It's been a wild couple of weeks for Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris, who just last week completed a $4.5 billion acquisition of rival outdoor retailer Cabela's.
Around the same time, former U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, along with a boatload of actors, country western stars and outdoor enthusiasts, helped Morris celebrate the opening of his 350,000-square-foot Wonders of Wildlife (WOW) National Museum & Aquarium in Springfield, Missouri.
"It's been like a whirlwind," Morris told CNBC a day before the museum opened. Morris started his business in 1972, selling fishing gear out of a corner of his father's Springfield, MO liquor store.
Fast forward to the present day, and "two of the biggest things in my life are happening at once," he added. "It was not by design, I'll tell you that."
It took more than 10 years to complete the 350,000-square-foot WOW compound adjacent to the sprawling Bass Pro Shops National Headquarters, about an hour's drive from Branson. CNBC recently took a tour of the facility, which is billed as being larger than even the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.
With more than 4 million annual visitors, the massive Bass Pro Shops national headquarters in Springfield is known as the "Grandaddy" of outdoor stores and is already the top tourist attraction in Missouri. The store offers a wide variety of free entertainment, including aquariums, an in-store swamp with alligators and turtles, archery and shooting ranges, and a restaurant.
WOW boasts 35,000 live fish, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds; 1.5 million gallons of freshwater and saltwater aquariums; and more than 1.5 miles of trails that meander through 4-D dioramas that share sights, sounds and smells of wildlife habitat, including the African savannah, the Amazon rainforest, ten U.S. National Parks and the Arctic.
"We wanted to make things fun and create some excitement about big fish and wildlife," Morris told CNBC. "So, for example, when you walk through the Arctic exhibit you'll hear the wind blow, you'll see the Northern Lights, you'll feel cold and be immersed in the environment with the musk ox, the polar bears and the birds of the region."
Notable galleries on the aquarium side of WOW include a 300,000-gallon wraparound aquarium; a two-story Shipwreck Room where visitors can touch stingrays, and a 3-story 'bait ball' created by thousands of herring on the defense against circling sharks. Also included is a gallery filled with photos, fishing artifacts and mementos associated with noted anglers like Ernest Hemingway, Zane Gray and several U.S. presidents (including George W. Bush and Carter).
While Morris clearly loves it all, two of his favorite spaces in the museum are the detailed recreation of his dad's Brown Derby liquor store where Bass Pro began, and the room housing the National Collection of Heads and Horns from the Boone and Crockett Club, which was founded by Theodore Roosevelt in 1887.
In that exhibit, World Record bears, bison, caribou, elk and other big game species are displayed just as they were at New York's Bronx Zoo in 1908, in an exhibit dedicated to conservation and the protection of animals.
"Roosevelt was concerned about the management of fish and wildlife," said Morris. "He wanted these trophy animals displayed to send a shocking message that if we don't have good laws and regulations we could lose our buffalo and other wild free ranging animals."
Admission to the new WOW is a hefty $39.95 for adults and $23.95 for kids. Still, Susan Wade of the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau doesn't think tourists or locals will balk.
"In other cities, there are museums and aquariums that charge the same, or more, but give you less," said Wade, who added WOW will be a boost for the local economy. "Visitors now have more of a reason to spend the whole day at the Bass Pro Shops complex. And the longer they stay the more likely they're going to spend a night in a local hotel," she said.