Area attractions are beginning to look and feel like they’ve recovered from the pandemic, but they are all using the lessons learned to move forward carefully and conscientiously.
“People are really ready to get back,” said Heather Wilson, Cameron Art Museum deputy director, who said that many of the museum’s newest members came on board during the pandemic through virtual programming.
That virtual component will continue to be part of future programming despite the return of in-person events.
“Our virtual audience included many newcomers – a lot of younger people, especially since we’re free for CFCC and UNCW students,” Wilson said. “We are finding lots of ways to engage with the community and keep on keeping on.”
The Art Buzz series on Thursday nights and Saturday mornings offers a complimentary glass of wine or sparkling water to enjoy while creating a work of art with a local artist. Live music has returned on Thursday nights and on Saturdays at brunch in the CAM Café.
“It’s picking back up. We’re really busy. We have been reopened since September and spent many months getting back serving the public,” Wilson said. “Visitors say it’s the first place they’ve gone and feel safe coming here.”
Camps are already sold out for the summer, and families seem excited to be back, taking part in the CAM Kids Second Saturdays. In addition, the CAM will have a new installation that represents work by children in the community who have completed art kits.
The kits were inspired by themes of nature and landscapes from current exhibitions Robert Johnson: Safe Places and Elizabeth Bradford: A House of One Room and are on display in the Pancoe Art Education Center for the summer.
Christine Lamberton, director of the Burgwin-Wright House and Gardens, tells a similar story. Despite the site being closed March through September, officials were still wary about reopening. Following all guidelines, they continued to be conservative about reopening, yet they “were busy right away.”
With restrictions being reinforced, the museum had an uptick during spring break week with “almost 80- 85% as far as our numbers coming in,” Lamberton said.
Even with numbers of visitors increasing steadily, Burgwin-Wright plans to continue to offer hybrid events that offer the opportunity to take part with in-person events virtually.
“The hybrid events will continue for the rest of forever,” Lamberton said. “They were very well-received and allow us to reach others who would not have been here otherwise – to not alienate and also to expand.”
The Burgwin-Wright House and Gardens is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Guided tours are given every hour until 3 p.m. Virtual tours are available, as well as group and private tours.
The attraction will resume its lecture series in September. Within the visitor center, there is an art gallery that features a local artist each month and a gift shop that offers locally made goods. These, as well as ever-blooming gardens, are complimentary and open to the public year-round.
In addition to summer in-person exhibits and programming, the Cape Fear Museum’s virtual programs will continue to be available.
“Jorey Stories and adult programs will continue as Zoom programs for the foreseeable future,” said Barbi Baker, museum marketing specialist. “We use a blend of virtual and in-person as a way to reach within the community and reach farther out and take advantage of that.”
That strategy has been working. Between March and April, the museum saw a 50% increase in visitation, Baker said.
“We are definitely seeing a steady increase in numbers from the first of the year. Every month keeps getting better as confidence is on the rise,” Baker said.
The museum is offering three Summer Shorts, interactive programs for small groups. These 60-minute hands-on educational learning experiences include: H20 Today, a Smithsonian Program about how water is the lifeblood of the planet; Ready, Set, Science, a sports-oriented program; and Cape Fear Critters, which is offered in-person or virtually.
Visitation has been down at the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher, “not because of lack of interest but due to lack of school groups with the capacity limitations and social distancing rules,” said Hap Fatzinger, aquarium director.
The pandemic has encouraged the aquarium to implement lasting changes, also.
Fatzinger admits that some policies may still undergo changes, but one thing that will not change in the near future, or possibly ever, is the advanced ticket sales implemented because of COVID-19.
Selling advanced reserved, online tickets was a strategy to adhere to strict capacity guidelines, but officials have made the decision to continue using the advanced ticket sales to “restructure what visiting the aquarium looks like,” Fatzinger said.
With large numbers of people visiting the aquarium daily, aquarium staff hope spacing visitors out over the course of the day will allow for a better overall experience.
“Similar to how you would visit the movies pre-COVID, you have to plan appropriately and accordingly,” Fatzinger said. “Think about it, make your reservations, and secure that time slot.”
Live aquarium programs are still on pause with the state, so “with little predictability” much of their “onground programming” is not planned for the summer.
Current exhibits continue to grow, and the aquarium staff members are ready to share them with visitors. Future exhibits are in the process of being built and developed, but the timing of completion is still unpredictable.
“The timelines are off due to COVID, as well as supply and labor issues,” Fatzinger said. “It’s been challenging, but we are moving forward and working diligently to be able to share these with our visitors.”
He added, “We’re excited to welcome people back, and we’re excited to interact with people on the floor. We are learning everyday and have been learning since March 2020.”