So my first thought when I heard of Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies was that it would be full of oddities like “real mermaids”, it is after all associated with the same Ripley as Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Mr. J was quite bummed to find out that there weren’t any oddities. He would have loved to see something like a few two headed fish. It’s actually an AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) accredited aquarium..
I have one major complaint with the aquarium. It’s designed to be toured in one direction, but there is no signage clearly pointing to the entrance. We ended up touring it backwards and had to walk all the way back through the aquarium to get out. Finding the proper entrance is confusing because it appears to be roped off. They have stanchions with retractable ‘ropes’ set up to control the flow of groups into the picture taking area set up directly in the entrance walkway. Not wanting to waste time positioning our large group for a picture we didn’t intend to purchase, we went through the gift shop. There didn’t seem to be any other way to bypass the photo op.
Many of the aquarium exhibits are set up with kids in mind. The penguin exhibit has a crawl through tunnel for patrons to get closer to the penguins and a clear section of floor where the penguins can swim under the walkway. There were doughnut shaped tanks that the kids could stand in the middle and get the feel of schools of small reef fish swimming around them and loads of hands on informational activities mounted low enough that even P could reach them without help.
There is a great multilevel play structure in the middle of the aquarium that the kids probably spent a half an hour climbing through. It’s divided into two sections that are accessed from different levels and don’t intermingle. This confused my kids a bit but as a parent it’s nice because you don’t have to worry about your kid exiting the structure on a different floor than the one you’re on.
The coolest part of the aquarium is the long Plexiglass tunnel that winds under the exhibits. There’s a slow moving walkway that takes you under many of the tanks. You get to experience the sharks, sea turtles, eels and many other creatures in an amazing up close setting. All of the children loved it, except P who isn’t a fan of water even when it can’t get her wet. There’s another one of those annoying picture taking areas at the end of the tunnel that is again very hard to bypass. I don’t object to posed picture opportunities but setting them up so that people feel forced to take photos that your employees are then going to work hard to sell them is annoying, especially since tickets are $29.99/adult and $15.99/kid. We had enough paying guests in our group to get the group rate (groups are 10 or more people) so we payed quite a bit less.
One other note, there is no parking at the aquarium but there is a Gatlinburg Municipal Garage right behind it and the parking rates are really affordable. It’s $1.75 for the first hour, and $1.00 for every hour after that up to a daily maximum of $6.00. They do round up to the next hour which stinks, but at least it’s only an extra dollar.