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Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies was voted Best Aquarium in North America by Readers’ Choice 2019 in USA Today. And while I personally haven’t been to every aquarium in North America (unfortunately), I have been to some of the big ones, including the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans, and — fun fact — I had a brief stint as a volunteer at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga.
And not to hate on those guys, because they are all great in their own right, but Ripley’s is still one of my favorites. Here’s a few reasons why …
1. Location, location, location
Ripley’s is nested in a beautiful part Gatlinburg along the main strip, and is very convenient to other attractions, wineries and restaurants. The scenery around this aquarium is very iconic. Parking is available right beside the aquarium, and for $6 you can park all day and walk or ride the trolley to see more sites.
The Discovery Center and play area will keep your kids entertained for hours. (Photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)
2. Great for kids (and big kids)
Ripley’s has a huge, multi-level play area for the youngin’s, complete with swinging bridges, slides and places to climb. Around the play area, you’ll find the Discovery Center for lots of hands-on fun.
In designated areas of the aquarium, kids (and big kids) can touch moon jellies, sting rays, and horseshoe crabs. (Which, by the way, are related to spiders and scorpions — not crabs — as a warning to my fellow arachnophobes.)
There are also plenty of tunnels and “pop in” areas around the aquarium, including in the Penguin Playhouse, so you can really get up close and personal with some of the wildlife.
And since kids always seem to be hungry, there’s convenient snack carts (I see you, Ripley’s Mini Donuts), and Feeding Frenzy Eatery inside the aquarium.
Rock or fish? This is a Weedy Scorpionfish. Its frilly appendages make it the master of camouflage. When hunting, it also rocks back-and-forth to appear like a piece of algae. Its spines are venomous, so it’s a rock — erm, fish — you don’t want to step on. (Photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)
3. Educational opportunities
You could spend a full day at Ripley’s just reading the wealth of fun facts and information they have throughout the aquarium, including several interactive trivia displays. Their new Savage Seas exhibit is full of information about pirate life and even has a walk-in storm simulator.
Ripley’s also offers special events — including educational programs, summer camps and field trips for students, sleepover events, home school programs and more. The list is quite expansive, so be sure to check out their calendar of events — there’s always something new to find.
(Photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)
4. Shark Lagoon
The underwater tunnel is a very fun, unique way to see a variety of marine life and get up close and personal with sharks, sawfish, green sea turtles, morays and much more. At 340-feet, the tunnel is quite long, and you can see a great deal of marine life at angles you’ve never seen before.
With the moving walkway, there’s no multitasking involved — simply relax and enjoy the 180-degree view.
5. Penguins (Need I say more?)
The Penguin Playhouse is nothing short of amazing. There are tunnels to crawl through, a Penguin Playground for kids and a pop-in area for amazing photo opportunities.
In this display, you can see these adorable, playful birds in both their indoor and outdoor habitats.
Ripley’s penguins are also quite the little artists. Do arts and crafts with the penguins as they paint a unique piece of art for you in the Penguin Painting Experience. (This is not included in the regular ticket price, but truly a unique encounter.)
6. Ripley’s is green
Conservation is a common theme in aquariums, and Ripley’s is no exception.
Ripley’s is a Green Power participant and uses solar panels to produce electric energy. Ripley’s was the first business in Gatlinburg to install solar panels, and as an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, they work to find ways to help our planet.
Overall, there’s so much going on at this aquarium — this list only scratches the surface.
While you can easily spend an entire day visiting the aquarium, Ripley’s has seven other attractions in the Smokies, and if you purchase combo passes online, it can save you up to $22-72 per adult.
The additional attractions in the Smokies area include Ripley’s…
- Haunted Adventure
- Mirror Maze
- Moving Theater
- Old Mac Mini Golf
- Davy Crockett Mini Golf
- World Records
Either way, I recommend buying passes online before you go. That way you can skip the lines and get the most out of your day.
Location: 88 River Rd, Gatlinburg,TN 37738
Hours: Open 365 days a year! Hours vary by season, check site for details
Disclaimer: While we do our best to bring you the most up-to-date information, attractions or prices mentioned in this article may vary by season and are subject to change. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any mentioned business, and have not been reviewed or endorsed these entities. Contact us at [email protected] for questions or comments.