Not every aquarium can be as massive as the Osaka Aquarium in Japan, or Atlanta’s world-renowned water wonderland. This doesn’t mean they are any less impressive or not worth your time. Sometimes smaller really is better. The Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center proves this point with engaging educational displays, a wide range of animals, and sponsored programs that get you out of the building and into the wild.
Most visitors start in the Bay & Ocean Pavilion (main building) before walking the nature trail to the Marsh Pavilion. One unique, and perhaps confusing aspect of the aquarium, is that you aren’t given options as to where you will go. Visitors follow a predetermined path through the Bay & Ocean Pavilion. There are a few spots where you could go left or right first, but ultimately you have to follow a certain way to get to the exit. If you don’t have a lot of time you could go through the Bay & Ocean Pavilion in just under an hour. I didn’t realize we couldn’t easily backtrack, so we got our hand stamped and went through again. The second time around we were able to rush to our favorite exhibits, of which there were many.
Kids popped in and out of the Komodo dragon exhibit, part of the aquarium’s Restless Planet, a $25 million renovation completed in 2009 that overhauled the main exhibit gallery to showcase four immersive habitats along with a look at Virginia’s diverse environments, both past and present. The immersive exhibits include the Malaysian Peat Swamp Habitat, Coastal Sahara Desert Habitat, Read Sea Habitat, and Indonesia’s Flores Island Habitat. Although we enjoyed getting to know the animals in each area, our favorite was the shark tank.
Not only does this aquarium have an impressive collection of sharks, but they show them off in the most imaginative way I’ve ever seen. While parents can sit on the steps leading down to the floor to ceiling glass encasing sharks, rays, and other sea creatures, their young explorers can head into the adjacent submarine. My 4-year-old son would have moved in if I had allowed it. He flipped switches, turned nobs, and watched lights flash and sonar screens beep. Better yet, he found the control panel for the underwater video camera that allowed you to move the camera so you could see different parts of the shark tank on the screen. This was pretty much the highlight of his trip.
While we could have spent all day in the sub, there were other exhibits to capture both of our interests. Each of the four habitats had educational rooms for visitors to duck into. Kids could look at rocks under a magnifying glass, make a volcano rumble to life, play hopscotch, or dress up as some of their favorite critters. It was a (sometimes) quiet refuge from the growing crowds in front of the glass tanks. If you’ve really had enough, head outside to the nature trail, but again, make sure you hand gets stamped before you leave.
A 10-minute walk winds you through the marshlands of Virginia, across bridges, and through trees. If you visit during the summer this can be a very steamy hike, especially with little ones. There is a complimentary shuttle that can bring you between the two buildings. Just make sure you don’t hop on a city bus by mistake. They pull up close to the same spot.
Your nature walk will deposit you in front of the Marsh Pavilion where you can gaze at river otters, sea horses, snakes and other marsh dwellers. Unfortunately the otters where not out during our visit. As the main attraction of this building it did pale in comparison to the Bay & Ocean Pavilion down the lane. However, the aviary was an outdoor hit for the kids to wander around on raised boardwalks as they looked for birds in the trees. There is a great baby play area in the pavilion, perfect for tired parents with babies who like to wander. Park your stroller and plop down on the floor as your kids explore.
You could easily spend a morning in the Virginia Aquarium. In fact, I suggest that you do. By 11am the summer crowds took over the aquarium. I was very happy that we arrived so close to opening so we could have a bit of quiet time with the animals, sometimes all by ourselves. There are numerous special behind the scenes programs offered for an added fee. If you have a budding oceanographer in the family check out the Above & Beyond tour or Sea Turtles Behind the Scenes. As one of the Top 10 marine science and aquarium facilities in the United States, how could you deny your child the chance to get an inside peek?
Dolphin Watching on the Rudee Flipper
If you are looking for a wild encounter with a few marine mammals, climb aboard the Virginia Aquarium sponsored dolphin-watching boat, the Rudee Flipper. This larger boat is better to ride with small kids, while the fast boat may be preferable for older kids. The boat rides along the Virginia Beach coast in search of the dolphins that call the area their home in the summer months. Volunteers are on hand to answer questions, give out stickers and tattoos to kids, and let them touch a dolphin skull.
While the tour promises an action packed cruise with lots of dolphin tricks, our dolphins were a bit laid back the day of our trip. We saw several dolphins including a mother and baby, but only dorsal (top) fins; no faces or tail action that afternoon. It was disappointing but the kids had a great time. Just when they were about to loose it, we pulled into the dock and grabbed dinner.
The ocean may be calling you to splash and play all day, but there is nothing like getting up close and personal with a few of its creatures. The Virginia Aquarium is a must for all families (or any traveler for that matter) in the area. Even if you can only stop by to say hello to the harbor seals splashing around in their tank out front, your trip to the beach will be richly rewarded with a little educational fun.
Know Before You Go
- Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center, 717 General Booth Blvd.
- Virginia Beach, VA. 23451
- Hours: Open daily 9am to 5pm, closed Thanksgiving and Christmas Day
- Cost: $22 adult/ $15 ages 3-11/ under 3 are free (IMAX tickets and behind the scenes tours are extra)
- Stroller? There is plenty of room for strollers, just watch out for steps around the shark tank. There is a ramp that can lead you down.
- Best time to visit? Head to the aquarium first thing in the morning to beat the crowds; by lunch it will be packed.
- Food? The Aquarium Café offers lunch 10am to 4pm daily. There is also a snack bar near the IMAX Theater.
- Shopping: Parents beware- the Bay & Ocean Pavilion loop ends in the gift shop. Stuffed animals, t-shirts, jewelry and more wait for you and your children to grab up and buy. The Marsh Pavilion shop, Fiddler’s Cove, carries slightly less kid-friendly gifts that reflect the salt marsh and woodland themes.