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Navy Pier is not the center of Chicago. Not yet.

With the heart and enthusiasm of an oversized teddy bear, it is a gigantic amusement park, tour boat launch and gathering spot.

It's the place for getting sunburned and overstimulated.

Snobs may scoff, preferring Chicago's culturally complex neighborhoods, elegant city parks, museums and the L rumbling overhead.

"I can't imagine why you would want to waste a single second at Navy Pier," grumbled one reviewer on the consumer travel site TripAdvisor in June.

Yet Navy Pier is the most popular tourist attraction in Illinois. Open since 1995, the complex covers 50 acres on a giant Lake Michigan pier.

It attracts more than 8 million people annually.

And it is getting to be more than just a collection of light diversions.

This month, Navy Pier has a new exhibit on the life of Nikola Tesla. No, he's not a dolt on a bar stool at the new Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville. He was the Serbian-American physicist who invented alternating electric current. Science!

Navy Pier also has Tiffany glass. After slurping a giant sno-cone outside, slip in the door to examine a masterwork at the free Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows. Culture!

Yes, Navy Pier has Bubba Gump Shrimp and McDonald's in the slightly dated Family Pavilion. But there's also the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and oh, those amazing views of the Chicago skyline. Food for the soul!

Since it opened 16 years ago, Navy Pier has changed little. Now things are shifting.

The Pierscape project, announced June 30 by new nonprofit operator Navy Pier, aims to expand the Chicago Children's Museum and the Shakespeare Theater. The plan also calls for a boutique hotel on the east end of the pier and for improved traffic patterns, upgraded facilities and better use of public spaces. Not counting private projects, Pierscape will cost $155 million.

The idea is to get more year-round use and more adult use.

Last year, an Urban Land Institute study recommended one other cool change -- replace the 15-story Ferris wheel with an even bigger wheel like the London Eye. So far, that is not part of the plan.

Visit Navy Pier on a summer Sunday afternoon, and you'll see tourists, yes, but locals, too. In summer, 32 percent of visitors to Navy Pier are from out of state, mostly Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan, according to Urban Land Institute data. Most visitors spend an average of more than three hours on the pier.

Three hours? You can't see it all. Navy Pier has 11 tour and dining boats, an IMAX theater, outdoor concert venues, beer garden, children's museum, the Ferris wheel, carousel, stained glass museum, exhibition space, dozens of restaurants, shopping, arcade vendors, a funhouse maze and a Wave Swinger ride. Let me catch my breath.

Walk all the way to the end of the pier -- a spot that many families never even reach -- and see the best view of all, the broad expanse of Lake Michigan, three lighthouses and a parade of boats.

Near a railing, I see a couple all dressed up, there for a wedding. They are trying to take a photograph of themselves in their finery, to remember their special day at Navy Pier.

"Here," I say, taking the camera. "Let me."

> If you go:

Navy Pier is at 600 Grand Ave. at the lakefront in Chicago; open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays and from 10 a.m. to midnight weekends. From Sept. 6-Oct. 31, Navy Pier is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekends. Call for winter hours.

Getting there: Parking deck fills up quickly in summer; rates are $20 weekdays and $24 weekends. Pedestrians can hop a free trolley that runs between Navy Pier and State Street along Grand and Illinois streets. City buses stopping at Navy Pier are 29, 65, 66 and 124.

No hotel on site, but Navy Pier's official partner hotel is Affinia Chicago, 166 E. Superior. www.affinia.com/navypier, (312) 787-6000.

I also like the Hampton Inn at 33 W. Illinois (www.hamptoninn.com, 312-832-0330) because the free seasonal trolley to Navy Pier stops at the corner.

For more information: Call (312) 595-7437 or visit www.navypier.com.