Jimmy Magahern
The Valley Times


From the man who brought us Butterfly Wonderland, here’s what Amram Knishinsky has planned for stage two of his ambitious, eye-catching Odysea in the Desert entertainment complex, quickly taking shape off of the Loop 101 and Via De Ventura in Scottsdale.

Conceived as the largest aquarium in the Southwest, Odysea in the Desert is quickly taking shape off the Loop 101 and Via De Ventura in Scottsdale. Using theme park technology, the aquarium will be built with an intriguing amusement park approach.

“It will be the largest aquarium in the Southwest,” says the Israeli-born Paradise Valley real estate developer, who’s built successful aquariums in Connecticut and Kentucky and is now trying to bring that experience home to Arizona, but with an intriguing amusement park approach. “We will combine theme park technology in the design and implementation of how visitors are going to be viewing marine life.”

What’s that mean? Well, for starters: “There will be a glass elevator that goes through an aquarium,” Knishinsky offers. It hasn’t been done yet in the States. “The only place I’ve seen it done is in Berlin.” The 70-something developer says he and his team have traveled from Monterrey, Calif., to Osaka, Japan, and Paris, France, visiting the world’s best public aquariums, and he’s come back with some exciting ideas.

“People walk through tunnels and see marine life,” he suggests. “There are ways to make installations of tubes that go through the shark tanks, and you can slide through the tubes. You see what it’s like from the inside as you move through the tank. We like the concept of a large group of people traveling in the middle of very large tanks of water, and doing that kind of traveling in elevators that go through a donut-type aquarium.”

All of this is still news to Mark Parks, owner of Southwest Seas, who installed and maintains the nine aquariums in the Rivers of the Amazon section of Butterfly Wonderland and is on Knishinsky’s team to curate the Odysea Aquarium and participate in its design.

“I’ll know more after meeting with him Wednesday,” Parks says. “He’s got three or four ideas, and we have to see what’s do-able, what’s functional and what’s not.”

It’s the type of meeting all aquarium specialists start with, and it usually ends in compromise. Either the client will want something impossible, impractical or illegal (some sharks, and soon, possibly some corals), or else they won’t have the budget to cover their grand visions.

That’s one thing Parks won’t have to worry about on this project. Elevators? Donuts? Whatever, he’s in.
“It’s a $25 million public aquarium,” he says. “It’ll be a mini SeaWorld!”

Making a Splash

Custom Marine Aquaria in Scottsdale and Gilbert is one of a handful of custom aquarium designers in the Valley. They create small and big custom tanks including some that fit into the furniture as pictured here.

Amram Knishinsky is the proverbial “big fish.” The deep-pocketed investor with more vision than restraint (he funded the ill-fated Scottsdale Galleria, and bounced back). The one that all contractors live to get their hooks in.

Mark Parks is a big fish of a different stripe—a big fish in a small pond. He’s one on a short list of Valley aquarium guys whose names are passed around like trusted chefs among the people wealthy enough to afford the really big tanks, even if they inevitably spend more time cleaning than designing.

“I’ve got 10 full-time guys that do nothing but aquarium maintenance here,” Parks says. “We do everyone’s tanks: we do John McCain’s, we do (Arizona Cardinals president) Mike Bidwell’s. And from them, we’ve met other people. You meet them through the fish tanks!”

Parks says you can tell a lot about someone by the fish they keep. He’s been Sen. McCain’s fish guy for 15 years now. So what kinds of fish does McCain lean toward?

“He likes things with teeth.”

Parks’ business, Southwest Seas Aquariums, has had high-profile jobs before, although not on the design end. Until the restaurant chain decided to hire its own full-time fish crew, Parks’ team did all the maintenance on the Rainforest Café’s showpiece tanks at Arizona Mills—the closest thing the state had to a large public aquarium, until the 2010 opening of Sea Life Arizona around the mall.

That 26,000-square-foot development, one of the newest of the 45 Sea Life aquariums around the world run by Merlin Entertainments Group, which also runs the world’s Legolands, made a big splash in the East Valley, and introduced Phoenix to a new type of entertainment destination: the mini zoo by the mall; a kind of nature arcade.

But Parks, who admits the Tempe Sea Life is “pretty cool,” and that he also likes the aquariums at Wildlife World Zoo, is confident the Odysea Aquarium, scheduled for completion in 2015, will be the city’s best yet—not to mention the best possible showcase for a fish tank guy.

“It’s about time Phoenix got a real aquarium, and now it’s finally happening,” he says. “And it’s going to be sitting there right between Butterfly Wonderland and the Loop 101, so everybody’s going to be able to see it. That’s the coolest part.”

‘Tanked’ Out

It’s the biggest fish story in reality TV. On “Tanked,” the surprise hit Animal Planet series now in its fourth season, viewers follow the work and antics of a couple of boisterous brothers-in-law who run the busiest custom aquarium business in Las Vegas. Every week, Brett Raymer and Wayde King create wild, elaborate fish tanks for the biggest hotels on the Vegas Strip, and a few well-to-do clients.

Some clients ask for elaborate fish tanks that are often too impractical to build or maintain. Simpler designs can often be equally as impressive as the one pictured here, created by Custom Marine Aquaria.

Before the real estate crash, rock star “aquarists” like the “Tanked” guys were popping up in every big city and were sought after by wealthy homeowners for the latest status symbol—what a 2010 New York Times article dubbed “The Six-Figure Fish Tank.” The custom aquarium was to be the new custom home theater, the latest way to impress the hard-to-impress.

That never quite happened, says Knishinsky, who runs in such social circles and has yet to see many half-million-dollar fish tanks in homes. “To be truthful, the recession has really hurt that business,” he says. “And if they (aquarium designers)tell you anything different, they’re not revealing what’s happened in the last five years. It’s a big expenditure to do something on a large scale and continually maintain it. You need to be in a certain income bracket. And not a lot of people can afford that kind of thing now.”

Many who got into the custom aquarium business to design six-figure fish tanks have wound up cleaning aquariums in dentists’ offices—not that they’re complaining too much in this still sluggish economy.

“I run around cleaning aquariums all day long, but my favorite thing to do is to build new setups for people,” says DJ Payne of AAA Reefs, a Valley aquarium company that specializes in live corals, the latest trend in tanks.

“Obviously you also make a lot more money doing that vs. being a fish janitor. In a perfect world I’d be doing that all day and having someone else cleaning the aquariums. But that’s not the reality of the business.”

It helps to nab the few high-end customers out there if you’re one of the affiliated installers for the company featured on “Tanked,” Acrylic Tank Manufacturing, which bills itself as the world’s largest custom aquarium manufacturer. For a bargain fee of $300 a year, Acrylic Tank Manufacturing will list local aquarium companies on its website—if it deems them capable of installing or creating the kinds of tanks Brett and Wayde create.

In Arizona, only two companies show up on the list: Custom Marine Aquaria in Scottsdale and Gilbert, and Artistic Aquariums in Chandler. Mark Collier of Custom Marine Aquaria, who calls himself the “Arizona Fish Guy,” says the connection has been good for business, to a degree.

Animal Planet’s surprise hit “Tanked,” now in its fourth season, follows the work and antics of a couple of boisterous brothers-in-law who run the busiest aquarium business in Las Vegas.

Animal Planet’s surprise hit “Tanked,” now in its fourth season, follows the work and antics of a couple of boisterous brothers-in-law who run the busiest aquarium business in Las Vegas.[/caption]“We’ve gotten a few leads and a few small jobs from them, nothing big,” he says. “We’re doing a job for a doctor’s office in Yuma now. It’s a 1,000-gallon tank and we’re hand-building all the prefabricated coral reef inserts. They wanted the ‘Tanked’ guys to do it, and they were referred to me. They’ve gotten so busy, thanks to the show, that if they get a job that’s too small for them, they farm it out to one of their affiliates. And if we come to them with a big job, they say there’s a chance they’ll put us on the show. But that hasn’t happened yet.”

Erik Matthaeus of Artistic Aquariums says the show has been great for generating interest in custom big-budget tanks, but he acknowledges that clients get unrealistic expectations of what’s feasible from watching the heavily edited series.

“When they reveal a brand-new aquarium with all those fish thrown in there, you can’t do that under normal circumstances,” he says. “Especially with the kinds of fish they choose. You would never stick all these exotic fish in a tank together right after you fill it up.” Some of the tanks featured on the show are also too impractical to maintain, Matthaeus says. “You get clients who ask for things they’ve seen on ‘Tanked’ or ‘Fish Tank Kings’ (a competing show on the National Geographic channel), and you have to say, ‘Sorry, you can’t really have a tank like that.’”

Worst yet are the clients who get inspired by the shows, put all the wheels in motion, and then run out of money before the project can be finished.

“We had one client who wanted a fish tank over the staircase so as you walked down to the basement, you walked under the fish tank and there would be a porthole to the kitchen (and) you could see into this aquarium,” says Collier. “We got into the design phase of that, made a prototype, brought a contractor in, decided how we were going to open up this wall and run the support beams. And then they squashed it because it ran over their budget. That happens a lot.”

Two Schools of Clients

When it comes to customers for high-end custom aquariums, clients generally fall between two extremes. On one end, there are those for whom a lavish fish tank is more a work of art and the fish are merely moving pieces—“living art,” as aquarists like to call it. On the other end are people who are all about the fish.
“In my job, I actually prefer the people who view tanks as living art, because they let me take charge of the fish and choose the ones that do best in captivity,” says Payne. “The people who are really into the fish can come to treat the fish like their dog.”

Parks, too, has done tanks for clients who seemed just a little too close to their fish. “We did a tank once for a couple that was a long, 20-foot tank,” he recalls, describing a tank that stretched from a shower wall to a bedroom. “So you go into the shower, and the fish follow you there, ’cause that’s what fish do. And then you go into the bedroom, and the fish follow you to that side.” He laughs. “Some people have a very close relationship with their fish.”

Clients who care more about the tanks are big on trends, says Neal Moir of Titan Aquatic Exhibits. “The big rectangular box of water is kind of out,” he says. “We can build squares for anybody. But the cool thing now is doing different shapes: bow front and bull nose (tanks shaped like a bullet) and cylinders.”

Moir says one of his most demanding projects was building a 1,200-gallon tank over an archway in a private residence in Florida (much of Titan’s business is actually done out of state). “It was very tall, had a complicated arch to build into, but that’s what they wanted.”

Among the Valley aquarium builders “Arizona Fish Guy,” Mark Collier is famous for having built a $200,000 tank embedded into the floor of a residence that snaked through the game room and emptied into an outdoor pond.

Among the Valley aquarium builders “Arizona Fish Guy,” Mark Collier is famous for having built a $200,000 tank embedded into the floor of a residence that snaked through the game room and emptied into an outdoor pond. [/caption]The aquarium designer has to be a jack-of-all trades to make fantasy fish tanks come alive. “You have to be a plumber, electrician, builder, chemist and an artist, too,” says Payne. It also helps to be a scuba diver, as the bigger tanks require some diving to maintain. Among Valley aquarium builders, Collier is famous for having built a $200,000 tank embedded into the floor of a residence that snaked through a game room and finally emptied out into an outdoor pond.

“That’s pretty tough to do,” says Parks. “Because it’s all about temperature control. And especially in Arizona, having a tank that’s part indoors and outdoors is really difficult to cool.”

To get the really big jobs, though, in a field largely fueled by word-of-mouth, it’s perhaps most important to also know the right people.

That’s how Parks got the prized Odysea Aquarium gig from Knishinsky. “Ironically, Amram was my landlord about 13 years ago, when I had a retail fish store on Scottsdale and Shea,” Parks says. “Amram owned that whole corridor, and he was my landlord.” Parks had a fish store in another Knishinsky venture, the Simply Artrageous co-op at Scottsdale Pavilions, but then they fell out of touch.

“Ten years later he calls me and says, ‘Hey, we’re doing this thing called Odysea in the Desert. Are you still doing aquariums?’ And I was like, “Yeah! Let’s do it!’” he says. “Sometimes it just comes down to a little dumb luck.”