Ozark County native WOWed as Wonders of Wildlife opens to public

Photo by Andrew Jansen/News-Leader From left, Donetta Clouse, Skeeter Decker and Harry Clouse watch the fish swim by at the Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium on Sept. 22. Donetta, an Ozark County native, and her husband Harry celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary by going to the museum on opening day.

Springfield residents Donetta and Harry Clouse gave themselves a 61st wedding anniversary gift Sept. 22, buying tickets to the new Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium in Springfield. [Donetta Newton Clouse is an Ozark County native, a former student at the Caney School and daughter of the late Clanson and Lorene Luna Newton.] 

“This is what we wanted to do for our 61st wedding gift,” Donetta said, as she watched a huge spotted ray and torpedo-shaped cobia fish swim by. “We got here at 9 a.m. because we wanted to be the first ones in. I think these fish are awesome. It’s well worth the money!”

WOW opened its doors to the public Friday for the first time in almost a decade.

The original WOW building closed in 2007. Some $290 million later, the hugely expanded WOW campus—now covering 350,000 square feet with 1.5 million gallons of aquariums, 34,000 live fish, 1,000 live animals and hundreds of mounted animal displays—appeared to be a hit with those who got in on opening day.

“This is just unbelievable, the amount of stuff that’s here,” said Skeeter Decker of Ozark, Harry Clouse’s sister. “He [Johnny Morris] really outdid himself on this one.”

At the WOW gift shop, life-size plush stuffed stingrays were the hot sellers—two for $32 or one big one for $18.99. No doubt sales were spurred by the popular saltwater ray-petting tank inside.

At that big, circular tank, Alex Grady and daughter Lucy, 5, splashed their hands on the surface to entice the rubbery rays up for a tickle.

“They are slick and slimy,” Grady said, as a gray cownose ray the size of a dinner plate slid past her fingers. Her daughter squealed.

Grady said she was impressed with the WOW experience.

“This whole place is out of Springfield’s element,” she said. “It’s a great thing for Springfield to have.”

Her favorite exhibit? Not the aquarium or mounted animals. Instead, it was the re-creation of Morris’ small fishing tackle shop in his dad’s Brown Derby liquor store, with items from the original store that Morris eventually turned into the Bass Pro Shops empire.

“You get to walk through the old shop,” Grady said. “It’s almost like a museum. It’s like being reminded of what our normal used to be, and what it is now.”

Grady said she bought the $300 Conservation Champion one-year membership, which allows for unlimited visits to the museum and aquarium for two adults plus children or grandchildren under 18, and two transferable guest cards for friends and family.

She said she’ll definitely be coming back to show friends and family Springfield’s newest attraction.

Marshfield resident Chelsea Loveland, visiting for the first time with two young sons, said she has been waiting “since she was a kid” to see the finished WOW museum and aquarium. She said it was worth the $40 she paid.

“It was well worth the money. It was a great value,” she said.

Her son Marlowe, 2, loved “the yellow fish” the best.

“It was a lot of fun. There was a lot for him to interact with — a lot of fish — it was a lot of fun in there,” she said.

The touchable rays, especially.

“That was a lot of fun,” Loveland said. “We actually did end up petting one. They were slick and soft.”

Vicky Bryant and Jim Foran drove from Kansas City early Friday to catch WOW’s opening. “I’ve been to a lot of aquariums before, but this one is so unique,” Bryant said. “So many details. A variety of different things, all separated. Just one of the best, and I’ve been to Atlanta, D.C. Cincinnati, Chicago and Tulsa aquariums. But this one here, I’m not joking, guys. If you haven’t been here, you need to come.

“I don’t care what we spent,” she added. “It was worth it.”

Ahead of the 10 a.m. opening, several hundred people were already lined up inside the Bass Pro Shops store to see the aquarium and wildlife galleries. The store is one of two entrances into the museum and aquarium.

The aquarium entrance is on the West Sunshine Street side of WOW.

Rodney and Dawn Lunsford woke up their son, Cole, 9, at 4 a.m. to make the four-hour drive from Fredericktown, Missouri, just to be among the first to see it.

“We’ve been coming here [Bass Pro Shops store] since he was 4 years old,” Dawn said. “We can’t wait to see it!”

Young Cole said he already had an idea what his favorite exhibit would be.

“The fish!” he said.

The Lunsfords said they paid $112 for the combo tickets that would get them into both the aquarium and wildlife galleries.

They were sure the experience would be worth the 4:30 a.m. trek to get to Springfield.

Jason and Traci Hayes came all the way from Waterloo, Iowa, with three youngsters in tow, to see the first day of WOW.

“We have family in Springfield, so we timed our visit for this,” Jason said.

Traci had young Dakota, 2 months old, strapped to her chest, with Wyatt, 3, and Cheyenne, 2, on either arm.

She said she was prepared for the three-hour, 1.5-mile walking tour.

“We love aquariums, she said. “The whole family does.”

Johanna Mann stopped in her tracks when she rounded the corner and came face to face with a herd of buffalo.

“Ye gods!” she exclaimed, surprised by the mounted animals.

Johanna and husband Jeff traveled in their RV to see WOW after Johanna saw spectacular images of the aquarium on National Geographic’s Instagram site.

The herd of buffalo greets visitors as they ride an escalator into the 350,000-square-foot WOW facility.

“I didn’t expect it to be like this even before we go in,” Johanna said, getting a closer look at the massive buffalo. “I’ve always had a healthy respect for buffalo. If the rest is like this, the wow factor should be huge!”

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