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Wolves hunt musk ox under fiber-optic Northern Lights.
Wolves hunt musk ox under fiber-optic Northern Lights.

Wonders of Wildlife

Field review by the editors.

Springfield, Missouri

Just because you live in the Midwest doesn't mean you can't have nice things.

Film star Mark Wahlberg in scuba gear entertains a VIP crowd -- including a mermaid in the petting pool.
Film star Mark Wahlberg in scuba gear entertains a VIP crowd -- including a mermaid in the petting pool.

That's the reason behind the debut of Wonders of Wildlife, an animal museum so lavish, so vast, that its founder, Johnny Morris, refused to say how much it cost (Local media guessed $300 million). Its employees simply call it WOW.

In a previous incarnation (2001), WOW was the American National Fish and Wildlife Living Museum and Aquarium. Morris was ultimately dissatisfied with the place, so in 2007 he closed it for a few months of renovation and expansion. The months turned into years, and the only wonder in Springfield was if the museum would ever reopen. When it finally did, on Sept. 22, 2017, its restoration had taken longer than the Sistine Chapel's.

Wonders of Wildlife emerged from its chrysalis as an entirely new attraction, a butterfly four times the size of its caterpillar progenitor. That was thanks to Morris, self-described "Walt Disney of the Outdoors," CEO of Bass Pro Shops, and rescuer of the Pyramid of Memphis. When he cut the ribbon at WOW's grand opening he was flanked by the governor of Missouri, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Hollywood stars Mark Wahlberg and Kevin Costner, and two former Presidents: George W. Bush gave a speech; Jimmy Carter donated a live Rainbow Trout and a hand-tied peanut fishing fly.

"Shipwreck Reef" celebrates marine life that adapts itself to humankind's sea floor junk.

Just as Branson, Missouri, gave the Heartland its own Vegas-style entertainment (sometimes with toilet seat guitars), Wonders of Wildlife was built, according to its press release, to "bring the depths of the ocean to the middle of America." In size and scale it rivals anything found on the coasts, and claims to be bigger than the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The Smithsonian is free while an adult ticket to the newly-opened WOW cost $40, but for a Midwesterner that's less money than a trip to Washington, DC.

The attraction says it houses about 34,000 fish, crabs, and other aquatic creatures, and about 1,000 other wild animals such as snakes, otters, and alligators. There are live bats in a replica Missouri cave; a river dam has live beavers. And every day some of WOW's animals are eaten as part of its "mesmerizing living bait ball," where thousands of whirling finger-size herring are corralled inside a special tank and devoured by hungry sharks.

Tunnel through the tank of
Tunnel through the tank of "River Monsters." Some were caught by WOW founder Johnny Morris.

There are other fish tanks as well, more than 80 of them, filled with over a million gallons of water. For a thrill you can pop your head into a plexiglass bubble in the piranha aquarium. An entire room is devoted to jellyfish. A giant "Shipwreck Reef" tank pays tribute to a 237-foot cargo ship that Morris sank off the coast of Florida as a marine habitat. On the "ocean floor" at the bottom is an area where visitors can reach in and pet stingrays and starfish.

According to the attraction, visitors have to walk 1.5 miles just to see everything inside it. There's a tribute hall to "America's first conservationists" (the Indians) featuring a bow made by Geronimo; a collection of historic fishing boats; and a reassembly of the Bronx Zoo's 1908 display of heads and horns (some shot by Teddy Roosevelt). A museum-within-a-museum recreates Johnny Morris's first fishing lure shop, which he opened in the back of his dad's Brown Derby liquor store in Springfield in 1971. "Wanted to bring everybody on just a little trip down Memory Lane," says an on-screen Morris as he drives his pickup truck to the building, which is still a liquor store.

The 40+ animals on
The 40+ animals on "Sheep Mountain" were all shot by Arthur Dubs, who also shot White King.

WOW is especially proud of its dead wildlife, "the greatest collection of record-setting game animals ever assembled." There are elephants, giraffes, rhinos, crocodiles, zebra, elk, bear, lions, wildebeest. A wolf pack encircles meal-on-the-hoof musk ox in the Arctic Circle diorama, illuminated by an ethereal fiber-optic Aurora Borealis. Other galleries re-create exotic locales from the African Savanna to the Himalayan Alps, complete with heat, cold, sounds, and smells. WOW boasts that it employed over 2,000 sculptors, carvers, taxidermists, illustrators, designers, iron workers, scientists, biologists, and engineers. Every wall in the 350,000-square-foot attraction has a hand-painted mural.

There's nothing really new about Wonders of Wildlife; it's equal parts aquarium and taxidermy museum, with some live terrestrial wild animals tossed in. But WOW wins points for pizzazz and swagger, calling itself "the largest immersive attraction of its kind in the world" and "the most important natural history museum to open in America in more than a century." And while it repeatedly encourages its visitors to appreciate the outdoors, WOW is an all-indoor attraction. We think that's great. A Midwest blizzard could howl outside, but inside the tropical fish swim and the stuffed animals and visitors stay warm and dry.

Wonders of Wildlife

Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium

1935 S. Campbell Ave., Springfield, MO
Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium. I-44 exit 82A. Drive south on US Hwy 13 for 4.5 miles. Exit at E. Sunshine St. and turn right. Drive four miles. Turn left at the stoplight onto S. Campbell Ave., then turn right into the parking lot. Enter through the main entrance to Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World.
Daily 10-8 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $40.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Bass Pro Shops Outdoor WorldBass Pro Shops Outdoor World, Springfield, MO - < 1 mi.
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In the region:
Gay Parita Route 66 Sinclair Station, Everton, MO - 21 mi.

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