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Monday, February 16, 2015

Family Travel: The Georgia Aquarium

Monday, February 16, 2015 By

AUGUSTA, GA. - Emerson decided that she didn't want a party for her 10th birthday. She wanted to go to visit family in Atlanta, and go to the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coke with her BFF, Kayla.

We stayed at my parents' house and took MARTA into the city to avoid traffic, parking, and the very real possibility that I might get us lost and end up in Chattanooga. It's just how I do.

Kayla had never ridden MARTA before, and it had been a couple of years since Emerson had ridden MARTA. We parked at Indian Creek station and paid $15 total for round-trip Breeze cards for the three of us, which is roughly what we'd have paid in parking fees and gas, anyway. They were fascinated by the turnstiles, the escalators, the train, and the scenery. At every stop, they reported back to me how many stops we had left. Thanks, guys.

We exited at Five Points, one stop before we needed to. For the tourist attractions around Centennial Olympic Park, you should exit at the CNN Center station. But we wanted to hook around to the McDonald's and get breakfast to eat on our walk. It was cold outside and utterly wonderful. The girls felt all grown-up walking through the big city. If they'd had hats (and were old enough to get the reference) they might have spun around and tossed their them in the air.

Emerson kept wanting to tip everyone. The police officer who confirmed our directions, the McDonald's cashier, the homeless guy who "helped" us cross the street by shouting at us to "watch the [eff] out for the [effing] bus" that was coming...

I don't know why she wanted to do that. For safety reasons, I wasn't carrying cash, so she was disappointed in me all day. Apparently I am not classy. Whatever. Kids get weird ideas in their heads. Also, thanks, homeless man. That bus actually scraped the curb we'd been standing on not 10 seconds earlier.

We cut through Centennial Olympic Park, which was a lovely walk. But the two playgrounds locked us into their tractor beams and pulled in the girls. We were literally right across the street from the Aquarium, and could not escape for almost an hour.

But we still got to the Aquarium right as they opened because of my momtastic planning. And we had pre-printed our discount tickets, so we didn't have to stand in line.

Get discount tickets here:
Or here:
Or here:
Or keep an eye on Groupon.
Also, consider a City Pass, which is well worth the money.

The aquarium fills up quickly - with people, not water - so you want to prioritize a few activities. I recommend this order of importance:

  1. AT&T Dolphin Tales
  2. Animal feedings
  3. Touch pools
  4. Penguin walk-through
  5. The 4D movie: Deepo's 4D Undersea Wondershow
  6. Ocean Voyager tunnel

If you can get to the first dolphin show of the day and the first animal feeding times of the day, you will have a much more peaceful experience. The first shows and feedings are way less crowded. Show times are posted online, and animal feeding times are posted daily at the aquarium.

The touch pools usually include one with sharks and rays, which was closed due to remodeling this time. But the second touch pools with sea stars and anemones was also enchanting.

The penguin walk-through includes a clear bubble inside the penguin exhibit, in which you can stand and get up close and personal. Take a selfie with the goofy seabirds.

AT&T Dolphin Tales was initially a special add-on expense. But now it's included in every ticket. That means whereas people initially began lining up for seats about 20 minutes before the show, now the hallway begins filling up an hour before the show starts. Children can get impatient. I foresaw a great disturbance in the Force, so I had the two girls go watch the 4D movie while I stood in line. Is that the best idea? Mmmm... I don't know. I'm not trying to tell you how to live your life. But it worked for us.

The show is pretty cheesy. I dubbed it "Thomas Theatercamp and the Xanadu Pirates." The storyline is something about a star-spinner (Thomas Theatercamp, in all his summer stock glory) and some sea monsters, and you have to raise a sunken ship by singing, and... look, we're all really there to see dolphins doing cool stuff. I realize this isn't AT&T Dolphin University, but I'd rather see a show where we could learn something about dolphins, ocean life, and maybe conservation. Get out of here with your weird version of "Starlight Express-On-the-Waterfront."

No photos allowed in the auditorium. This is a promo shot.

My favorite part of the show was any time a dolphin would refuse to do what the trainers asked it to do. Tell 'em, you dolphin rebel! The trainer would just kind of have to wait for the dolphin to decide to get back on track.

At the end of the show, the trainers stand at the corners and answer questions. We asked one about her training, the dolphins' training, and finally about the animals' occasional refusal to perform.

"These are intelligent animals, and everything they do is voluntary," the trainer said. "If they don't want to perform a trick, we don't make them."

Fine. Be all nice to them. I guess I won't be rescuing a dolphin and taking it home under my coat today.

Anyhoodle, I let the girls set the priorities, because today was not about having an agenda. It was about doing things they enjoyed, however they enjoyed them. So we hit all of the above, except we skipped the Ocean Voyager tunnel. But we did that because I knew a secret from a previous visit...

There's an event hall upstairs. In it is a smaller, private window that lets you observe the Beluga whales. This event hall is not open to the public. But we asked nicely - prepared for rejection - and a kind janitorial staff member allowed us a few minutes with the belugas. Then a manager kicked us out of there. But he directed us to an adjacent hallway with a window for observing the Ocean Voyager tank. They let us hang with our Ocean Voyager peeps for as long as we liked.

It was quiet, it was private, it was heaven. We grinned as the giant whale sharks followed the inflatable feeding boat around like a puppy begging for snacks. We laughed as a smaller stingray repeatedly swam up to the glass and thwacked against it, waving its fins and smiling at us as it slid slowly past. One of the janitorial staff told us that the same stingray plays with her as she cleans the window's glass every morning. We pointed out giant grouper, sawfish, and more. We gasped at its monumental size as the whale shark swam so close to us that it slid against the glass.

"Mom, this is such a great experience!" my daughter exclaimed, as a giant manta ray did dramatic flips in front of us.

"This is so cool, I feel like I'm going to cry," her friend said.

"Me, too," said Emerson.

And I really don't know what more you can ask for your child on his or her birthday.


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