It’s been a wild couple of weeks for Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris.
First former U.S. Presidents (and anglers) Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, along with a boatload of actors, country western stars and outdoors-minded enthusiasts, helped Morris celebrate the opening of his 350,000-square-foot Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium in Springfield, Missouri.
Then, Bass Pro Shops completed its $4 billion acquisition of the rival outdoor retailer Cabela’s
“It’s been like a whirlwind,” Morris told CNBC a day before the museum opened, “Two of the biggest things in my life are happening at once. It was not by design, I’ll tell you that. We’d prefer a little more space in there.”
Negotiations over the Bass Pro/Cabela’s deal have been underway for over a year. However, it has taken more than 10 years to complete the 350,000-square-foot Wonders of Wildlife museum (WOW) adjacent to the sprawling Bass Pro Shops National Headquarters, about an hour’s drive from Branson.
Billed as being larger than the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, the new Wonders of Wildlife Museum & Aquarium boasts 35,000 live fish, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds; 1.5 million gallons of freshwater and saltwater aquariums; and more than 1.5 miles of trails that meander through 4-D dioramas that share sights, sounds and smells of wildlife habitat, including the African savannah, the Amazon rainforest, ten U.S. National Parks and the Arctic.
“We wanted to make things fun and create some excitement about big fish and wildlife,” said Morris, “So, for example, when you walk through the Arctic exhibit you’ll hear the wind blow, you’ll see the Northern Lights, you’ll feel cold and be immersed in the environment with the musk ox, the polar bears and the birds of the region.”
Notable galleries on the aquarium side of WOW include a 300,000-gallon wraparound aquarium, a two-story Shipwreck Room where visitors can touch stingrays, a 3-story ‘bait ball’ created by thousands of herring on the defense against circling sharks; and a gallery filled with photos, fishing artifacts and mementos associated with noted anglers such as Earnest Hemingway, Zane Gray and several U.S. presidents.
While Morris clearly loves it all, two of his favorite spaces in the museum are the detailed recreation of his dad’s Brown Derby liquor store, where Bass Pro began, and the room housing the National Collection of Heads and Horns from the Boone and Crockett Club, which was founded by Theodore Roosevelt in 1887.
In that exhibit, World Record bears, bison, caribou, elk and other big game species are displayed just as they were at New York’s Bronx Zoo in 1908 in an exhibit dedicated to conservation and the protection of animals.
“It looks kind of sterile. But it’s a really significant piece of history in our country,” said Morris, “Roosevelt was concerned about the management of fish and wildlife and he wanted these trophy animals displayed to send a shocking message that if we don’t have good laws and regulations we could lose our buffalo and other wild free ranging animals.”
With more than 4 million annual visitors, the massive Bass Pro Shops national headquarters in Springfield is known as the “Grandaddy” of outdoor stores and is already the top tourist attraction in Missouri.
In addition to all manner of outdoor gear that is for sale, the store offers a wide variety of free entertainment, including aquariums, an in-store swamp with alligators and turtles, archery and shooting ranges, waterfalls, several sports-related Halls of Fame, and a restaurant.
Admission to the new Wonders of Wildlife is a hefty $39.95 for adults and $23.95 for kids, but Susan Wade of the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau doesn’t think tourists or locals will balk.
“In other cities, there are museums and aquariums that charge the same, or more, but give you less,” said Wade, who is also confident Wonders of Wildlife will be a boost for the local economy.
“Visitors now have more of a reason to spend the whole day at the Bass Pro Shops complex. And the longer they stay the more likely they’re going to spend a night in a local hotel,” she said.
And the longer they stay in town, the more likely tourists will visit local restaurants, wineries, breweries, and attractions such as Fantastic Caverns, the Smallin Civil War Cave, Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield and the spot in downtown Springfield where Wild Bill Hickok was involved in the country’s first recorded quick-draw shootout.
(My story about the new Wonders of Wildlife Museum & Aquarium in Springfield, MO first appeared on CNBC in a slight different version.)