If you haven’t been to the Monterey Bay Aquarium before, you’re in for a treat. Located in Monterey’s Cannery Row, just about 5-6 hours from the Reno/Sparks area, the Aquarium overlooks the beautiful bay and features a family-friendly design inside, with dozens of nooks and viewpoints to keep families wandering endlessly without ever needing to see the same thing twice. Sea life you’ll find here include the lovable, playful otters, penguins, jellies, a giant octopus, and hundreds of fish (including sharks!) and crustaceans of all sizes, shapes and colors. But what I really love, as a mom, is how the design takes children into consideration.
Our family made the trip in early August as part of a week-long family vacation that began with a drive through Yosemite (thankfully pre-Rim Fire), then two days at Disneyland, and a day driving up scenic highway 101. By the time our Thursday at the Aquarium rolled around, we were ready to spend a day of calm reflection, slowly meandering while gazing at majestic sea creatures. And Olivia wanted to find Dory. (I’m pretty sure Finding Nemo is the best thing that ever happened to our nation’s aquarium attractions.)
A Boatload of Fun for Kids
The Aquarium’s focus on families starts right as you walk in and are greeted by a volunteer who gives each child a wristband. Parents write their phone numbers on the wristbands and put them on their children. With the dark rooms and numerous, winding passageways throughout the facility, it’s easy for a little one to become captivated by a fish, step away from Mommy, and find him or herself unwittingly lost. Any volunteer or staffer in the Aquarium knows to look at the wristband on the child and can direct him or her to the Lost Kids booth, where attendants can track down the parents. It’s a comforting measure considering the enormity of the place.
While still in the ticketing and information area, you’ll find several staff members wandering around who are ready to engage little ones. We met a man holding a stuffed giant octopus toy, who knelt down and held it out for Olivia to see while he told her several fun facts about octopuses, including how they use their suckers to do everything from smell to find food or tell individual people apart. I don’t think it was a coincidence that the octopus was among Olivia’s favorite attractions at the Aquarium.
There are numerous regularly featured activities for kids located throughout the building, including the Splash Zone, which features an indoor playground for kids who need to burn off steam (and parents who need a break to sit down!); touch pools, where kids of all ages can reach in and pet urchins, sea stars, rays, and more; a tunnel you can crawl into and watch waves crash overhead (an endlessly delightful attraction for young ones); and the “Flippers, Flukes & Fun” attraction, which is designed for young children and includes an area where kids can color sea creatures or try on whale tales and fins. Plus, the outside decks surrounding the Aquarium, which can be accessed from numerous doors, enable families who need a breath of fresh air or want to catch the “live show” out in the bay—divers, kayakers, sea birds, seals, otters, and even dolphins may be visible—to do so without leaving the facility.
But in addition to these standard features that always are there, you’ll find other temporary interactive activities associated with certain exhibits that really engage children. We loved The Jellies Experience, an exhibit featuring at least a dozen species of jellyfish, of all sizes and colors. The black lighting makes them glow pink, yellow, or blue (again, thanks, Pixar, for showing us the wonder and beauty of jellyfish). Also, there are activities such as waving your hand to make the ocean glow, or drawing your own jellyfish and setting it adrift in a computer ocean.
Outside the Secret Lives of Seahorses exhibit (I’m sad to see this one go—after five years as a revolving exhibit, this one’s finally moving its way out on Labor Day weekend to make way for cephalopods), a magician performs a show for kids to tell them all about what seahorses are, how they swim, and how they reproduce (the dad carries the babies until birth! Weird, huh?).
We ended up spending the full day at the Aquarium, arriving just after opening and leaving 20 minutes before closing time. But if we were to go again, we’d take a few things into consideration.
Tips for making your visit go swimmingly:
- In my opinion, something’s fishy about the ticket prices at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. In fact, I’ll go ahead and say that it is ridiculously expensive. The $34.95 adult admission price seems steep enough, but a whopping $21.95 for kids 3-12 seems excessive to me. Is a 3-year-old really getting $22 worth of enjoyment and education out of the day? I’m not so sure. Kids under 3 get in free, so my advice is to take your young ones while they’re still young enough to get in free, or wait until they’re old enough to really appreciate what they’re seeing and take full advantage of all the attractions. Discount tickets are hard to come by, but a San Francisco City Pass might be a nice option, so you can get into the aquarium in addition to other Bay Area attractions. Or, visit your local AAA office before you go and purchase each ticket for $2 off.
- Considering the steep admission price, and the fact that we planned to go to a nice dinner afterward, we were looking to save some money by bringing snacks. Now, the aquarium rules state that “No outside food or drink may be consumed in the Aquarium or on our ocean view decks.” Far be it for me to openly advise you to break the rule. However, I will admit, straight up, that we broke this rule several times, and so did many other families we saw during the day. And no one said a word to us. There is a dining facility on the premises, but if we return, we will, once again, be bringing granola bars, goldfish crackers, apples, bottles of water, and other snacks to fuel our visit.
- We immediately discovered that our hunt for “calm reflection” was misguided. Although it was a midweek visit, the place was a zoo. I chalk this up to it being the week before school started. I would still advise a midweek visit if at all possible, especially during the school year, but know that if you go during a school break, it’s going to be a zoo.
- Everybody loves to watch a feeding. Whether we get to see aquarists toss fish to otters or penguins from above the water, or dive below to feed creatures in the kelp forest, we are irresistibly drawn to a feeding show. And so is everybody else. This is why, if you want to see a feeding, situate yourself early against the glass and plan to stay awhile. And if it’s a weekend, honestly, consider skipping it. Your little ones will only be disappointed when they can’t see the cool thing everyone else sees. One nice caveat to this, however: Aquarium staffers are really concerned with enabling as many people as possible to see the feedings, and will encourage taller folks to move out and allow shorter visitors to move up. Not that this suggestion is always heeded by the crowd…
- Take breaks! There are benches scattered throughout the aquarium and on the outer decks, and auditorium shows provide some much-needed rest time while you passively learn about the creatures residing there. Take advantage. If your children are young enough, don’t think twice about bringing a stroller. Do it, you’ll need it, if for no other reason than to have a place to stash your personal items. And wear comfy shoes. This is a marathon, people, not a sprint, so pace yourself.
- Although the wristbands are offered and lost kids are taken seriously, know that it is surprisingly, frighteningly easy in this building to blink and lose a child. Have everyone in your family wear bright, recognizable clothing and whenever possible, keep a light hand or a firm eye on each child in your care. We actually came up an escalator and found a lonely, crying boy who had lost his mommy. We led him to a staff member and began poking our heads into surrounding rooms to see if we could find a parent who appeared to have lost a child. We found his mom, who hadn’t even realized her boy was missing, because she had assumed he was with his dad. Don’t make such an assumption.
- Take advantage of the learning opportunities here, not only in terms of ocean life but also about eating sustainably and being responsible environmental stewards. Take home one of the aquarium’s “Seafood Watch” brochures and, once you get home, practice going to grocery stores and restaurants with its lessons about selecting seafood in mind. It’s a great opportunity to show your kids the connection between the world around us and the food we eat.
- Do yourself the favor we wish we had done before taking our squeamish Olivia to the aquarium: Don’t watch any part of “Shark Week” or any shark programming before you go. Just sayin’. Because Shark Week had occurred two weeks before our visit, we had shown Olivia a few moments here and there of some of the tamest action (we had actually believed we were “prepping” her for the aquarium). Nonetheless, she was terrified at the mere mention of sharks, and insisted on standing far away from any of the coolest tanks, just in case one of them happened to get out of the tank. (Bad parents, bad.)
Another bonus of a visit to the aquarium is that once you arrive at Cannery Row, you’ll be handed a booklet full of coupons for area shopping and dining. After a day at the aquarium, take your Seafood Watch brochure and go treat yourself to a free bowl of chowder and toast your successful venture with a nice glass of wine. (I guess I’ll save my “go get tanked” joke for another time…)