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Planning a trip to Tampa? Looking for things to do with your kids? The Florida Aquarium is one of Tampa’s most popular attractions for families. I recently toured this aquarium with my mom and son. We did not know much about it before our visit. This definitely hampered our experience. To prevent you from being in the same boat, here are some things to know before you go to the Florida Aquarium.
The Layout of the Florida Aquarium
The layout of the Florida Aquarium is a little unusual. The first floor consists of the main lobby, gift shop, food court, 4D theater, and guest services. The only exhibit you will find on the first floor is the avian research center where they periodically have zookeeper talks about birds. But, the first floor can get pretty chaotic. You have people just arriving and trying to figure out where to go mixing with those stopping for food and those leaving the aquarium. This does not make for a very welcoming first impression, but it does hint at the rest of your visit.
All other exhibits are on the second floor. These include the Wetlands Trail, Journey to Madagascar, Bays and Beaches, Coral Reefs, and Dragons Down Under. The Wetlands Trail features alligators, otters, and pythons. On the Journey to Madagascar, you will see chameleons, geckos, and ring-tail lemurs. In the Coral Reef section, you can view eels, sharks, and other reef fish, while the Dragons Down Under exhibit showcases various breeds of seahorses.
Unfortunately, because of the design of the aquarium, all of these exhibits feel very crowded. The viewing areas are small and the pathways are narrow. In some areas, you have to backtrack to see all of the exhibits. We did enjoy seeing a huge grouper and the seahorses though.
The Splash Pad
Pass through the doors on the first floor to the outdoor section of the aquarium to find the splash pad. This is a rainforest-themed play area which includes a splash zone. Nearby are a snack shack and outdoor bar, as well as decks for relaxing.
While this is a great way to beat the Florida heat, it will make your visit difficult if you want your kids to see the exhibits instead of just playing in the water. When we were there, the first floor was full of kids in their swimsuits heading out to the splash pad. Be prepared for begging and tears if you plan to steer your children upstairs for the exhibits instead of outside.
The Florida Aquarium offers several experiences to enhance your visit. These will cost you an additional amount above and beyond the price of admission, but they will allow you to have a different view of the aquarium without all the crowds. These experiences range from swim and dive sessions in the coral reef or shark tanks to close up encounters with penguins or other small creatures. They also offer a wild dolphin cruise.
The swim and dive sessions range in price from $85-160 per person and have age restrictions. To learn more about these programs, see the aquarium’s website. The upclose encounters range from $12-30 per person and are available for younger children to experience. You can learn more about those here. We did not have a chance to participate in any of these activities during our visit.
Food, Drink, and Merchandise
Cafe Ray, the food court, is located on the first floor and offers a variety of family-friendly foods, including sandwiches, fries, and salads. The food here is decent but somewhat overpriced. The food court gets very busy during peak hours, making it difficult to move around. There does seem to be plenty of seating however.
Outside, you will find Fins, a bar serving adult beverages near the playground and splash pad. Also in this area is Sandy’s Snack Shack. Here, you can find a variety of favorite snacks for kids and adults.
The gift shop is also located on the first floor. It is stocked with all sorts of souvenirs including t-shirts, stuffed animals, toys, and delicate glass ornaments.
Prices and Operating Hours
The Florida Aquarium is open everyday except Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day from 9:30 am to 5:00 pm. Admission prices vary by day. They start at $22 for adults and $19 for children. The aquarium does offer discounts for senior citizens.
Tips to Improve Your Experience
To maximize your enjoyment at the Florida Aquarium, here are a few tips that I learned from our visit. First, arrive early! By being one of the first people to enter the aquarium, you can enjoy the exhibits without fighting the crowds. This will make it easier for your kids to see the fish and other animals without having to jockey for position.
Secondly, if possible, leave your stroller in the car. The pathways in the aquarium are narrow, and with the crowds, you will have a hard time getting through with a stroller.
Third, eat before or after your visit. The food at the aquarium is adequate, but you can get tastier meals for less money outside of the aquarium. Plus, eating before will save you time and help you to beat some the crowds.
Decide ahead of time if you are going to allow your kids to get wet in the Splash Pad. If so, take a towel and swimsuit, or at least a change of clothes for them. If you decide against this, then talk to your kids prior to arrival about how you will be skipping this part of the experience.
The Florida Aquarium is a family-friendly attraction located in Tampa, Florida. To be honest, this was not our favorite aquarium. It’s not that it is bad, it’s just that we have seen better. The aquarium in Auckland, New Zealand is our favorite one. But, with the above tips, your visit to the Florida Aquarium will be less crowded and more pleasant that our trip was. Have you been to the Florida Aquarium? Leave me a comment and let me know your thoughts on it. Happy travels!