Mystic - This comes as no surprise to anyone who has driven past Mystic Aquarium this summer and seen the packed parking lots: The aquarium is boasting a 15 percent increase in attendance since January, thanks to a new Titanic exhibit, hands-on animal displays and increased marketing and advertising efforts.
Aquarium spokeswoman Erin Merz said Monday that the increase equates to 50,000 additional visitors compared to the same six-month period last year. It puts the aquarium on track to attract 700,000 people this year, which would be 6 percent more than in 2011, when attendance was up 4 percent.
"This has been several years in the planning and now we're seeing the payoff," she said. "Our goal over the next several years is to stabilize at 800,000."
The aquarium had faced serious financial problems several years ago before it was able to restructure and reduce the debt from its expansion and renovation project a dozen years ago.
The new $2 million Ocean Exploration Center opened to great fanfare in April with the unveiling of "Titanic - 12,450 Feet Below," an exhibit created by a former Disney designer. During a two-week period in April, 70,000 people visited the aquarium.
The exploration center also features the expeditions of its president, Bob Ballard, who discovered the Titanic and other famous wrecks.
It includes the Nautilus Live theater where visitors can watch Ballard's expeditions aboard the E/V Nautilus as they occur. The ship is in the area of the Black and Mediterranean seas, searching for ancient wrecks and underwater volcanoes.
Opportunities for visitors to interact with beluga whales, rays, penguins and other animals have also been popular draws.
"We've really reinvented ourselves over the past few years," Merz said.
She added that there has also been a 63 percent increase in sales of the Mystic Pass, which gives visitors entry into both the aquarium and Mystic Seaport as well as discounts to hotels, restaurants and shops.
Other area attractions are showing slightly increased or flat attendance, according to Ed Dombroskas, the executive director of Mystic Country, the state's Eastern Regional Tourism District.
"It sounds like the aquarium is leading the way with substantially higher attendance than the other attractions. While some of the other attractions are up, it's not to that degree," he said.
He said the Essex Steam Train and Riverboat has not seen an increase while Mystic Seaport is slightly up.
"The Titanic exhibit has been terrific for the aquarium as an attendance driver, as has the weather on the weekends," Dombroskas said. He added that some of the aquarium's exhibits, which are indoors and air-conditioned, have helped lure visitors during the warm weather in recent weeks.
He said the aquarium's popularity spills over to hotels and other businesses. Hotel occupancy and reservations in the region seem to be trending upward, he said, while an increased number of people have been visiting the Mystic Country website at www.mystic.org. He said the state's new tourism campaign has also helped drive people to the website.