Odysea in the Desert

The development team – Amram Knishinsky, Martin Pollack and Rubin Stahl – debuted the five-acre first phase of their eventual 522,000-square-foot Odysea in the Desert May 25 at the northeast corner of the Loop 101 and Via de Ventura, Scottsdale. Build-out will take three to five years, they say.

On 37 acres leased from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, the entertainment complex will include the Odysea Mirror Maze, opening in November; an IMAX Theater; one of North America’s largest aquariums; a Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum; an “Arizona Experience” celebration of history and culture; and a “Taste of the World” showcasing 14-16 internationally inspired sit-down restaurants reminiscent of those at the Epcot Center in Orlando, FL.

Eventually, “experience retail” stores also will open at Odysea in the Desert – such as a glass shop with artisans demonstrating their work and perhaps an old-fashioned general store as well.

“For our first few weeks, we were encouraged not just by the number of visitors but the wide demographics,” says Knishinsky, an Israeli émigré who has developed shopping centers, office buildings and apartment complexes during his 30-year-plus career.

“We’ve had a fantastic opening reception. People have loved it,” says Pollack, CFO for Odysea in the Desert. A Connecticut native and graduate of City College, NY, he is the former president of the Jewish Community Center in Scottsdale.

Stahl says the group is pleased to have opened its first phase on property owned by the Native American community, where land is valued as sacred. “We are looking ahead to bringing the other components online – such as our world-class restaurants, which will be the centerpiece of the entertainment district.”

After opening the entertainment-centric, 5.5-million-square- foot West Edmonton Mall in Alberta almost 30 years ago, the Montreal native has partnered on development projects with Knishinsky and Pollack for 27 years. “So far, at the Butterfly Pavilion, we’ve seen mothers with strollers, lovers and daters, and senior citizens,” explains Knishinsky, whose retail developments include the Scottsdale Galleria.

One woman invited her family to celebrate her 95th birthday, he notes. Another family brought triplets to celebrate their birthday: “About 190 or so people sang Happy Birthday to them,” he says. One father told me that this was the first time all five of his hildren had smiles on their faces at one place at the same time,” he says. “But that’s what the Butterfly Pavilion and Odysea on the Desert were envisioned to do: to be places where you can be entertained and educated at the same time.”

Carefully choreographed, the experience begins with the 196-seat, 3-D theater showing the 14-minute “Flight of the Butterflies” film and then continues into the Butterfly Emergency Gallery, a chrysalis viewing area. Next is the focal- point Conservatory – a tropical rainforest atrium for enjoyment of and interaction with the butterflies.

Following this is a 360-degree-view Live Ant Colony and Honeybee Extravaganza and the Rivers of the Amazon freshwater aquariums, showcasing fish such as oscars, silver dollars, red fire queens, silver arowanas, eels, piranhas and other exotics, as well as offering a touch tank experience with Salt River stingrays. Guests can also stop in the Butterfly Treasures Gift Store and the Butterfly Café, offering sandwiches, wraps, salads, fruit, hummus, muffins, breads and assorted sweets by Scottsdale’s Vermont Sandwich.

A Place to Metamorphose

Meticulously overseen by Chief Curator Dayna Cooper, the glass-enclosed Conservatory also includes waterfalls, plants and trees and a large koi pond. This is a place to center, to relax, to learn and to be entertained. Having a butterfly land on your shoulder may even change your life.

“We have from 2,000 to 3,000 butterflies flying freely every day, with more than 50 species of butterflies represented,” Knishinsky says. “No time is the same time here. You and your family just walk in and interact with them.”

The management team selects from among the 28,000 species of butterflies in the world, receiving chrysalids from Costa Rica, Malaysia, Ecuador, Thailand and the Philippines. The butterflies also come from throughout North America, which has about 800 species, and Arizona, second only to Texas among the states with 334 species.

So far in The Conservatory, the Blue Morpho is the most popular both because of its brilliant blue color and flashy personality, Knishinsky says. Other colors are represented by the scarlet Mormon, the orange Dryas Julia, the large brown owl butterfly and the deep-burgundy flame border Charaxef from Africa.


Timing and space selection are important. Perhaps the premium viewing spot is the upper east side of the Atrium, offering a great view of the pavilion. “The butterflies love this space because it is warmer, drier and very bright,” explains Knishinsky. Numerous nectar plants are excellent butterfly feeders. The outer perimeter pathways that wind to the koi pond and waterfall are more shaded and intimate areas. Here are also vivid purple-colored plants that the butterflies are attracted to.

The Rainforest Atrium is florally heterogeneous: the buddleja; the pink perennial pentas; plumeria and lantana – both “ice cream to butterflies,” Curator Cooper says; davidii, one of the butterflies’ go-to nectar plants; the chocolate mimosa plant; the orange zinnia and burgundy-leaved cordyline; tropical eucalyptus plants; and kentia palms – the butterflies’ favorite palm tree.

If you want the butterflies to land on you, wear red, yellow or orange clothing because they tend to be attracted to those colors, Knishinsky says. And, while there is no best season to see the butterflies hatch from their cocoons in the Emergency Gallery – they are on a year-round tropical biological clock – the best time, apparently, is 10 am because “butterflies have their own biological clock, and this seems to be the best time for emerging,” he says.

Special events are also scheduled. For example, on Aug. 26, a Life Cycle of a Butterfly Workshop will be hosted by Director of Education Adriane Grimaldi, who will discuss tropical butterflies as well as Arizona varieties such as snouts, swallowtails and monarchs. In September a Fall Color Spectacular will celebrate autumn colors, and December will feature a festive all- white butterfly flying display and all- white flowers.

Follow the Butterfly Road

Egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly: The new attraction has its roots, inspiration and development from the principals, individually and as a group.

For Knishinsky, the love for fauna and flora began in Israel, where he grew up in Ramat Gan, the Tel Aviv suburb. Here is the National Park of Israel and the Ramat Gan Safari, also known as the Zoological Center of Tel Aviv-Ramat Gan, with the largest species collection in the Middle East. His parents had immigrated to Israel in the 1930s when it was Palestine, before the Holocaust took most of their family in Lithuania and Poland. In Israel his father attended Mikveh Israel, an agricultural school he says still exists, and then worked as an agronomist at the new country’s ministry of agriculture.

“He would take me with him to the places such as groves and orchards, where he would check on the plantings,” he recalls. “I would sit and eat fig and apples and fresh fruit. And, in the summer, I was at the beach at Tel Aviv and fished in the Yarkon River nearby.”


After serving three years in the military and playing basketball for the armed forces league – at 6 feet, 4 inches, he jokes he was the tallest Israeli they could find – he completed his MBA at the University of California, Berkeley. Armour Company in Chicago recruited him, moving him to Phoenix to head imports for the Armour Food division. Here he received a PhD from Arizona State University in Tempe.

Financed to set up a development company by a prominent Jewish business family from Melbourne, Australia, he left Armor. “The family’s only condition was that Martin Pollack serve as my controller,” Knishinsky says. As a result, the two have been working on projects for 37 years. “That’s longer than most marriages,” he adds, with a laugh.

About 17 years ago, he and his wife, Anne, were visiting Niagara Falls and they stopped by The Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory. “We discovered things we did not know; it was a unique experience, and it stayed with me,” he says.

Prior to the Butterfly Wonderland, the three men developed the first for-profit aquarium in the United States in Newport, KY, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, and the Odysea Experience at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut.

“Before Newport, aquariums were all funded by wealthy individuals,” Knishinsky says. “Our concept was to look at enterprises like these and see how we can sustain it here without looking to charity and contributions. In the same way, there were few butterfly places with a profit motive. So, we’re putting them together here in the Valley.” Stahl, who developed 22 Canadian shopping centers in his career, has incorporated his leadership at the 100-acre West Edmonton Mall into visioning for the Butterfly Wonderland and Odysea in the Desert.

“The mall was unlike anything before it, with experiential elements such as a roller coaster and dolphins

and submarines, an ice arena for the Edmonton Oilers, led by the great Wayne Gretzky, three McDonald’s, a Bourbon Street re-enactment and a pool that 10,000 people can swim in at the same time. It introduced the entertainment component into the mall experience – and malls have never been the same since,”says Stahl.

In the same spirit, “We’ve all tried to take Butterfly Wonderland to new levels of size and quality,” Knishinsky says. “To create this unique experience for our guests, we’ve put everything you may have seen before on steroids – just not the butterflies!” 




David M. Brown (azwriter.com) is a Valley-based freelancer.