For a mythic culture lost eons ago, Atlantis sure is popular currency in "the experience economy," as the market for themed attractions is now called. At least one restaurant, an Imax 3D extravaganza, and a Sea World ride revolving around its mysteries opened last year, and it is part of Universal's Islands of Adventure besides. But the Atlantis to beat is the one Solomon Kerzner, the czar of Sun International Hotels in the Bahamas, opened last December on Paradise Island.
His Atlantis is a mega-resort, at a cost of upwards of $450 million. Its centerpiece is a three-million-gallon aquarium, stocked with more than 40,000 fish and crustaceans, built amidst a labyrinth with different viewing areas into the environment. This 12,000-sq.-ft. maze initially had the feel of a 14th-century medieval dungeon, but in May 1997, Sun decided a bit more uplifting walkthrough was needed for guests. Enter Venice, CA-based Olio, fresh from devising ornamentation for Bellagio in Las Vegas, which was hired to take Atlantis on a voyage to the bottom of the sea.
"The tank itself features a cityscape of Atlantis; the labyrinth tells its story, which we developed," says Bernardo Charca, Olio's creative producer and field art director on this project. "We spun a tale that three British archaeologists, inspired by the discovery of King Tut's tomb, unearthed it in the late 1920s, just before the Great Depression set in and their work halted. The hotel rediscovered it when it broke ground in 1997." Called The Dig, the project consists of about a dozen sacred rooms, sealed by the Atlanteans as the continent sank; some of their handiwork can be viewing in the chambers outside the tanks, and other sunken artifacts are mixed in with the flora and fauna of the aquarium.
Charca says the script for The Dig is drawn from Atlantis accounts by Plato and Edgar Cayce, who related how Atlanteans used crystals as power sources and built flying machines, diving suits, and submarines to stave off disaster. "We pulled out the fun bits to spin the tale," says Charca. Olio's work, much of which can be touched and handled and is "designed to be as real and as lifelike as possible," even extends to the hieroglyphics found throughout The Dig, a 5,000-year-old language devised by Troy Zimmermann. No less a luminary than Sean Connery, familiar with the denizens of the Bahamian depths from his 007 days in Thunderball and Never Say Never Again, was fooled by the "reality" of these themed elements, Charca reports.
Sound and lighting add Atlantean ambiance to The Dig, the audio "an ethereal mix" that wafts through each room (including the noises of crystalline machinery) in seven-minute loops off CD players, and the illumination mostly pot lights and neon washes that unify the colors of the interior and the sunlit blues of the water; "like a film matte," says Charca. Soundelux Systems provided AV systems, while Joe Kaplan Architectural Lighting contributed treatments (Larry Albright supplied some lighting effects). Additional contractors included Rock and Waterscape Systems for those elements, Cloward and Associates for water features, Stromberg Architectural Products for architectural prefabrication, Formglass for door panels, MJM Studios for sample walls and columns, and TMT Terrazzo for tile mosaic fabrication and installation. HKS was the architect of record.
Olio worked closely with Berkeley, CA-based Scientific Art Studio to make everything new old again for The Dig. Its founder, sculptor Ron Holthuysen, created prop flasks, weapons, and other Atlantean artifacts from all-natural elements, including bronze, leather, marble, and hand-blown glass. Colleague Maren Van Duyen supplied over 400 linear feet of murals for the different chambers, some drawing on images of the sun and the bull, the spiritual entities of this Atlantis (the latter a highlight of the bas-reliefs on the walls). Says Holthuysen, "What we decided was not to make these elements out of fiberglass or other plastics, but use what the Atlanteans might have used, as if they had hammered them together." Peter Carlson contributed to artifact fabrication, and Jason Rodgers devised leatherwork for ancient helmets.
Stewart Zilberberg, vice president of North Hollywood, CA-based Scenery West, has some fish stories regarding the themed elements within the tanks. The firm had done some freshwater work, but this was its first assignment in a saltwater environment. A special brew of metals and glues, topped off by the company's own fiber-reinforced polyester cast stone (FRPCS), was used to cast waterlogged set pieces like the remains of a submarine, which have "aged" appropriately as moss and algae have grown on them. A key task for his team, which consulted with marine biologists before diving in, was "to make the living things happy," says Zilberberg, who adds that the lobsters are particularly pleased with their snappily executed grilles. "The interface between owner, designer, and contractor was key to the success of this project," he says.
The Olio team, which includes creative director Charles White III, creative producer Jay Fisher, project manager Robert Durand, and sculptor Martin Smeaton, are holding meets on a "swim-through" adaptation of The Dig for the next phase of the resort. Five thousand years from now, archaeologists poking around the Bahamas will have ample evidence to support the existence of Atlantis.