The east coast houses its fair share of amazing aquariums. It’s easy to expect a big space, glorious sweeping architecture, and expansive exhibits. Yet, I’ve always been a fan of smaller spaces with more quirks and character. Careful design and interesting exhibits work together to provide a great experience at the Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration in the tourist village of Mystic, Connecticut (especially for younger kids, or children who are overwhelmed by too much stimulus).
The aquarium is easily accessible off I-95, and parking is plentiful and free. Even when the lot is full, there are usually a few spaces available near the doors. Once you get inside and past the photographer trying to sell you a family photo, you may go straight and visit the ray touch pool on your way inside, or veer right to walk a meandering path through the outdoor exhibits, which include beluga whales, penguins, sea lions, seals, and local habitats.
The aquarium includes inside exhibits in two large rooms, with several small side exhibit spaces. These include a jelly fish tunnel, a neon fish room, a water conservation exhibit, and the Amazon. Within the center space, there’s are crab and shark touch pools, and an opportunity to touch a reptile.
Upstairs is a marine theater, where there are daily sea lion shows, and to the side is a 4D theater that shows feature films, and the Ocean Exploration Center. Near the exit is an overpriced cafe and a gift shop (here’s an exhibit map).
The aquarium has a rehabilitation, veterinary and research focus (both onsite and off), which influences the exhibits. Docents are conveniently stationed throughout the outdoor path to answer questions, and trainers and veterinarians frequently make appearances doing enrichment play, training, and routine care. Summer camps, after school programs, and an onsite preschool also emphasize exploration and learning.
All of the above is sort of par for the course for aquariums, but there are some unique upsides to Mystic Aquarium that make it worth the trip, especially for parents of young children.
The only beluga whale exhibit in New England: Mystic has one of the largest whale exhibits in the nation. The exhibit is set up so that the whales can easily swim near viewers or swim away for privacy or play.
The four belugas include Juno, who loves small children, swimming up to the viewing area when they are there, and sometimes almost seeming to eat their heads.
Young child and sensory friendly indoor exhibit area: This may not be the top of everyone’s list, but it is so important to mine. The indoor area has subdued lighting, and aquariums/viewing areas set at child-friendly heights. The ledges to many viewing areas are the perfect height for toddlers to pull to a stand and see fish inside. The largest viewing area looks into the large marine mammal theater tank, where sea lions frequently swim and play, while the secondary viewing areas include large tanks for rays, sea turtles, sharks, eels and fish.
The side exhibits and tunnels provide quiet viewing spaces for children who struggle with crowds or stimuli, while the crab and shark touch pools give children who need tactile stimulation a hands on space. The walls vary in texture by exhibit, which I found a nice touch for my sons, who love running their hands over different surfaces.
The Sea Lion Show: The show is free, and one of my favorite parts of taking my kids to the aquarium. It begins with a long explanation of how training works, who the sea lions are, and how they differ from seals (after about 5 minutes, you’ll see parents of toddlers and infants head out as their children’s attention spans hit their limit). A stroller parking area on the far side of the theater makes it easy for parents of infants to sit on that side of the theater with the stroller.
For parents of toddlers, babies, the best way to ensure you actually see sea lions doing interesting things is to arrive late. The docent may snarl at you and have you leave your stroller on the near side so you don’t disrupt, but arriving about 5 minutes late mean you won’t have to keep your toddler still during explanations that they won’t understand.
The Ray touch pool: The Cownose and Atlantic rays in a tent near the entrance are awesome. My sons love to extend their hands into the pool, which is deep enough that the rays can avoid being touched if they wish. The aquarium offers a chance to feed the rays for a fee, but just touching them is enough for young children.
Special events: For a price, you can have a penguin encounter, shadow a trainer for a day, get up close with the whales, and feed the rays, (http://www.mysticaquarium.org/animals-and-exhibits/encounter-programs)
Fully accessible: The entire aquarium (indoor and out) is wheelchair accessible (with ramps that are at a reasonable pitch, and wandering trails that are easy to maneuver). The outdoor exhibits are quiet, calming, and widely spaced, while the indoor facility is darkly lit, which works well for for anyone who struggles when surrounded by too many people or too much stimuli.
A chance to peek at their Rescue Work: There are two exhibit locations that allow visitors to take a peek at the work the aquarium does behind the scenes rehabilitating and treating rescued marine life.
Portholes let visitors look at seals from the rescue in their rehabilitation tanks without exposing the wild animals to people more than necessary. The facilities and is such that you can see staff working with wild seals from hundreds of miles up the coast.
It’s expensive for its size: General admission is $30 for adults, $27 for seniors, $26 for teens, and $22 for children (under 2 free). Add $5 to all of those prices if you plan to take your family to see the theater or special exhibits.
You can easily drop over $100 for a family, which is huge. That said, it’s about 2/3 what you would spend at a larger aquarium, like Shedd. Fortunately, there are ways to work around some of the costs.
For starters, the aquarium allows you to return, so skip the café. Go offsite and enjoy lunch in one of the other zillion eating areas in Mystic, or have a picnic, then come back.
Make sure you get your ticket validated on your way out so you can return for the next two consecutive days (this is not clearly posted, and often the admissions desk forgets to mention it).
If you’re visiting on vacation, you can get a pass plan that covers the aquarium and Mystic Seaport (for $20 more), or one that covers the aquarium, seaport, Mashantucket Pequot Museum (for $36 more). Compared to individual tickets, the savings is substantial.
If you live anywhere nearby, get an annual membership. These take into account different kinds of families, and most memberships pay for themselves in about two visits:
- Family = $189 (2 adults and all children under 17)
- Single Parent Family = $169 (1 parent, and all children under 17)
- Couple = $139 (2 adults, same address)
- Individual = $69
- Individual plus “add a guest” option = $118 (This is hands down the best if you’re a parent of toddlers. You can take them for free, or have a friend take them. It’s also great if you’re a single parent with a child under 2 and one over age 2 because you pay $120 instead of $170)
- Grandparent Couple $179 (2 adults and up to 6 grandchildren, notice that the adults don’t have to share an address)
- Grandparent single = $159 (1 adult and up to 6 grandchildren)
The Crowds can be overwhelming: Depending on season or day you visit, there can be far too many people to enjoy the aquarium fully. However, if you live in the northeast, it’s easy to visit in the spring or fall, when Mystic Aquarium is less crowded. If you’re in Mystic on vacation, visit on a weekday. If you do so before memorial day or after labor day, and you’ll share it with a a small gaggle of annual pass holders who come for an hour or two and then leave. There are school busses carrying children on field trips, but typically they spend their visits in the Ocean Exploration Center, and Marine Theater so it’s almost like they’re not there.
On those off-season week days, I was totally comfortable allowing my crawling toddlers to wander from exhibit to exhibit on their own, certain that they wouldn’t disrupt other people’s experience or be hurt. If at all possible, avoid peak times.
I’m not a huge fan of the photo thing at the beginning: I just don’t like being asked to buy a picture in front of a green screen when there are tons of opportunities to take great pictures in front of real animals once you’re inside.
If you want a large, indoor aquarium that you can spend all day wandering, this is not the place for you. But it’s perfect for younger children, and for those interested in a more relaxed, indoor/outdoor experience.