MOOLAH METER: $$
GOOD FOR: All ages
I had thought to while away some time at this aquarium before heading over to the Star Wars exhibit at the Franklin Institute, but really, this attraction deserves an entire day unto itself. It’s just five minutes away from Philadelphia, across the Ben Franklin Bridge into Camden, New Jersey.
Coming up on April 26 and 27, the aquarium is hosting its first-ever Penguin Palooza celebrating its black-footed African penguins. On both days from 10 a.m.-4 p.m., the aquarium will be transformed into a circus showground, complete with jugglers, face painting, arts and crafts, and even a Penguin Ring Master! All activities free with the price of admission.
BEFORE YOU GO
Unless you plan to arrive when they open at 9:30 a.m. or shortly thereafter, you should purchase your tickets online to avoid the lines. Lighting is dim throughout, so if your camera’s flash is detachable, don’t forget to bring it.
You’ll be asked at the ticket counter whether you want to add a 4-D “ride” for $5 each to your admission of $17.95 per adult, $14.95 per child over 2 years. You’ll be hard-pressed to resist your child’s entreaties for the Sponge Bob movie, which takes place in a 4-D theater that has customers wearing 3-D glasses and sitting on seats that rumble and shake with the movie action to give you that 4th Dimension. I had read some reviews that said it wasn’t worth it, but I’m a sucker for 3-D movies, so I gave in and bought tickets for me and the three kids (parents have to go in with their kids).
As you enter, there are lockers on the right to store jackets and lunch bags; they require 4 quarters, and there’s a dollar-changing kiosk nearby. There isn’t a place to store your stroller, but you can park it at various spots as you walk through the aquarium. I stashed mine at the 4-D theater before entering and left it there for most of the visit. So was the 4-D Sponge Bob movie worth the extra cost? Well, it was an 8-minute movie for $5, but the kids hadn’t been to a theater where the seats moved so they thought it was pretty fun. Plus I always get a kick of my 4-year-old stretching out her hands to grab what seems to be coming out at you from the movie.
I loved this aquarium and would buy a membership if we lived closer. It’s huge, the exhibits were very well-done, and my kids got to touch baby sharks, freshwater stingrays, jellyfish, shrimp, lobsters, starfish and more. (They give the poor creatures a 30- or 45-minute break at intervals, so those interactive exhibits are sometimes closed). My poor camera with its weak flash couldn’t begin to capture the scenes of my kids dwarfed by some of the larger aquariums, such as the 550,000 gallon Shark Realm. What’s also cool is that they had stadium seating at most of them, so you didn’t have a cluster of people crowding at the front; instead, everyone could enjoy the sights. Besides the aquatic exhibits, there’s the huge West African River room, you can feed birds from all over the world, and view two friendly Nile hippos. We didn’t even get to the outside exhibits, Seal Shores and Penguin Island. While they have shows about every 45 minutes, my kids didn’t want to keep to a schedule but instead roam at will.
I have to say that in retrospect, the parents at the aquarium seemed nicer and more relaxed than at the Franklin Institute, perhaps because you could do everything in a leisurely fashion. Despite the crowds, the place is so big that you don’t feel cramped in, even at the most popular exhibits like the ones where you got to touch the animals.
If you’re planning a three-day or longer stay or going to more than this attraction, check out the Philadelphia CityPass, which gets you unlimited rides on the trolley and admission to five attractions, including the FI and Adventure Aquarium. It’s good for 9 days and costs $54 for adults, $37 for kids. You’ll have to use at least three of the facilities/services to make it worth the cost, though.
WHERE TO PARK
There’s only one place: the aquarium’s own lot, which costs a flat fee of $8.
WHERE TO EAT
As you go up from the first floor to the second where the exhibits are, the huge Feeding Frenzy Café seats 152 inside. Outside, there’s seating for another 150 outside; on a good day, I’d opt for this because it’s got a great view of the Delaware River and Philadelphia. The selection is good and prices on par with similar attractions: $6.25 for a Philly Cheesesteak (which was a tad salty), $3.25 for a cheese pizza, $5.75 for a cheeseburger. The drinks were steep, though: $3 for a medium Icee and $2.25 for a medium soda.