On the Road – The National Aquarium, Baltimore

Yes, this is a second visit to the aquarium, but… I didn’t look at it as a review, that time, so it’s time that I did that.

Last night was Pathfinders for Autism‘s night at the National Aquarium.  We attended the event last year when the Monster was 4 1/2 and R 1 in a semi-ragged fashion, so this year we figured the trip would be more representative of a visit with young children and one on the Spectrum.

Monster at the National Aquarium, Feb 2014So, the basics:  The National Aquarium is a glass-and-concrete building on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, with the main building situated on Pier 3 and an additional pavilion (housing the dolphin tank and a jellyfish exhibit) on Pier 4.  The aquarium has been open since 1981, and has always been one of my favorite places to visit here in the city – my grandmother used to take my siblings, cousins and I there when we were much younger, and I have a lot of good memories of the place.  The main exhibit follows a couple of paths as you rise through the building, from the mountains of Western Maryland to the ocean, from the North Atlantic to the Pacific depths, from the rainforest’s depths to the ocean… and the whole building is capped off with an honest-to-God rainforest.  (The rainforest isn’t open at night, so we didn’t get there, but believe me – it’s incredible if you get there during the day.)  The descent back to the ground floor goes down through the shark tank, and ends in an observation room below the reef tank that takes up the main floor of the Pier 3 building.

Pathfinder’s Night at the Aquarium started after the building had closed for the evening.  This entailed a few hundred families lining up outside in the cold for a bit before the doors opened again at 6:30, at which point we were able to get into the building and had open access to the exhibits for a few hours.  (Believe me, a few hours is enough time to see the whole building.)

The building is handicap-accessible, with elevators between floors, but it does at times require backtracking through the exhibit, which may be difficult when the building is crowded.  The escalators/ramps between floors are not large enough to accommodate a stroller, so we actually had both children walking.  As a precaution, we’d brought the Ergo for R, and by the time we’d risen to the top of the exhibit, he’d been tucked onto my back as he was wearing out.  It is a lot of walking – if your child has mobility issues or tires easily, you probably are better served with bringing a stroller or wheelchair.  (My wife’s asked me to point out that if you’re using a stroller, you need to get a ‘stroller as wheelchair’ tag from the Aquarium.)

There are water fountains on each floor, and places where you can stop to rest and take a break as needed.  We did not look for bathrooms, but I’m sure they’re there.  (The Monster had a potty-emergency while we were waiting in line, and while there are external bathrooms on the Pier 3 building, they’re locked at night – we used the bathroom inside when security let us in.  Of course, I forgot to look for hand-driers versus paper toweling, but I believe most use hand driers.)

Last year, we hit Pier 4 first, and the Monster lasted ninety minutes.  This year, we went through the Pier 3 building first, and while the Monster did freak out a bit about wanting to jump into the reef, we made it through two-plus hours of wandering both buildings.  I should note that on the lowest floor of the main exhibit – the Maryland mountain-to-ocean path – the first two exhibits are partially-open, with low enough glass that mid-sized children may be tempted to try to stick their hands in the water.  Once we got past those, and to animals that were fully behind glass, the Monster calmed and seemed to be quite happy to stare at the fish.

Most of the aquarium is quiet (save for the crowds) and subtly lit, which is good for children with sensory issues.  (The Australia exhibit – visible at the front of the building when you enter – is an exception as it’s brightly lit, but it’s also not too loud, and the Monster had no real issues there.)  We did not see all that many children who were having issues coping – there was a meltdown here and there – and it really was towards the end, when we’d gone down to the bottom of the reef, that the Monster started having issues.  I’m not, myself, sure if the issue was sensory or if he was just getting to the end of his run-time (as mentioned, it was past his bedtime), but we did end up having to cut the jellyfish exhibit short when he wasn’t really willing to behave any further.  R kind of needed to get home too at that point, so.. it was a good excuse to make our escape.

Other things that you can bear in mind if you go to visit:

  • Parking, as you can imagine, is a bit pricy in downtown Baltimore.  The National Aquarium does validate parking for some discount for the garage that’s roughly across the street, but you can save a couple of bucks if you’re willing to walk about two blocks further, up to the city’s Water Street Garage (along Gay Street, straight in front of the Aquarium).
  • Because it was late, I didn’t see what the food costs are at the aquarium – there is food available on site, but there’s also a good number of restaurants nearby for all price points.

The Aquarium’s always going to be one of my favorite places to visit, and hopefully, when both kids are another year older next year, we’ll get through the entire evening without having to rush out… or maybe even manage a daytime visit…

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