Now that my kids are getting older, children’s museums offer less and less. Their interest in playing with bubbles or making paperclip helicopters has waned. At almost-ten and thirteen, they want something in between appreciating modern art and crawling through the “pretend you’re a bug” exhibit. They want exciting, yet interesting.
During a recent trip to Chicago, we spent some time exploring Shedd Aquarium, and it was one of my kids’ favorite places. There is a little bit of everything at Shedd Aquarium, which makes it work for a wide variety of ages. The exhibits focus on learning, as well as fun and interaction.
During the summer and early fall, you can visit the outdoor Stingray Touch pool to pet stingrays. The pool contains a good number of stingrays, so everyone has a chance to get up close. After the volunteer explains how to safety touch the stingrays, you’re free to enjoy the experience for as long as you like. My youngest loved this, and also spent time at the indoor touch pool filled with several large species of fish, and the starfish touch pool on the lower level.
After my daughter petted fish to her heart’s content, we went in to check out the 4-D experience. They had a choice of SpongeBob, Coastal Predators, and Prehistoric Sea Monsters. We bypassed SpongeBob and went with the Coastal Predators movie. While we did get jabbed in the back as one of the special effects, the movie itself was entertaining and educational. Paired with the 3-D visuals, water mists, and wind effects, both myself and the kids enjoyed the show.
Special experiences done, we moved on to the rest of the aquarium. The amphibian exhibit was listed as a “special exhibit,” but most of the visitors seemed to have tickets which gave access to it, so no one was watching the entrance. For this being a special exhibit, it didn’t seem any better or more exciting than the regular exhibits. Having said that, all the regular exhibits were well put together and interesting, so this one certainly wasn’t disappointing. I had expected something more “special” than an exhibit of frogs, newts, and salamanders I had seen at other zoos or aquariums, though.
The regular exhibits held a variety of fun and interesting options. The main floor exhibit “Waters of the World”, was divided into corridors which held fish from specific regions. If you were interested in something particular, it was easy to find what you wanted. Centered between these corridors was the Amazon Rising exhibit, a coral reef habitat where you could watch divers feed and interact with the fish at scheduled times throughout the day. In the basement, the “Wild Reef,” is home to a large number of sharks, coral, and tropical fish. You get to view the 400,000 gallon tank from a huge viewing window that makes you feel like you’re in the water with them.
The “Polar Play Zone” was partially closed when we visited, due to the upper level viewing deck being closed off to allow the recently born baby dolphin and its mother time to bond. However, at the lower level viewing area, you could see both the dolphins and several beluga whales. The last, largest exhibit was “At Home on the Great Lakes,” which featured environments and fish from the area, while teaching visitors about the local ecosystem. This was a full scale experience you walked through, stopping to observe each habitat as you experienced the simulated Great Lakes area.
If you’re interested in visiting Shedd Aquarium, it is part of Museum Campus in Downtown Chicago. It’s within walking distance of many Michigan Avenue hotels. If you’re staying further away, there are CTA bus and trains stops nearby for easy access, and has paid parking available as well. If you want to make a day of museums, it’s also right next door to both the Adler Planetarium and Field Museum.
Ticket prices for the “Total Experience” package range from $40-$55 for adults and $29-$46 for kids ($2 discount for ordering online). This includes access to the regular exhibits, special amphibians exhibit, 4-D movie, and the Stingray touch pool (open seasonally). There are tickets available to only access the regular exhibits in the $20-25 range, as well. If you’re planning to visit multiple top attractions in Chicago, you can get a Chicago CityPASS (tickets for 3-5 local attractions) for $98 and $82 for adults and kids, respectively, which saves you up to 50% when you use all the tickets.
If you end up at the aquarium for the whole day, which is definitely possible, they have several dining options onsite. The café on the main floor is a sit-down style restaurant. It’s a more expensive option, and the formal set up appeals to adults more than kids, but anyone is welcome. There’s also a small deli right next to the café, as well as cafeteria-style food options on the lower level.
The aquarium is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5/6 p.m. (depending on the season). If you’re planning to do two attractions in one day, get there first thing in the morning, as crowds pick up considerably in the afternoon. When we arrived a little after 9 a.m., we walked right in, but when we came out of the building around 1 p.m., there was a line all the way down the steps and into the courtyard. Plan your second activity for the afternoon to avoid being stuck in a line.
While Shedd Aquarium is one of the pricier downtown Chicago attractions, its large number of exhibits and wide variety of activities makes it appealing to most ages, and well worth the price.