Founder of Home Depot Bernie Marcus and his wife Billi added depth to the phrase, “improving home improvement” when they gave $250 million to help create the Georgia Aquarium in 2005. Now, animals that would have perished in the wild live alongside others born in human care in a magnificent home in the heart of Atlanta, Georgia.
We had the opportunity to visit the Georgia Aquarium after we met John Walker, an event planner there, on a cruise in January. When we told him we’d be driving through Atlanta on our way back home from the cruise, he invited us to stop and see the aquarium, telling us it was the largest in the world.
Note: While our admission to the aquarium was complimentary, the opinions expressed and memories of massive yet graceful sea creatures are our own.
We entered thinking this would be a nice diversion on an otherwise “meh” drive home. We’ve been to aquariums, and like them, but thought it would be like other places we’d already been. Two minutes after walking through the doors, however, we realized we were dead wrong. We found the Georgia Aquarium to be a very special place that’s unlike any other aquarium we’ve ever seen. We felt lucky to have John as a guide, but recognize that not everyone will have that. So we put together this list of tips for your visit to the aquarium.
Plan ahead for your trip to the Georgia Aquarium
As you can imagine, lots of folks want to visit the world’s largest aquarium. In fact, Saturdays and Sundays often sell out. Make sure you get to visit the day you want by purchasing tickets in advance on the Aquarium’s website. In addition to admission tickets, you can also reserve your spot for other special experiences like an encounter with beluga whales or the “Behind the Seas” tour that will take you behind the closed doors and show you how everything works.
Swim with whale sharks and manta rays
Did you know that you can swim with whale sharks and manta rays? The Georgia Aquarium has a six million gallon tank, making it the only one in the world large enough to have manta rays because they grow to be 15 feet across! And they live side-by-side with whale sharks, the world’s largest non-mammalian vertebrate, which can grow to be 33 feet long. The coolest part? You can hop in and swim with them.
Don’t worry, the folks at the aquarium haven’t gone crazy by letting people swim with 30 foot long sharks. Indeed, it’s perfectly safe. Whale sharks are filter feeders, eating tiny shrimp and plankton. In fact, a whale shark’s esophagus is the size of a quarter. They really have no interest in humans as we’re waaaay too big to eat. They’re just big, gentle giants.
While whale sharks are protected in the United States and Mexico, that isn’t true for the whole world. The whale sharks at the Georgia Aquarium came from Taiwan where they’d been caught in a net. The original plan was to turn them into sushi, but the aquarium stepped in and saved them. By paying the price of what they would have brought as food, the aquarium was able to purchase them. UPS then provided four 747 aircraft to safely transport them in tanks, and they came to the aquarium.
Download the Georgia Aquarium App
After buying tickets, download the Georgia Aquarium app. This interactive app uses technology to bring the exhibits to life. Kids can do a scavenger hunt and see how many different items they can find in a given area of the aquarium. After finding the item, an animation will play with more information on whatever it is that was spotted.
If you don’t have a phone, no worries. Each area has a “Dive Card” which highlights the same things you’d find with the app and provides information, as well. This way, every kid (no matter how old) can participate in the scavenger hunt.
Don’t forget to look up
As you’re walking through the aquarium, be sure to take in all of the surroundings and don’t forget to look up. Often, there are tanks and displays above you that bring a whole new perspective.
Go early to the dolphin and sea lion shows at the Georgia Aquarium
The aquarium offers a high-energy dolphin show as well as a fun, informative sea lion show included with your admission. Check the website for times and then plan to head to those areas a little early. On the weekend, it’s a good idea to go a half hour early, on weekdays ten minutes should be enough. If you do go to the dolphin show, you’ll want to note that the first few rows of seating are in what’s called the “Splash Zone.” If you sit there, you’ll likely get wet.
Also, once the show begins, there is no photography allowed in the dolphin and sea lion show so put your camera away and enjoy.
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Respect accessible areas
The designers of the Georgia Aquarium worked hard to make the entire experience accessible to those with disabilities. Everything is accessible by ramp. In fact, there are special areas at each exhibit for those with disabilities. Be sure to respect those areas and teach your kids to stand aside and let the people for whom they were designed use them.
If you get invited to a special event at the Georgia Aquarium, GO!
Believe it or not, the aquarium has an incredible event space as well. With seating for 1,000 for a sit-down meal and catering provided by Wolfgang Puck, the event will be in a space with huge windows into a six million gallon tank the size of a football field that holds the four whale sharks as well as manta rays. Can you imagine a more fantastic backdrop?
Grab a bite to eat at off peak times
In addition to favorites like pizza, the Georgia Aquarium offers a cafeteria with fun items kids will love like mac n’ cheese with goldfish crackers on top. Find seating to enjoy your meal right outside the cafeteria, and also above on the second level.
The penguin tunnels are for kids of all ages
Yes, even large adults can fit through the tunnels to look eye-to-eye with the penguins. Steve is 6’4″ and had no problems at all crawling through the clear tunnels for an up-close and personal view (and selfie) with a penguin.