If your kids love fish and ocean life, a trip to Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg, Tennessee should be on your list. The attraction is a super neat experience. You’ll see live shows, learn about creatures in the touch tanks, walk under sharks swimming above you in an underwater tunnel, and so much more. We have everything you need to know to plan your trip to this family-friendly and educational attraction.
Thanks to Ripley’s for the media tickets so we could do this review.
This article includes:
About Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies
What to See and Do at Ripley’s Aquarium in Gatlinburg
Ripley’s Aquarium Live Shows
Homeschool Events and Sleepovers at Ripley’s
Tips for Visiting Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies
Where to Stay Near Ripley’s in Gatlinburg
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies
My dream as a teen was to work at an aquarium. I even went so far as to look at colleges that have excellent marine biology programs. While this career wasn’t meant to be, I still really enjoy learning about all the creatures of the sea – and Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is just the place to get up close with some of the coolest of them.
The aquarium is truly state of the art and houses thousands of ocean creatures like sharks, eels, stingrays, sea horses, and even penguins (awww!). The building sits right in the heart of downtown Gatlinburg and there is a parking garage adjacent to the aquarium. It’s across the street from the Greystone Lodge and Anakeesta.
They offer unique add-on experiences that let guests get up close and personal with many of their animals. Maybe even while sitting in a glass bottom boat! While we weren’t able to participate in those attractions, I’m hoping to do so if I’m able to go back. Maybe next time you are visiting the aquarium in Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg, you will get to experience one!
Your Vacation to Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge: Aquarium Must See’s
A huge pool of sharks and fish
When you enter the aquarium, you’ll walk through the beautiful lobby with a giant sea turtle skeleton hanging from the ceiling and see opportunities for kids to play on some equipment. But keep going through the small tanks of creatures and head to the ginormous tank full of sharks and thousands of gallons of water. You can look right into the water and see all the sharks just chilling and swimming. If you are lucky, you’ll get to see a shark feeding!
Seeing this giant tank is really cool but also a bit unnerving. The animals are so close and there isn’t a huge barrier to you know, falling in. I don’t think this happens but I can be paranoid because let’s just admit it, I’m scared of sharks. We do have it on good authority that people do drop their cell phones into the tank pretty often.
The shark tunnel
Not gonna lie, I kind of sped through some of the tanks of sea creatures to get to the main attraction: the shark lagoon! This giant tunnel makes you feel like you’re swimming with the sharks. You are guided on a slow conveyor belt through a glass tunnel surrounded by sharks, a dangerous reef, and other fish that swim so, so close to you. It’s really incredible and easily our favorite part of visiting the aquarium.
Seeing the movement of the animals from below them was unusual and memorable. You usually don’t ever see that and even if you did nothing else at the aquarium, this alone would probably be worth the cost of admission.
Pet a penguin at the penguin playhouse
Penguins are adorable. I melt whenever I get to see them and find them so much fun to watch. At Ripleys of the Smokies, you can actually pet a penguin as an add-on experience ($49.99/person) and get a take-home photo with one. If you’d like to be super adventurous, you can paint with a penguin. How many people can say they’ve done that? Well, you can and it costs $75/person to do so.
The penguin exhibit at Ripley’s is well done. You actually can even step outside and stand under one of the tanks in this certain way that allows the penguins to burst forth in swimming directly above your head, but in a way that feels like they are swimming straight toward you. You feel somehow in the tank with them.
All the penguins also have individual profiles – like a dating site – where you can learn more about them like when they were born, where they are from, and which ones like to take walks around the aquarium at sunset.
Since no good aquarium is without opportunities to feel the creatures that roam the seas, Ripley’s offers guests the opportunity to touch stingrays while a guide gives information about them. For a small fee, you can buy food and have the rays swim right up to you to eat.
There were several other touch tanks throughout the aquarium. You could touch horseshoe crabs – who did not seem to care one ounce what was happening in their lives. You could even touch jellyfish if you wanted. That was super cool and a little bizarre. The aquarium staff keeps the jellyfish extra cold so that all of the people touching them won’t damage their gel-like “skin”. They felt sort of rubbery and smooth. As weird as jellyfish are, and as painful as their sting can be, they’re kind of fantastic to look at as they glide and float through the water.
Live Shows at Ripley’s Aquarium
If you have a favorite animal or mythical creature like say, mermaids, be sure to check the live show schedule when you plan your visit. You’d hate to miss the penguin parade if you came all the way from Greenville to watch this.
There are neat coral reef dive shows and animal feedings as well.
Special Events and Field Trips
If you’d like to get together a group of your closest friends, scouts, or family and have a sleepover they’ll never forget, you can make it happen at Ripley’s of the Smokies. They have several options to choose from and pre-planned sleepover dates for some programs.
I do think it’d be pretty awesome to sleep in the aquarium. At least I’d have something interesting to look at when I would inevitably wake up at 3 am thinking about how sharks are swimming over my head.
Ripley’s is currently offering homeschool programs once a month to homeschool students and their teachers. For example, their upcoming programs in Fall, Winter, and Spring 2023/2024 include in-depth discussions of plate tectonics, marine fossils, and climate/weather changes.
If you are homeschooling and can’t make one of those programs, Ripley’s offers homeschool discounts for walk-ups of $10.99 per student and sibling(s). Teaching parents cost $19.99 plus tax. You’ll need proof of homeschooling to take advantage of this great discount.
Tips on Enjoying Ripley’s Aquarium
Here are a few suggestions on how to best enjoy the aquarium:
- Get there early. Gatlinburg has soared in popularity over the last few years and downtown is packed. It’s best to go here early to avoid the worst of the crowds and spend time at the exhibits that interest your kids the most. And weekdays usually have fewer crowds than weekends.
- Any age person will like this. The aquarium is a great crowd-pleaser because just about everyone in your family, no matter their age, will find something they like.
- Park next door. If you can, park right next to the aquarium so it’s an easy walk. You do have to pay to park unless you stay across the street at the Greystone Lodge (which we highly recommend). You can make a day of seeing the aquarium and some other attractions within walking distance, like Anakeesta, the Sky Bridge, or other Ripley’s attractions along the main drag.
- Plan to spend a couple of hours there. While it’s possible to speed through the aquarium, there is a lot to see and kids may want to linger in some areas so plan to spend around two hours at the attraction.
- Strollers are fine but babywearing may be better. You’re allowed to bring strollers but if there are a lot of people, it may be easier to use a baby carrier instead to better navigate the aquarium.
- Tickets are good for a year after purchase. This is good knowledge in case you need to bail on a scheduled trip. You don’t need a reservation either unless you are doing an add-on experience.
Plan Your Visit to Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies
Tickets to the aquarium alone are $39.99/adult, $24.99/ages 6-11, and $9.99/ages 2-5. Ripley’s also offers several combination ticket packages where you can visit the aquarium plus one, two, three, etc. attractions.
Ripley’s is open daily from 9:00 am – 10:00 pm (11 pm Friday through Sunday). If you think you’ll want to come back over and over again, which you may after going once, an annual pass may be the way to go.
So, next time you are on your family vacation to Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge, aquarium visits are a must for your itinerary!
Where to Stay Near Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies
Find a place to stay in Gatlinburg, TN. This article contains Stay22 affiliate links.
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies
88 River Road, Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Are you traveling to Gatlinburg / Pigeon Forge? See our Ultimate Guide to Gatlinburg & Pigeon Forge.