Behind the Scenes at 6 Top Aquariums in the U.S.

Share in the care and feeding of marine residents at top U.S. aquariums in Chattanooga, Baltimore, Atlanta, Chicago, Long Island, and Newport, Oregon.

Children pointing at fish in a large aquarium display

by NEA Member Benefits

Editor’s Note: NEA Member Benefits understands how much you love to travel and how much you’ve missed it. As states begin to relax their regulations with regard to COVID-19 and more Americans become vaccinated, travel is opening up more and more. Before planning a trip, read the health and safety protocols and requirements for visitors to any destination, as well as those of airlines, car rentals and hotels before booking and again before traveling.

Aquariums have come a long way since the days when visiting was strictly a spectator sport, with guests parading past static exhibits and viewing fish through thick walls of glass. The move toward interactive displays and “animal chats” have dramatically enhanced the visitor experience, with many aquariums also offering special tours to meet marine life in a humane way. Now, aquarium-goers can experience everything from dolphin training to diving with sharks or visiting the food-prep lab.

If you’ve ever been curious about what goes on at the aquarium, out of public view, find out by visiting these six aquariums. Keep in mind that these in-depth, insider tours are very popular, so be sure to reserve your spot well in advance.

1. National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland

Photo courtesy of National Aquarium

Nearly 20,000 creatures call the National Aquarium home. Learn more about them by choosing from several special tours. Consider the Early Access Tour ($60) to avoid the crowds and get into the aquarium before everyone else, plus feed breakfast to the fish in Atlantic Coral Reef and gain access to exclusive behind-the-scenes spaces. Choose the Animal Care and Rescue Center Tour ($45) to tour the aquarium’s medical facilities and learn how the veterinary team cares for sick and injured marine animals. Interested in sharks? In the Shark Behind the Scenes Tour ($45), you’ll walk the catwalk above Shark Alley, participate in fish feeding, and visit these amazing creatures from a unique perspective.

Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are the focus of two tours, including an opportunity to assist the marine mammal team with training ($95). On the adults-only Guest Dive Program ($225), you’ll get to dive into the Atlantic Coral Reef exhibit. Traveling with little ones? A family-friendly sleepover ($125) introduces participants to dolphins, ocean predators and the aquarium after dark. 

NEA member travel benefits: Reserve a flight through NEA Travel: Flights to Baltimore Washington International Airport (BWI) to search for great prices. You can also fly into Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), but it’s about 1.5 hours away. Then check NEA Travel: Hotels to find deals at hotels like the nearby Hilton Baltimore Inner Harbor, which has an indoor pool and averages around $170 per night, or the Hyatt Regency Baltimore Inner Harbor, which has an outdoor rooftop pool, running track and full fitness center for an average of $157 per night. Save up to 20% off the aquarium’s admission price when you purchase through the NEA Discount Tickets Program.

Plan your itinerary: National Aquarium | Visit Baltimore | Maryland Office of Tourism 

2. Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Georgia

Georgia Aquarium
Photo courtesy of the Georgia Aquarium

Georgia Aquarium’s commitment to protecting the ocean and its inhabitants is evident in its immersive animal experiences, as each has a learning component to increase awareness. With a trainer’s guidance, enjoy an up-close encounter with dolphins ($70), harbor seals ($66) or penguins ($66) in their habitat. Or, get acquainted with sea lions ($66) through a tour of their facility and an educational presentation, plus a training session.

Would you prefer an encounter with a denizen of the deep? Enter into the 6.3-million-gallon seawater tank in a cage to come face-to-face with sharks ($250), or swim or dive with whale sharks and manta rays ($250 to swim, $350 to dive)). Or, be poolside with beluga whales ($80). The Behind the Seas Tour ($15), offered every half hour daily, provides an in-depth look at the exhibits, the commissary, filtration room for the tank, and the animal health center.

To experience the aquarium after hours, consider Sleep under the Sea (sleepover and activities for families) or Sips Under the Sea (cocktails, tapas, and sleepover for adults).

NEA member travel benefits: You’ll want to fly into Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) for easiest access. Check our travel booking benefit to find great prices on airline tickets and hotels. You can find hotels in downtown Atlanta at affordable prices, such as Clarion Inn & Suites Atlanta Downtown, which has an average of $125/night and includes breakfast and Wi-Fi. For an average of $162/night you can stay at Hilton Atlanta, which is just a half-mile away from the aquarium. If you’re a Marriott loyalist, Sheraton Atlanta Hotel is a mile from Georgia Aquarium and boasts a stunning plant-filled indoor pool area with a spa tub and poolside bar, plus two restaurants. Save up to 20% general admission when you purchase tickets through the NEA Discount Tickets Program. Or buy an Atlanta CityPASS that offers a discounted rate and provides you admission to the Atlanta Aquarium, World of Coca-Cola, Zoo Atlanta and more when purchased through our Tickets benefit. 

Plan your itinerary: Georgia Aquarium | Discover Atlanta | Explore Georgia

3. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago

Photo courtesy of the Shedd Aquarium

Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium is among the world’s largest indoor aquariums. There, you can pull on a pair of rubber boots and have a private encounter with either a sea otter ($120 for children, $130 for adults), small penguin ($85 for children; $95 for adults) or beluga whale ($200), where you put on waders and enter the water with a trainer. You’ll get a more in-depth look, learning about the animal, its care and feeding, and conservation efforts to protect the species. Your visit includes a hands-on mini-training session with tips from experts who work with these animals.

On the shark feeding tour ($85 for children; $95 for adults) at the Wild Reef, you can learn how they prepare the shark’s food according to their diet, go behind the scenes above the 400,000-gallon shark habitat and delve into sharks’ role in their ecosystem.

NEA member travel benefits: Book a flight through NEA Travel: Flights to Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD) or Chicago Midway International Airport (MDW) to get discounted prices. Search NEA Travel: Hotels to look for deals like an average of $212 a night for the 21c Museum Hotel Chicago, which has a restaurant, two bars and a spa on-site, plus complimentary bicycles to borrow. If you want to be able to walk to Shedd, book a room at Hilton Garden Inn Chicago Downtown South Loop, for an average of $233 a night. 

Check out the NEA Discount Tickets Program before your trip to get discounted passes for Chicago CityPASS, which includes admission to the Shedd Aquarium, SkyDeck Chicago, the Field Museum and more when bought through this NEA benefit. You also can purchase all-inclusive passes through GO City Chicago that includes Shedd Aquarium, Shoreline Architecture River Cruise, Museum of Science and Industry and more. 

Plan your itinerary: Choose Chicago | Enjoy Illinois

4. Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Oregon

Photo courtesy of the Oregon Coast Aquarium

The Behind-the-Scenes tour ($15) at the Oregon Coast Aquarium gives insight into how the aquarium cares for and feeds more than 15,000 Pacific coast animals in their care. The tour includes an inside look at the Passages of the Deep exhibit with its underwater tunnel through three ocean habitats. That’s also the location of the Sleep with the Sharks experience, which includes a scavenger hunt and tour of the galleries and exhibits—a perfect family outing that allows you to explore without the daytime crowds. 

Add on a Sea Jelly Touch Encounter ($15) or Octopus Encounter ($40) for hands on, behind-the-scenes access to the aquarium’s moon jellyfish or octopus.

NEA member travel benefits: The Eugene Airport (EUG) is the closest place to fly into to get to the Oregon Coast Aquarium, and it’s about 80 miles away. Check NEA Travel: Flights for great prices. Through NEA Travel: Hotels, you can book rooms for an average of $143/night at hotels like OYO Waves Hotel Newport, which has an indoor pool, spa tub and sauna, and is a few minutes away from the beach and the aquarium. The Best Western Plus Agate Beach Inn is an average of $191/night, which has the option of connecting rooms and rollaway beds if you’re traveling with your family.

Plan your itinerary: Discover Newport | Travel Oregon

5. Long Island Aquarium in Riverhead, New York

There is a daily Behind-the-Scenes Tour ($5) here that allows guests to discover everything that goes into running the aquarium, plus guests get to feed the resident clownfish. Although this aquarium is on the smaller side, it offers several animal encounters, including with a harbor or gray seal ($150), penguin ($79), sea lion ($150), porcupine ($40) and coati ($40). 

If you’re brave enough, they even offer a shark diving experience ($215) where the diver is inside a cage as the sharks and fish swim around.

NEA member travel benefits: The closest airports to the Long Island Aquarium are Long Island MacArthur Airport (ISP), which is about a 40-minute drive away, and LaGuardia International Airport (LGA) and John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), which are each about 1.5 hours away. You can book your flight and rental vehicle through NEA Travel: Flights and NEA Travel: Car Rental for great prices. Then check NEA Travel: Hotels to find deals like an average of $123/night at Budget Host East End Hotel in Riverhead, which has basic rooms and an outdoor pool, or for $233/night you can get a stylish room at Hotel Indigo East End, and IHG Hotel, which also has an on-site water park, pool and spa. 

Plan your itinerary: Long Island Aquarium | Discover Long Island | I Love NY

6. Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Tennessee Aquarium, Courtesy of Chattanooga Tourism
Photo courtesy of Chattanooga Tourism

Be one of the first guests inside the aquarium if you sign up for Deeper Dives: A Guided Tour ($85) at the Tennessee Aquarium. The exclusive 1.5-hour tour lets your group see how the animals are cared for each morning and experience the exhibits with a tour guide—and without crowds.

NEA member travel benefits: Book a flight to Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport (CHA) through NEA Travel: Flights for the discounted prices. Next, check NEA Travel: Hotels to find deals at the lovely Read House Historic Inn and Suites, where you can get a room for an average of $132 per night. The swanky Jazz Age hotel is on the National Register of Historic Places and is celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2022. You can also score a room at the fun and funky Moxy Chattanooga Downtown for $172 per night, or pay just $82 per night for a room at the Wingate Inn Chattanooga, which includes a complimentary breakfast buffet.

Plan your itinerary: Tennessee Aquarium | Visit Chattanooga | Tennessee Department of Tourism

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