Living in Florida definitely has its advantages, one of the best being that almost the entire state is wrapped in a wonderful mantle of beautiful sand beaches that fan out into gorgeous ocean views. There is easy access for divers and snorkelers to enjoy the underwater beauty of the abundant sea life below the surface
For those of us landlubbers, the Florida Aquarium provides the opportunity to see a slice of undersea life. Its huge glass domed roof reminiscent of an incoming wave of tsunami portions looms over the Channelside district of Tampa.
Over the years since its opening, I have been trying without success to visit the aquarium. Finally a discounted Living Social special was just the ticket to get there (good deal at $29 for two adults). Unfortunately, the $6 parking fee was not included, but at least we didn’t have to hunt for space or park in an expensive garage.
We selected New Year’s Day to visit. While somewhat busy, it was way less crowded than during the summer months and other school holidays.
First stop is the ticket window, unless like me you have a Groupon or Living Social deal voucher purchased in advance. General Adult admission is $23.95, kids 3- 11 $18.95 and kids under 2 are free. Save $2 by purchasing on their website http://www.flaquarium.org/ and you don’t have to wait in the box office line. Check out the prices for various optional experiences (more about those later).
Upon entering the building, an employee will ask if they can take your picture (for an extra fee). Skipping that, hunger overruled the start of of our tour. Places to eat are limited and on the ground floor to the right of the escalators, just past the Horseshoe Crab lagoon. Café Ray is cafeteria style serving deli sandwiches, grilled items, salads & more. I found the layout a little confusing and didn’t like pre-made sandwiches, so I went with the salad bar. A bit pricey for the offerings. Some might think it strange, but I would like to see seafood items on the menu as well as Florida-based foods such as Conch chowder or a good blackened grouper sandwich. The other eatery is Caribbean Cantina, just outside Café Ray near the Explore a Shore play area, which is basically a bar where you can have adult beverages as well as order food, which is brought out to you from the Café Ray kitchen.
To start your visit, take the escalator or elevator to the next floor and enter Wetland Trails which features species native to Florida. Don’t miss looking up as you enter to see a surprising unusual underwater point of view. My favorite part of this section is the otters. Otto and Brandon put on quite a show, especially when a trainer shows up with fish at 1:30pm most days. Brandon, the younger otter, does great back flips, which he learned on his own.
As you continue to walk on the trail, watch out! Native Florida birds may fly overhead.
The only exhibit on this floor not native to Florida is Penguin Point. African Penguins to be exact. One was very playful and photogenic that day performing flips and turns it seemed just for me. He even followed my hand as I moved it along the glass.
Continue to walk through Bays and Beaches featuring lobsters, grouper and a touch tank at Stringray Beach. Walk through a doorway to visit the No Bones Zone where you can touch starfish, anemones and other invertebrate. Cool experience. Just make sure you clean your hands afterward at one of the sanitizer stations.
Continuing on down the next dark hall is Coral Reef Tunnel and Coral Cave with tanks of beautiful coral varieties. Continuing down the dark hall, one goes into Dragons Down Under – a display of seahorses, that is magical.
Visitors will then come to a seating area in front of a large viewing window of the main aquarium tank. There is a daily Penguin Promenade in this area, where guests can get up and fairly close to two African penguins. One fact you will learn at this demonstration may have you thinking twice about getting too close.
Following the dark halls around you will find more tanks of sea creatures such as jellyfish and Portuguese Man ‘O War, eerily floating ghost like in their tanks.
Take the elevator or stairs next to Penguin Point to the 3rd floor which houses Journey to Madagascar. What this has to do with Florida marine life puzzled me. Don’t miss the Lemurs, who were perturbed at being woken up during the day, but made for a good photo op.
Kids can lose interest quickly with all the scientific marine life stuff so there is a play area with pirate ship and water cannons outside Café Ray to keep them happy.
My view of the Florida Aquarium is slightly tainted due to trips to Sea Life Park when I lived in Hawaii and to some extent visits to Sea World in Orlando. I was expecting a more in-depth facility with tanks featuring larger marine life such as dolphins, but there just isn’t room.
There are other adventures to enjoy – Swim with the Fishes, Dive with the Sharks, Wild Dolphin Cruise, Penguins Backstage Tour and Behind the Scenes Tour. All are for additional charges, some quite pricey. Check the web site for more information.