Butterfly not-so-Wonderland

Going to a Butterfly Wonderland sounds amazing, like a dream, but for me it fell a bit flat. Perhaps that’s my problem. I am an optimist who dreams big. When someone says it is a rain forest experience, I expect a jungle not just the humidity.

Butterfly Wonderland is one of the newest edutainment complexes in the Phoenix area. It is phase one of a more expansive OdySea in the Desert complex that will house an aquarium inspired by the best in the world. Hopefully, as the complex grows the current offering will get better. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed parts of the experience. The idea had so much promise.

The best part of the experience was the butterfly atrium. Not because of the “rain forest” atmosphere, meaning it was really humid, but because of the fluttering, reflective pieces of living tissue paper flitting about the air.

Butterfly art at Butterfly WonderlandAfter paying a high entry fee, you wait in a corridor that seems very promising for their introductory film. The hallway has beautiful contemporary butterfly art and large signs with some basic information about butterflies like the average lifespan, day in the life of a monarch and how many species there are. By art I mean dead butterflies displayed, wings open, like a bug collector or entomologist might do, but in a very modern, contemporary and beautiful manner.

The introductory film is “The Flight of the Butterflies” about the migratory journey of monarchs in 3D. About fifteen minutes long, this video is a great production about one of nature’s grandest journeys. Also, I’ve now added visiting the UNESCO-designated mountains in Mexico where monarchs winter by the billions to my bucket list.

Although the video was great and about butterflies, it has nothing to do with the butterflies at Butterfly Wonderland. Since it is the first thing you do, you would think that it would introduce what you will see, what the place is all about or something similar. Instead, it is just an attraction to fill time.

The next room is one of the coolest spaces there – the Butterfly Emergence Gallery. In this space, you get to see into a few large cases with dozens of chrysalises (butterflies) and cocoons (moths) hanging just waiting for winged beauties to break forth from their tombs of transformation. There were probably more than twenty different kinds hanging there. A handful of butterflies and moths had already emerged and were stretching their wings for the first time.

What happens in this room is spectacular, but the room very poorly designed. The three windows are all right next to each other so everyone from the theater is crowded around and little kids pushing and shoving. There isn’t a way to just stand or sit and watch without being rude or having to wait a long time. The room is big enough for them to be spread out or have more.

There is a sign explaining the metamorphosis, but it is relatively small and on a wall you’re not going to look at when distracted with the miracle of nature happening before your eyes. Instead, they should have put large signs and maybe over-sized models on the large wall with the jungle mural that is just dead space not being used for anything. Yes, the true show is what’s happening in the cases, but there should be more than a simple sign tucked around the corner that teaches what’s happening.

Next comes the “largest butterfly atrium in America.” I’m not sure how accurate this claim is since this is the only one I’ve ever been in. I can say that it is not a rain forest experience other than the humidity. It is a greenhouse with a lot of butterfly bushes, mint, simple flowers, bamboo and a few trees. It isn’t a rain forest  Most of the plants there could and are grown in people’s gardens all across the U.S. When I think of rain forest experience, I think of the Dallas World Aquarium.

The butterflies though are magnificent and dash to and fro as if they had no care in the world. They were probably looking for food and mating, but it seemed as though they just floated around for fun. The longer you’re in the atrium, the more you start to feel them land on your head or on your clothes. I watched as they basked in the sun, drank the nectar from the flowers and yes, got a little busy in the making new butterflies department.

Butterfly Wonderland

The rest of the experience goes down from here taking a drastic spiral for the worse. After leaving the whimsy of the heart of Butterfly Wonderland, you come to the other exhibits that are hyped up on their promotional materials and website – the ant and bee colonies and the amazon fish. Again, this may be my optimistic, grand ideas thinking, but I imagined a room with a wall like an ant farm with tunnels winding about and ants busily working. I expected elaborate displays telling and showing me the life of an ant colony, why ants walk in a line and so much more. What I found was a small acrylic case with an ant mound they could have picked up outside.

Same with the bees. In my mind I saw a big display taking up a whole room talking all about bees, with a whole wall or enclosure housing the colony. It would tell me about queen bees, the plight of honey bees and how complete process of honey being made. Instead, I found a small acrylic case with bees in it. There was a tunnel leading out of the building for bees to take and what appeared to be a spot for a window drawn on the wall that was never cut out and completed. It was basically the apiary display set up from the State Fair of Texas in the agriculture building.

This room also had some small enclosures with other desert creepy crawlies like scorpions, a tarantula and a centipede. There was not real information though on why they were there or anything special about them. However, the method of displaying the larger scorpion and tarantula was something I hadn’t seen before. Since these critters live on the desert floor, the enclosures were only about five or six inches tall and very wide and flat making a table of sorts to see them in.

The final exhibition space is the rivers of the Amazon with about 10 fish tanks and the most pathetic touch tank I’ve ever seen. The fish large fish tanks are sparsely appointed with plastic plants, unnaturally stacked rocks and a few tree trunks. The worst part is the touch tank that is basically an elevated kiddy pool. The pumps are moving the water so much that you can’t see the stingrays in the water, and the pool is so deep, it is hard to reach them. Touch tanks are so common place that you would think that they wouldn’t have cut corners to create one.

Overall, I was disappointed by anything not dealing with butterflies at Butterfly Wonderland. They seemed like an afterthought. Even the atrium was slightly disappointing with it not being the advertised rain forest experience. Maybe this will change as the foliage grows in, but I doubt it with the kinds of plants chosen. I will keep my eye on the progress of the full complex and maybe it will get better. After all, my benchmark location, The Dallas World Aquarium, started with just a handful of fish tanks and now has two rain forest atriums, a special Madagascar exhibit outside and more.

Moral of the story: if you have kids who absolutely love butterflies, take them! Otherwise, it may be worth waiting for more of the complex to be complete.

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