Kansas City Zoo names new aquarium after benefactor’s grandchildren

The Sobela Ocean Aquarium has oceans of fun to share with inquisitive midwestern minds, making the focus on upcoming generations a priority.
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The Sobela Ocean Aquarium invites visitors underwater with its floor-to-ceiling viewing area. // Photo by Belle Yennie

The Kansas City Zoo announced the name of the new aquatic expansion opening on September 1: The Sobela Ocean Aquarium. While not exactly the catchiest monicker, the inspiration behind the decision sets a tone for exactly what audience the facility is most deliberate in engaging.

Speaking in a press conference today, benefactor Shirley Helzberg revealed that the facility is named for her grandchildren, with “Sobela” being the combination of their names: Sawyer, Oliver, Benton, Elias, Leo, Amelia, and Arthur.

“We hope this will spur other people to think about their grandchildren and the opportunities here to further the wonderful development that we’ll continue,” said benefactor Helzberg.

This focus on a younger generation became a throughline of sentiments during today’s announcement, as the organizers repeatedly recognized that for youth in the middle of the country, an opportunity to see the ocean and aquatic life is rare—unless someone brings the ocean to them.

Jackson County Executive Frank White described the reactions of inner-city children during the Kids to the Parks program. These children get to experience the sand “beaches” of Blue Springs and Lee’s Summit lakes, but they’ll have even more exposure to ocean life as a resident of the Heartland.

“The question I always get is: ‘Are there any sharks in the water?'” White relayed. “This is a place where curious kids can see sharks safely, up close and personal, thanks to the hard work of all involved in this project.”

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Shirley Helzberg describes the creation of the Sobela Ocean Aquarium name. // Photo by Belle Yennie

Presiding Commissioner of Clay County Jerry Nolte stated that between Jackson and Clay County residents, almost a million discounted tickets and an additional 150,000 discounted memberships have been provided to attend the zoo—a triumph he saw representing the symbiosis between two local governments, yielding a benefit to the youngest among us.

“This is a great day not just for the zoo and the aquarium but for the partnership between Clay and Jackson counties,” said Nolte. “It’s one of those things that is rather rare, and I pointed to it more than once as an example of how different governmental subdivisions can work together to push forward the greater good.”

According to Mayor Quinton Lucas, the new aquarium will continue to highlight KC as a world-class city, following in the footsteps of recent achievements like the new KCI airport terminal, the NFL Draft, and the upcoming FIFA World Cup. Lucas is also excited to share the aquarium with young generations, including his two-year-old son.

“We add [the aquarium to that list of successes]… something that will entertain generations of Kansas Citians for the future. It will allow this city to remain world-class and to be the dynamic tourist and academic destination that we know it to be,” the mayor said.

Of the $77 million designated to the aquarium, $45 million was received through a 1/8 sales tax in the two counties. The other $32 million was raised from private donations, and another $10 million is currently being assembled—also from private donations—to contribute to the aquarium’s future.

The Sobela Ocean Aquarium will hold more than 8,000 animals with over five miles of piping for its filtration system. The layout is organized into six zones with 34 exhibits. The aquarium is also designed to immerse guests in the ocean as they explore deeper into the building.

Guests will start the aquarium at the ‘shore’ with animals living in shallow water. Stingrays and Toucans will eventually be found here, along with touch tanks for visitor interaction. As the guests ‘dive’ further into the space, the species of sharks and fish will change based on their level in the ocean. A seated viewing area with wheelchair access allows guests to relax and observe the animals. At the lowest level of the ocean, jellyfish and other deep sea creatures will be available for viewing.

Sea otters, a sea turtle, and a Pacific octopus will also be among the new residents found this September. Many more additions will be announced between now and the fall unveiling. For more information about the Kansas City Zoo and admission packages/policies, visit their website here.

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