Aquariums differ from science museums because they offer the chance to see live marine animals, usually in environments that simulate their natural habitats. The huge, fish-filled tanks and colorful jellies and sea anemones attract children of all ages. Most aquariums offer touch tanks and other hands-on activities for children. Taking your grandchildren to an aquarium is a fun and fascinating way to spend a day, whether as part of a longer vacation or as a day trip.
Planning a trip to an aquarium is much like organizing a museum experience. You will need to think about naps, meals, crowds and comfort. If you arrive right when the aquarium opens, you'll be able to get a better view of the small and large tanks that house the marine animals. As the day wears on, more people will arrive, making it more difficult for younger children to see anything. You may have to carry them in crowded areas so they can look at the fish and animals.
Many aquariums do not allow strollers in the exhibit areas, which means you will have to guide / chase / carry younger children. Some aquariums lend toddler backpacks, which enable you to comfortably "wear" a child without obstructing walkways. In my experience, energetic toddlers and preschoolers set free from the confines of a stroller tend to run from place to place in the darkened exhibit areas. Consider dressing your grandchildren in light, bright colors (white, yellow, neon green) which can easily be seen in dim light. Wear comfortable walking shoes and decide in advance whether and for how long you would be willing to carry your grandchildren through the aquarium.
Even very young children enjoy dolphin shows, so be sure to include time for this activity in your travel plans. You may be able to pre-select your show time; avoid lunchtime if you're sightseeing with young children, because they will need to eat according to their normal schedules. Remember to avoid the "splash zone" – typically the first six rows - when choosing seats unless you want to get wet.
To avoid crowds, plan your trip for a weekday. If weekdays are impossible, choose a Saturday in the off season (late fall or winter) and get to the aquarium right when it opens. You'll be able to go through most of the exhibits and watch animal care and feeding demonstrations before the crowds build. Aquariums are popular attractions and can get quite crowded, so you will need to take the throngs into account when deciding how much time to spend.
Older children, in particular, will truly enjoy a "behind the scenes" aquarium tour. Many aquariums now offer several guided tour options. You'll pay an additional fee to take a tour like this, but you'll be rewarded with fascinating information about how the aquarium staff and volunteers care for and feed the fish and other animals, how the aquarium's infrastructure works and how to prepare for a career in marine biology. Some "back of the house" tours even allow participants to feed the marine animals.
Most aquariums sell at least a limited amount of food. Every U.S. aquarium I've visited has had a snack bar, at the very least, and many feature one or more restaurant venues inside their facility or down the road a block or two. If you'd rather eat elsewhere, plan a two- to three-hour morning visit and eat lunch near the aquarium.