As far as aquariums go, my family is a pretty tough audience to impress. We’ve been there, done that, from the huge Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta to the Miami Seaquarium in our hometown. But since moving to NJ last summer, we’d heard some great things about Adventure Aquarium, so with (happily!) no big plans for the holiday weekend, we piled into the SUV and made the hour and a half drive from our Jersey City apartment to Camden along the Philadelphia waterfront. Having a 2 1/2 year old, we were mostly excited about the new interactive hands-on exhibit called KidZone, geared towards kids 6 and under.
After making our way through the huge entrance of Adventure Aquarium (and pushing past several dozen strollers like ours) we headed into the main area where different branches lead to various exhibits. We had hoped to head straight to KidZone but when our daughter Diana saw some kids having their faces painted, of course we had to make an immediate pit stop. Eight dollars, a quick 5-minute wait in line and one happy “butterfly princess” later, we finally made it upstairs.
Diana (and my husband for that matter!) were so excited, they didn’t know where to look first. At other aquariums, Di spent most of the time in our arms, too little to see into the big tanks and often got restless when there was really nowhere to run and climb. KidZone is different. It’s divided into four sections, with cheerful cartoon characters welcoming you into each area like “Lizzie’s Lagoon” or “Gill’s Grotto.” Adventure Aquarium really “gets” what the preschool set needs, which is first and foremost, a place to get their energy out! From round drums shaped like jellyfish to a climb-aboard mini ship with wheels to turn, and even a crawl through life-sized Banyan tree, toddlers can get out their wiggles and giggles before they even look at the sea life. When Di was finally satisfied that she had climbed and touched her way around the “Lizzie Lagoon” area, we moved on.
Small and medium-sized tanks line the entire KidZone exhibit filled with everything from tropical fish (we heard lots of little ones shouting, ‘there’s Dori and Nemo!’), to turtles and frogs. Best of all, every single tank was low enough (or had a rock to climb) so toddlers could feel independent and in-control as they skipped from one habitat to the next. I’ve never really seen this preschooler-friendly set-up in an aquarium before and it gave Di a sense of freedom and engaged her in a big way.
And that was just the beginning – two beautiful touch tanks welcomed kids to gently pet stingrays, shrimp and starfish. Our daughter has been a bit reluctant at other aquariums to stick her hand into the cold water, but the down-low set-up and toddler-friendly atmosphere (no pushy grownups wanting to take a turn themselves) made her feel comfortable and before we knew it, she stuck her little hand into the tank and stroked a starfish. There were also plenty more places to play and climb as we meandered through the exhibit – and I noticed that parents of 2 or more appreciated the arrangement. While a 5-year old sister was waiting patiently to touch a stingray with mom, dad could be right next to them watching her 3 year old brother climb through the “Coral Cluster” play area. Parents will also be happy about two adorable turtles and a big shark figure to climb on, presenting perfect photo opportunities.
After spending about 45 minutes inside KidZone, we took a quick snack break in the café, which serves the usual pizza and French fry fare along with some healthier options, such as veggie burgers and Panini sandwiches. We then decided to check out the rest of the aquarium’s exhibits including the outdoor section with African penguins and seals (where you are welcome to watch the feedings) and a 760,000 gallon tank complete with sharks and huge sea turtles. We all got such a kick out of seeing aquarium scuba divers cleaning and caring for the animals in the tank – one of them even came up to the window to give Di a high five through the glass!
The last thing we did (and almost decided we were too tired for) was the Hippo exhibit – don’t miss this one! As these giant mammals swam, played “fetch” with their enormous beach balls and gobbled treats thrown into the tank, the whole crowd (adults and kids alike) watched in awe. As my husband describes it: “It’s so amazing to watch these 2 ton animals flip and swim in their habitat, with only a sheet of glass separating us.” We were pretty exhausted after a 4+ hour day trekking around, and after a quick stop at the gift shop, we headed home, tired and happy.
Adventure Aquarium was definitely worth the day trip and the new KidZone exhibit was the icing on the cake!
Originally published 2012