ALBANY, Ga. -- The first thing an 8-year-old boy on a visit to relatives wanted to do when he woke up Saturday morning was go to the Flint RiverQuarium.
Diego Berrone's wish brought him a lifetime RiverQuarium membership, a basket of gifts from the attraction's gift shop and an up-close and personal meeting with Oscar, a resident alligator.
Berrone's first-time visit coincided with the attraction's count to a half-million visitors since it opened in 2004 and garnered him the prizes and the fun.
"He really likes to visit aquariums wherever we go," said Michelle Berrone, Diego's mother. "This is so exciting for us, we never win anything."
The Berrones, including dad Rick, flew into Atlanta on Friday after leaving their home in Middleton, Pa., to visit Diego's aunt, Lucia Kolasinski, and her husband, Jim. It was also Diego's first visit to the Kolasinski home.
"He was looking out at the water in the golf course behind our house this morning," Lucia Kolasinski said. "He was looking to see alligators."
That could explain why Oscar, a three-foot-long alligator, held so much of Diego's attention while Scott Loehr, CEO of the attraction, presented Diego and his family with the gift basket and a certificate proclaiming Diego the half-millionth visitor.
Diego played along, posed for pictures with the certificate and submitted to interviews, but it was easy to see he really enjoyed petting Oscar the most.
Oscar is one of the more than 1,000 animals that call the RiverQuarium home. With promotions such as summer camps, canoe trips, a new Wings & Wildlife Festival, Tadpole Time children's programming and others visits to the RiverQuarium have taken an upswing.
"People are growing weary of the recession and are searching for things to do closer to home, more of a 'staycation' than a vacation," Lehr said. "By our offering folks a variety of family-friendly activities, more Southwest Georgians are choosing to visit the Flint RiverQuarium."
The Berrone family just might make more stops to Albany now that they have a free family membership to the RiverQuarium.
"It does make another reason for us to visit," said Rick Berrone. "My son really likes to visit aquariums and this (free) membership adds to the attraction."