Florida Aquariums Your Family Will Love
By Lauren Tjaden
Florida aquariums celebrate our oceans, brimming with life. They offer unique experiences such as touching the velvety skin of a stingray, swimming with sharks, and walking underwater with a host of sea creatures. Discover where your family can learn about, experience and enjoy vibrant coral reefs, frolicking dolphins and more, all around the Sunshine State.
Your Family's Gotta Try This: The Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key
Located a few waves west of downtown Miami, you’ll find The Miami Seaquarium, a 38-acre oceanarium, on the island of Virginia Key in Biscayne Bay. Children of all ages will enjoy its awe-inspiring dolphin and sea lion shows. The sea life exhibits are world-class, showcasing manatees, sea turtles, penguins, rays and more. The Conservation Outpost teaches visitors about wildlife rescue and marine animal care. Best of all, you can climb in the water with the world’s most beloved marine animal, the dolphin, for a once-in-a lifetime thrill.
Discover the underwater worlds of the Indian River Lagoon and Atlantic Ocean at The Smithsonian Exhibit at the St. Lucie County Aquarium in Fort Pierce, which includes a spectacular living model of a Caribbean coral reef ecosystem, a touch tank and hands-on interactive activities.
IMAG History & Science Center, located in Fort Myers, promises that ‘the fun never ends.’ Your gang is likely to agree; the Center features interactive virtual reality exhibits, a “SEA-to-See” Touch Tank, opportunities to hand-feed stingrays, live animal encounters, explosive chemistry, wild physics, wacky engineering shows, and 3D films in the Theater-in-the-Tank.
Kayakers, campers, beachgoers and anglers love Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, but it offers more than outstanding recreational activities. Its Environmental Learning Center, located in Naples, houses a visitor center complete with an interactive 2,300-gallon mangrove aquarium as well as moon jelly and marine life exhibits. A kayak or boat tour with a Rookery Bay Reserve naturalist is another way the Reserve makes learning enjoyable.
Snuggled between the Indian River and the Atlantic Ocean on Hutchison Island, the Florida Oceanographic Society is a 57-acre marine life nature center that offers a nature trails, a 750,000-gallon Game Fish Lagoon, a Sea Turtle Pavilion, Children's Activity Pavilion, Sea Star Touch Tank Pavilion, Rays on the Reef Ray Pavilion, and a Visitors Center. As if that’s not enough, the center’s planning a $6.5 million expansion, with the addition of a new "Ocean EcoCenter" building, pedestrian bridges over the existing Game Fish Lagoon and a waterworks exploration zone.
Situated in West Palm Beach, The COX Science Center and Aquarium offers laser light shows, nights at the museum, the county’s only public observatory, and literally too much more to list. It also boasts Aquariums of the Atlantic, which is home to Shipwreck Cove, a 3,500-gallon predator tank teeming with sharks, a giant spotted moray eel, and fierce barracudas. Other tanks include Jewels of the Sea, Seahorse Corral, Venomous Beauties, and a Touch Tank.
Dive into the secrets of the sea with touch pools, working labs and oh-so-high-tech interactive exhibits at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, heralded worldwide for its research. With birthday parties, breakfast programs, events, boat tours, kayaking, research charters, events and more, Mote invites you to immerse yourself in experiencing the ocean and its wonders.
The Loxahatchee River Center features fresh and saltwater aquariums where your gang can meet the interesting creatures that live in Florida’s first National Wild and Scenic River. The fun includes interactive exhibits and a touch tank. Make sure to allow time for a family-friendly boat tour with the Center, where you can kick back and relax, hunt for shells and snorkel.
Holding is allowed! The historic Key West Aquarium’s touch tank, home to conchs, sea stars, giant hermit crabs and more, introduces your little ones to these beautiful creatures and allows them to gently pick them up. Located in Key West’s famous Mallory Square, the Aquarium promises the unique chance to meet and pet live sharks and stingrays, get up-close and personal with alligators, jellyfish and other marine creatures, and enjoy interactive conservation talks as well as animal feedings.
A planetarium, aquarium and science museum guarantee a fun-filled day at the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science. Located in Downtown Miami's Museum Park, the three-level aquarium is considered a masterpiece of living science. The top level puts you at the surface of the South Florida ecosystem, where mahi-mahi, devil rays and hammerhead sharks roam the 100-foot wide, 500,000-gallon Gulf Stream Aquarium. The next level is The Dive, with nearly 30 aquariums and interactive exhibits. The Deep, true to its name, explores the mysterious, vast depths of the Gulf Stream. Your journey through the aquarium is capped off with a 31-foot oculus lens forming the bottom of the Gulf Stream Aquarium, where the marine life you saw on the first level now glide overhead.
Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, snuggled close to the shores of Boca Raton, lures visitors with nature trails, a butterfly garden, a nature center and four saltwater aquariums representing different South Florida marine habitats. For an unforgettable experience, watch a sea turtle hatchling release or go on a turtle walk, where a guide takes you out to the beach at night to watch a mother sea turtle lay her eggs.
The motto of The Turtle Hospital is “Rescue, rehab and release,” and they encourage visitors to join them on their fascinating journey. This fully functioning veterinary hospital for sick and injured sea turtles, located in Marathon in the Florida Keys, offers guests guided educational tours of the hospital facilities and the sea turtle rehabilitation area. Besides a presentation on sea turtles, you’ll enjoy a behind-the-scenes look at the hospital and have a chance to feed the permanent residents. Reservations are recommended.
Situated on 438 acres between the Atlantic Ocean and the Lake Worth Lagoon in North Palm Beach, John D. MacArthur Beach State Park celebrates nature. It encompasses a maritime hammock, an estuary, a gorgeous beach and dunes, and an Anastasia limestone rock reef, home to parrotfish, barracuda, damsel fish and loggerhead sea turtles. You can see the coral reef from shore, and if you want an up-close look, you can easily reach it with a mask and snorkel. The staff at the Nature and Welcome Center welcome visitors and will help you discover all the park has to offer—kayaking, science camps, aquariums, events, a playground and more.
Grassy Key is home to Dolphin Research Center, where your family can meet their family – one that’s made up of dolphins and sea lions, living in natural, seawater lagoons in the Gulf of Mexico. The fun includes educational presentations, as well as the chance to meet, touch and even get pulled around the lagoon by dolphins.
Encompassing 1,501-acres, Anne Kolb Nature Center holds bragging rights as Broward County’s largest regional park. Located in Hollywood, it offers a nature trail, environmental boat tours, a picnic area, and a coastal mangrove wetland brimming with plant and animal life.
Green Cay Nature Center and Wetlands, located in Boynton Beach in Palm Beach County, overlooks 100 acres of constructed wetland. The wetland is complete with 1.5 miles of elevated boardwalk featuring interpretive signs about the unique environment. The Nature Center encompasses a lecture hall, gift shop, and live animals in an extensive exhibit room.
Explore the world under the ocean without even getting your shoes damp at SEA LIFE Orlando, home to Florida’s only 360° tunnel. You’ll be part of the action as fish, sharks, turtles, and eels swim above, beneath and all around you. Be amazed by unique dive shows, meet a famous rescue sea turtle, and enjoy unusual photo ops at the jellyfish wall exhibit, where your gang can change the colors of the habitat. Consider a behind-the-scenes adventure to see what the fish eat, say hello to the divers, and view the ocean from a new perspective.
Swimming with dolphins, unlimited food and drink, tropical beaches, snorkeling with fish and rays, animal encounters and more: Make your escape to Discovery Cove in Orlando for an all-inclusive experience like no other. Make sure to try SeaVenture, an innovative, underwater walking tour where, thanks to a dive helmet, you’ll feel right at home under the waves.
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is anything but typical; it’s a working hospital focused on rescue, rehabilitation and release. Your family will love meeting the otters, sharks, pelicans and more. Activities include boat and kayak tours as well as animal care experiences.
The Tarpon Springs Aquarium, located at the west end of the historic Sponge Docks, is small in size but big on adventure. You can watch a SCUBA diver hand-feed the dangerous inhabitants, including sharks, in the central 120,000-gallon tank; learn about alligators and touch one; and even touch one of the python snakes, some measuring an astounding 14 feet.
Rides! Shows! Animal experiences! SeaWorld Orlando has it all. Watch frolicking dolphins from above and below the surface at Dolphin Cove, explore the Jewel of the Sea Aquarium, and step behind the scenes to see manatees being rehabilitated. That’s just the tip of the sandbar as far as adventures with the finned, flippered, and feathered occupants of SeaWorld; heart-stopping coasters and must-see shows add to the excitement.
Seeing an aquarium is one thing; snorkeling with its occupants brings it to a whole other level of fun. The RumFish Grill at RumFish Beach Resort in St. Pete Beach invites you to Swim with the Fishes in its 33,500-gallon aquarium. Heated to 76-78 degrees and about 13 feet deep, the aquarium is filled with fish that you’d find locally, like tarpon, amberjack, grouper, a nurse shark and more. All equipment is provided, and reservations are required.
The RumFish Grill promises a unique place to refuel, too; you can enjoy a seafood meal by the massive fish tank.
The Environmental Learning Center welcomes visitors to come discover their 64-acre lagoon island campus in Vero Beach. It offers nearly two miles of boardwalks, canoe trips and pontoon boat tours. Don’t miss its Discovery Station interactive museum, which promises a true hands-on experience with the marine animals in its 145-gallon touch tank, teaching you how to best handle the small occupants, which may include hermit, horseshoe or spider crabs, sea cucumbers and sea urchins.
Learning about the ocean, its animals and environmental issues is fun and easy-to-understand thanks to the marine volunteer opportunities and experiences offered by Marine Exploration Center in St. Petersburg. It offers a unique mobile experience that travels to schools and local events, and you can hire it for a birthday party, too.
Established in 1995, The Florida Aquarium invites you to connect with the sea. Located in Tampa, driven by their mission to entertain, educate and inspire stewardship of the natural environment, the Aquarium encompasses 8,000 animals and plants and hosts 300 events annually. There, you can enjoy wild dolphin tours, meet penguins, or even try an in-water swim or dive adventure with more than 1,600 fish, stingrays, eels and sea turtles. The exhibits are staggering, including a huge simulated wetland nestled under a glass atrium as well as a coral reef ecosystem awash in half a million gallons of natural seawater. If you’re in need of a break, cool off on the Splash Pad or relax in the 4-D Theater.
Climb aboard a “clamobile” with your little ones on The Seas with Nemo & Friends ride at Epcot, located at Orlando’s Walt Disney World Resort, for an underwater adventure where Nemo’s friends dart through colorful coral reefs. When the ride ends, the fun is just starting; The Seas with Nemo & Friends Pavilion boasts a gigantic 5.7-million-gallon saltwater aquarium filled with 4,000-plus sea creatures, including 85 species of tropical fish, rays and sharks. If you’re hungry, Disney has that covered too. The Coral Reef Restaurant promises panoramic windows that offer every table a view into the aquarium, which is the largest inland saltwater environment ever built, holding enough water to fill 54 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
Open since 1955 in Fort Walton Beach, Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park entices you to play and learn. The park features dolphin encounters as well as shows with sharks, rays and dolphins. Your little guppies can even celebrate their birthdays there, surrounded by beautiful tropical fish in the Living Sea event room.
Gulf World Marine Park, located in Panama City Beach, urges visitors to “Come for the experience, leave with a mission to help the environment.” This historic attraction features daily educational shows and chats as well as interactive programs. You can swim with a dolphin, cradle a penguin in your arms, and touch and feed stingrays. The splash zone promises a fun place to cool off.
South of Tallahassee, in the pristine, quiet town of Panacea, you’ll find Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratories, a nonprofit that studies endangered species and provides marine life to schools and research laboratories. (Its sea urchins and sponges have even been sent to outer space!) It offers guided tours of its aquarium and lab, as well as field trips to the “living dock” and the nearby salt marshes. Your family will love the touch tanks, graphic exhibits and hands-on experiences, encouraging them to touch, smell, and hear the interesting and often odd creatures inhabiting the Gulf of Mexico.