Mommy and Toddler Travel Review: The Florida Aquarium in Tampa

Last week, I posted about my decision to take a 4 hour trip to The Florida Aquarium in Tampa.

This week, I wanted to tell you how the trip went and give you my overall impression of the aquarium.  In general, my young daughter of almost 3 was ecstatic, while I was on the fence about our visit the whole time.  Interested to hear about our experience?

A Mom and Daughter Travel Review of The Florida Aquarium

travel review the florida aquarium

Contact By Phone

I needed to make contact to verify a few things prior to my visit to the aquarium.  My inquiries were answered quickly by calling the main line and included:

Verifying the AZA reciprocity discount.  Jacksonville Zoo members do receive 50% off general admission.  The discount does not extend to combo tickets for the extras like the dolphin cruise, backstage passes, etc.

Do the cafés offer gluten free foods?  Simply, the answer was yes, although I didn’t receive any details about whether or not that meant there was a dedicated gluten free menu or how they handled gluten free dining options.

The Trip

Let me first start by saying that I am a born and raised Floridian, but I’m ashamed to say I’ve never been to Tampa.  The closest I came was New Port Richey and then a short day trip to Clearwater and totally skipped Tampa.

#ivysvariety S lunch at rest stop on road trip

The drive from the south end of Jacksonville to Tampa took about 4 hours, including a potty and lunch break at a rest stop about an hour from the Aquarium.  I was feeling pretty grateful that S hadn’t been potty training as I can’t imagine the amount of stops we would have made.  Arriving at the location was quite unnerving.  I hadn’t realized that so many cruise terminals surrounded the area and that parking wasn’t directly located in front of the attraction, and we had to turn back for parking.  I was pretty nervous but I easy found my way back to the parking area.  There is a short walk from the parking area to the aquarium … not long enough to offer shuttle service.  I felt relatively safe in the area as well.

The Visit

I’m torn about how I felt about the aquarium visit.  There’s so much to like and there were a few things that were rather disappointing.  It’s important to remember that we attended the aquarium on their extended Thursday, meaning they were open until 7 p.m. and offered extra shows and an extra dolphin cruise.

It’s easy to love something when your children do, and my daughter can be easily amused like most kids her age, I’m sure.  I loved watching her eyes light up at the fish, lemurs, sting rays … you name it.  I’m not too proud to admit that I’m still a kid at heart and I simply enjoy looking at the marine life myself.  However, even for my first visit, I think we could have finished in less than the 4 hours recommended on the aquarium’s site.  That’s partly because we didn’t catch any of the shows, so I’d love to see those at some point in my life.

#ivysvariety Dolphin Cruise The Florida Aquarium Tampa

Next, I was sold on the 2:30 Dolphin Cruise over the 5:30 with the notion that is within the 95% dolphin siting rate.  We arrived at the aquarium shortly after 1:00 p.m., so we had to waste a little time before boarding the cruise, but we couldn’t get thoroughly involved as we might have missed our cruise.  And, guess what our luck was?  We happened to be in the 5% that didn’t get to see dolphins on the cruise.  So, my toddler wasted about an hour of her aquarium time on a boat that she couldn’t do anything on.  I probably don’t have to tell you what kind of drama that caused (but I can if you ask).

Once we were back to the aquarium, we finally got to see fish and animals.  S had a blast pointing out all the different creatures and learning about a few more.  I had a great time watching her and laughing with her.  We were even lucky enough to watch the river otters rough house in the water, which S found to be the most hilarious part of the day.

#ivysvariety Lemurs at The Florida Aquarium Tampa

Finally, there were supposed to be 2 mermaid shows during the extended Thursday hours and both were cancelled 2 minutes after the first one was supposed to have begun.  The positive side is that this gave S quite a bit of extra time to play in the splash pad and sand box areas.  The splash pad was really cute, but my kid doesn’t seem to care to have water splash in her face so she stands as far away from the fountains as she can.  She thoroughly enjoyed the sand box area, although I found that parents used it as a way to take a break and weren’t paying attention to their kids.  I had to ask one boy to stop throwing and kicking sand because his parent didn’t seem to be around to handle him.  Aside from that, it was great to have a little break while the kiddo was involved in doing something she loved.

#ivysvariety The Florida Aquarium splash pad

 

The Food

Having been told gluten-free options were available, we stuck around to have dinner at the cafe.  Let me first say that the prices of food and drink were pretty outrageous.

When I first asked about a gluten free menu, one person said they didn’t have one.  Whatever question I asked next led the guy to ask someone else who quickly handed over a small piece of paper listing their gluten free offerings (prices not included on the list).  When I later arrived to order some nachos, a woman said they didn’t serve them (the menu did suggest that it was at the Cantina, but I think the Cantina closed earlier because the server there wasn’t paying attention to the counter).  I was going to order something else, but the person next to the woman at the cafe asked if I was gluten free.  When I responded “yes,” he told her he would get the nachos for me.  She apologized profusely and I was served nachos.  My final problem was that the woman working the register couldn’t ring up nachos since the cafe doesn’t “serve them” so she chose an arbitrary dining option and I paid $7.95 for a decent sized bowl of nachos.  I would have preferred she ask someone what to charge, but I was so hungry that I didn’t even bother her about it and paid.

Overall Impression

I’m not certain I would make the 3.5 or 4 hour drive out of my way to visit the aquarium again unless I had plans to do other things in the area.  From not seeing dolphins on our cruise, cancelling shows last minute, and what seems to be somewhat untrained kitchen staff on handling gluten free requests, I wasn’t thoroughly pleased with my experience.

I was happy that my daughter was young enough that she wasn’t really aware of some of the disappointments I encountered and that she could just enjoy seeing and doing what was available.  I’m glad I made the trip for my daughter, which is the most important reason for going, and if I were to go again, I don’t see any reason not to sneak some of my own snacks in to be sure I have food to eat at a reasonable price.

Finally, in addition to the concessions, extras like gift shop and photos were overpriced.  I can say that even though I would like to go again, I wouldn’t be able to justify paying full price and experience some of the extras.  Maybe that’s just me.

If you’ve been, what were your thoughts?  Am I off base?
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