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Ever notice how a child's face lights up when you visit an aquarium? Watching all the colorful sea creatures swimming around in larger-than-life tanks can seem pretty magical, especially to young kids. But there's more to a great exhibit than just fish. "Research shows that hands-on features -- like opportunities to touch marine life -- sustain interest, spark learning, and create a fun visit for the whole family," says Angela V. Graziano, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
With this in mind, we scoured the country to find aquariums where kids don't just look at cool things -- they get to take part. Our 41-question survey evaluated the number, creativity, and educational aspect of each aquarium's interactive features. We also graded the aquariums on the quality and kid-friendliness of their exhibits, services (like changing stations), staff and educators, special programs for groups and families, and conservation efforts. Along with our panel of experts, we narrowed it down to our top 10 favorites.
#1 Monterey Bay Aquarium
Location: Monterey, California
Packed inside this sardine-cannery-like building on the California coast are almost 200 exhibits featuring more than 35,000 animals and plants -- as well as the biggest collection of flip books, slide-up panels, light-up buttons, and other touchable, kid-friendly features of all the aquariums on our list. Even the signs here are interactive: They're written with rhyme and rhythm to make them more fun for older kids to read aloud. The result is a place designed to keep your child's attention from start to finish.
Standout Feature: Splash Zone, a 7,000-square-foot area with more than 30 hands-on features created for children under age 9. Kids can crawl through a tunnel filled with tropical-fish displays, pull a plush stuffed moray eel out of its den to measure it, and use squirt toys to learn how animals resist crashing waves.
Interactive Elements: Underwater video cameras that let children steer through tide pools and wetlands; a mirror that allows kids to see themselves as hairy-nosed otters; four touch pools packed with sea life; arts and crafts projects including crayon rubbings and scrapbooks; whale flippers and other costumes; and mini microscopes for viewing specimens.
Group Programs: An Aquarium Detectives class that allows 3- to 9-year-olds to feed the fish before the facility opens to the public; Discovery Lab school programs for all grade levels (they meet the state's science standards); and penguin and sea-otter-feeding shows several times daily.
Cost: Adults, $25; kids 3 to 12, $16; teens 13 and up, $23; and free for kids under 3 (mbayaq.org).
#2 Georgia Aquarium
Location: Atlanta, Georgia
What do more than 8 million gallons of water and several different habitats get you? The world's largest aquarium, of course! Across from Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta, the 550,000-square-foot complex boasts an unparalleled display of sea life, two gift shops, a food court, and -- attention, PTA moms! -- a school program (the Learning Loop) that attracted nearly 55,000 children last year.
Standout Feature: Ocean Voyager, the biggest exhibit in the aquarium, features more than 60,000 animals, including the only whale sharks in the U.S. Families can view the animals in a 100-foot-long tunnel that surrounds visitors with water on three sides and features a floor-to-ceiling window, and for a more focused look, numerous smaller lower-level windows. A touch-screen wall allows kids to press a digital fish as it swims by and to learn fun facts about all of the sea creatures in the exhibit.
Interactive Elements: Several supervised touch pools, including ones in which kids can feel bonnethead sharks, rays, and sea urchins; crawl-through tunnels; pop-up windows that give kids a close-up view of penguins and piranhas; joy sticks to control a camera that displays close-up shots of animals; and a playground with a rubber floor, crawl tubes, and a whale slide.
Group Programs: Behind-the-scenes tours for families; Camp H2O, a weeklong summer day camp for kids ages 5 to 14; and a state-of-the-art 4-D theater.
Cost: Adults, $24; kids 3 to 12, $18; and free for kids under 3 (georgiaaquarium.org).
#3 John G. Shedd Aquarium
Location: Chicago, Illinois
The building -- an architectural masterpiece, with fossils embedded in its Beaux Arts-style central rotunda -- features elaborate re-creations of global habitats. The Amazon flood plain includes thatched tribal houses and squawking birds. And the Wild Reef exhibit gives families the feeling of being underwater: There are more than 20 sharks swimming in a tank above them, while stingrays are gliding in a pool below their feet.
Standout Feature: Unforgettable marine mammal presentations -- dolphins leaping in the air, beluga whales waving their flukes -- in the three-level Oceanarium.
Interactive Elements: Activity center where kids can try on costumes and play with puppets; new Jelly 3 puppet show; tide touch pool; 4-D theater; a Build a Shark game; and animal encounters where kids can touch shark eggs on certain days.
Group Programs: Programs for school kids that bring to light the science behind whales; presentations by underwater divers and a special alcove where kids can meet them; story-based programs, called Tots on Tuesdays, for the preschool set; and Spooky Seas, an annual Halloween celebration for the family.
Cost: Adults, $25; kids 3 to 11, $18; and free for kids under 3 (sheddaquarium.org).
#4 New England Aquarium
Location: Boston, Massachusetts
Situated on Central Wharf, along Boston's historic waterfront, the 38-year-old aquarium recently added large, huggable sculptures of penguins and loggerhead turtles. While the aquarium is jam-packed with more than 20,000 animals from 600 species, it also offers a fabulous off-site trip: a cruise 25 miles east to America's only whale-feeding sanctuary from April to October.
Standout Feature: Family Day on the first and third Monday of every month. Educators read stories, host art projects, and allow children to touch all kinds of creatures in the Curious George Discovery Corner.
Interactive Elements: A penguin path in which kids can stamp a passport at eight stations, including Hear a Penguin (push a button to sound four mating calls); tide-pool touch tank; and spinning discs that allow kids to change the color of a tank full of sea jellies.
Group Programs: Seal-training presentations; tours of the aquarium's medical center (ages 5 and up); and scavenger hunts, activity cards, and penguin bingo for children on field trips.
Cost: Adults, $18; kids 3 to 11, $10; and free for kids under 3 (neaq.org).
#5 The Florida Aquarium
Location: Tampa Bay, Florida
Kids will want to head straight for the aquarium's Explore a Shore, an outdoor water park featuring a 24-foot pirate ship with water cannons, a wave tunnel, and a moray-eel balance beam. But the real fun is inside this 200,000-square-foot attraction. It features more than 20,000 aquatic plants and animals, ranging from rare leafy sea dragons from Australia to gators from Florida's backyard.
Standout Feature: The Coral Reef Gallery, modeled after the coral formations along the Florida Keys, that includes a walk-through tunnel descending into an underwater coral cave filled with soldierfish, scorpion-fish, and more.
Interactive Elements: Daily opportunities for kids to touch and get their photo taken with juvenile alligators; a climb-on mermaid sculpture; a computer screen that allows kids to design their own aquarium; and an improved touch tank stocked with pettable rays and bamboo sharks.
Group Programs: The penguin promenade in the lobby to give kids the chance to come face-to-face with these popular birds; hands-on Aquatots program (ages 3 to 4); eco-tours of Tampa Bay aboard a catamaran.
Cost: Adults, $18; kids 3 to 11, $13; and free for kids under 3 (flaquarium.org).
#6 Aquarium of the Pacific
Location: Long Beach, California
Located in downtown Long Beach, the aquarium celebrates the great body of water just beyond its doors and all the creatures that make it their home. And what's more quintessentially Pacific than sharks? The aquarium's state-of-the-art Shark Lagoon features more than 200, including the West Coast's only bull shark. Kids can touch gentler varieties such as the zebra, epaulette, and bamboo sharks. And the lagoon is surrounded by play areas with a water-squirting squid and an air dryer shaped like a shark.
Standout Feature: Seal and Sea Lion Encounter, a behind-the-scenes tour with a marine biologist. Guests have the opportunity to prepare food and then feed it to the seals.
Interactive Elements: A free passport book that kids can stamp as they explore the aquarium; the Marine Life Theater, where interactive kids' programs take place daily; Lorikeet Forest Aviary, where a colorful bird or two might use guests as a landing pad; sand-castle-building contests during the summer; and several touch pools.
Group Programs: Saturday Family Fun classes for a parent and child (ages 4 to 6); daily hula performances at the Blue Cavern; and whale-watching cruises.
Cost: Adults, $21; kids 3 to 11, $12; and free for kids under 3 (aquariumofpacific.org).
#7 Atlantis Marine World
Location: Riverhead, New York
Home to the largest all-living coral reef display in the Western Hemisphere, the aquarium's exhibits are inspired by the famous mythical island Atlantis. Two of the most popular are the Lost City of Atlantis Shark Exhibit (stingrays, sand tiger sharks, nurse sharks, moray eels, and a 300-pound loggerhead turtle swim in a 120,000-gallon tank) and the Amazon Rain Forest, a collection of pacu, stingrays, and other creatures rescued from owners who could no longer take care of them.
Standout Feature: An outdoor re-creation of a salt marsh that houses horseshoe crabs, spider crabs, whelks, and marsh fish. Guests can slip off their shoes and hop right in.
Interactive Elements: Two large Ray Bays where guests can feed southern stingrays, cownose rays, and bamboo sharks; Unearthing Atlantis, an archaeological dig site; plus, kids get a kiss from a seal and a photo of the smooch for an extra $15.
Group Programs: Field trips aboard the aquarium's "floating classroom" tour boat; sea-lion shows; stories, crafts, and a variety of hands-on children's programs throughout the year; and the Trainer for a Day program for kids ages 10 and up.
Cost: Adults, $19; kids 3 to 11, $16; and free for kids under 3 (atlantismarineworld.com).
#8 Oregon Coast Aquarium
Location: Newport, Oregon
Large portions of the 34-acre aquarium on Yaquina Bay are actually outdoors and surrounded by native woodland, including a quarter-mile nature trail for bird-watching, a butterfly garden, and an off-the-beaten-path outdoor children's play area with large sculptures of sea mammals. There's even a wave-crash exhibit outside, which sends 1,200 gallons of water every 45 seconds into a series of shallow pools that are filled with loads of interesting invertebrates.
Standout Feature: Passages of the Deep, an exhibit that runs the length of a 200-foot underwater tunnel and features 3,500 sea creatures in three large ocean habitats.
Interactive Elements: Ocean Exploration Station, where kids can look at a variety of creatures through a microscope; a dress-up area; touch carts with skulls, pelts, feathers, and eggs; squid dissection; Dance Like a Crustacean interactive mat; and a touch pool with sea cucumbers, purple shore crabs, limpets, and more.
Group Programs: Educator-led kayak tours to local estuaries at certain times of the year; 25 hands-on school lab programs for kids from age 4 to eighth grade, including What's for Lunch? where children will learn what sea creatures eat.
Cost: Adults, $13; kids 3 to 12, $7.75; and free for kids under 3 (aquarium.org).
Location: Orlando/San Antonio/San Diego
Amusement parks and aquariums all rolled into one, the three SeaWorld sites mix rides with marine biology. This means your kids will learn a thing or two without even noticing (or protesting). While the trio of SeaWorlds offers similar attractions, such as a touch-and-feed pool for bottlenose dolphins, the programs vary by park.
Standout Feature: Penguin Encounter, a moving walkway at all three parks that gives great views of hundreds of the birds.
Interactive Elements: A water park with a wave pool and the Lil' Gators Lagoon for small children in San Antonio; a chance for kids to march with flamingos in San Diego and Orlando; lots of touch pools; animal specialists walking around with different creatures throughout the parks.
Group Programs: A number of thrilling shows with dolphins, killer whales, sea lions, and walruses; lots of family and kid-only sleepovers.
Cost: Adults, $44 to $65; kids 3 to 9, $35 to $54; and free for kids under 3 (seaworld.com).
#10 National Aquarium
Location: Baltimore, Maryland
Walking into certain parts of the aquarium is almost like stepping onto another continent. Two exhibits, Amazon Rain Forest and the Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes, are floor-to-ceiling re-creations of natural environments. In these open areas, you may cross paths -- literally -- with free-roaming lizards, iguanas, water dragons, and sloths.
Standout Feature: Dolphin shows in which guests learn hand signals for speaking to dolphins and use them to pick tricks.
Interactive Elements: Discovery Carts stocked with puzzles, games, and activities; cutouts that let kids compare their size to the size of sharks; the touch tanks at Discovery Cove; and Weird Animals, which features unfamiliar critters.
Group Programs: Monthly shark sleepovers for kids ages 4 and up and their parents; daily fish feedings; a behind-the-scenes dolphin tour; and a family eco-bike trek.
Cost: Adults, $22; kids 3 to 11, $13; and free under 3 (aqua.org).
How They Learn
Most aquariums have special programs for kids of all ages. But your child can also learn lots from just a simple visit, says Joy Wolf, education director at SeaWorld San Diego. Here's how.
Infants: All the bright colors and movement at an aquarium will help with your baby's cognitive development. Watching fish of different sizes and shapes swim around will spark her imagination, and she will start to understand a little bit about what they are and how they move.
Toddlers: An aquarium is a great place to work on your toddler's budding vocabulary. Use basic words, like "bird" and "fish," and then add colors, numbers, or sizes to describe it (bluebird). The next time you read One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, by Dr. Seuss, your child will be able to draw from the real-life experience, which will help make the words stick.
Preschoolers: Instead of saying "big fish," use the correct term, "whale," for kids ages 3 to 5. The trip can also reinforce some of your child's skills, such as counting. It's a good time to introduce comparison and contrast. You can ask questions like: "Does the dolphin have flippers or hands?" and "Are your eyes on the side of your head like that fish's are?"
School-age kids: Kids from 6 to 8 years old learn best through hands-on activities. And the interactive exhibits, like touch tanks, will help them use their senses to explore. Your child can get bigger words, such as "mammal," "predator," and "prey," out of a visit and learn which animals fit into these categories.
Big kids: An aquarium gives kids ages 8 and up the chance to observe and investigate some of the concepts they're learning in school, such as ecosystems and food chains. They're also ready to learn about their own environment, and the trip will help them to understand their place in it and how all things are connected.
Copyright 2007. Reprinted with permission from the August 2007 issue of Parents magazine.