Patience is one of the many gifts of parenting. Although Spence and I have overnighted the 21-hour drive from Massachusetts to Missouri several times before, only making pit stops when we needed gas, we knew it wasn’t an option with a six-month-old in tow. So we brainstormed activities to break up the drive and when Spence suggested going to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, I knew it was going to be a blast.
Reila was only a month old when she made her first trip to the Kansas City Zoo. Since then, we’ve taken her quite a few times because she loves watching the animals and with our Friends of the Zoo membership we get in for free. The penguins were a fast favorite for Rei. Specifically, she loves the back section of their exhibit at the Helzberg Penguin Plaza where the lights dim and you’re transported into the depths of their swimming hole. It’s a lot of fun watching the penguins race around underwater and strangers are always amused watching Rei turn her head from left to right as she watches her beloved pengus in action. That being said, we knew the aquarium would be an enjoyable experience for the three of us – and we were right.
Baltimore is a seven-hour drive from the south shore of Massachusetts where my family lives. After all the cross-country road trips Spence and I have been on, seven hours is nothing. After our two-day train traveling adventure, we weren’t worried about Reila either. Car rides put her to sleep and, on top of that, she loves traveling. We are seriously blessed by how incredibly easy she is to take along, wherever we go. She has really set the bar high for the babies in our future.
Friday morning – the last day of our snowy March Massachusetts vacation – was spent leisurely packing the car before saying goodbye. We rolled out around 1:30 p.m. and hit rush hour traffic perfectly on the George Washington Bridge around 5:00 p.m., turning our seven-hour drive into nine. Luckily, we booked our hotel before leaving Mass so our room was secured at the Hyatt Place, which had great reviews, offered discounts for AAA members and included breakfast.
It was 10:00 p.m. when we arrived at the Hyatt, riding in on fumes. On top of being hangry, the first gas station we stopped at didn’t have gas. Yes, you read that right. The gas station was out of gas, so we had to drive in the opposite direction to get to another one. Luckily, they were stocked. Our hotel room was spectacular, however. Plenty of room and, although the hotel appeared full (we were lucky to get a parking spot that evening), the walls were almost soundproof. Breakfast had plenty of options but the coffee was terribly undrinkable. Then again, Spence and I are spoiled by The Roasterie.
The National Aquarium doesn’t have its own parking, so we found a spot nearby and fed the meter $10 to cover us for fours hours. If you’re planning your trip to the National Aquarium, you should note that their website has information on discounted parking nearby – but you have to get there before 9:00 a.m. if you want a spot. We got to the aquarium a little after 9:00 a.m. with plans to grab some seafood for lunch and get back on the road by 1:00 or 2:00 p.m. It was a good thing we paid for the full four hours on the meter because the aquarium is humongous. If we hadn’t had 16 more hours of driving to go, we could have easily spent a full day exploring.
For those of you planning a trip to Baltimore and want to see the aquarium, be forewarned: you can easily spend all day here. Especially if you take advantage of all the free extras like watching the scuba divers feed the fish, listening to the educational talks, sticking around for animal encounters, watching the dolphin training sessions or playing with all the interactive displays. They also offer 4D immersion films which look really cool, but our Chicky-Chaw was a little young for that yet.
The cost of one adult admission is $39.95, which is pretty steep if you ask me. But the aquarium is a non-profit organization so you have to take into consideration that your money is going to a good cause. Proceeds from entry fees are used to care for the aquarium animals, provide education to aquarium visitors as well as students in the classroom and support a conservation team working to preserve Maryland’s natural habitats. Many animals have been rescued by the aquarium and released back into their natural habitats, which I find quite noble.
Upon entering, we were immediately greeted by the warmth of a wet, tropical climate. In front of us stood a towering waterfall beneath the wooden bridge leading to the Australia exhibit. Reila was captivated from the moment we walked in and couldn’t take her eyes off all the fish swimming around beneath the waterfall, viewable behind the glass wall in front of us. We tried not to stand there too long since we knew there was a lot of museum to see and not much time, but it was cute watching her track each fish as they swam by us.
Spence and I were so excited that we didn’t consult our map and totally missed the coat check. My biggest piece of advice to you is not to make this same mistake. The line to check your coats may be long, but the museum is huge. Lots of walking is required, especially for those of us with little legs. On top of that, it feels like you’ve stepped into a country along the equator due to the animals’ habitats and crowds of people breathing and sweating around you. I sucked it up and lugged the coats on top of my diaper bag while Spence carried Reila. With only one bathroom break and two short nursing sessions, I have no complaints. But if you’re on vacation, give yourself and your family a break – check those coats.
Parents: you can also check your stroller at the coat check, but I recommend leaving it at home. I can’t speak to the efficiency of the coat/stroller check experience since we bypassed it. Also, we didn’t bring Reila’s stroller on vacation with us because we were worried about lugging it on and off the trains. The National Aquarium does not allow strollers, although it makes exceptions for children with disabilities. This policy makes sense to me.
Some areas of the museum are pretty narrow. In other exhibits where the animals roam free, the entrance and exits are glass revolving doors – which are challenging enough without the extra baggage. According to some TripAdvisor reviews, the coat check people may provide parents of young children with a fold-up, backpack-style baby carrier. Who knows how comfortable they are or how many they have to provide, though. I say ditch the stroller and wear your baby in a wrap or front-pack. Or be like my strong, handsome, wonderful husband and carry the kid the whole way through so you can help them get up close and personal with each critter. Your muscles will thank you for it a few days later.
Most of the exhibit displays are set up so both the tiniest and tallest of humans can enjoy them, although there were a few where children may need to be picked up to see. The interactive areas, like the touch tanks, provide step stools for children and the vertically challenged. With over four floors to explore, aquarium-goers are transported all around the globe to learn about the nearly 20,000 animal inhabitants from both land and sea. It’s no question why the National Aquarium attracts millions of visitors and ranks in the United States’ top three. Although a timed ticket system is used by aquarium staff to help alleviate overcrowding, you may have to wait a few minutes to get up close to each display if you go on the weekend like we did.
Of course, what Reila found even more interesting than the creatures behind the glass were the ones staring in at them, beside us. Babies love studying faces. One of the best parts of our aquarium experience was how many babies there were to amuse and be amused by Rei. Like many places, children under two get in for free and the aquarium is incredibly accommodating for parents of tiny tykes.
Bathrooms were located on several floors along with couches to crash on. It seemed like every area provided seating of some sort. Rest areas were located far enough out of the way to offer some privacy but not in remote, isolated locations, which made me happy. This meant I could take a break to nurse Reila pretty much anywhere in the museum whenever she needed, which is a huge benefit for parents traveling with babies.
And if an emergency diaper change is in order but your floor doesn’t have a bathroom, an elevator is only a few steps away. The elevator turned into a neat learning experience for us when we boarded along with one of the scuba divers who was going to feed the fish. You can imagine Reila’s surprise when she saw him behind the glass an hour or two later waving at her.
After about three hours of exploring, we arrived at my biggest anticipation: Shark Alley. In this exhibit is, the sharks literally encircle aquarium-goers as they travel down a spiraling ramp. The lights dim and an ominous music fills the air. I was admiring a nurse shark resting still on the bottom of the tank when Chubba started looking panicked. It seems Reila is terrified of sharks – or maybe it was the dark under-the-sea vibe. If you tango with the concept of reincarnation, you may be wondering if she had a fatal run-in with one of those big fishies in a past life. Regardless, we waltzed through the rest of the shark exhibit despite my disappointment and moved onto the jellyfish – which she LOVED, even though it was set up in another dark environment. Side note: some sharks have to keep swimming to stay alive. Obviously, the nurse shark is not one of them, as it spends most of its time laying on the ocean floor. Sharks doomed to the fate of necessary constant motion need to keep water passing through their gills to obtain oxygen. Fascinating!
Speaking of jellyfish, the aquarium has two amazing touch tanks featuring horseshoe crabs, stingrays, knobbed whelks, clearnose skates and moon jellies. Never had I ever touched a jellyfish before. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen hundreds of pink jellies washed upon the shore during New England childhood beach excursion. But I was a cautious child. Out of fear of getting stung, I never touched them. I just poked their little lifeless forms with sticks. Sorry, dead jellies of the past. Rest in peace.
Moon jellies are harmless, beautiful creatures that look like little sea ghosts – although some of them were pretty big. They can grow up to a foot wide. Spence and I were surprised by their firmness. I had always pictured jellyfish as incomprehensively squishy little things, but they were firmer than Jell-O. We must have pet them a dozen times next to mostly awe-struck children. Although I would have loved for Reila to be able to pet the jellies, she is too young and currently cannot control her grabbing. My dogs will tell you. She unintentionally rips out clumps of their hair if they get too close, although she really does want to pet them nice.
Bring a dollar bill or four quarters with you because, like all good tourist attractions, the National Aquarium features a penny press. Three, actually, with a dozen different designs to stamp on your penny. These penny press machines turn your plain, everyday penny into a flattened, elongated copper canvas imprinted with a chosen image – all at the turn of a crank. They make great, cheap souvenirs!
After contemplating playing eeny-meeny-miney-moe to decide between the sea turtle or shark, Spence and I compromised on commemorating our first jellyfish-petting experience by choosing to stamp three moon jellies onto our shiny penny. By the end of our aquarium adventure, we were undeniably captivated by those boneless, brainless, heartless creatures.
It’s worth mentioning you don’t even have to go to the National Aquarium to enjoy the animals, thanks to their website’s 24/7 live broadcasts of the Blue Blubber Jellies, Blacktip Reef and Pacific Coral Reef. Zoos and aquariums all around the world are finally embracing the art of live streaming. If you’re an early riser like me, you may enjoy the aquatic sounds of the jellyfish while drinking your coffee and planning the day’s to-dos.
Like I said before, we wish we could have spent more time at the aquarium but we managed to see everything (except for a dolphin training) in the four hours allotted by our parking meter. After that, we drove to Ryleigh’s Oyster for lunch where we enjoyed some amazing crab pretzels, oysters, lobster rolls and french fries. If you like seafood, I definitely recommend them. Then, we got on I-70 West and continued our long drive home. Goodbye, Baltimore. Until next time!
Written by Laurin Rose and edited by Spencer Pearson. Photos taken by Laurien Rose and copyrighted by Rock N’ Rose LLC in March 2018. If you would like to use any of the images featured on this website for commercial purposes, please contact Laurien directly at email@example.com with the subject “Photo Permissions.”