An Oasis in the Desert: The New Public Aquarium at Arizona’s Wildlife World Zoo | Details | Articles

Featured Article

Issue: November 2008

Author: Kim Wagner-Hemmes

WAGN 1108
Photographer: Kim Wagner-Hemmes

Amid the arid climate of the western United States, an aquatic wonderland is about to open. Get a sneak peek at the new public aquarium displays at Arizona’s Wildlife World Zoo.

An Oasis in the Desert: The New Public Aquarium at Arizona’s Wildlife World Zoo


Kim Wagner-Hemmes

photographs by the author


Wildlife World Zoo’s new public aquarium, located approximately 27 miles southwest of Phoenix in Litchfield Park, Arizona, is scheduled to open at the end of 2008. Upon completion, the site will feature 60 indoor exhibits spread out over 33,000 square feet, and contain 135,000 gallons of water. Combined with the aquarium’s numerous outdoor exhibits, this veritable desert oasis will soon house up to 400 species of aquatic mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles.

Fully Loaded

The new, privately funded $6 million aquarium site will also boast a new entry building with two gift shops, a restaurant with a full kitchen and bar, a log-flume ride that goes around the exhibit buildings and through a 20-foot acrylic tunnel underneath a South Pacific coral reef fish tank, a 30-foot diameter shark tank, and a stingray feeding pool. What began as one man’s private breeding farm for birds and mammals has since grown into a major attraction in Central Arizona’s Southwest Valley.

Foundation and History

During the mid-1960s, Mickey Ollson began raising exotic birds on a 5-acre plot of land near the present zoo site. In the early 70s, the future founder and director of Wildlife World Zoo decided to trade some of his birds for mammals. He started with llamas, deer, and wallabies, and when given the opportunity to obtain some camels and zebras, Ollson decided to purchase the 50-acre site where the zoo currently resides. There, he continued to breed animals for zoos that needed his expertise on animal nutrition and veterinary medicine until the Wildlife World Zoo first opened its gates to the public in September 1984.

Today, Wildlife World Zoo displays more than 2600 animals to nearly 400,000 visitors a year. It received accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) in 1988, and later joined the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) in 2004.

Looking Ahead

Plans for the new aquarium started in 2001 when the zoo purchased an additional 16 acres of land on the southwest corner of its current site. Although many aquarium projects of the past decade have succumbed to waning attendance and increasing debt, Ollson and his team have a design, budget, and plan in place to avoid such pitfalls. Future phases of the zoo’s development (currently in the planning stages) will be built out over the next eight to ten years in order to schedule significant new animal attractions several years in a row. This will also allow Wildlife World Zoo the flexibility to adjust their construction timetables according to economic conditions and early aquarium revenues.

Bringing the ocean to the desert is quite a challenge, so supervision of the aquarium’s daily construction operations has fallen on the shoulders of Assistant Zoo Director Mike Demlong. Working alongside Demlong is Aquarium Project Manager Jeff Faucett, a veteran aquarist who helped launch aquariums at Moody Gardens in Galveston, Texas and the Oklahoma State Aquarium in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His role in the zoo’s new aquarium project is to design, build, and maintain life support systems for the hundreds of new aquatic animals that are arriving daily.

The new entry building, on which they broke ground approximately two years ago, is ready to be occupied. All that remains are the three different animal-themed exhibit buildings, which are 70- to 80-percent complete.

Main Attractions

Of these three exhibit buildings, “The Diversity of Life and Water” building is close enough to completion that they’re starting to put water in the tanks. When finished, the building will accommodate arowana, catfish, discus, grouper, paddlefish, peacock bass, pupfish, Rift Lake cichlids, South American cichlids, starfish, trout, 30 species of Caribbean reef fish, and 40 species of South Pacific coral reef fish. American lobsters, Chinese and American alligators, tree frogs, and other compatible examples of aquatic life will also be on display.

“Wild and Wonderful,” which is not quite as far along, is presently having its life support systems hooked up. Exhibits in this building will contain penguins (one of Ollson’s favorites), as well as a giant Pacific octopus, giant clams, nautiluses, poison dart frogs, seahorses, and spiny lobsters. Fish exhibits will include African lungfish, archers, blind cave fish, barracudas, clownfish, electric catfish and eels, knifefish, lionfish, mudskippers, and stonefish, to name a few.

“Aquatic Predators,” the third exhibit building, is still in the process of being built. One of the highlights of this building will be a 30-foot shark tank situated between the restaurant and exhibit area. Other attractions consist of a full bar overlooking the new outdoor flamingo exhibit, along with an albino alligator, ocelots, and multiple fish displays that feature arapaima, payara, piranha, and much more.

Last but not least is the log flume ride, which is the fifth mechanical ride to be added to the zoo. This 3½-minute ride will travel 1500 feet around three monkey islands with 50-foot palm trees, past baby alligators, underneath exotic birds, through a 3-ton acrylic tunnel below the South Pacific coral reef fish tank in “The Diversity of Life and Water” building, and end up in a splash pool after a 3-story drop. Like its predecessors—the African Safari Train, the Carousel, the Australian Boat Ride, and the Skyride—it has been incorporated into live animal exhibits.

Beneficial and Self-Sustaining

According to 66-year-old Mickey Ollson, “The success and growth of Wildlife World Zoo mirrors the tremendous growth of the West Valley and entire Central Arizona region over the years. It is gratifying for me that the public appreciates my efforts and those of the zoo’s staff toward the conservation of wildlife and wild places.” As a private institution, Wildlife World Zoo doesn’t receive any type of public tax support, grants, or financial donations. They rely solely upon gate attendance and retail sales for general operating funds and capital expenses. Any profits made by the zoo are put back in again to improve conditions for staff, visitors, and, of course, the animals.




Wildlife World Zoo

16501 W. Northern Avenue, Litchfield Park, AZ 85340

Hours 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., 7 days a week, 365 days a year, including all holidays

Call 623-935-WILD (9453) or visit for details




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