Ripley’s Aquarium plans to expand in Myrtle Beach, add penguin exhibit

A new penguin exhibit and larger lobby are part of a planned addition at Ripley’s Aquarium at Broadway at the Beach — the first major expansion of the attraction since it opened 17 years ago.

The attraction plans to grow by about 6,000 square feet by extending the building toward the Broadway parking lot, which will add enough space for the penguins, as well as an upgraded ticket area and plaza that will shelter visitors from rain or the harsh sun — there’s no shelter in that area now — more bathrooms and a new gift shop. The new exhibit and expansion, in the works for a few years, is expected to open by next summer.

“We hope that the timing is right now,” said Craig Atkins, Ripley’s general manager. “We are always wanting to make the aquarium more compelling.”

Construction on the expansion is expected to start in September and wrap up in June, just in time for the busy summer tourism season next year. The aquarium plans to stay open throughout the construction, Atkins said.

When the work is done, visitors will notice a difference in entering the attraction, with a new ticket area and expanded lobby-plaza.

Officials picked penguins as the new star attraction to add a different element to the aquarium’s offerings — “Everything we have now is pretty much a fish,” Atkins said — and because guests have asked for them, officials said. Penguins also are a popular attraction at the Ripley’s aquarium in Gatlinburg, Tenn.

“They are really neat animals and visitors make a connection with them. There is a bit of personality with these animals,” Atkins said. “We think they will be a big hit.”

The exhibit will include a crawl through tunnel and pop-up bubble windows for kids to get an up-close look at the penguins. Officials still are deciding other details, including how many penguins the exhibit will hold, Atkins said.

Other details — including the exact cost of the expansion and whether ticket prices will go up — are still being worked out, Atkins said.

Myrtle Beach’s Community Appearance Board, which signs off on the exterior of new construction and expansions in the city, will review the conceptual plan for the expansion during its meeting at 1:30 p.m. Thursday at the City Services Building, 921 Oak St. This is an early review, so the plan will need to return for more approvals before work can begin.

Ripley’s is known for its tunnel that allows visitors to get an underwater view of the sharks and other creatures, as well as for its stingrays and interactive features. All the usual exhibits will remain, except for the water fountain with statues near the aquarium’s current entrance, which will have to move to make way for the new ticket area.

Ripley’s Aquarium has been one of the most popular attractions at Broadway at the Beach since it debuted at the entertainment complex in 1997, according to Burroughs & Chapin Co. Inc., which owns Broadway.

“One reason that we believe the aquarium continues to be so popular is that its exhibits are regularly updated and additions are made, keeping the attraction fresh,” B&C spokeswoman Lei Gainer said. “We are looking forward to the changes that Ripley’s is making in the coming months and expect them to enhance the popularity of the attraction.”

Last week, the 85,000-square-foot aquarium was named one of the top 12 aquariums in the nation by

Ripley’s also owns several attractions along Ocean Boulevard in Myrtle Beach, including Believe It or Not, which has been a staple on the Boulevard since the 1970s and got an interior makeover last year with several new exhibits.