Every year, millions of us come face-to-face with stingrays, squid, and sharks—and we do it without ever leaving dry land. Aquariums are much more than just oversized fish tanks, offering a wonderful opportunity for us to discover an underwater world and view aquatic creatures up close. It’s not surprising that the best aquariums also tend to be the most kid-friendly, providing a fun environment that fosters discovery through hands-on exhibits to spark interest and kindle a life-long appreciation for conservation. Here are seven of America’s best aquariums for families:
Georgia Aquarium: Atlanta
With over 8.5 million gallons of water, eight different habitats and 120,000 resident creatures, the world’s largest aquarium conjures up plenty of superlatives. Here’s another: It’s the only aquarium outside of Asia to house the whale shark—the world’s largest living fish. (For an additional charge, adventure hounds can even swim with these gentle giants.) Kids love the crawl-through tunnels, supervised touch pools, and peek-a-boo penguin-viewing windows. There’s even a fish-shooting camera that little hands can control with a joy stick. And if all that just leaves your Cousteau wannabe asking for more? You may just have to come back for a sleepover in the whale shark exhibit.
John G. Shedd Aquarium: Chicago
The Shedd’s original 1930 octagonal marble building is an impressive piece of Beaux-Arts architecture, but it’s the three-level Oceanarium (added in 1991) that really sets this aquarium apart. Here in the recreated Pacific Northwest habitat, beluga whales flip their flukes, Pacific white-sided dolphins jump in the air, and sea otters and California sea lions charm the crowd. Another distinguishing feature is an infinity pool that blends into the Lake Michigan horizon; watching marine mammal shows in this amphitheater transports you far from the hustle and bustle of the Chicago metropolis.
Audubon Aquarium of the Americas: New Orleans
Faithful to its Southern roots, this A-list attraction in NOLA showcases aquatic life of the Mighty Mississippi, Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, and beyond. Big wow moments include walking through the Caribbean Reef inside a clear 30-foot tunnel, getting windblown inside a hurricane simulator, and stroking velvety stingrays in a touch pool. Dads can enjoy some male bonding in the Seahorse Gallery–did you know that seahorses and sea dragons are the only males that give birth to live young? New for 2013: The Backstage Penguin Pass, which lets you meet African penguins in a small-group setting for an additional charge.
Monterey Bay Aquarium: Monterey
Located on historic Cannery Row, this beloved aquarium is consistently rated among the most family-friendly in the country. It boasts one of the largest jellyfish collections in the world, a three-story kelp forest, and an “Open Sea” area with hammerhead sharks. The incorrigibly cute sea otters have newly-renovated, two-story home, where you can catch daily public feedings and training sessions. And just for the 8-and-under set, the 7,000-square-foot Splash Zone lets kids crawl through tunnels surrounded by tropical-fish tanks and play with interactive toys to learn about sea life. Still want more? Consider enhancing your visit with surface SCUBA or a family sleepover.
National Aquarium: Baltimore
This stellar aquarium in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is renowned for immersive habitats that make you feel like you’ve stepped into another continent. In the award-winning Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes, for example, you’re plunked into an Australian river gorge along with freshwater crocodiles, turtles, lizards, free-flying birds, and flying foxes. Plan to spend a few hours in Dolphin Discovery, where you can watch a dolphin show and learn to communicate with the playful mammals using hand signals. For an extra charge, you can even have a private dolphin tour or attend a sleepover in the shark-viewing area.
New England Aquarium: Boston
With a winning location along Boston’s waterfront, over 600 different species of sea creatures, and a swanky IMAX theater, this aquarium keeps getting better. In 2013, look for the unveiling of the rebuilt Giant Ocean Tank exhibit—showing off a revitalized coral reef, myriad new species, and a giant reflective ceiling dome. Your kids will love following the penguin path, where they can get passport stamps at interactive stations that teach fun lessons about sea life. Should you visit between April and November, don’t miss the fantastic whale-watching cruise that travels 25 miles east to the Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary, America’s only whale sanctuary. The cruise leaves from the docks just outside the museum.
SeaWorld: Orlando, San Diego, San Antonio
Is it a theme park, water park, or aquarium? Yes to all three. With locations in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio, SeaWorld somehow manages to combine thrill rides and splashy fun with marine biology. Besides conventional aquarium viewing, all three SeaWorld parks offer touch-and-feed dolphin pools and the Penguin Encounter, a moving sidewalk that glides past hundreds of the tuxedoed birds. Staying true to its mission to educate, SeaWorld is known for animal specialists who walk around the parks and introduce different creatures to guests. Be sure to schedule in at least one of the exceptional live shows, which star dolphins, killer whales, sea lions, and walruses.
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Dave Parfitt is a Rochester, N.Y.-based travel writer. He is the founder of Adventures by Daddy, a digital database offering family-friendly travel advice from a father’s point of view.