A new penguin exhibit was unveiled at the Wonders of Wildlife Museum and Aquarium.
Between sundown Tuesday and dawn Wednesday, Wonders of Wildlife took the lead in a race against 19 other national destinations.
Staff at the Johnny Morris-owned museum and aquarium saw WOW reach No. 1 on the leaderboard for USA TODAY’s best new attraction poll around midnight, spokeswoman Shelby Stephenson said. It remained on top at about 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.
But an hour later, USA TODAY closed the leaderboard from public view until the end of the online vote, 11 a.m. on New Year’s Day.
“Otherwise, there wouldn’t be any surprises once the winners are announced!” wrote the editors of USA TODAY’s 10best.com.
It is unclear how many votes separate WOW from its closest competition. WOW knocked Morgan’s Inspiration Island, a San Antonio water park, out of the No. 1 slot.
A week ago, WOW trailed both the water park and the previous No. 1 contender, Elvis Presley’s Memphis, according to a Guns.com report.
Meanwhile, celebrities, conservation groups and others have continued to endorse WOW, joining public figures ranging from Hollywood actor Mark Wahlberg to Springfield Mayor Ken McClure.
Tuesday evening, NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt Jr. added his voice to the chorus with a Twitter post informing his 2.3 million followers that WOW had the nomination, coupled with a link to the online ballot.
An hour earlier, his sister and fellow racer Kelley Earnhardt said, “This place is awesome,” and asked her 183,000 social-media followers to vote for WOW.
The National Wildlife Federation, with 571,000 Twitter followers, asked people Wednesday morning to “spread the word for wildlife & cast your vote daily.”
A professional shooter, Doug Koenig, posted a video endorsement Tuesday afternoon.
“I’ve been there, and it’s really unbelievable, and I can’t wait to take my family there this summer,” he told the camera. “…I promise you, you won’t be disappointed.”
Koenig’s endorsement was passed along by @GaryAtWOW, the Twitter account of Wonders of Wildlife’s ill-tempered “token octopus.”
The Memphis Grizzlies pro basketball team also asked fans to “give an assist to our friends.”
Meanwhile, ordinary Springfield residents added their voices praising the $290 million Wonders of Wildlife and asking people to vote for it.
Chance Nichols, a Missouri State University graduate home for the holidays from Chicago, pronounced the attraction “worth the 11-year wait,” a reference to its lengthy hiatus that ended with a star-studded grand reopening in September.
Former city councilman Justin Burnett was so enthusiastic about WOW’s chances for a USA TODAY reader’s choice win that he took to Twitter at least twice Wednesday morning.
In his second post, Burnett blended a love of outdoor conservation with Star Wars fandom, writing, “The force is strong with (WOW) as it climbs to #1… the galaxy depends on it.”
“We’re in the top spot!” tweeted city spokeswoman Cora Scott Wednesday morning. “Keep voting!”
Ben Shantz, a Springfield attorney, said, “if you haven’t been yet, GO! It’s really pretty cool.”
The 350,000-square-foot attraction was also recently endorsed by pro golfer Tiger Woods, Missouri Lt. Governor Mike Parson, gun manufacturer SIG Sauer and others.
“We can’t say thanks enough to the entire Springfield community for voting for Wonders of Wildlife and helping us get to first place,” said Stephenson, the WOW spokeswoman, in an email to the News-Leader Wednesday morning.
Noting that the USA TODAY leaderboard is closed, Stephenson said, “we can’t say enough how important is for everyone to keep voting every single day so that we can bring this huge national recognition to not only Springfield, Missouri but to the entire conservation community.”
WOW’s competition in the race consists of 19 other destinations that celebrate Americana.
Examples include ARTECHOUSE and the Museum of the Bible, both in Washington, D.C.; the Songbirds Guitar Museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee; and MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation in Santa Barbara, California.
USA TODAY’s 10best.com is an advice website with travel journalism and reader’s choice votes.
The leaderboard has been closed for the final days of voting to ensure a surprise reveal when the winner is announced at 11 a.m. Jan. 5. Here is how the race stood at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday. Anyone may vote at 10best.com once per day until the contest closes, according to the rules.
1. Wonders of Wildlife – Springfield, Mo.
2. Morgan’s Inspiration Island – San Antonio
3. Elvis Presley’s Memphis – Memphis
4. Evel Knievel Museum – Topeka, Kan.
5. Museum of the Bible – Washington, D.C.
6. Museum of the American Revolution – Philadelphia
7. Newport Car Museum – Newport, R.I.
8. Songbirds Guitar Museum – Chattanooga, Tenn.
9. MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation – Santa Barbara, Calif.
10. ARTECHOUSE – Washington, D.C.
11. Cedar Point Shores Water Park – Sandusky, Ohio
12. Universal’s Volcano Bay – Orlando
13. The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum – Springfield, Mass.
14. Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami – Miami
15. OWA – Foley, Ala.
16. Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles – Los Angeles
17. Marciano Art Foundation – Los Angeles
18. American Writers Museum – Chicago
19. H2OBX – Powells Point, N.C.
20. Opry City Stage – New York
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