Every time we head to Gatlinburg, TN, one of our first stops is Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. Even though we have a zoo and aquarium at home that we like to visit, this is still high on our “must see” list when we get into town. There’s just so much to see and do for the entire family!
When arriving at the aquarium, consider how you’re getting there. You’ll either need to plan to park in the garage (which is behind the aquarium) or arrive by trolley, which stops right on the property. For first time visitors, this isn’t always clear.
If you haven’t already purchased your tickets online, stop at the ticket office and decide which ticket suits your needs the best. Consider a combo ticket if you’re visiting other Ripley’s attractions!
Once you’re inside, you can start exploring almost right away with a few of the column “fish tanks” that are set up and filled with a rainbow of creatures! Then you continue through the aquarium, spending as much time as you’d like at the different features and areas.
Here is a list of the different areas to visit on the upper level:
Tropical Rainforest: Discover freshwater stingrays, cardinal tetras, four-eyed fish, poison dart frogs, zebra cichlids, armored catfish, Arapaima, mudskippers, green iguanas, and the voracious and feared piranha.
Ocean Realm: A great place where we found out about “weird” ocean critters like eels like look like seaweed as they wait for food to come by! The tanks are also at different heights, so there’s plenty to see even in a group of folks.
Shark Lagoon: Totally worth a trip on it’s own! You ride a moving sidewalk while surrounded on 3 sides by a huge underwater tunnel! The sharks are everywhere, as are plenty of fish, plants and sunken treasure as my kids say.
Touch a Ray Bay: This is a hands-on area where you can pet stingrays as they glide past. Don’t worry, they have staff nearby to answer questions and make sure everyone’s following the rules. A few of the kids were shy at first, but what a neat experience for the family!
Here is the list of the areas to visit on the lower level:
Coral Reef: I could pull up a chair and sit here all day! This is a huge wall of glass with fish and creatures of every shape and size swimming around. A great chance to talk about colors and shapes with the little ones and identify fish and creatures with the older ones. Plus be sure to check out the dive schedule when they have mermaids and feedings.
Discovery Center: A hands-on, touching encouraged area! Learn about fish, the ocean, plants and more as they take in and play on the bright colored, kid-friendly areas.
Gallery of the Seas: Sometimes certain species are so incredible they look like works of art, almost too beautiful or strange to believe that they are natural and not man made. Octopus, sea stars, corals, and jellies, animals with bright colors, strange shapes, and fascinating movements, are just some of the sea’s living jewels highlighted in our underwater art gallery.
Stingray Bay: We watch the stingrays here while we eat a snack or lunch at Feeding Frenzy, which is the onsite cafe. We love watching the rays dance through the water and eat from the diver’s hands!
Penguin Playhouse: A neat place to watch the penguins play, swim and dive into the water. It’s an area full of laughter from kids and adults alike. And they will bring a few of them out when the weather is nice on the back deck, be sure to find out the schedule when you visit!
SWARM Exhibit: This exhibit changes every few months to a new topic. During our visit, we learned about swarms, whether animals, insects or people. And it was partly science and part fun because there are so many things to touch and explore.
As you can tell, there’s no shortage of things to see and learn about. I personally like that so many of the areas are OK to touch and interact with, and not just for the kids of course! The ability to stop and have a snack or a meal is also nice, especially since we can watch the stingray tank for a built in show.
Here are a few of my family’s tips after having visited a few times:
Hit the bathroom right past the entrance. This will save you from backtracking once you’re in the middle of the aquarium.
Make sure to have plenty of space on your phone or camera; there’s a ton of things that beg for photos and videos!
Have a plan how to handle requests to buy extra things; heads up, you exit through the huge gift shop.
Allow for extra time for when one of the group wants to see something longer than the rest.