A new gateway to the wonders of Southwest Florida's environment opened Wednesday with the goal of inspiring a new conservation ethic in tourists and locals alike.
More than 100 supporters attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the $3.5 million Susan and William Dalton Discovery Center. It is the centerpiece of a $20 million makeover at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida nature center off Goodlette-Frank Road, visited by some 30,000 people each year.
"It's a vision come true," said Susan Dalton, who with her husband, William, former radio station owners, were the lead donors for the project with their gift topping $1 million.
Walking through the doors of the Dalton Discovery Center, visitors wend their way through exhibits depicting more than 100 animals and five habitat types meant to mimic the path of a drop of water from uplands, through the Everglades and mangroves, to sandy beaches and into the Gulf of Mexico.
Along the way, visitors can interact with live snakes and baby alligators, hear a panther recording, touch hoseshoe crabs and sea urchins on a tabletop beach and peer into a 5,000-gallon aquarium with a colorful array of reef fish, a spiny lobster and a loggerhead sea turtle.
The exhibits have a touch of hometown flair: Conservancy maintenance technician Matthew Jessen cut out and painted the five different species of sea turtles hanging on one wall.
Towering photo banners, donated by Naples photographer Dennis Goodman, guide visitors from one exhibit to the next, taking them into a darkened mangrove tunnel and out onto a sun-drenched beach.
"It's an opportunity to provide a sense of place for residents and visitors and connect them with Southwest Florida's water, land and wildlife," Conservancy education manager David Webb said.
The Dalton Discovery Center replaced a decades-old center and is meant to bring the outdoors inside, Conservancy President Andrew McElwaine said.
"We went from a touch and feel experience to a touch, feel, look and listen and then go do something about it experience," he said.
Collier Commissioner Georgia Hiller and Commissioner-elect Tim Nance attended Wednesday's ceremony with county tourism director Jack Wert.
"He (Wert) is going to do everything in his power to make the Dalton Discovery Center a tourism destination," Hiller told the crowd.
IF YOU GO
Where: 1450 Merrihue Drive, with entrances off Goodlette-Frank Road and 14th Avenue North, south of Golden Gate Parkway
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Admission: Free for Conservancy members and children 3 and younger; $12.95 for adults; $8.95 for children 12 and younger
Daily: Electric boat rides 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; reptile program 10 a.m.; sea turtle feeding 2 p.m.; kayak rentals 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Information: See www.conservancy.org/nature-center or call 230-262-0304.