Travelers headed to Oahu's Pearl Harbor to view the USS Arizona Memorial during the next eight months will find that roughly half of the popular destination's new $58 million visitor center facilities are now open to the public.

Thousands of patrons got a first look at several of the center's new buildings Feb. 17 after phase one of the renovation project was officially completed. Work on the new visitor center started last spring after many of the previous facility's buildings had sunk more than two and a half feet into the unstable land surrounding Pearl Harbor.

Built on top of hundreds of pilings driven up to 200 feet into the ground, the new visitor center will be nearly twice as large as its predecessor and sit on more than 17 acres. While the entire facility is scheduled for completion by Dec. 1, visitors can enjoy many of the project's completed buildings now, including a new bookstore, an education and research center, snack bar, dramatically improved restrooms and a centralized ticketing station selling admission not only for visits to the USS Arizona Memorial but also to nearby attractions.

"We've taken down the fence so that everybody who visits Pearl Harbor historic sites will come through our entrance," explained Public Information Officer Eileen Martinez. "And the ticketing for the USS Arizona Memorial tours is now right next to the desk where you purchase tickets for the USS Bowfin, the Pacific Aviation Museum and the Missouri. So it's one-stop shopping for the visitor and really helps people plan their day."

Phase two of the project will involve the construction of two brand-new museum halls and an extensive renovation of the old center's movie theater. New exhibits featuring high-tech, interactive content will also be added.

"We also will have oral histories," Martinez said. "These are the survivors and the eyewitnesses describing what happened on Oahu, and they're absolutely chilling. They bring tears to your eyes. It's the civilian perspective and the military perspective, but it will also have perspective from the Japanese, something that's very new."

Those familiar with the old center will recall the powerful 23-minute film played right before visitors board the water shuttle out to the Arizona Memorial itself. That film has been completely restored and digitized, and during phase two, it will be played continuously on an outdoor lanai next to the new education center, allowing patrons to view it at their leisure. The new approach was decided on largely due to the substantial distance between the temporary theater and the tour boat dock.

"Visitors should expect a bit of a walk in the elements," Martinez said. "So if there are problems with mobility, you want to plan for that."

During the second phase of construction, visitors should also expect limited exhibition materials.

"You'll only see temporary exhibits in place throughout the site, and those are essentially replicas of panel exhibits that are planned for the new museum," Martinez said. "We really don't have artifacts or anything out at this point, because there's no safe place to keep them."

Originally planned for about 2,000 visitors a day, the first USS Arizona Memorial Visitor Center was built in 1980, but it has actually seen more like 4,500 people each day over the past several years, making it Hawaii's most popular tourist destination.

The official grand opening of the new visitor center is planned for Dec. 7, the 69th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

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