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Here’s What You Missed in 2020

There was a lot of news in 2020. Like, a lot a lot. And there was a lot of noise around that news. The pandemic and politics dominated headlines most of the year, but major attractions still opened; they did not, however, always break through the noise to receive the attention they deserved. 

Here’s a look at some attractions that opened in 2020 and some that were supposed to open but didn’t. Travel planners would do well to get them on itineraries for 2022.

Omega Mart

Las Vegas

Meow Wolf planned to open its second permanent installation, Omega Mart, in Las Vegas in 2020. But then the COVID-19 pandemic came along, and the New Mexico-based arts production company had to push back the opening to February 2021.

Having to delay the fictional, fantastical grocery store experience wasn’t all bad, especially in a city like Las Vegas “where it’s so difficult to stand out,” said Drew DiCostanzo, director of sales and marketing for Meow Wolf. “We were able to open at a time when there was a lot less noise in the market.”

During a Meow Wolf experience, “we start you somewhere that’s ordinary” and then “move onto something extraordinary,” he said. Visitors enter a grocery store that “seems so familiar,” but the more they explore, the more they discover. Guests might open a cooler door to grab a soda only to find a winding, psychedelic hallway.

“There are a number of these portals spread throughout Omega Mart, and it really becomes a ‘choose your own adventure’ depending on what choices you make and how deeply you explore your surroundings,” DiCostanzo said.

Immersive, layered, mind-expanding spaces feature work from over 325 artist collaborators across a range of disciplines. Omega Mart has about 60 large-scale “environmentals,” like “Projected Desert,” an anchor space illuminated with beautiful projection mappings, and myriad smaller installations, like Claudia Bueno’s “Pulse.” Physical experiences like slides, tunnels and crawl spaces are meant to fire up visitors’ senses.

If guests find the hidden bar, Datamosh, they can sip specialty cocktails or sample Day Ghost, the lager that Marble Brewery made exclusively for Meow Wolf locations.

Meow Wolf doesn’t supply maps or offer guided tours because they want to strip away the predictability of daily life and give visitors the opportunity to explore and discover. The same will be true when Meow Wolf’s third permanent exhibition, “Convergence Station,” opens in Denver this month.

“All of it, for us, is really about inspiring creativity through art, through exploration and through being able to play again,” DiCostanzo said.

National Museum of the United States Army

Fort Belvoir, Virginia

The National Museum of the United States Army opened during the pandemic — twice. COVID-19 delayed the original June 2020 opening by about five months, but the museum eventually opened its doors on Veterans Day 2020. NMUSA was open for 31 days before COVID restrictions caused it to close. The museum then reopened June 14, 2021.

“The reception has been great,” said Pauline Bonilla, director of visitor engagement, programs and group sales. “People are just in awe when they come to the museum.”

The 185,000-square-foot, stainless steel-clad building is located in a publicly accessible area of Fort Belvoir, Virginia. NMUSA displays and interprets more than 245 years of America’s oldest military service in times of war and peace, conflict and construction, through the eyes of soldiers.

Eleven galleries display nearly 1,400 artifacts. In the Global War Gallery, visitors will see an M4 Sherman Cobra King tank as well as a Higgins Boat landing craft that was used in the D-Day Normandy beach landings.

In the Experiential Learning Center, or ELC, groups can simulate work done by Army soldiers at five G-STEM stations. In Geography, visitors use satellite imagery and maps, and the Science station resembles a medical tent. Visitors operate an unmanned aerial vehicle at the Technology station and build and repair bridges at the Engineering station. The Math station allows groups to figure out how to accurately drop cargo from a Chinook helicopter, complete with wind and vibrations.

NMUSA also offers three paid virtual-reality simulator experiences. Tank Commander takes people inside a Sherman tank during World War II; Bunker Defense puts guests in a bunker in the Middle East. The Army Action Pod Simulator is a motion movie theater that simulates over 100 years of flight.

The museum expects to start accepting groups October 1.

St. Pete Pier

St. Petersburg, Florida

The new St. Pete Pier opened July 6, 2020, the culmination of a 17-year journey to reimagine and redevelop the city’s former “inverted pyramid” pier. The new pier is more than a long dock that juts into Tampa Bay; it’s a 26-acre waterfront park where groups can gather together or explore on their own, with dining, drinking, shopping, swimming, fishing, live music and public art.

“It really seamlessly combines the peaceful water of Tampa Bay with the vibrant greenery of downtown St. Pete,” said Rosemarie Payne, director of leisure travel for Visit St. Pete/Clearwater.

As visitors walk up to the pier, they’ll find a marketplace of independent vendors selling local products beneath a solar roof structure. Groups are also greeted by public art, notably Janet Echelman’s “Bending Arc,” an enormous, netlike, perpetual-motion sculpture that floats overhead and is lighted at night. 

Dining options range from pastries and paninis at Driftwood Cafe to high-end dining at Teak. Pier Teaki is a rooftop tiki bar that offers unobstructed views, tiki huts, couches and a fire pit; Doc Ford’s Rum Bar and Grille features Florida-Caribbean fusion cuisine with indoor-outdoor dining. Groups can enjoy casual fare on Spa Beach Bistro’s outdoor patio or dine on a deck overlooking the marina at Fresco’s Waterfront Bistro.

The Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center is a small museum run by Tampa Bay Watch, an environmental organization. Admission is free, and visitors can explore exhibits, interactive displays and video presentations about local waters and marine life. Groups can also arrange demonstrations and lectures at the center’s amphitheater-style observation deck.

Visitors can rent fishing gear to do some catch-and-release from the pier, sunbathe at Spa Beach or jump on the free Looper trolley that runs through downtown.

Mississippi Aquarium

Gulfport, Mississippi

The pandemic pushed back the opening of the Mississippi Aquarium by four months, but it opened August 29, 2020, coinciding with the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the region, including the aquarium’s hometown of Gulfport.

“We chose that time specifically to show how the gulf has changed in that time,” said Jeff Clark, public relations and communications manager. 

The aquarium was under restrictions until this past spring, so “this is our first summer, and we’re having a great summer,” he said.

The Mississippi Aquarium has more than 200 species of animals on campus – and “70 to 80% of it is outdoors,” Clark said. “We’re very unique like that.”

A freshwater river runs the length of the six-acre campus, with catfish, cuttlefish, alligator gar and other species found in local estuaries. The three-story Aquatic Wonders building houses the saltwater aquarium. There, visitors can experience rays, sharks and invertebrates in large touch pools. Guests walk through a 360-degree tunnel through the main saltwater tank as they wind their way from the third floor to the “big reveal” on the first floor.

During a dolphin encounter, visitors can get close to and interact with one of four Atlantic bottlenose dolphins in their outdoor habitat. Groups can also arrange an Eco-Tour, which the aquarium offers in partnership with Ship Island Excursions; the tour is led by Holley Muraco, the aquarium’s director of research. The 70-passenger boat takes groups onto the Gulf of Mexico to learn about its ecology, wildlife and conservation work, and even use sonar to listen to dolphins. 

Groups can also take a behind-the-scenes tour to learn about the ins and outs of aquarium operations, like how staff feed the animals and how the aquarium makes its own salt water.

U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum

Colorado Springs, Colorado

Colorado Springs, Colorado, is home to one of three U.S. Olympic training centers, the first to be built, and has been headquarters of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee since 1978.

Now the city is also home to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum, which opened July 30, 2020, after delaying its original May 2020 opening and rescheduling its four-day grand opening celebration because of the pandemic.

Instead, ​​the museum kicked off its Colorado Grand Opening this past July, with a series of weekly activities and events running through Labor Day that include live music, athlete autographs, workouts with athletes, athlete meet-and-greets, demonstrations, Fight Night with USA Boxing and a four-day Tokyo Games Fan Fest.

The museum offers guided group tours and tries to accommodate group requests to meet an Olympian or a Paralympian, though “we can’t always guarantee that,” said Judy Cara, group sales manager.

In Gallery Four, interactive exhibits and simulators allow guests to run on a 30-meter track or try archery, skeleton, downhill skiing and goalball, a team sport for athletes with vision impairment that uses a ball with a bell inside. At “Ask an Athlete,” visitors can ask questions of a prerecorded Olympian or Paralympian.

When the 2022 Winter Olympics open in February in Beijing, the museum plans to hold another Fan Fest with more special programming.

Rachel Carter

Rachel Carter worked as a newspaper reporter for eight years and spent two years as an online news editor before launching her freelance career. She now writes for national meetings magazines and travel trade publications.