Attractions

Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies: An honest review with discounts

Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is one of the crown jewel attractions in Gatlinburg, Tenn., featuring over 350 species of aquatic life in its massive facility.

But when you’re planning out your precious vacation dollars, budget and time, a question commonly comes up: Is the Gatlinburg aquarium worth it?

While “worth” is different for different people, we believe this review will help you determine if an aquarium visit is right for you and your family.

Let’s start with the basics.

A diver at Ripley's Aquarium in Gatlinburg
Visitors might see live dive shows inside the tanks at Ripley’s (media photo courtesy of Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies)

How much is Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies?

At the time of this writing, an adult ticket (12 and up) is $39.99. Children (6-11) cost $24.99 and children (2-5) cost $9.99.

Didn’t see the price of admission for toddlers? That’s because children under age two are free!

Now, shelling out (turtle jokes) $40 on an aquarium ticket might seem a little steep.

But, for comparison’s sake, I looked at two nearby competitors: The Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, Tenn., and the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta.

Chattanooga currently costs $34.95 for adults and $21.95 for children.

The Georgia Aquarium is $39.99 for everyone except for children under 2.

So, Ripley’s is actually quite affordable when you compare.

For example, let’s say you have a family of four with two kids between the ages of 3-10.

A day at the Georgia Aquarium would cost roughly $160 (pre-tax). A day at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga would cost about $114, and a day at Ripley’s would cost about $130.

However, if your children are younger than five, it would make Ripley’s the most affordable option of its competitors.

But here’s where the vacation math really gets exciting. If you get combo tickets with Ripley’s, you can save up to $25 per person when you visit two other Ripley’s attractions, or $35 per person if you visit three other Ripley’s attractions.

In my opinion, this makes Ripley’s the best deal of the three.

Ripley's interactive elements on the inside of the aquarium
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies has several interactive areas for the younger members of the family (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

How long does it take to go through Ripley’s Aquarium in Gatlinburg?

Google says that most people spend an average of about 2.5 hours here. However, I can easily spend about half my day exploring the aquarium.

Honestly, if you stop to read everything, do everything, touch everything, you could easily spend several hours here.

To me, the longer I stay at an attraction, the further my vacation dollar goes. Aquariums are a place to slow down and appreciate the wonders of aquatic life.

Could you speed walk through it and see it in less than two hours? Probably. But you might just be missing that one giant fish in that one tank.

Read Also: Is Anakeesta worth the money? An honest review

A penguin at Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies
The Penguin Playhouse is one of the best areas to explore at the Gatlinburg aquarium (media photo courtesy of Ripley’s Aquarium)

Is it cheaper to buy Ripley’s Aquarium tickets online?

There are clear advantages to buying your tickets online before you go.

The first of which is that you can skip the line upon arrival, saving valuable vacation time.

And if you are interested in seeing any other Ripley’s attractions, or playing some mini-golf in the area, you can save even more by bundling your tickets with some of the other attractions.

The more you buy, the more you save per attraction.

And it’s worth noting that Gatlinburg has more Ripley’s attractions than anywhere else in the world.

The other attractions may not be quite as popular as the aquarium, but the mini-golf alone makes the deal worth it, in my opinion.

The additional attractions in the Smokies area include:

  • Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium
  • Ripley’s Moving Theater
  • Ripley’s Mirror Maze
  • Ripley’s Haunted Adventure
  • Ripley’s Super Fun Zone (Laser Tag)
  • Ripley’s Super Fun Zone (Indoor Mini Golf)
  • Ripley’s Mountain Coaster (One ride)
  • Ripley’s Super Fun Park (One hour unlimited rides)
  • Old Mac Mini Golf (18 holes)
  • Davy Crockett Mini Golf (18 holes)

Read Also: Ripley’s in the Smokies: A breakdown of each attraction (with discounts and coupons!)

A cownose ray at Ripley's
The cownose ray gets its name because of its distinct cow-shaped nose (media photo courtesy of Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies)

How long are Ripley’s Aquarium tickets valid?

When you buy a ticket online, your ticket is valid for one year from the date of purchase.

At this time, reservations are not required for general admission.

However, we recommend buying in advance to save yourself some time upon arrival.

Is Ripley’s Aquarium in Gatlinburg worth it?

In my opinion, the aquarium is very well done.

And my vacation math, especially for a family of four, also checks out.

Certainly, I have not personally been to every aquarium in North America, unfortunately. But I’ve visited some of the big ones, including the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta and the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans.

I even had a brief stint as a volunteer at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga.

And not to throw shade on those guys, because they are all great in their own right.

Still, Ripley’s remains one of my favorites.

Even though it’s still a large aquarium, it doesn’t get quite as crowded as the aquarium in Georgia. Plus, Ripley’s does a great job offering hands-on experiences, such as touching the gentle stingrays at Stingray Bay.

If there’s wiggle room in your budget, you can book a penguin encounter where you get to pet one of the adorable and playful penguins. You can also book a penguin painting experience, which is $75 per person at the time of this writing.

How big is Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies?

According to Ripley’s, the aquarium is an 85,000-square-foot facility with two levels full of interactive experiences.

Two of my personal favorite features of this aquarium include the 340-foot underwater tunnel with a glide path. And of course, there’s the Penguin Playhouse. The adorable creatures enjoy both an indoor and outdoor habitat.

Popular areas to explore include the coral reef, the tropical rainforest, Gallery of the Seas and the Discovery Center.

In fact, being face to face with jellyfish, a giant sea turtle, sawfish, octopi, moray eels, tarpons, cuttlefish, squirrelfish, giant stingrays, garden eels and even flounder is an experience not soon forgotten.

The glass-bottom boat that travels over the Shark Lagoon is a family favorite as well.

For more information about special events such as pirate sleepovers, camps and penguin art, visit the aquarium events page. Group discounts and special promos are also available.

Special combo attraction tickets for additional Ripley’s attractions are available as well.

Green sea turtle at Ripley's
Sally is a green sea turtle at Ripley’s Aquarium (media photo courtesy of Ripley’s Aquarium)

The Gatlinburg aquarium is wheelchair-accessible and stroller friendly.

Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is located in downtown Gatlinburg at 88 River Rd, Gatlinburg, TN 37738.

For more information and to plan your visit, visit the website or book your tickets online.

What do you think of Ripley’s Aquarium in Gatlinburg? Is it worth it? Let us know in the comments!

Dollywood at Christmas, your guide to this year’s festival [2022]

Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas event is a favorite for Dolly Parton, who enjoys bringing families together for a magical holiday celebration each year.

The Dollywood crew traditionally works behind the scenes beginning mid-June, stringing lights on days when the park is closed, overnights and early mornings.

The park usually closes for about a week after the Great Pumpkin LumiNights and Harvest Festival event to transition into a winter wonderland overflowing with holiday lights.

It’s no easy feat hanging up over 6 million Christmas lights while simultaneously preparing for other seasonal events and offering park-goers an uninterrupted experience.

The entire process takes almost 5 months from start to finish each year.

building and hung christmas lights at dollywood
Dollywood will soon be illuminated with millions of Christmas lights (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Is Dollywood open on Thanksgiving and Christmas?

Dollywood will reopen on Nov. 5, 2022 to kick off the Christmas season with its Smoky Mountain Christmas event, presented by Humana.

The park will be on a reduced holiday schedule with closures scheduled for most Mondays and Tuesdays throughout the season.

However, Dollywood will be open the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Nov. 22, as well as the Monday and Tuesday before and after Christmas.

Notably, Dollywood is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

On operating days, the park will be open from 11 am until 9 pm during the festival.

The last operating day of the season will be Jan. 1, 2023

We encourage all guests to double-check the operating calendar when making plans to visit the Dollywood theme park in the Smokies.

dollywood christmas tree at night with snow falling around guests
Dollywood is returning with fan favorites, including the “Wonderful Christmas!” Plaza Tree Show, which features a 50-ft. tall animated tree (media photo by Curtis Hilbun/Dollywood)

What’s new at Dollywood this Christmas?

Dollywood will sparkle this Christmas season with new lighting elements throughout the park. Guests riding the Dollywood Express will enjoy a special light show draped across the field located inside the train’s upper turning loop.

Another new lighted area is the Village Pass, which features a 130-ft light curtain wall that includes programmed movement. This area leads guests from lower Craftsman’s Valley to The Village.

Adventures in Imagination will shine in pink, platinum and gold decorations, as well as 60 LED butterflies and a new 20-ft. tall Christmas tree in an area called Dolly’s Christmas.

The new elements add one million lights, meaning guests will enjoy 6 million lights during this season’s festival.

fireworks above wildwood grove tree at Dollywood
The fireworks display “Merry & Bright” will return on Friday and Saturday evenings at Dollywood (media photo by Curtis Hilbun/Dollywood)

Will Dollywood have fireworks for Christmas this year?

Yes! Returning this year on Friday and Saturday evenings is the “Merry & Bright!” fireworks display. The display lights the sky above Dollywood and is set to the rhythm of upbeat contemporary holiday hits.

After Christmas, the music changes to help guests ready to ring in the new year. The New Year’s version of the show takes place nightly from Dec. 26-Jan. 1.

For those looking to celebrate the holidays with the perfect family meal, Dollywood’s chefs have a menu full of culinary surprises. From herb-roasted turkey breast and citrus-glazed carved ham to chicken pot pie in a bread cone, there are a number of savory items to satisfy every appetite.

Dollywood will also be featuring eggnog cupcakes, gingerbread-dusted funnel cake, holiday limeade and more.

hidden hollow at dollywood with christmas lights
Hidden Hollow in Wildwood Grove also gets decked out for the holidays (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Is Dollywood good at Christmas?

Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas festival is one of the most beloved traditions in the Smoky Mountains. In fact, it is the 14-time winner of the Best Theme Park Christmas Event award.

Throughout the park, you’ll see several Christmas trees, decorations and holiday cheer throughout Timber Canyon, Wildwood Grove and Craftsman’s Valley.

Holiday favorites are expected to return this year, including the heartwarming story of the Polar Bear and his Black Bear cousin in Glacier Ridge. The story will be told on the animated tree after dark at the Plaza at Wilderness Pass.

Also, did you know Santa Claus himself has a Smoky Mountain cabin? Kids of all ages can take an immersive trip to visit the North Pole at the “Santa’s List … Naughty or Nice” interactive experience.

Dollywood also brings a wide variety of live entertainment to the Dollywood Christmas event.

Dollywood’s family favorite shows light up both indoor and outdoor stages. The festival’s headline show, “Christmas in the Smokies”, has been a must-see for families every Christmas season since it began in 1990.

Many other Dollywood Christmas classics return including:

  • “Twas the Night Before Christmas”
  • “O’ Holy Night”
  • “Christmas with the Kingdom Heirs”
  • “Heart of the Holidays”
  • “Candlelight Carolers”
  • “The Mistletones”
  • “Appalachian Christmas with the Smoky Mountain String Band”
  • “Holiday Wild Roots”
Dollywood train at Christmas
The Dollywood train will also be decorated for Christmas (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Are rides open during Christmas at Dollywood?

Rides do traditionally continue to run throughout the winter season at Dollywood. However, operations are dependent upon the weather.

For example, each ride has a temperature at which it must close. Most rides will close if temperatures reach about 36 degrees or below.

View the weather guidelines for each attraction or ride here.

Read Also: The ultimate guide to Dollywood: Rides, shows, food and more [2022]

the northern lights at Dollywood at Christmas
The Northern Lights at Glacier Ridge is a fan-favorite feature (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

Tips for going to Dollywood for Christmas

First things first, make sure the park is open when you plan to make your visit. The park runs on a limited schedule in November and December and is closed for most of January.

Also, remember to wear layers if you plan to visit Dollywood during the Christmas celebration.

Even though daytime temperatures may be pleasant and sunny, temperatures cool down quickly at night in the mountains of Tennessee.

Read Also: Dollywood announces new ride, Big Bear Mountain

dollywood logo for coupon

Get Dollywood tickets

With Tripster.com

Save time and get your Dollywood tickets in advance

How much does it cost to go to Dollywood at Christmas?

At the time of this writing, a day pass for Dollywood is $89. Two-day passes are also available for $109. Of course, you get the most out of your dollar if you visit for two days.

You can also book with Tripster and save time in line before your arrival.

We encourage all guests to check the daily schedule on the Dollywood website for the latest information on showtimes and other updates.

Double down on your Dollywood experience and stay in Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa and truly treat yourself.

The resort’s halls are also decked in beautiful décor inspired by warm, rich memories of Christmas in the Smoky Mountains.

Interested in a season pass for 2023?

Diamond or gold season passes purchased during Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas provides admission to this year’s Christmas festival along with admission for Dollywood’s big 2023 operating season.

Guests can purchase their 2023 season pass online now or upgrade their paid one-day admission ticket on the day of their visit.

Ticket purchasers receive credit for the value of a regular one-day ticket toward the purchase of a 2023 season pass.

Dollywood is located in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

Have you been to Dollywood for the Christmas celebration? What did you think? Let us know in the comments.

View the web story version of this article here.

Astra Lumina at Anakeesta is now open, what you need to know

Astra Lumina has officially opened at Anakeesta.

Debuting ahead of schedule, the brand-new nighttime immersive adventure launched with a sold-out opening weekend.

Anakeesta teamed up with Canadian-based multimedia entertainment studio Moment Factory to create an experience completely unique to the Smokies. In fact, it’s unique to the whole United States.

Astra Lumina at Anakeesta is the 15th experience in the Lumina Enchanted Night Walk series and the very first in the country.

The stellar journey of astral magic and discovery offers Gatlinburg a new nighttime offering unlike anything else in one of the newest, most remarkable experiences in the Smokies.

astra lumina sign at entrance with trees and lights
Astra Lumina is a new night walk experience at Anakeesta in Gatlinburg (photo by Daniel Munson/TheSmokies.com)

What is Astra Lumina at Anakeesta?

Astra Lumina is a night walk experience that features lighting, projection and sound.

The walk consists of a one-mile, unpaved nature trail with lighting effects, fog, lasers and more.

The idea of the experience is to “connect visitors with the stars” as they begin exploration through a Smoky Mountain forest.

At Astra Lumina, visitors will feel like they are traveling across mysterious observatory grounds, discovering a celestial pathway of lustrous light, cosmic visions and astral song along the way.

Members of the media, including staff from TheSmokies.com, were able to preview the experience on Thursday, Oct. 20.

And on Oct. 21, the brand-new experience opened to the general public. However, it is already sold out for the opening weekend.

“We’re thrilled to open with so much excitement from our guests,” said Bob Bentz, Managing Partner at Anakeesta.

“We are really feeling the energy from the city, Astra Lumina is only the beginning of Anakeesta’s vision to continue to offer Gatlinburg unparalleled experiences and continue to raise the bar for attractions in Tennessee.”

pink orbs light up night sky
The Astra Lumina experience offers lighting effects throughout a one-mile nature walk (photo by Daniel Munson/TheSmokies.com)

What will you see on the Astra Lumina night walk?

During the night walk, stargazers will embark on eight distinct stellar zones:

Names and descriptions of these zones can be found below:

  • Astra Archway: Step inside the starlight and enter the unknown
  • Falling Stars: Open your heart to the arrival of the stars
  • Cosmic Choir: Experience a symphony of fallen stars
  • Stardust Rays: Discover a place where stars and nature are one
  • Stellar Visions: Take off on a journey to uncover the origin of the stars
  • Celestial Trail: Immerse in the flowing force of astral energy
  • Astral Genesis: Witness the regeneration of the stars
  • Rise of the Stars: Look up to the sky as the stars return to their rightful home
a map of the path at astra lumina features eight stops
The Astra Lumina night walk features eight zones (photo by Daniel Munson/TheSmokies.com)

What is the Moment Factory?

Moment Factory is a multimedia studio company that has a full range of production expertise.

Their team specializes in video, lighting, architecture, sound and special effects to create remarkable experiences.

Since its inception in 2001, Moment Factory has created more than 450 unique projects worldwide, including the Lumina Night Walk series.

Other projects from the Moment Factory span the globe and include notable clients such as Disney, Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal, Arcade Fire, Microsoft, Sony, Boston Museum of Science, Madonna, Universal Studios and the Toronto Zoo.

The company is based in Montreal and has addresses in Tokyo, Paris, New York City and Singapore.

lights fall like stars at the astra lumina experience at anakeesta
The night walk experience follows a journey of stars (photo by Daniel Munson/TheSmokies.com)

How much is Astra Lumina at Anakeesta?

Astra Lumina is an add-on experience. General admission to the park is required.

The good news is, visitors can purchase a special discount combo ticket that includes admission for only $49.98 at the time of this writing.

Additionally, guests may also choose an after 5 pm ticket at a discount, and annual pass members receive 20% off Astra Lumina tickets.

Senior and child discounts are also available.

For more information or to purchase tickets, visit their website.

lasers project in smoky mountain forest at anakeesta
The experience uses fog, lighting and other special effects (photo by Daniel Munson/TheSmokies.com)

Is Astra Lumina worth it at Anakeesta?

I think so. It’s definitely a unique experience, but the answer is always subjective.

For a family with several young children? It may not be worth the extra expense.

However, if you’re looking for a romantic evening walk for a special occasion?

Definitely worth it.

Do you need reservations for Astra Lumina?

You may purchase either online for a discounted rate or at the gate.

However, I would strongly recommend booking the experience ahead of time. At the time of this writing, Astra Lumina tickets were sold out for the opening weekend.

a sign asks what if the stars could reach for us in sea of lights
Astra Lumina asks, “what if the stars could reach for us?” (media photo courtesy of Anakeesta)

How long is the Astra Lumina experience?

There are eight stations during the Astra Lumina night walk experience.

Each section essentially runs on a loop and averages a little under five minutes or so.

If you took your time enjoying each display and the pathways of light between them, we’d estimate about 45 minutes to an hour to experience Astra Lumina.

path lit up with lights and fog
The pathways are uneven and not wheelchair or stroller-friendly (photo by Daniel Munson/TheSmokies.com)

Is Astra Lumina wheelchair accessible?

Anakeesta says that the Astra Lumina experience is not wheelchair accessible. It is also not stroller accessible unless parents are using a “sport” stroller.

The experience is on a one-mile, unpaved nature trail.

a sign tells guests to explore at their own pace
Guests are encouraged to explore at their own pace (photo by Daniel Munson/TheSmokies.com)

Other tips for Astra Lumina at Anakeesta

Flash photography is not permitted, but other photos and videos are allowed.

Allow about 1.5 hours to arrive at the park and get up the mountain on either the lift or the Ridge Rambler adventure vehicle before your ticket time.

You can enter Astra Lumina 30 minutes prior to your ticket time.

Children must be supervised and closed-toed shoes are strongly recommended.

Special effects include strobe lights, flashing lights, lasers and fog.

Anakeesta Coupon

Get general admission tickets to Anakeesta

With Tripster.com

Save time and get your Anakeesta tickets in advance

What else is at Anakeetsa?

Tennessee’s award-winning theme park Anakeesta is a family entertainment venue in beautiful downtown Gatlinburg.

The park offers the Rail Runner mountain coaster and the chance to soar across the sky with the Dueling Zipline Adventure Course for thrill seekers.

But Anakeesta is best known for its beautiful views of the majestic Smoky Mountains. Guests begin on a scenic chondola ride to the top of the mountain.

From there, they are free to stroll through the Vista Gardens and visit the AnaVista Tower, which is downtown Gatlinburg’s highest point.

There are multiple places to eat at the park, and the chefs offer innovative culinary creations at restaurants like Cliff Top Grill and Bar. It’s certainly one of the best places to eat in Gatlinburg.

Of course, overall, the venue is fun for visitors of all ages. Anakeesta also offers play areas for the little ones, including a splash pad and the TreeVenture and BearVenture challenge courses.

The attraction is also known for having the nation’s longest treetop SkyWalk, which is included in the price of general admission.

Read Also: These are the best restaurants in Gatlinburg TN: 37 top places to eat

rendering of stone village at anakeesta
Anakeesta will continue expanding through 2024 and will be adding a European-themed village (media photo courtesy of Anakeesta)

What else is new at Anakeesta?

Astra Lumina is the first step of a major expansion of the theme park.

Anakeesta officials recently announced a multimillion-dollar expansion. This will be the largest development to date since the park’s opening in 2017.

The upcoming expansion will double the size of the guest experience. This $34 million investment will happen in phases through 2024.

The expansion will include a new mountain coaster, a European-themed village and BirdVenture, a birdhouse-inspired play zone.

Read Also: Anakeesta announces $34 million expansion, the largest yet

Anakeesta is located along the Parkway in downtown Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

What do you think about the new Astra Lumina experience at Anakeesta? Let us know in the comments below.