Best Things to See and Do at the Shedd Aquarium with Kids

Chicago's lakefront Museum Campus is swimming with amazing museums to visit with your family, but one hits the highest mark for the pre-literate crowd: The Shedd Aquarium. Whether you're visiting to give kids a different perspective on their world, to see unique species of aquatic life, or to learn about biology, the Shedd has a little something for everyone. With fish, sharks, dolphins, otters, amphibians, and birds from around the world, kids might learn a little geography and oceanography as well. It's entertainment and science all rolled into one.

While many museums have more exhibits than most little kids can handle in a day, the Shedd Aquarium lends itself to about a five- to six-hour visit during which you can see pretty much everything it has to offer. Usually, we recommend seeing the things your kids will have the most interest in first in case they run out of steam after lunch. Here, we think it's best to do the most educational stuff first and play at the end—you'll have time for everything if you arrive close to the 9 a.m. opening time and move at a moderate pace throughout the day. We suggest bringing a snack for a mid-morning break and planning some slow-down time to see the bigger tanks, especially if you have smaller children.

Planning your Shedd Aquarium trip as part of a bigger visit to downtown Chicago? The Field Museum and Adler Planetarium flank the aquarium on either side and either could be a fun compliment to the aquarium. You can also check out some of the other items on our list of the top 25 Chicago tourist attractions, and stay at one of our 10 favorite family friendly hotels in Chicago. 

Here are our favorite features of the Shedd Aquarium for kids and families.

 
The Caribbean Reef Tank in Chicago's Shedd Aquarium. Photo courtesy of the Shedd Aquarium

What to see on the Main Floor

As you enter the Shedd Aquarium, the first thing you'll notice is the giant Caribbean Reef tank. This giant underwater ecosystem is home to sharks, a giant green sea turtle, cownose rays, angelfish, butterfly fish, and more. The variety and action of the Caribbean Reef could easily take up the first half hour of your trip. You'll also often see a diver in the tank feeding or caring for the animals inside.

Kids can spend hours gazing into Chicago's Shedd Aquariums' huge tanks.

Around the tank are a series of galleries, each with a different theme. We recommend doing these first—they're darker and older, but still have a lot of interesting information and unique aquatic life. Many tanks have touch screens to help kids learn more about the creatures inside the tank.

The "At Home on the Great Lakes" area shows fish that you might see in Lake Michigan, just outside the aquarium's walls. This is interesting for those of us who have always wondered what zebra mussels and Asian carp look like after reading so much about them in the news. Our kids' favorite was the Amazon Rising exhibit, which shows how the waters of the Amazon rise and fall with the seasons and features animals like piranhas, tiger rays, emerald green tree boas, and Amazon milk frogs. 

The Oceans exhibit also features some of my favorites: the seahorses, whose tiny fins rotating and tails hanging on to seaweed always fascinate me, and the giant octopus with tentacles pressed against the glass, are fun to read and learn about. My daughter liked learning about ciclids and alligators in the Islands and Lakes exhibit. 

 
From the exhibit Underwater Beauty, photo courtesy of the Shedd Aquarium

Ground Level Attractions and Wild Reef

Take the blue or green staircase from the main floor to enter the ground level, which currently features a fascinating exhibit called Underwater Beauty. Walk past a wall of flowing water that kids can touch to learn how fish and other sea animals use color, patterns, and rhythm to move and survive. The first display shows a rainbow of different aquatic species and how they blend in with their environment. After that, kids enter an interactive exhibit that compares the patterns on their own clothes to the patterns on fish and explains the benefit of patterns for camouflage. Finally, learn how different aquatic species move differently by standing in front of a green screen and following directions to swim like a turtle, jellyfish, or shark. A few unique animals caught our attention in this exhibit: the weedy seadragons, who look so otherworldly that it's hard to believe they're actually animals, and the several species of jellyfish that glow and squish themselves through the water. 

During the summer months, you can also go outside to visit the stingray touch exhibit on the patio. Our unseasonably cold spring break didn't allow for this. 

Visitors can also discover another level of the aquarium by taking the elevator near the Amazon Rising exhibit to the Wild Reef. This feature explains how coral is a living thing that supports many other kids of wildlife. Larger scale tanks show off three different species of sharks, as well as wild-looking creatures like the humphead wrasse, crown of thorns sea star, and honeycomb moray. Adventurous kids will love to see spotted rays in a below-the-floor display where they can see the rays swim inches beneath their feet, while Pixar-lovers will enjoy the clownfish display with brightly colored Nemo fish.

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Best Things to See on the Lower Level

If it was up to my four-year-old, we never would have left the lower levels of the museum. This is where you can see the biggest animals in the aquarium, like the beluga whales, dolphins, sea otters, and sea lions.

The lowest level is primarily made up of underwater viewing for these animals, and my daugher loved dancing next to the beluga whales as they circled the tank. The playful sea otters were fun to see from both above and below. Remember the penguins that toured the empty Shedd Aquarium at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic? They now have their own picture book, and you can visit them on the second lower level. We even saw penguin keepers streaming a demonstration on penguin play while we perused the exhibit.

 
Photo courtesy of the Shedd Aquarium

Kids also get a chance to touch the backs of starfish and pretend that they're penguins or submariners in the Polar Play Zone. The faux ice floes and many-buttoned submarine were big hits with my son, who prefers interactive play to looking at animals. The play area is best for kids five and under, but bigger kids may enjoy the chance to find all the starfish that light up or reading the many descriptions of polar enivronments in the lower level.

A touching pool located in the Shedd Aquarium.

Another highlight of the trip was the Animal Spotlight in the Abbott Oceanarium. This show features a different animal every hour and keepers teach the audience more about the animal while showing off its special skills. We learned about beluga whales, including their echolocation and breath-holding abilities (my kids are still trying to go even 60 seconds without breathing). The show was an interesting twist on the dolphin shows we've seen at zoos before, an I would have love to see another if my kids had been interested. At only ten minutes each, this is a great chance to get kids off their feet without losing the momentum of the trip. Seats fill up, so if your kids are pick about being in the front row, arrive early. 

How to Get There, What to Eat, Where to Go Potty, and the Gift Shop Situation

  • The best bet for public transit is to get on the #146 Museum Campus bus, which makes stops along Lakeshore Drive, Michigan Avenue, and State Street on its way to the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium. You can also walk from the Roosevelt L stop, but it's a long walk if you've got little kids.
  • If you're driving, we recommend parking in the Adler Planetarium parking lot before 9:30 a.m. For the whole day, you'll pay $15. Park in the far northwest spots to get the closest to the aquarium.
  • When you arrive, we suggest going in the main entrance, especially if you're not toting a stroller. The accessible entrance will be helpful if you can't navigate stairs, but you'll need to immediately get on the elevator to the main floor.
  • You can bring in your own food to the Shedd Aquarium, but you'll have to eat it in one of the designated dining areas. There's a vending and table area near the accessible entrance, or you can visit Soundings Cafe for coffee shop items and sandwiches or the Bubble Net Food Court for an array of kid-friendly meal options. Kids meals run just over $8 and include a side and a drink. Our kids' favorite was the chicken fingers; we agreed that pizza may be the best deal for a grown-up meal at around $9. More expensive options run up to around $15.
  • Go early for lunch—we waited in a one-in one-out line for about 10 minutes just before noon, but the line was probably closer to 20-30 minutes by the time we left.
  • Each level has family friendly bathrooms, but on the main and lower levels they are at one end of the building, so plan ahead if you're venturing toward the opposite end. 
  • The main gift shop is on the main level just north of the lobby, with a second fairly large gift shop near the exit of the Underwater Beauty exhibit. We managed to find fun trinkets for each kid for under $10, but be prepared to pay upward of $20 for a stuffed animal version of your child's favorite aquatic animal.

    All photos by Maureen Wilkey unless otherwise indicated
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