Do your homework. Call in advance to understand what accommodations are needed for your visit. We found staff eager for our feedback; especially when it came with both identification of obstacles and potential solutions.
(480) mpliant, leaving a single path up and down for wheelchair users. butterflywonderland.com
Jennifer Longdon is known to drink too much coffee, ask too many questions and then write about it. She has served on numerous Boards and Commissions focused on disability advocacy including the Phoenix Mayor’s Commission on Disability Issues, the Statewide Independent Living Council and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation Public Impact Panel. Jen has a T-4 spinal cord injury and uses a wheelchair full time.