New ‘Life’ exhibit seek togetherness

Orlando Science Center spent the summer in demolition mode, practically gutting a large portion of its ground floor, which eventually will be the home of its new “Life” exhibit, including animal interactions and educational activities about the environment.

“It will feel like a rainforest when you walk in,” Brandan Lanman, vice president of visitor experience, said during a recent construction site tour of the “Life” space.

But for now it’s a raw, gray space dominated by scaffolding that reaches up to the 40-foot ceiling. The finished product will be divided into three zones: rainforest, ocean and swamp, which will highlight Florida species and concerns, Lanman said. It will take up about 10,000 square feet, an area that was the “NatureWorks” exhibit and the previous bottom-floor location of KidsTown.

“As part of this full experience, we got to do tours around the country to understand more about these spaces and the best way to work with these animals and people together,” Lanman said. “One of the most impactful ones was a space where we got to just be with them. … It’s to get to see the tamarins hop from tree to tree in the same air that you’re in with them.”

The rainforest area also will include tropical birds, sloths and live plantings. It’s the largest exhibit construction project in the museum’s history. It is scheduled to debut in late 2023.

On an upper level of the construction, work is being done on the offstage animal space.

“This is refuge space for them to go off exhibit and live during the nighttime or if they just don’t want to actually go out on exhibit. They have a lot of choice and control,” Lanman said.

The ocean area of “Life” will feature Caribbean fish and bonnethead sharks.

“Again, the intent behind what we had talked about was eliminating as much barrier to connecting with nature as possible,” Lanman said.

“This tank is almost 270 degrees of 5-foot-tall acrylic, just almost a solid piece all the way around. … So it just feels like the reef is floating in the middle of the room, and you’re just in the water with the fish.”

Touch-screen educational activities will be installed, and science center staff members will be stationed in “Life,” including on a platform above the aquarium.

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“We’ve got embedded activities, hands-on activities that are going to be built into the space to teach about rainforest deforestation and concerns on how you can help manage that,” Lanman said. Possible topics would include fish migration patterns and coral bleaching.

“A lot of our kids don’t get out in nature at all. And a lot of Central Floridians have never gone to the ocean. So we’re just bringing this to everybody right here in downtown Orlando,” JoAnn Newman, president CEO of the science center, said.

“There’s a lot of data and research on it, from an environmental standpoint, because what we know is if kids don’t get to experience nature and don’t develop that love of nature, then there’s not the care of the natural world that we’re hoping everybody will have,” she said.

Despite all the changes, the cypress swamp trees — the centerpiece of the science center since it opened in 1997 — are staying.

“We wanted to preserve that. It’s going to look a little different and hopefully fresh and new, a different experience. That’s what we’re going for,” Newman said.

“We are keeping the cypress swamp as an opportunity to really talk about what this region has to offer and the challenges that this region ultimately has to start overcoming,” Lanman said. Animals highlighted in this area will include screech owls, gopher tortoises and Sherman’s fox squirrels.

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