During spring break, we decided to head over to Gatlinburg TN and take the kids to Ripley’s Aquarium. The last time we visited was a few year ago, and we had heard they had added a few new attractions, including a Penguin area.
The aquarium is a beautiful place, with lots to see and do for kids, making it a fantastic outing for families. The staff there is wonderful as well, as they always take the time to talk to our kids and educate them about the reefs, ocean, the filtration system and sea creatures. Even better? They do it in very humorous and creative ways to keep our kids attention.
You’ll definitely want to have the aquarium on your “must do” list when visiting the area.
Ripley’s Aquarium – Gatlinburg TN
We ate lunch at home (Waynesville NC), then loaded up the kids and headed out. The aquarium is in the heart of Gatlinburg, which is about an hour and a half from our house down I-40 into Tennessee. The trip really isn’t bad, as the drive, once you get onto 321 is just beautiful, with lots to see.
The aquarium is located at 88 River Road, Gatlinburg, TN and is just off of 441 (Gatlinburg Parkway, traffic light #5) going through the middle of Gatlinburg. You really can’t miss it when you drive by. See the lower portions of this article for information on parking, walking directions, cost and more.
The Ripley’s Aquarium in Gatlinburg opened in 2000, and is one of three Ripley’s Aquariums (the other two are in Toronto Canada and Myrtle Beach, SC). Since opening, the aquarium has had over 15 million visitors, and serves as one of Gatlinburg’s most popular attractions and the second most visited attraction in Tennessee.
The aquarium has been named one of the top 5 aquariums in the United States and World, by both TripAdvisor and Forbes Travel. USA Travel Today said it was the Best Place to see Penguins, and we would agree. The aquarium has also received numerous awards since it opened.
The Aquarium at a glance
The aquarium has numerous exhibits that contain more than 100,000 exotic sea creatures. Incidentally, that is more than the number of people in Gatlinburg! While visiting, you’ll walk through:
- Tropical Rain Forest with large trees, a waterfall and numerous exhibits. You’ll feel as if you are in the forest.
- The Ocean Realm, where you’ll feel as if you are underwater, swimming along side the marine life. The tanks are large enough to house thousands of fish and you’ll see them actually schooling and swimming together.
- Shark Lagoon is a 340 foot underwater tunnel that allows you to view sharks, rays, eels and other marine life up close and personal, but all in safety and without getting soaked! This will be the highlight of your visit.
- Touch a Ray Bay will also one of the highlights of your visit, in this large tank of water, you are able to place your hands down into the water, and if you’re fortunate a ray will swim by and allow you touch it. This is an amazing experience. Don’t worry, they’re perfectly safe.
- The Coral Reef will remind you of Finding Nemo, as you explore tanks full of reef fish, corals and other reef inhabiting creatures. One main tank in particular is huge, and often has an aquarium staff diver in it.
- Discovery Center – Located about half way through your tour, is a great place to let the kids “burn off” some energy. There are lots of children’s activities here, including a small pool that let’s kids and adults touch horseshoe crabs.
- Gallery of the Seas has creatures that are so beautiful, they seem like works of art. You’ll get to see some stunningly beautiful creatures here including an Octopus.
- Stingray Bay is a huge tank full of various species of sting rays. You’ll get to see it from the side and from the top, and watch the beautiful and magical sting rays swim around the tank, and often even try to interact with you.
- Penguin Playhouse was my wife’s favorite section of the aquarium, and is the latest attraction added in 2010. Here you’ll get to see both indoor and outdoor Penguin enclosures. We had one penguin that just played and played with us at the glass.
You can read more about each of these attractions and see photos in our detailed sections below.
As you enter the aquarium, and pass the restrooms on your right, you’ll smell salt water and hear the loud rushing sounds of a waterfall. As you proceed into the exhibit, the sites and sounds around you turn into a tropical rain forest. Past the rushing waterfall on your left, you’ll see exhibits for:
- Poison dart frogs
- Green iguanas
- Tanks containing some of the largest fresh water fish in the world
The rain forest is really well done, and gives you the feeling of walking along the forest floor surrounded by towering trees and strange creatures.
After passing a large tank of very large tropical freshwater fish, you’ll transition into The Ocean Realm. This exhibit features common and exotic creatures from Oceans around the world. This includes sea horses, scorpion fish, spotted garden eels, jellyfish (amazingly beautiful), flounder and many other fish.
Can you see the Flounder? Did you know Flounder are born with eyes on both sides? As they grow, one eye moves through a tunnel in their body, so that both eyes are on the same side.
Want to feel as if you are in the ocean along side 6 foot plus sharks, and only inches from them? Shark Lagoon is the place for you. This 340 foot underwater tunnel, with moving walkway allows you see and experience sharks, eels and other large sea creatures up close and personal. In many cases, you’ll be only inches from them. There is also a sea turtle, that is just wonderful to watch.
There is so much to see in this exhibit, we often found that even though the walkway moves very slow, we were stepping off of it to stop and just enjoy the beauty. You’ll see plenty of sharks and many other marine animals, including large Green Moray Eels. Sharks will swim by you, float over top of you and often even rest on the top of the glass directly above you.
The tank features a number of varieties of sharks, including: Sand Tiger Sharks, Nurse Sharks, and Sawfish. Other fish in the tank include: Snappers, tarpons, grunts, squirrelfish, a green sea turtle, and giant stingrays. Making it even more magical is the natural light that flows through it, and the very realistic decorations, including an old sunken boat (shown above in the photo).
Take your time here and enjoy it. Pay attention too, as there is lots going on in this tank, and you won’t want to miss it. This will most likely be the highlight of your visit and your kids will love it.
I loved Shark Lagoon, but as a saltwater fish hobbiest, I’m really partial to coral reefs and in particular clown fish. So the Coral Reef exhibit was my favorite part of the whole visit.
As you enter the Coral Reef area, you’ll be stunned at the incredibly large tank to your left, and the number of fish that are swimming in it. You’ll see Clown Fish, Tangs, Trigger Fish, Angel Fish, Foxface Rabbit Fish, Butterfly fish, and many many more types of fish and sea creatures in this tank alone. Spend some time here, watch the fish and their schooling patterns, pay attention to the rocks, and if you have kids, help them find the many different creatures living on the reef rocks.
You’ll also most likely see one or more of the aquarium staff divers in the tank too. They are there during the shows and often times in between as well. Speaking of the shows, make sure you hang around for the Coral Reef show, it’s pretty neat. The aquarium will provide you with a schedule when you enter. Be sure and get your photo taken with one of the divers too!
In addition to the main tank, there are lots of smaller tanks containing invertebrates and fish as well. One tank has lots of corals and clown fish in it, and is beautiful. Another has lots of sea horses.
Gallery of the Seas features exotic and exceptionally beautiful or interesting species. Some of the creatures included are Clown fish, Scorpion fish, Japanese spider crabs, Cuttlefish, Seahorses, Jellyfish and much more. The featured attraction is this exhibit though is the Octopus who is actually pretty active and often out where you can clearly see it.
Discovery Center is located about halfway through your tour of the aquarium, and offers a chance for your kids to play around and learn, while you take a break. There are lots of interactive exhibits where your kids can play around, interact and learn. Kids can even utilize the “peek-a-boo” tanks to get into the center of some of the exhibits.
One of the main features of Discovery Center is the horseshoe crab “petting pool”. Where your kids will learn about and be able to pickup and touch horseshoe crabs in the water.
This is a busy and popular area of the aquarium, so be prepared and be patient.
The newest exhibit at the Gatlinbury Aquarium is the Penguin Playhouse. Built in 2010, the exhibit has been voted “Best Place to Visit Penguins” by USA Travel Today. The Penguin Playhouse allows you to not only see the Penguins, but also allows you to get up close and personal by using the crawl through tubes and peek-a-boo areas. Our kids loved this feature.
I think this was my wife’s favorite part of the aquarium. One penguin that was swimming in the water just played and played with her. He was adorable and very friendly.
The Penguin exhibit is both indoors and outdoors, with the primary enclosure being indoors. The penguins have both land and water to use. What we thought was really neat was each of the penguins was tagged with a blue or pink tag, indicating male or female, and each was given a name which is also on the tag. All of them were just adorable and very very friendly.
Stingray Bay focuses on one sea creature, the Stingray. Stingray Bay consists of an enormous aquarium that you’ll first see from the side. There is a really neat show you should see where divers enter the tank and feed the stingrays. You’ll see how gentle, interactive and graceful these creatures are.
In the tank are a number of different types of stingrays: Cownose Rays, Spotted Eagle Ray (my favorite), Southern Stingrays, and more.
After spending time viewing the rays at the tank, you can walk around the corner and up to Touch a Ray Bay, another area that will be a highlight of your trip. You can put your hands in the water, and if you’re lucky, a ray will swim by an allow you to touch it. The experience is amazing. There are small sharks in the water, you’ll want avoid them, as they do have teeth and will bite.
While spending some time here, a very nice and funny aquarium staff member came over and talked to our kids about the Rays, and really educated them about the various species and habits of the Stingrays. Here’s our crew at Touch a Ray Bay right before we left for the day.
Fun facts about the aquarium:
- The aquarium is state of the art, built in 2000 at a cost of $70 million dollars
- It has 1.4 million gallons of water in its exhibits.
- Shark Lagoon contains 750,000 gallons of water.
- The state-of-the-art filtration system for Shark Lagoon circulates 11,664,000 gallons of water every 24 hours (whoa).
- 34 separate filtration systems clean around 25 million gallons on water each day
- The glass that separates you from the lethal sharks is only 6.5 inches thick
- More than 100,000 exotic sea creatures live in the aquarium.
- The aquarium has hosted more than 15,000 million visitors, and is the second most visited attraction in Tennessee.
Live shows at the aquarium
Not only does the aquarium have all the wonderful exhibits we’ve mentioned, they also have a number of live shows you can attend as well. At the entrance when you present your tickets, you’ll be given a show schedule. You’ll definitely want to check a few of them out.
The shows include: Divers interacting with the sharks, feeding time with the Stingrays, divers swimming in the Coral Reef Tank, Penguin Feeding, and Marine Science Class (don’t let the name scare you).
Parking at the Gatlinburg Aquarium
When you arrive, You’ll want to turn on Greystone Heights Rd, and drive past the aquarium, where there is a parking deck. The parking deck is owned by he city of Gatlinburg, and has always had spaces available when we visited. Cost is $1.75 for the first hour, then each additional hour is another $1.00. The max fee is $6.00.
Be aware, they only accept cash to exit, so be sure you have some cash. If you forget, there is an ATM near the Aquarium ticket office, but it charges a $3.50 service fee!
From the deck, just follow the main walkway towards the aquarium, walk past the Gatlinburg Trolly stop, and then up the stairs to your right. There you’ll find the main entrance, and ticket office (and the ATM).
Aquarium prices are:
Adults, ages 12 and older: $26.99
Children, ages 6-11: $15.99
Children, ages 2-5: $7.99
Children, ages 2 and under: Free
How long does a visit to the aquarium take?
On average, a full visit the aquarium takes about 2 hours to see and experience everything. This various depending on crowds.
What should I wear?
You’ll spend about 2 hours walking though the Gatlinburg aquarium, so comfortable and casual dress, based not the season is important. Wear shoes that are comfortable for walking.
Best times to visit the aquairum
Given it’s popularity, the Gatlinburg aquarium can often get pretty busy and crowded. Here are some tips to avoid the large crowds:
- Visit on weekdays
- Visit during the off season (September – June 15). October is also a very busy month.
- Arrive early or Arrive after 4pm. The aquarium is generally open 9am – 9pm, but check their website as hours vary a little by season.
Tip: The Aquarium makes for a great “rainy day” experience, since the majority of it is indoors. Don’t plan to visit the aquarium on any particular day, but save it for a day that’s rainy or cool. Given the amount of rain that occurs in the Smoky Mountains, you generally have one or two days during your visit that are rainy.
Gatlinburg Aquarium Discounts
Using our discounted travel page, you can save $2.00 per ticket at the Gatlinburg Aquarium. Get your discounted tickets here. Additional discounts are available: AAA, AARP, Active Military, Retired Military.
Photo credits: Aquarium Outdoor – Brent Moore, Tropical Rain Forest – Matthew Cameron, Ocean Realm – P Gum, Shark Lagoon Tunnel – Olga Molchanova, Octobpus – Dain Nielsen, Stingrays – Nila Sivtheesan, Touching a Stingray – Ben M