Experience the Great Outdoors, Indoors:
By Dawn Erickson
Museums throughout the country are looking for ways to shed their stuffiness for more appealing ways to showcase their treasures. At Wonders of Wildlife in Springfield, Missouri, there’s no stuffiness to shed. The only shedding here is maybe a winter coat or an occasional snakeskin.
Wonders of Wildlife is perhaps Missouri’s most unique location for a meeting or event. For groups interested in the outdoors, animals, aquariums, natural history or North American artifacts, this attraction is an ideal location for events. For groups interested in an absolutely different type of venue for a banquet, reception or activity, Wonders of Wildlife accommodates groups of all types and attendees of all ages.
The vast museum is home to about 225 species of live fish and wildlife in their natural habitats. A bald eagle, barn owl, wild turkeys, and about 50 other species of birds make their home at Wonders of Wildlife. Otters, bobcats, bats, Ozark hellbender salamanders and many other creatures live in habitats copied from nature. A 140,000-gallon freshwater tank holds species native to local lakes.
It’s an indoor stroll through the Ozark outdoors with an aviary, forest areas, waterfalls, caves, pools and aquariums. Cascading water and bird songs provide the background music. The 92,000-square-foot facility offers several unique settings for different types of events.
Flexible space includes dining before the “shark tank”
The museum’s twists, turns and alcoves provide a fascinating venue for a strolling reception of up to 1,500 people with food and drink stations scattered throughout the displays and exhibits.
The spacious two-story lodge-style lobby offers room enough for 300 for a reception, and about 200 for a sit-down dinner. The upper lobby can accommodate about 150 for a dinner.
And the most unique meeting space is the Out to Sea Gallery, where guests will dine before a floor-to-ceiling, 220,000-gallon salt water tank with four sharks and a variety of tropical fish. The dimly-lighted gallery can seat up to 88 diners, or hold a reception for about 120 people.
For larger groups, Wonders of Wildlife makes use of its nearest neighbor, just 80 feet away. The museum is located on the same “campus” as Missouri’s number-one tourism attraction, Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World. Among the many amenities at Outdoor World is the White River Room, which easily accommodates 500 for plated dinners or buffets.
Campus includes Missouri’s top attraction
The seamless relationship between Wonders of Wildlife and Bass Pro Shops presents more opportunities for meeting and event attendees. Adjacent to the White River Room are exhibits and collections of items found nowhere else on the North American continent. The Archery Hall of Fame has established its national headquarters in the National Hunting and Fishing Museum at Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World. The “King of Bucks” exhibit of world-record whitetail deer displays mounts and antlers in the largest collection on the continent.
“In the National Hunting and Fishing Museum, we have Zane Grey’s fishing rods, Ernest Hemingway’s rods and reels, a rifle belonging to Calamity Jane, several items that belonged to President Theodore Roosevelt and lots of other unique memorabilia,” said Tony Schoonen, executive director of Wonders of Wildlife. “The artifacts are integrated with the live animal exhibits.”
Life-size wood carvings of world-record fish, antique rods and reels, rare firearms and collections of mounted wildlife are just a few of the many exhibits.
Another collection to be found nowhere else is a set of bows handmade by Geronimo. Gary Ellison, public relations director for Wonders of Wildlife, said a member of the press asked him the value of the collection when the exhibit was unveiled. “Well, he handmade them, he didn’t make many, he’s dead, there won’t be any more,” Ellison said. “We have probably all or most of them. There’s no way to put a value on the exhibit. How could you?”
Appeal reaches beyond outdoors groups
Outdoor affinity groups are naturally drawn to Wonders of Wildlife. The professional Outdoor Media Association held its conference in Springfield, and Wonders of Wildlife hosted a reception, dinner and tours for the members’ families with glimpses of “behind the scenes” operations.
On National Hunting and Fishing Day, Wonders of Wildlife hosted a reception and then the 500 guests went to the White River Room next door for a seated dinner, an auction and entertainment by country singer Tracy Byrd, who was the group’s spokesman last year, Schoonen said.
Wonders of Wildlife and the White River Room offer full-service catering and complete audio-visual services for any type of meeting or seminar.
Wonders of Wildlife also attracts a wide spectrum of other types of groups such as weddings, birthday parties, retirement parties and holiday festivities. Weddings are frequently held before the shark tank with receptions in the lobby area.
“It’s less expensive to get married in front of our shark tank than to fly to Tahiti,” Schoonen joked.
The Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce recently held a breakfast reception for about 200 members in the upper and lower lobbies.
Wonders of Wildlife’s Halloween event drew close to 3,000 people for special “wildlife encounters.” “We can arrange to have our volunteers and animal handlers here so (kids) can get up close and personal with the animals,” Schoonen says.
Many vendors were on hand for the Halloween event to distribute treats to the children, and they also used the event to showcase their wares.
Single events or multi-day events can be arranged with Wonders of Wildlife. All events are customized for the groups including receptions, dinners, animal encounters, conference meetings, board meetings, behind-the-scenes tours and educational programs.
Another unique program at Wonders of Wildlife is the “Cat Nap.” “We bring kids in at 6:30 p.m. with their sleeping bags,” Ellison said. “They stay all night and we have our educators here. We bring out animals and teach the kids about them. They sleep on the floor in front of the shark tank. Then we feed them breakfast and send them back to their parents at about 8:30 a.m.”
Birthday parties and “Cat Naps” are hot items for kids, he said. An outdoor pond can be stocked with fish for an interactive exhibit.
Springfield attractions, CVB combine efforts to accommodate
Multi-day events requiring lodging, off-campus activities, transportation and other services are usually coordinated through the Springfield Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), Ellison said. Wonders of Wildlife and other Springfield area attractions and accommodations coordinate efforts to present the area to different types of groups.
“If, for instance, people are interested in history, they are going to want to come here for the artifacts that we have,” Ellison said. “They will probably want to go out to Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield, and the history museum downtown. If they are interested in the outdoors and animals, they will want to come here, and Dickerson Park Zoo, and next door (Bass Pro Shops). If there’s a kids’ component, they will want to come here and to the Discovery Center. We work events with all those entities. We also have a great relationship with the Park Board.”
Wonders of Wildlife also works with the CVB to provide admission for convention attendees. “If you go to a convention and inclement weather should occur, you can’t go out and play golf and you can’t go to the zoo. But it’s spring in here all year long,” Ellison said.
“It’s the only museum aquarium of its kind on the North American continent,” Schoonen said.
“The late Governor Mel Carnahan called it the “Smithsonian of the Outdoors,” Ellison said. “That’s not a bad quote.”
Additional information about Wonders of Wildlife is available by calling 417-890-9453 or by logging on to www.wondersofwildlife.org.
(Dawn Erickson is a contributor from Branson, MO)
At press time, Tony Schoonen accepted a new position.