The Georgia Aquarium, which opened in Atlanta in November 2005, is the world's largest aquarium with more than 8 million gallons of water, four whale sharks, the world's largest fish, beluga whales, a penguin exhibit and a dolphin exhibit, which is currently under construction with a planned opening late this year.
The Ocean Voyager exhibit offers a variety of viewing options, including a two-story viewing window in a large gallery, where parents can sit comfortably on carpeted auditorium style stairs while children view the inhabitants of the 6-million gallon ocean tank up close. Families can also enjoy a unique walk through the ocean tank's underwater tunnel and literally walk underneath the whale sharks as they swim by.
The Cold Water Quest offers views of exotic fish, such as sea dragons and huge Japanese spider crabs, while the River Scout exhibit houses the aquarium's playful Asian otters, American alligators and piranhas.
Other exhibits include the Tropical Diver tour with a living coral reef exhibit, enchanting jelly fish and sea horses; the Georgia Explorer with a number of touch tanks filled with horseshoe crabs, sting rays and shrimp; and the current special exhibit Planet Shark, which features everything you ever wanted to know about sharks and more. And, most importantly, for frequent visitors, the aquarium offers a new exhibit or new addition every 90 days, so there is always something new to see when you go there.
Throughout the year, the aquarium offers a variety of special activities for children, including holiday themes, such as the Georgia A-Scary-Um, where children can trick or treat while viewing the various exhibits, and Diver Santa. The aquarium also features special activities for members only, which are hosted in the Oceans Ballroom and often include delicious treats and crafts for kids.
The Oceans Ballroom features two unique viewing windows, which allow guests to view the ocean and the beluga tanks while enjoying special events.
For parents of special needs children, the aquarium offers a wonderful sensory and calming experience. Still, with the vast number of exhibits, wide variety of options and inevitable crowds can easily overwhelm special needs children, especially children on the autism scale.
If at all possible, plan to visit often, for an hour or two. A membership will pay for itself in just a couple of visits, but you will find that the aquarium is a great option for year-round unplanned visits and your autistic child will look forward to returning again and again to see his/her favorite exhibits.
Plan your visits for less crowded times when the aquarium first opens for the day or an hour or so before closing.
Ask about accommodations for special needs children. The aquarium's visitors' staff are very friendly and more than willing to help. They may be able to arrange a guide so that your child can have more of a one-on-one experience, rather than waiting in the crowds for the scheduled presentations/question and answer sessions at each exhibit.
Follow your child's lead. Let your special needs child choose the exhibits he or she wants to see. Your child will know what he is comfortable with and will let you know when it's time to move on or leave for the day. You can always come back for a special visit without your child to see other exhibits.
- Take special events on a case-by-case basis. Last year's Georgia A-Scary-Um was packed with many one-time visitors, since children were allowed in free with a parent's ticket, and the candy was limited mostly to a couple of featured products, including M & Ms, which are off limits to children on the GFCF diet. Upon inquiry, however, many of the candy stations produced a "secret" stash of allergy-free hard candy.
If the aquarium offers special crafts or children's activities, don't be afraid to ask for on-one-one help for your child. These activities tend to be crowded and there is often a wait. Ask an attendant if you can bring your child to the designated table at a certain time without waiting in line.
For limited time exhibits, such as Planet Shark, which require additional paid tickets, you may want to try the experience first before taking your special needs child. The shark exhibit is positively fascinating and more than worth the extra fee, if you have the time to leisurely explore; however, it is not advisable for children with sound and light sensitivities. For a child, who is really interested in sharks, but overly sensitive to sounds, you could try bringing a pair of noise canceling headphones or an iPod with calming music.
And one last note, the aquarium exit will take you straight through the main gift shop. Not the best place to be if your child is already overstimulated and you are hoping for a quick escape to your car. Of course you can always shop during your visit, rather than at the end. That way your child can pick out a special reminder of his/her visit during a break between exhibits and while your child is still in a good mood.
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