If you’re a regular follower of this site, you know that I’m doing a series of posts about things to do in specific cities with kids this summer. I’ve highlighted several major cities across the US. Not only are these great resources if you live in these areas, but they’re also perfect for travel.
In a city where speed is essential to success, the SEA LIFE Aquarium stands at stark contrast to the industry surrounding it. Concord, North Carolina calls itself the city “where racing lives” because of NASCAR. One might argue that life in Concord revolves around racing. However, no one has bothered to tell the fish that they aren’t the stars of the town! And visitors to SEA LIFE will feel anything but rushed as they enjoy the thousands of sea creatures.
Last week our family had the opportunity to visit SEA LIFE Aquarium. Despite having visited many other aquariums, we left feeling very impressed! For starters, the aquarium staff went out of their way to interact with my children. They could not have been nicer, or more knowledgable. My daughter is not only outgoing, but she actually has a pretty extensive marine life education. To say that she was in her element interacting with the staff would be an understatement! They each showed incredible patience as they painstakingly answered ALL of her questions (and she had A LOT!)
In addition to the personal attention the staff gave our family, we loved the accessibility of information about each exhibit. Large display panels gave fun facts, while touch-screen computers allowed guests to read every detail about each fish located inside a tank. My son, especially, enjoyed finding the specific fish in the tank and then reading all about them.
Another aspect of the SEA LIFE Aquarium I found refreshing was the attention to the atmosphere. From the moment we entered the building, we were transformed into an underwater oasis. There is clear glass viewing for every eye level- even very little ones. The lighting made everything feel magical. My children were even given booklets to stamp throughout our visit. The booklets encouraged guests to learn facts, or look thoroughly at information. We enjoyed filling up our book, and REALLY enjoyed the medal at the end!
As I mentioned, SEA LIFE Aquarium calls Concord, North Carolina home. For those unfamiliar, Concord is essentially a suburb of Charlotte. The Aquarium is open 7-days a week and offers many fantastic options to save on tickets. For example, purchasing online will save guests $5 per ticket. Also on “Toddler Tuesday” guests buy one adult ticket for $15 and get one child’s ticket free. Additional children are only $5. Visit their website for more information.
Our family thoroughly enjoyed our visit to SEA LIFE and we look forward to returning soon!
*Mom With A Map is grateful to SEA LIFE for hosting us during our visit.*
This year the Super Bowl between the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots will take place in Houston, Texas. Although few are lucky enough to have tickets to the game, all can enjoy the host city. Houston is a large, diverse, and exciting place to visit.
One of the many reasons people love Houston is the wide variety of activities and opportunities. From sporting events, to the beach, to cultural museum, Houston has it all. Not to mention, the great food! Houston is also a great place for families to visit due to the many kid-friendly options. You can easily spend a week in Houston and still have a whole list of things you want to do the next time you visit! (And that’s exactly what happened to us!)
Here are a few of my favorite Houston area destinations for families:
Children’s Museum of Houston: Throughout our travels, we’ve experienced a lot of children’s museums. However, the one in Houston remains in my memories as being the best. The Museum contains tons of hands on exhibits for kids of all ages.
Galveston: An adorable island community located on the Gulf of Mexico, Galveston offers many family activities in addition to the beach. From amusement parks, to state parks the island is diverse in entertainment offerings. It’s also full of charm and history.
Space Center: If you’ve ever followed space travel or even watched a movie about astronauts, the word “Houston” should stand out. It’s used in communication between the astronauts and the command center. Guests can learn all about the past and the future of the American space program.
Downtown Aquarium: What do you get when you cross a train ride with a fish tank? The answer is the Downtown Aquarium AND a lot of happy children! Along with many other awesome exhibits, the aquarium offers a train ride through the center of a 200,000 gallon tank of sharks!
Sporting Event: Houston is home to 6 professional sports teams including the: Astros (MLB), Texans (NFL), Rockets (NBA), Dynamo (MLS), Dash (NWSL), and the Scrap Yard Dogs (NPF.) Additionally, the city has many minor league and college teams. So even if you aren’t able to make it to the Super Bowl this year, you should be able to catch a game in the city!
USS Texas: As an active battle ship during both World Wars, the USS Texas is rich in history and significance. Guests are able to tour the ship and imagine life aboard the decks during wartime.
Bayou Wildlife Zoo: This thrilling park gives guests the opportunity to go on a safari with animals from 19 different countries without ever leaving the US. Ride through the 80 acre preserve on a specially built tram. You are able to feed many of the 500 exotic animals. The Bayou Wildlife Zoo even offers a petting zoo and pony rides.
Other than the Super Bowl, what is your favorite thing to do in Houston, Texas?
Between Christmas break and some recent snow days, my kids have been at home A LOT. Now don’t get me wrong, I love it. Honestly, having them around makes me happy. However, cold weather makes me crazy. Hanging out inside for days on end pushes me to the limit. We’ve done science experiments, crafts and fort building. And in addition to countless books read, I’ve resorted to TV.
We’re not huge movie watchers. Not only are my kids too active to sit still that long, but we rarely agree on one to watch. But, as I mentioned, we found ourselves with hours to fill lately and we got a new movie for Christmas. So basically Finding Dory has been playing on repeat.
As I sat listening to the words for the millionth time last week, I began to wonder “Is The Marine Life Institute a real place?” For anyone not familiar with Finding Dory, the main setting for the movie is an aquarium. The characters travel throughout the open air aquarium in search of…you guessed it, Dory. And though a cartoon, I have to admit that the place looks pretty cool!
So, the million dollar question, is it real? The answer, “sort of.” According to Pixar creators, The Marine Life Institute is based loosely on The Monterey Bay Aquarium. Many agree that if you visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium after seeing the movie you will find it familiar, though not identical.
Similarities include A Giant Pacific Octopus Exhibit and a Kelp Forest. Unfortunately, two of the most beloved animal exhibits from the film- beluga whales and whale sharks- can’t be found at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
One of the main themes of the movie is the idea of rescue, rehabilitate and release. (Though perhaps this is more for the adult viewer. I tried asking my kids if they saw that theme and my question was met with blank stares.) In other words, the movie doesn’t necessarily promote aquariums as tourist attractions. I won’t spoil the end of the movie, but let’s just say captivity doesn’t last.
Likewise, The Monterey Bay Aquarium focuses on education and conservation. They support rescue efforts and rehabilitation of Pacific marine life.
Despite not being the EXACT real life replica of the aquarium in Finding Dory, I can’t wait to visit!
Earlier this summer our family visited SeaWorld. Although we were all looking forward to our day, my 8-year old daughter counted down for weeks before our visit. SeaWorld combines her two loves- marine life and roller coasters.
As I planned for our day I anticipated a little bit of conflict. Mary Grace is tall and quite a daredevil. She’s always been adventurous and pushes the limits on everything. Even as a young child she went on every roller coaster with her hands up in the air. Her thrill seeking attitude could not wait to ride everything.
On the other hand, our 4-year old came to SeaWorld with us too. He likes to do everything big sister does. Although he’s much more cautious, I knew he’d be bummed about not getting to ride the big roller coasters. Because of this family dynamic, conflict was inevitable during our day at SeaWorld. I planned ahead…but I made one teeny, tiny miscalculation.
I’ve found that knowing what to expect always helps our travel days go smoother. In that spirit, I did a little research about SeaWorld prior to our trip. I learned the height requirement for the 4 major roller coasters was 54 inches. Making a tiny mark on the wall, I used a tape measure to verify my daughter was in fact tall enough. At the time, I remember thinking it was close, but clearly enough.
I also found a smaller roller coaster- The Shamu Express (dubbed as the “just-thrilling-enough first roller coaster for kids) for our 4-year old. Having mentally planned our day, I reminded the kids that they would be able to ride different rides. However, we would spend a lot of our day watching the shows together as a family. Foolproof, right?
Well, no. It turned out that my somewhat whimsical measurement “ruined” my daughter’s day. She wasn’t tall enough to ride any of the big roller coasters. The first time she got measured that day I was somewhat annoyed at the SeaWorld employee (in hindsight, I was TOTALLY wrong!) I thought they did the measurement too quickly and didn’t let my daughter get in prime, height-maximizing position before dismissing her.
Like any truly awesome parent would, I walked away and coached her on how to stand up straight enough to make the height requirement. Looking back, I’m truly ashamed at myself for thinking this way, let alone vocalizing it to my child. In my own defense, I truly thought she was over 54 inches.
It turns out, she wasn’t. She was less than 1/4 an inch away from the 54 inch mark, but she definitely wasn’t quite 54 inches. A VERY kind SeaWorld employee saw my daughter’s tears and spent several minutes making sure we were getting an accurate measurement- even giving her a chance to reposition her feet and hold her head straight. Unfortunately, no amount of will-power could make her taller.
Oh, the drama and the tears that followed the second measurement were enough to break my heart. Obviously, her height that day..or lack there of…wasn’t my fault (well, technically it probably was, but that’s another story.) But I did feel responsible for setting her up for disappointment by getting her excited about the awesome roller coasters she would ride at SeaWorld.
A few times she uttered the words “my day is ruined.” I can assure you, it wasn’t. Not even close! We had an AMAZING day at SeaWorld! I probably wouldn’t even be thinking about this minor blip in an otherwise perfect day, except for the recent tragedies at a couple of other theme parks. Most notable, the 10-year old boy who died on a water park roller coaster/slide.
The news stories hit close to home. I kept thinking about how my daughter- for a few brief minutes- said that not being able to ride the roller coasters ruined her day. Yes, perhaps, but it didn’t ruin our lives. I know at the time I felt disappointment and possibly a tiny bit of annoyance that the SeaWorld employees stuck unapologetically to the height requirements. The distance between my daughter’s head and the 54 inch mark was almost microscopic.
Now, I feel gratitude. This summer’s tragedies served as reminders to why theme parks have such strict guidelines. Rules are in place and enforced to keep us safe. Bottom line. So HUGE public thank you to the SeaWorld employees that measured my daughter that day. I know I smiled and thanked you, but deep down I disagreed with your decision. I was wrong.
*I do not know the circumstances leading to the death of the child, or any of the other details surrounding the other theme park accidents this summer. In no way am I assuming or implying that the incidents were related to any height requirement infractions.*
Recently our family received the opportunity to meet one of the most famous and recognizable animals in the world. Winter, the star of the movie “Dolphin Tales,” lives at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
In 2005, the center rescued a baby dolphin from a crab trap off the coast of Florida. Rescuers brought Winter to Clearwater and began the long task of healing and rehabilitating. Documented in the movie, Winter must learn to swim using a prosthetic tail. Not only does she thrive in her new environment, but she begins to inspire others around the globe.
Although much attention is given to this amazing story, Winter is just one of hundreds of animals cared for by this marine center. The mission of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium is “preserving our environment while inspiring the human spirit through leadership in the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of marine life, environmental education, research and conservation.”
Spending even a few minutes at the center will allow you a glimpse into how well they live out this mission. We were blown away by the attention, and care the animals were receiving. Simultaneously, CMA uses the public forum to educate and encourage guests to respect sea life.
We started our day at the Clearwater Marine Center at Winter’s Dolphin Tale Adventure. This location houses many of the images and props used during the filming of the movie. Our family enjoyed reading and learning about the filming of the movie. We were also able to learn more about Winter and the care she receives at CMA.
My children loved seeing all the recognizable elements from their favorite movie! After thoroughly exploring, we were ready to meet Winter (and the other animals!) A free trolly or boat will take you over to the aquarium facility.
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium was designed with the animals in mind. Because of this, it’s important to remember that they are not there for guests enjoyment. The animals are at CMA to heal, and rehabilitate. I point this out because many of the animal habitats include private areas. This allows the animals some alone time and a break from public viewing. We walked around the whole building 2 or 3 times so that we made sure not to miss any of the animals.
Highlights for us included:
The Surgical Suite
Interacting with the staff and volunteers was also one of our favorite parts of our visit to the Clearwater Marine Center. Each of the team members we encountered was extremely kind and knowledgable. Additionally, we loved watching Hope and Winter do a “typical” training/therapy session!
After spending a week doing all sorts of fun things in Central Florida, both my children picked CMA as the highlight of the vacation. We were all starstruck by Winter, but also inspired by the phenomenal work being done at the aquarium. We are already looking forward to our next opportunity to visit!
To learn more about the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and to plan your visit, go to their website.