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Saturn appears suddenly on the enormous dome of the cosmos overhead, and it’s coming fast, getting bigger and bigger as it hurtles right at you and — whoosh! — flies right by as you move deeper into space.
Holy ringed planet, Batman, that new planetarium at the Frost Science museum sure packs a punch!
Yes, it’s finally here, kids.
The long-awaited Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science will open to the public, as scheduled, on Monday morning, culminating a years-long, sometimes bumpy move from its cherished home of 55 years in Coconut Grove to a high-tech, $305-million architectural showpiece on Biscayne Bay.
Everything about the new Frost Science, five years under construction and one of the most eagerly anticipated of a string of new cultural buildings to debut in Miami, is bigger, better and cooler than the old: The fully digital planetarium, the luminous laser show, the cutting-edge science displays and the extensive exhibition galleries, even the bird of prey exhibit, a perennial favorite.
The birds, most of them injured rescues undergoing rehab, are part of an augmented animal display at a stand-alone aquarium building. Four stories up, in an outdoor setting beneath a shady canopy offering expansive vistas of water, park and city all around, shore and marsh birds share tidy “natural” South Florida habitats with other wild critters. There are juvenile crocs and gators, a gopher tortoise and 40 species of fish. Not to mention live coral, live mangroves and a 22-foot live gumbo-limbo tree.
The aquarium’s pièce de résistance: A 500,000-gallon, conical tank that holds deepwater fish from the nearby Gulf Stream. Devil rays, tuna and mahi mahi swim among three varieties of shark — scalloped hammerheads, sandbar and tiger sharks. Three levels down, visitors can peer all the way up through the saltwater and the flotilla of fish thanks to a huge oculus — a 31-foot-wide angled porthole — at the tank’s bottom.
Such is the scope, scale and ambition of the new place that it ought to knock visitors’ socks right off, and keep them coming back for more, say Dr. Phillip Frost and his wife, Patricia, the publicly funded new museum’s leading private benefactors.
“We feel very confident that it’s going to open with a splash,” Patricia Frost said. “We really do.”
The Frosts hope that, with its dazzling displays, ample and flexible exhibition spaces and energetic and creative staff, the new complex will help spread scientific literacy, inspire young visitors to take up careers in science, and, like its predecessor, become a treasured attraction for generations of Miamians.
“It’s at least what we thought it would be, and more — the magnitude of the project, the overwhelming space that’s available for the magnificent exhibits that are going to be seen tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and eventually millions of people,” said Phillip Frost, a physician and billionaire pharmaceutical entrepreneur.
“What we envision is to see this place evolve as time goes by, so that a visitor who comes today will be again surprised when he comes back two months from now, and a year from now, because there will be new things happening all the time.”
The museum was designed in a retro-modern space-age style by London-based Grimshaw Architects with Miami’s Rodriguez & Quiroga Architects Chartered in an executive role. It joins a growing collection of notable institutions and public spaces that are gradually helping transform downtown Miami.
The Frost sits on Biscayne Boulevard, a stone’s throw from the 10-year old Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, and across a common plaza from the three-year-old Perez Art Museum Miami. The Frost and PAMM front on Museum Park, the product of a plan developed more than a decade ago by the administration of former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz to draw people and redevelopment to what was then a forlorn stretch of waterfront.
The museum expects some 750,000 visitors, including school groups, in its first year of operation. Revenue from ticket sales will be critical to the financial success of the Frost, which required a $49 million bailout from Miami-Dade County taxpayers last year after a budget crunch blamed on a private fundraising shortfall threatened to halt construction. In exchange, the museum, funded by $165 million in county bond revenue, agreed to forgo a promised operational subsidy of $4 million a year.
Following an overhaul of its board of directors and the retirement of longtime director Gillian Thomas, who led the development of the new museum project, the institution is now in solid financial shape, Frost administrators say.
They’re banking on the fact that the Frost is one of the few such instititutions to combine an aquarium with a science museum and planetarium to generate widespread interest and drive high attendance numbers. They’re hoping for a large tourist audience, too: They are promoting the museum as a perfect stopover for visitors heading to or from cruises at the nearby PortMiami.
And they note that the new Frost, unlike the old science museum, quite deliberately includes features designed to appeal to people of all ages, not just young children.
Among those key attractions:
▪ Planetarium. Housed in the globe-shaped structure visible from Biscayne Boulevard, it replaces one of the old museum’s fave attractions. According to Frost administrators, is one of the most advanced in the country.
This is not your grandfather’s planetarium. The stadium-style auditorium holds 250 people. Its dome is a vast screen that’s tilted forward to give the audience an immersive, nearly 360-degree view. There is surround sound. There are six 3-D capable projectors. The visual system is so precise and high-def that only 12 other facilities in the world can match it.
Maybe the best news: The Frost is bringing back the popular rock’n’roll laser planetarium shows. On one glorious Friday evening every month, visitors can revel in classic Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin tunes, with some Lady Gaga and Radiohead thrown in for the younger sets.
▪ Aquarium: Three levels of tanks start at the top Vista level with outdoor exhibits mimicking South Florida ecosystems, from the “Gulf Stream” to offshore coral and a beach, a mangrove edge and an upland hardwood hammock.
The conical shape of the innovative Gulf Stream tank isn’t some design quirk, said Andy Dehart, the Frost’s director of animal husbandry. The angled walls allow deep-water species like sharks and tuna to swim continuously as if they were in the unconfined open sea.
A second level, “The Dive,” features deeper views into the Gulf Stream, coral and mangrove tanks, as well as 20 freestanding tanks and interactive stations where visitors can observe and touch starfish, sea cucumbers and sea urchins. Ever wonder what it’s like to swim like a shark? Put on a visual reality “shark helmet” here to experience it.
The lowest level, “The Deep,” features the oculus and a remarkable, 80-foot-long animated wall designed for the Frost by Formula D Interactive, a South African firm. Watch as schools of fish swim by — and scurry away when you wave your hand at them. Then prepare to be startled as a very large visitor, a humpbacked whale, heaves into view.
▪ West Wing: Administrative offices and the Frost cafeteria are housed here. So are two levels of a special exhibit, “Seeing,” that explores sight and perception by humans and machines. A highlight: three robotic arms holding pens and connected to cameras that can draw a sitter’s portrait.
▪ LASERsHOW: The North Wing’s laser extravaganza fills a vast, 9,000-square foot gallery with an immersive loop of constantly changing beams and patterns of colored light designed by artist Matthew Schreiber. At the center, a diamond-shaped structure shoots off lasers over visitor’s heads, bending and refracting the light into floating geometric shapes, and serves as a podium for presentations on the physics of light.
▪ Feathers to the Stars: Two levels up, an uncannily lifelike model of a giant feathered dinosaur is the centerpiece of “Feathers to the Stars,” the Frost’s main permanent exhibit. It traces the natural history of flight from the evolution of birds out of our feathered dino friend to the development of human flight. Aeronautical wonders hang from the high ceiling: An actual F-5B fighter jet, encased in chrome, and a wood-and-cloth glider created from one of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous but unrealized sketches of flying machines, among other exemplars.
▪ River of Grass: Another level up is an interactive exhibit designed for young children. Here is yet another arresting Formula D Interactive wall, this one featuring cartoon critters from the Everglades. Yes, there are swarming mosquitoes, just like in the real swamp. Unlike the real thing, they fly off at the wave of visitors’ hands.
Rooftop terraces over both wings feature green gardens that insulate the buildings, a solar-panel array that helps power the museum, a weather station, a telescope for viewing the moon, and a filtered solar telescope to view the sun.
If all the exhibits have one goal, Phillip Frost said, it’s that of stimulating inquisitiveness and, ultimately, knowledge and action.
“If I can think of a word that will characterize the museum, it’s curiosity,” he said. “This should be a tribute to curiosity. We all are curious to some extent, but the idea is to open that up and to make people take the next step, from being curious to wanting to learn more, and then to do.”
The Frost Museum of Science, 1101 Biscayne Blvd., in Museum Park, will open to the public at 11 a.m. Monday. Regular hours will be from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.
Opening weekend, May 12 and 13, the museum will be open until 10 p.m.
Ticket prices, which include one planetariums show, are as follows: $28 for adults; $25 for seniors and students with ID; $20 for children 3-11; children under 2 and museum members are free. There is a 15 percent discount for Miami-Dade residents at the box office.
Memberships start at $65 for an individual and range up to $250 for young patrons.
Members’ preview: A members-only preview will take place from 3 p.m. until 10 p.m. on Sunday.
Paid parking is available under the museum complex but is limited. The Frost recommends taking the Metromover, which has a station at Museum Park.
For more information, go to frostscience.org.