My kids have always had eclectic tastes. They’ve been into dinosaurs, causing me to know the name and facts about every known and possibly unknown dinosaur, penguins and sharks. Little did I know I could find them all in one place; Ripley’s Aquarium in the Smokies, located in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. We arrived early of a Saturday morning and found a place to park at the lot next door. From there it was only a hop, skip and a jump over to the aquarium and we were soon indoors and ready to see the fish. Travel Hint: There is no free parking in the area, but you can ride the free trolley almost up to the door.
When we stepped inside the first exhibit was the piranha tank. The fish were packed and sitting motionless. We joked that it looked like the traffic coming into Gatlinburg. The aquarium is divided into eleven sections, beginning with the Tropical Rain Forest. Kids will get a kick out of the Discovery Center, where they can engage in hands on interactive activities. Along the way, kids (and adults!) can touch hermit crabs and stingrays. We stopped in the Ocean Realm to watch a diver swimming among the fish, feeding them and performing underwater tricks. Our favorite exhibit was the Gallery of the Seas, which included my favorite fish, the beautiful but deadly Scorpion Fish. In this exhibit guests step onto a moving sidewalk and move slowly through an underwater tunnel, surrounding on both sides and overhead by seas creatures, like giant sharks, swimming overhead. There was plenty of time to snap photos and gawk at the size and beauty of these creatures as we moved leisurely along.
One exhibit I hadn’t expected to see was the Dinosaurs, a room that held the attention of large groups of children with the movable mechanical dinosaurs and an actual fossil of a triceratops horn found in the Western US. There’s plenty of interactive fun for the kids too. They can use iPads filled with facts, puzzles and games, dig for dinosaur bones, and take part in a scavenger hunt. I heard one harried mom tell her husband, “We’ll never get the kids out of this room!”
Our tour drew toward a close when we reached the Penguin Playhouse, an indoor and outdoor exhibit that had these adorable creatures swimming right up to us for an eye to eye view. Each penguin has a little tag on its leg with its name so kids will be able to greet them. For younger kids there are tunnels they can crawl through and be face to face with the penguins. Ripley’s Aquarium has tickets available for purchase online for anyone wanting to bypass the ticket lines. They also have a monthly homeschool program and offer a special rate for homeschoolers and group discounts.