The 9 Best Aquariums to Visit in the U.S.

The 10 Best Aquariums and Aquariums for Kids in the U.S.

An exclusive survey of parents surveyed more than 60 aquariums across the country to find the most appropriate ones for families.

Our method of evaluation

Have you ever noticed how your child’s face “lights up” when you visit an aquarium? Watching all the colorful sea creatures swimming in large aquariums can seem pretty magical, especially for young children. But there’s more to it than just fish. “Research shows that hands-on opportunities – like being able to touch marine life – keep things interesting, provide opportunities to learn and create an interesting pastime for the whole family,” says Angela V. Graziano of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

With that in mind, we went looking for aquariums where kids aren’t just looking at interesting fish, but they’re also participating. Our survey consisted of 41 questions that evaluated the number of aquariums, the creativity, and the educational aspect of each aquarium’s interactive features. We also evaluated the aquariums on the quality and child friendliness of their exhibits, services, staff and educators, special programs for groups and families, and fish-friendly environment efforts. Along with our panel of experts, we narrowed it down to our top 10 favorites.

Place 1: Monterey Bay Aquarium – Monterey Bay Aquarium

Location:

Inside this building, which looks like a sardine cannery on the California coast, there are nearly 200 exhibits featuring more than 35,000 animals and plants, as well as the largest collection of flip books, slide boards, illuminated buttons and other sensory elements. Even the signs here are interactive: they are written with a rhythm to make them more fun to read aloud. This is a place designed to keep your child’s attention from start to finish.

Outstanding Feature:

The Splash Zone, a 7,000-square-foot space with more than 30 hands-on features designed for children up to age 9. Kids can crawl through a tunnel filled with displays of tropical fish, pull a plush stuffed moray eel out of its Lodge.

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Interactive elements:

Underwater video cameras that let kids swim through pools and wetlands; a mirror that lets kids see themselves as hairy otters; four sensory pools filled with marine life; arts and crafts projects, including crayons and notes; whale fins and other costumes; and mini-microscopes to view specimens.

Group programs:

  • An aquarium detective class that allows children ages 3 to 9 to feed the fish before the facility is opened to the public;
  • Discovery Lab school programs for all grades (meets state science standards);
  • Feeding penguins and sea otters several times a day.

Cost:

Adults $25; children ages 3 to 12, $16; teens 13 and up, $23; and free for children under 3 (mbayaq.org).

Location 2: Georgia Aquarium – Georgia Aquarium.

Location:

What gives you more than 8 million gallons of water and several different habitats? Of course, the world’s largest aquarium! In contrast to the century-old Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta, the 550,000-square-foot complex boasts an unrivaled display of marine life, two gift stores, a restaurant patio and – attention PTA moms! – school program (learning cycle), which attracted nearly 55,000 kids last year.

Outstanding Feature:

Ocean Voyager, the largest aquarium exhibit, features more than 60,000 animals, including the only whale sharks in the United States. Families can watch the animals in a 100-foot-long tunnel that surrounds visitors on three sides with water. Floor-to-ceiling windows and numerous small lower-level windows for a more focused view. A touch-screen wall allows children to click on digital fish as they swim and learn fun facts about all the sea creatures on display.

Interactive elements:

Several controlled pools, including ones in which kids can feel sharks, sea urchins; see-through tunnels; pop-ups that give kids an idea of penguins and piranhas; joysticks to control the camera, which shows close-up shots of animals; and a playground with a rubber floor, crawl tubes and a whale slide.

Group programs:

  • Backstage tours for families;
  • Camp H2O, a week-long summer day camp for children ages 5 to 14; and a state-of-the-art 4-D theater.
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Cost:

Adults, $24; children ages 3 to 12, $18; and free for children under 3 (georgiaaquarium.org).

Location 3: John G. Shedd Aquarium – John G. Shedd Aquarium

Location:

Chicago, Illinois The building is an architectural masterpiece, with fossils embedded in its central, boz-art-style rotunda, and features elaborate recreations of global habitats. The Amazon floodplain includes thatched tribal houses and howling birds. And the Wild Reef exhibit gives families the feeling of being underwater, with more than 20 sharks swimming above them in the aquarium and stingrays slithering in the pool beneath their feet. Outstanding feature: unforgettable presentations of marine mammals – dolphins jumping in the air, beluga whales – in the three-tiered Oceanarium.

Interactive elements:

  • A play center where children can try on costumes and play with puppets.
  • The new Jelly 3 puppet theater.
  • Tidal pool.
  • 4D Theater.
  • The “Build a Shark” game.
  • Animal encounters where kids can touch shark eggs on certain days.

Group programs:

  • Programs for school children that highlight the science of whales;
  • Underwater diver presentations and a special alcove where kids can meet them;
  • story programs, called Tots Tuesdays, for the preschool set;
  • and Spooky Seas, an annual Halloween celebration for families.

Cost:

Adults $25; children ages 3 to 11, $18; and free for children under 3 (sheddaquarium.org).

Location 4: New England Aquarium – New England Aquarium.

Location:

Boston, MA.

Located on the downtown pier, along Boston’s historic waterfront, the 38-year-old aquarium recently added huge, huggable sculptures of penguins and turtles. While the aquarium is filled with more than 20,000 animals from 600 species, it also offers an incredible off-site trip: a cruise 25 miles east to America’s only whale-feeding sanctuary from April through October.

Feature:

Family Day on the first and third Monday of each month. Teachers read stories, do art projects and let kids touch all sorts of creatures in Curious George Discovery Corner.

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Interactive elements:

The Penguin Trail, where kids can mark a passport at eight stations, including “Hear the Penguin” (press a button to sound four connected calls); a tide pool sensory tank; and spinning discs that let kids change the color of a tank filled with sea jelly.

Group programs:

  • Seal training sessions, presentations;
  • Aquarium medical center tours (ages 5 and up);
  • dolphin world.

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Cost:

Adults, $18; children 3 to 11, $10; and free for children under 3

Location 5: Florida Aquarium – The Florida Aquarium.

Location:

Tampa Bay, Fla.

Kids will want to go straight to the Explore the Shore Aquarium, an outdoor water park with a 24-foot pirate ship with water cannons, a wave tunnel and a moray balancer. Real fun and an unforgettable experience for kids and adults in this 200,000-square-foot attraction. There are more than 20,000 aquatic plants and animals, from rare leafy sea dragons from Australia, to alligators from Florida’s backyard.

Distinctive feature:

A coral reef gallery modeled after the coral formations along the Florida Keys, which includes a through tunnel that descends into an underwater coral cave filled with soldier fish, scorpionfish and more.

Interactive elements:

  • Daily opportunities for kids to touch and take pictures with young alligators;
  • climb on a mermaid sculpture;
  • play with a computer screen that allows children to create their own aquarium;
  • and an improved touch tank with miniature rays and bamboo sharks.

Group programs:

  • A penguin walk in the lobby to give kids a chance to meet these popular birds face-to-face;
  • Aquatots hands-on program (ages 3 to 4);
  • Tampa Bay eco-tours by catamaran.

Cost:

Adults, $18; children 3 to 11, $13; and free for children under 3

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