'The difference with this aquarium is it's very hands on'

MILWAUKIE, Ore. - There's a new attraction opening up in town this weekend and some folks got a sneak peek before the big grand opening.

The Portland Aquarium, located at 16323 S.E. McLoughlin Boulevard, will open to the public on Saturday but on Monday, those who had already purchased memberships were invited to come on down. And the place was packed - hundreds showed up throughout the day with their kids in tow.

"There are lots of hands-on things for the kids to touch and some things you don't normally see," Samantha Coulson of Gresham told us. "I like how colorful it is and all the different tanks. We go to the Newport aquarium, but this is nice to have something to come to after school."

"I thought it was really neat," said Leigh Crawford of Vancouver. "I think they have a lot more growing to do, but I think just starting out (they did a good job). And hopefully with all the memberships they have, it will continue to grow."

Crawford was there with her infant and said she is looking forward to the time when her child is older and can enjoy the exhibits.

"It was really interactive for kids," she said. "I think it will be an excellent learning experience when my little one is bigger and old enough to experience it and have a good time."

"It was good," said Dixon Wolff, also of Vancouver. "A lot of smaller stuff right now, but I can see where they have room to bring more in."

On Monday, members not only got a chance to check out the new aquarium, but they also got to meet Collette Remsen, also known as the Lake Oswego mermaid. She and her mermaid friends spent the day at Portland Aquarium and will also be there for Saturday's grand opening.

"It's been wonderful," Remsen (pictured at right) told us. "The kids have been great - there's been a lot of picture taking."

So what sets this aquarium apart? Well for one, there's nothing like it in Milwaukie. And secondly, it's geared towards children - many of the tanks are accessible from kid level and the little ones are encouraged to reach right into the water.

"The difference with this aquarium is it's very hands on," said Vince Covino, one of the owners of the private venture that has been a long time in the making. "We engage all the senses."

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The exhibits include not only aquarium tanks filled with sea life, but there is also a reptile room and tropical forest room full of frogs and birds.

"We have 2,500 species and many of those species can be hand fed," Covino said. "Everything from exotic, tropical fish to a giant Pacific octopus. We have river otters coming and we've got a reptile section - just a wide variety and a high level of education."

On a Side Note

The aquarium was originally named Oregon Aquarium but that proved a little confusing for folks in our area, who are used to hearing about the Oregon Coast Aquarium. So the owners changed the name to Portland Aquarium, which seemed more fitting.

The aquarium was built inside an old Black Angus restaurant in Milwaukie, which might sound odd but Covino said for he and his partners, it made perfect sense.

"The restaurant was really a great place because we could come in and gut it," he said. "And we made very good use of the space. And the zoning was very favorable and the parking was favorable. And the reason we went with Milwaukie is we found that a lot of people live out here and there were not very many options for family friendly things."

Covino said they hope to partner with local schools and get kids down to the aquarium for field trips.

"I love the idea of having a lot of field trips here," he said. "We want to see every student in town here at some point so they can really experience it.

"It will take the learning to a new level," Covino added. "We talked in our team meeting about raising the science scores of Portland and we fully believe we have the ability to do it."