Here's what we learned:
1) Tickets -- If you're looking for a deal or you are sticking to a relatively strict schedule (as is the case with many families traveling with small children), it's probably a good idea to buy tickets in advance. Tickets are expensive -- $34.95 for adults (12 and up), $21.95 for kids (3-11), with kids under 3 free and further discounted rates for seniors. I did some searching for coupon codes and other deals, but because we're not Maryland residents I had a hard time finding much.
The best deal we could find that applied to us involved $8 off each adult admission through AAA. Because we found the deal the day before we went, we picked the tickets up at a local AAA office. A couple points to know about AAA tickets, if you go with this option:
- The AAA website may claim that there are not enough tickets available. This is likely wrong, which is part of the reason we picked ours up at an AAA office.
- When we bought our tickets through AAA, they wound up being vouchers good for 9 months. This means they did not include entry for a specific date and time, meaning we were taking a bit of a gamble because we did not have standard timed-entry tickets. Instead, when we arrived we had to go to a will-call window and trade in our voucher for timed-entry tickets. The good news is our timed entry tickets were for 10 a.m., which is exactly when we got there, so we did not experience a wait.
2) Parking -- There is some metered street parking available on Pratt Street right across from the harbor, practically in front of the aquarium, and those few coveted spaces are actually valid for 4-hour stretches, as we discovered after the fact. There are also some 2-hour street spaces on Market Place, just one block past the aquarium, but we figured we'd be gone for at least 3 hours and didn't want to risk it. So, we went with the expensive, safe parking option of the Lockwood Place Garage with an entrance on Market Place. Most aquarium visitors will be parked for at least 3 hours, which means you'll be paying the highest price: $24 for 3 hours or more (up to 24 hours), with $5 off if you remember to take your parking ticket to get it validated at the aquarium's exit.
3) Timing -- Check the aquarium's website for updated hours information, but know that it will be open by 10 a.m. We went during the winter holidays, so it opened at 9 a.m. the day of our visit, though we didn't get inside the exhibits until 10 a.m. (mostly because we didn't rush ourselves leaving the house). If you're able to purchase timed-entry tickets before you arrive and you've got a toddler in tow, I'd recommend going with 10 a.m. as that's when the exhibits are the least crowded (and most toddlers I know, including my own, seem to be on their best behavior earliest in the day). Plan for 2-3 hours of visiting time for you and your toddler.
4) Strollers, lockers and coat checks -- The aquarium has a strict no-stroller policy, though I did weirdly see someone with a stroller near the shark exhibit (but maybe she had special permission based on circumstances). Strollers and coats can be checked right inside the main entrance, where there is a wall of lockers as well, though by the time we were leaving at 12:30 there were signs that said the stroller, coat check and lockers were all full and to check back later. I'm not sure what you do at that point, besides returning to your car to store your items or waiting for an indefinite period of time. So, I'd recommend leaving your stroller at home and trying to minimize how much you bring in if possible. We visited on a 50-degree day, so Matt and I skipped our coats and just brought the diaper bag, which we traded off carrying.
5) Food -- I'm glad we kept the diaper bag on us because I'd packed it with snacks for Natalie, and it's a good thing I did -- looking at fish made this child, who normally does not have a tremendous appetite, especially hungry. There are a few places to eat scattered throughout the aquarium, including one on the 4th floor near the puffins exhibit. This spot has a particularly awesome view of the inner harbor, and if I'd had better parenting instinct at the time I would have given Natalie a snack at one of the tables there that could have prevented the mini-meltdown we experienced moments later in front of the puffins. Over in the section of the aquarium known as Pier 4 (where the dolphins are located) there's a small cafeteria called Harbor Market Cafe with a large eating space where you can set up your child with food either from home or purchased there. Plus, you can enjoy the jellyfish art hanging overhead.
Getting around with a toddler
Our visit lasted exactly two and a half hours, which was the perfect length for us. Before you arrive, check out the aquarium maps to determine what makes the most sense for your child's temperament. If you follow the normal aquarium route, you'll start at Blacktip Reef, which is super cool and a big exhibit that should keep everyone's attention, but then you will hit a lot of small tanks as you move up the aquarium levels. This mostly worked well for Natalie, but it also means that she had her 4th-floor freak out in front of the puffins, which is too bad because that should have been one of the exhibits she enjoyed the most (she loves penguins, so puffins are close enough). It also means she didn't pay much attention inside the rain forest section on the 5th floor.
Cute mother-child photo? Not happening in the rain forest.
But, overall, the aquarium really held Natalie's attention, especially once she got more food in her system. She seemed most mesmerized by the sharks, and stared for many extended periods at the shark tanks, repeating, "Sharks have big teeth!"
We skipped the dolphin show, as I think it's probably still too long and advanced for our almost-two-year old, but Natalie enjoyed watching the two dolphins from the underwater viewing area.
When it came to smaller fish tanks, Natalie seemed more attracted to the bright displays with colorful tropical fish rather than some of the low-light displays. In fact, I suspect some of the low-light tanks scared her because she ran away from a few. There are ledges (or "little steps," as Natalie called them) in front of nearly all exhibits for kids to stand on to get a better view of the tanks, so she enjoyed that element of the visit as well. On a funny side note, one of Natalie's favorite things to say now is, "So pretty!" and "So beautiful!" So, she kept saying that, and Matt and I kept saying, "Yes, beautiful fish." I definitely had several people say to me, "Actually, that is a [insert highly specific, technical species name here]." I would just say, "Ohhh, thanks!" and then laugh a little inside at the absurdity of the situation and the fact that I was just trying to keep my kid smiling, not teach her Latin.
Perhaps the weirdest/coolest exhibit all three of us enjoyed is the jellyfish, also located in Pier 4 near the dolphins. I mean, come on, these guys are cray cray.
There's a small section in Pier 4 named the Children's Discovery Gallery. It was not what I was hoping it would be (I remember a place where I got to pick up starfish when I visited as a child), but Natalie thought it was amazing, so that's all that matters. The Gallery includes marine-life dress up clothes children can try on, a giant tortoise shell they can touch, a marine-life puppet show space where kids can put on their own performances, and a wall with a coral reef backdrop where kids can stick Velcro-backed sea creatures. Natalie was difficult to photograph here because she was excited and mostly jumping.
If you're hoping to get some good photos of your family at the aquarium, take advantage of the several atriums throughout the buildings. They offer great lighting, provided you keep the camera pointing away from the windows.
I'm so glad we had a chance to share this experience with our daughter!