Downtown Tampa, Fl.-  Aquariums give us all the opportunity to see aquatic life from lakes and rivers to the world’s oceans and waterways in a fun and educational setting. The best aquariums will also play a tremendous part in animal conservation, rescue efforts and advocating for environmental health.

Today we are in downtown Tampa to see why USAToday readers picked The Florida Aquarium in the category of, Best Aquarium.

The top 10 winners in the category Best Aquarium are as follows:

  1. Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium – Springfield, Mo.
  2. Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies – Gatlinburg, Tenn.
  3. The Florida Aquarium – Tampa
  4. Dallas World Aquarium – Dallas
  5. Audubon Aquarium of the Americas – New Orleans
  6. Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada – Toronto
  7. Aquarium of the Pacific – Long Beach, Calif.
  8. Georgia Aquarium – Atlanta
  9. North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores – Pine Knoll Shores, N.C.
  10. Vancouver Aquarium – Vancouver, B.C.

As we entered the Florida Aquarium we were greeted with a large open touch tank, Shark Shore, which sits at the base of a staircase going upwards. This staircase is where we will begin our journey.  But before we head up, we wanna make sure to check out the Aquarium daily schedule to plan the day accordingly. This is where the special presentations and show times will be listed for the day.

The Wetlands Trail

The Florida Aquarium experience is designed to take you on a journey, starting with a drop of water from one of Florida’s many freshwater springs, all the way out to the open waters of the Florida Keys.

All of this is captured under a tall glass atrium. With birds freely flying over head, dense Mangroves that fill the shallow shore lines of the bay and beach exhibit. Plentifully filled with White Gar ,Red Drum Snook and more.

You start your adventure with the fresh water exhibit…..and of course ya gotta have some gators!

The exhibit also is home to some Ducks, Egrets and River Otters.

Mangroves

Florida’s mangrove trees (black, red, white) are an important resource for wildlife and humans.  Mangrove forests are found along shorelines in tropical and subtropical climates. They protect the shoreline from erosion and severe storms, while providing nesting habitat for many types of birds.

The Florida Aquarium has done an AMAZING job recreating this environment for guest to see and learn from.

The red mangrove is the easiest to recognize, with its arching prop roots anchoring it into the mud.  The red mangrove has the ability to exclude salt when it takes up water with its roots. You can see how the fish also like to explore through the Mangrove roots.

Journey to Madagascar

In this unique and beautiful place, you’ll see lemurs, chameleons, geckos and a colorful Indian Ocean reef. Whats really nice about this exhibit is how open it feels. And our Lemur friends had no problem showing off for us.

Meet: Annie, Emmy and Remington, the Florida Aquariums Ring Tailed Lemurs.

All three came from St. Catherine’s Island, a lemur conservation site off the coast of Georgia.  Males and females look alike; can you tell who is who?

Like most other primates, lemurs live in family groups. They communicate with each other using a rich mix of sounds and scent. You may see a lemur rubbing or sniffing scent from scent glands on the inside of its wrist or base of its tail.

Bays & Beaches

Here you can be a deep Sea diver and explore everything from Stingrays to Goliath Grouper, spiny lobsters and more. With so many amazing and not commonly seen creatures, this is a section we found ourselves spending a little extra time checking them all out.

Dive with the Sharks

An Aquarium experience for certified divers (age 15+).

Come face-to-face with the Aquarium’s sand tiger sharks! Take the plunge into the Aquarium’s largest habitat, teeming with sharks, moray eels, barracuda, a green sea turtle and more! All gear is provided with this amazing experience. More Details

These long thin little fish are Garden Eels. They live in large groups half-buried on sandy bottoms near reefs. They face into the current to catch tiny food flowing by, and retreat back into the sand when disturbed. There are around 35 different kinds that live throughout the tropical seas.

Dragons Down Under

The exhibit also has a great viewing area filled with Seahorses and Sea Dragons and some really cool looking fish called Pipefish…These pipefish are well camouflaged in the sea grass meadows and reefs of Western Australia and Indonesia. they hardly look like fish at all. They use their tube-shaped mouth to slurp up tiny shrimp.

The large tanks showing off Floridas Coral Reef is just amazing. With huge underwater creatures swimming right by the panoramic windows!

And the touch tank gives visitors a chance to touch and experience Stingrays at Stingray Beach. There is NO extra charge.

Perfect name!

Waves Of Wonder

Before exiting the inside exhibits you will see the large wall covering for the upcoming new “Waves of Wonder” gallery, featuring the Heart of the Sea exhibit. Go behind-the-scenes and enjoy special dive shows in our new Heart of the Sea exhibit. More to come!

*Update- While writing this article, the Waves of Wonder gallery opened, featuring the Heart of the Sea exhibit. With 100,000 gallons of water and more than 400 marine animals, it’s the aquarium’s second largest exhibit.

The Heart of the Sea uses interactive cameras, live programs and in-water experiences to explore the conservation work being done by the aquarium staff. Since the aquarium’s main conservation efforts are towards sea turtles, sharks and coral, you’ll see all three and more in the new exhibit.

Outside Area

Splash Pad

If you have kiddos you are gonna wanna listen up. Out back, included with Aquarium general admission is The Splash Pad!

Open daily from 10 a.m. – 4:45 p.m. (weather permitting) experience fantastic, froggy fun in the kids’ outdoor water play zone!

With both a wet and dry play elements, sandboxes, lush landscaping and more there is something for both land and sea-bearing kids.

There is also a zero-depth water area, which features water dump buckets, spray zones and a designated water play area for toddlers.

4-D experience

This is an experience that combines the visual drama of a 3-D film with a variety of sensory effects built into the seats and theater environment.

The 4-D experience brings on-screen images to life with added effects such as bubbles, snow, scent, FX lighting, water mist, seat vibration and wind.  Showings daily from 10 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. this is also INCLUDED with your Aquarium general admission.

Wild Dolphin Cruise

The Wild Dolphin Cruise departs twice daily from The Florida Aquarium (weather permitting.) This 75- minute cruise includes an entertaining tour and an opportunity to spot wild dolphins aboard the 72-foot, powered catamaran, the Bay Spirit II.

Tickets must be purchased 30 minutes or further in advance of your cruise departure time either online or onsite. Please arrive 15 minutes prior to your cruise in the staging area near our outdoor Fins bar. This is an additional charge.

*Please note the Wild Dolphin Cruises are unavailable during the month of October. Normal operations are expected to resume in November.

Food & Drink

*Due to the nature of the facility and the safety of its animals with open exhibits, The Florida Aquarium isn’t able to allow outside food and drink into the Aquarium. This does not include bottles or baby food for infants.

So that means NO outside food. But you do have options.

Cafe Rey is located on the first floor, has outside seating and is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

They offer a wide selection of dining options including breakfast from 9:30 – 11:30 a.m. and lunch and dinner options including healthy and hearty salads, burgers, Panini sandwiches, pasta, pizza and much more. Self-serve drinks and snacks are also available.

Click here to see the Café Ray menu.

Gift Shop

As with all our stops, we had to check out the gift shop.

From books about aquatic life to gorgeous high end jewelry, The Florida Aquarium Gift Shop has something for everyone.

Tips before you go:

  • To experience all the exhibits at a nice pace, plan on spending about 2 hours at the Aquarium
  • Check out the Aquarium daily schedule upon arrival to plan the day accordingly.
  • Interact with Aquarium staff and use #FloridaAquarium with your social media posts.
  • The Aquarium will hold luggage for cruise passengers scheduled to leave for a cruise or returning from a cruise at no charge  as they visit the Aquarium.
  • Bring the kid’s bathing suits. The Splash Pad water play area is a great place to splash the day away.
  • Purchase tickets online to bypass the ticket windows and enter straight through the main entrance (present confirmation information on mobile device or on paper.)
  • The Aquarium’s parking lot is located just to the north of the building. But there is parking located throughout the channel side area. *The Aquarium does not validate parking tokens for the parking garage across the street.
  • Wild Dolphin Cruise guests should meet by the white gates by the Fins bar just outside of Cafe Ray.

We would defiantly recommend The Florida Aquarium to anyone visiting Tampa Bay.

With amazing exhibits and committed staff, their ongoing conservation efforts to save sea turtles, coral and shark species, along with so many other creatures is not going unnoticed.

Visit today and become an inspired protector of what we love in Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

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