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Our History

The Center's history began in the early 1960s with the formation of a local chapter of the Junior Welfare League which was a group of active young women supporting public service projects. The Junior Welfare League voted to establish a museum as a long term project. Initially, the group decided to undertake a highly visible suitcase museum that would travel from school to school as a way to enhance fundraising. The Junior League completed a study and decided that there was a need for a natural history museum and planetarium. The League had several haunted-house fundraising events in the late 1960s and the Junior Museum and Planetarium of Lee County was incorporated on June 18, 1970. In conjunction with the Junior League efforts, there was a movement by the Superintendent of Lee County Schools and the Calusa Nature Center & Planetarium Benchmark Study FGCU/RERI Page 2 Environmental Education program to establish a site for environmental and science education in the county. The momentum of both of the groups resulted in this force to create the Center. In 1972, the City of Fort Myers granted a lease of 105 acres of the city's well field to the Junior Museum and Planetarium of Lee County. Plans and funds for the Center were raised over the next five years and the first building was completed in 1977. The Iona House, a former 1,200 square foot church building, was donated to the Center during the late 1970s and moved to the current Center site. The Center worked to build membership through a variety of events and offering wildlife art prints as an incentive to join.


In 1980 the Center's Board faced a financial crisis and would have had to shut down if additional funding were not obtained. The haunted walk project was successful in providing the funds to keep the Center open. Additional fund-raising events were established including a Valentine's Day Party, Ground Hog Day, and Spring Fling. The Center developed a volunteer program and manual and were able to get volunteer veterinarians. The Audubon Aviary was completed in the early 1980s. An educational facilities grant was awarded in 1982 to construct the second phase of the museum building and planetarium. The overall museum has about 2,100 square feet of exhibit space and offices. The nature trails were improved and the planetarium opened in 1986. In 1989, a cement-lined pond was constructed between the museum and planetarium to house the alligator exhibit. In 1993, the Center's name was changed to Calusa Nature Center & Planetarium.


A butterfly aviary and native plant nursery were added in 2003. The haunted walk event was eliminated in 2004 but was revived several years later as a major Calusa Nature Center & Planetarium Benchmark Study FGCU/RERI Page 3 fundraising event. Many of the existing exhibits were refurbished and new ones added, including a manatee exhibit and several large saltwater aquariums. A 1,000 gallon Estuary Touch Tank was added in 2008 and a new full-dome projection system, MediaGlobe, was added to the 90-seat planetarium in 2010.


The Center was considering a major expansion and renewal in 2004 and hired BIOS, Inc., to create a world-class design. The exhibit concept was to follow the flow of water through the habitats of the entire Caloosahatchee River Watershed. The plan included exhibits, galleries, and immersion habitats for pine flatwoods, dry prairie, cypress swamp, hardwood hammock, freshwater marsh, bayhead, saltwater marsh, mangrove, grass flats/bay, and barrier islands. The overall capital costs were estimated at $22 million with annual operating costs of $3.5 million per year. An initial construction phase was to designed to renovate the planetarium, create a welcome center, a freshwater marsh gallery and immersion habitat, and infrastructure improvements. The plan was never implemented, stalled by the Great Recession, COVID, and competition priorities.


However, the best is yet to come.....

For the history of our Planetarium, click here!

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