ATLANTA – New York City has Times Square. New Orleans is known for the French Quarter, and in San Francisco, camera-toting tourists flock to Fisherman’s Wharf.
Now, city leaders in Atlanta hope to add Centennial Olympic Park — and the growing roster of museums dotting it — to the list of popular urban tourism corridors.
The downtown district, once home to rundown buildings and dark streets, was transformed in the mid-1990s into the town square for the 1996 Olympic Games. Now the 21-acre park is bordered by the world’s largest aquarium, the international headquarters for CNN, the World of Coca-Cola, a children’s museum and the National Museum of Patriotism.
In the next five years, three new museums will open around the park — the Center for Civil and Human Rights, the National Health Museum and the National College Football Hall of Fame (which is moving from its current location in South Bend, Ind.). And the Georgia Aquarium will premiere its $100 million dolphin wing.
Meanwhile, a private investor is considering opening a pirate museum on the park, capitalizing on a surge in the popularity of swashbuckling culture thanks to Disney’s ubiquitous “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie franchise.
“It is really spectacular,” said William Pate, president of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Whether you’re coming for college football or with kids or just with your spouse to relax, we’ve really got this wonderful compact set of assets at the park that really gives you a starting point.”
With the museums have come other improvements to the district: restaurants like Boston’s famous Legal Seafood, nearly 15,000 hotel rooms within walking distance and the disappearance of the seedy strip joints that once ruled the area.
Want to visit the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library or the King Center? How about the Wren’s Nest, the historical home of Uncle Remus author Joel Chandler Harris, or the Margaret Mitchell House? All are just a short train ride from the park.
On a recent warm afternoon, Michelle Marbry, 23, and Tammy Loudermilk, 39, took photos by the Olympic ring fountain at Centennial Olympic Park. They had just arrived an hour earlier from Charlotte, N.C., for a conference in downtown Atlanta.
“It’s beautiful,” Loudermilk said. “There’s such an advantage that you can come to one place and it’s all right there.”
Nearby, Amanda McGovern and her family stared at sharks and touched sting rays at the Georgia Aquarium. The family traveled the 215 miles from Hendersonville, N.C., for an overnight trip and a visit to the aquarium downtown.
McGovern’s two children — 2-year-old Destiny and 3-year-old Reagan — were looking forward to exploring one of the playgrounds at Centennial Olympic Park before the family headed back home.
“We’re only in town for a day, so when we finish, we don’t have to go all the way across town or get on transit,” McGovern said, looking at the museums around the park.
Much of the most recent evolution started in 2001 when Home Depot co-founder and philanthropist Bernie Marcus announced he wanted to build the world’s largest fish tank in Atlanta. He envisioned creating a district like Harbor Town in Baltimore, which began with the National Aquarium.
Since the aquarium opened in 2005, it has brought in nearly 11 million visitors and spurred up to $4 billion in construction downtown.
“We’ll end up one day where tourism will be synonymous with the city of Atlanta,” Marcus said in a recent telephone interview. “We have a lot going for us here.”