There’s more to Florida than just the Orlando theme parks and water parks. The Sunshine State is also known for its family beaches, beach towns, beach resorts, state parks, and robust marine life, so it should come as no surprise that some of the best aquariums in the U.S. call Florida home, too. And because the best Florida Aquariums balance learning with hands-on fun, they’re both a great change of pace from the nonstop amusement parks action and a fun way to escape the hot heat on your Florida family vacation.
The Best Florida Aquariums to Visit with Kids
Whether you delight in dolphins, love shark spotting, or are fascinated by all the other fish in the sea, there’s an aquarium in nearly every corner of Florida where you can learn about, observe, and even interact with amazing aquatic creatures. Here are the best Florida aquariums that cater to kids and families.
1. The Florida Aquarium
You’ll find more than 9,000 sea creatures at The Florida Aquarium, a popular downtown Tampa attraction since 19995. Visitors can spot everything from eels, anemones, and stingrays to seahorses, sharks, and penguins at this impressive facility. Make a day of it by taking a Wild Dolphin Cruise aboard a 72-foot catamaran alongside an experienced naturalist, embarking on a guided underwater walking tour called SeaTREK (ages 10 and up), and cooling off at this Florida aquarium’s Splash Pad (ages 11 and under).
The Florida Aquarium also has a conservation campus at the Florida Conservation and Technology Center in Apollo Beach that’s open to the public. There visitors can learn about The Florida Aquarium’s Coral Conservation Program and Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Center and see scientists at work.
While at the Florida Conservation and Technology Center complex—which is open November 1 to April 15 and has free admission—also stop by Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center to see manatees gathering in the warm waters released by the nearby Big Bend power station.
2. The Aquarium at the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science
The three-level Aquarium at the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science in Miami takes visitors on a virtual journey through the waters of South Florida. The 100-foot wide, 500,000-gallon Gulf Stream Aquarium is home to fish, rays, and sharks.
Start on the top level to explore life near the surface via displays examining habitats like mangroves and the Everglades. The two lower levels—called the Dive and the Deep—take visitors beneath the water via exhibits and experiences like the chance to crawl into a cave for a “fish-eye” view of a reef.
Don’t miss the aquarium’s dramatic finish: a one-of-a-kind, 31-foot-wide, 13.5-inch-thick oculus lens for viewing tuna and sharks swimming overhead.
3. Clearwater Marine Aquarium
A working marine rescue center on Florida’s Gulf Coast, Clearwater Marine Aquarium gained fame as the home of Winter, a dolphin who lost her tail after getting stuck in a crab trap line and received a prosthetic tail at the aquarium. (Winter was the subject of the popular 2011 movie Dolphin Tale.)
SUNSHINE STATE: 7 Best Florida All-Inclusive Resorts for Families
Winter’s legacy lives on at the aquarium through a virtual reality experience, and the aquarium continues to work with other animals, which visitors can learn about at spots like the Rescue Deck and Turtle Bayou.
Other exhibits include Legends from the Deep, which focuses on sometimes-creepy creatures that live way undersea; and Rescue Town, where little ones can play marine biologist. Just like you’ll find at some of the other Florida aquariums, guided boat tours are available from Clearwater Marine Aquarium as well.
4. Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park
Fort Walton Beach, Florida
A self-described “marine adventure park,” Gulfarium has been educating and entertaining visitors to the Fort Walton Beach area since 1955. General admission includes an array of exhibits where experts offer scheduled chats about otters, seals, and fish, plus daily dolphin and sea lion presentations. Visitors can opt to add on special animal encounters with the aquarium’s dolphins, penguins, harbor seals, and other animal residents.
RELAX AND RECHARGE: 10 Dreamy Florida Beach Resorts That Are Perfect for Families
Coming in 2023 is the new Dolphin Oasis. This multimillion-dollar expansion project currently underway will feature three large interconnected habitats of different sizes and depths to replicate dolphins’ natural ocean experience. Visitors will be able to encounter and interact with the creatures in a variety of ways, including via a 27-foot acrylic viewing window for observing dolphins from above and below the water’s surface.
5. Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium
On Florida’s Gulf Coast, the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium is a working scientific research facility in Sarasota that showcases the sea life in Florida’s bays, rivers, and ocean waters, as well as the scientific work done on site. Visitors can see what’s swimming inside the 135,000-gallon shark tank; say hello to the playful resident manatees; watch a trio of river otters swim and scamper throughout their watershed habitat; and learn about Mote’s sea turtle conservation, research, and rehabilitation programs.
Big things are coming for Mote down the road, too, with the new Mote Science Education Aquarium (Mote SEA) expected to open in 2023. This new space will feature exhibits totaling more than one million gallons of water that will be home to sharks, Atlantic and Pacific coral reef species, manatees, sea turtles, and other sea life. When Mote SEA officially opens, Mote’s current facility will be enhanced to focus exclusively on research.
6. Aquarium Encounters Florida Keys
Families can get hands-on in lots of different ways at Aquarium Encounters Florida Keys. Located in the island community of Marathon in the Florida Keys, this interactive outdoor aquarium showcases sea life found in both the Keys and the Caribbean. General admission includes access to five touch tanks, public feeding presentations, and guided tours led by marine biologists. Outdoor exhibit areas are covered by tiki huts that provide protection from sun and rain.
You can take your visit to the next level by partaking in a special dry-land or in-water encounter. Opportunities include snorkeling in the coral-reef tank and hand-feeding sharks and rays, or visiting this Florida aquarium’s nursery to spend time with its younger creatures.
7. Gulf World Marine Park
Panama City Beach, Florida
The Gulf World Marine Park has been welcoming visitors to Panama City Beach since 1970. Families come to see animals like stingrays, bottlenose and rough-toothed dolphins, seals, sea lions, and penguins. General admission includes the opportunity to pet stingrays and access to daily shows spotlighting this Florida aquarium’s sea lions, dolphins, and bird residents.
Visitors can add to the experience through interactive encounters with dolphins, seals, sea lions, and penguins. If you can’t decide, the VIP Sea Life Experience allows you to choose three interactive animal programs, plus it provides digital photos to look back on the day.
8. SEA LIFE Orlando Aquarium
The Spectacular SEA LIFE Orlando Aquarium is home to Florida’s only 360-degree ocean tunnel, where you can observe sharks, turtles, eels, and all kinds of fish swimming above and around you. In the Coastal Rockpool area, you can touch a starfish or anemone, while other exhibits feature jellyfish, seahorses, and even a zebra shark.
ORLANDO VACATIONS: 14 Best Things to Do in Orlando with Kids
This Florida aquarium is located at Orlando’s ICON Park, and you can make a day of it with a combination ticket that includes admission to wax museum Madame Tussauds Orlando and The Wheel, a 400-foot-tall observation wheel that offers sweeping views of the Orlando area.