As owners of Ocean World, a sea life aquarium and gift shop at 304 Hwy. 101 S. in Crescent City, Mary and Dean Wilson have proven that tourism offers an opportunity to develop a thriving business in Del Norte County. For Mary, Ocean World is a full-time occupation. As County Sheriff, Dean can only be there part-time, but he is actively involved and committed to the business.
Q: What do you do and how long have you been doing it?
Mary: We have a half-million gallon aquarium with sharks, bat rays, wolf eels and many other animals. We offer guided tours through the aquarium, and we have a shark petting tank. Everybody loves doing that. We have a seal and sea lion performance. Ocean World is the second largest private attraction in Del Norte County, behind Trees of Mystery. We have approximately 65,000 visitors a year; 5,000 of those are school children, and we get them from as far away as Redding. About 40 percent of our business is repeat business. A lot of people tell us they enjoy Ocean World more than they do the larger attractions, because you get a personal tour, you're not surrounded by mobs of people, and you get to be two or three feet from the sea lions.
The gift shop is kind of a secondary business apart from the aquarium. We just priced and got out 24 pallets, or 500 boxes, of merchandise we brought back from San Francisco. We have our best selection right now, at the beginning of the season.
Dean: A lot of people don't realize the variety we have in our gift shop. It's not an ordinary souvenir shop.
Q: What inspired you to go into this line of work?
Mary: I got a summer job there in 1989. It had gone bankrupt, and my father knew the owner who asked me to speak on his behalf in the bankruptcy court because I had taken a law class in college. So I started working there, I enjoyed the work and nobody else wanted to buy it. I was kind of in the right place at the right time, and I had saved my money. I bought the business in 1992. It used to be called Undersea Gardens and they changed it to Undersea World when I bought it, but Sea World didn't like that because they thought it was too similar to their name, so we changed it to Ocean World.
Q: How has your business changed over the years?
Mary: When I first got there, there were 20,000 people who came through, so I've tripled the number of visitors. We've expanded the business in regards to investing heavily in staff training and advertising. We added on the shark petting tank, many murals, and different species of animals.
Dean: We've expanded the tour from 20 minutes to 45 minutes. We have the tide pool now, the sea lion performance and the shark petting tank. It's interactive, extremely educational and we try to make it entertaining for the people. There are a lot of places along the tour path where we have set it up for people to take their family's pictures with pirates or shark's jaws.
Reach Christine Walters at email@example.com.