Monterey Bay Aquarium generously provided us with two adult passes for our visit. We still paid for parking and three kids' admission, so we were still in it for over $100. Our unbiased views are included in this guide.
Presenting another in our installment of a Three-year old's guide to everything awesome in the Bay Area!
Favorite Exhibits and Activities for a Little Kid at Monterey Bay Aquarium
We interviewed several little kids about their favorite things to do at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and this is what they told us:
- Vivi really liked observing outside on the deck and using the binoculars. But she loved the otters and the penguins the best. I found that when she found something she liked, she wanted to stay for a long time. We went back to the otters and penguins, for example, multiple times.
- Elaina couldn't believe she got to touch a bat ray (first floor past the Kelp Forrest). The giggles and screams were ear splitting in the best way. And the Splash Zone on the second floor was a favorite.
- Emily LOVED the hands-on area with the tide pool sea creatures, because who doesn't like getting their hands wet so they can pet a starfish?!
- Sawyer might not admit it, but he enjoyed riding around the stroller in the dark rooms trying to get some quiet time instead of a real nap.
- The aquarium has a really cool toddler water area with tunnels/fishing/water play that Zayn really loved. He saw all the cool fish, sharks, jellyfish, and sting rays, but he really wanted to splash with the plastic fish (pictured below) for as long as possible.
- Ellis also loved the kid play area. And everything else!
- Graham really liked the Splash Zone area on the second floor where you can play with big plastic fishes in the water while wearing waterproof aprons. He also liked the tiger sharks that are in a quieter area that feels half outdoors. It has shallow water where you can see the (small) sharks and mechanical waves come in.
- Jack was enamored with the hammerhead sharks (Second Floor, The Open Sea Exhibit). There are three of them and they were hunting among the large school of fish, making for quite the viewing adventure. The sunfish, tuna, sea turtles, and rays were also pretty cool…but the sharks were the real stars. He now asks to watch The Open Sea Cam live feed all the time since then so he can see his “friends”.
Pro Tips for Parents at the Monterey Bay Aquarium:
If you have light-up shoes for your little one (or maybe a glow bracelet!?), this is a great place to bring them out, as it gets pretty dark in some of the areas of the aquarium. And you don't want to have to freak out about losing the kid! Jack insisted on wearing his shark costume, which ended up being a lifesaver for keeping track of our wandering child.
If you can, steer your little ones away from the gift shop because they. will. want. all. of. it! Or, send the kids with the other grown ups in your group to the car while you grab a few fun toys to remember your aquarium adventure. There are some great options for birthday presents, stocking stuffers, driving-home-distractions. And your purchases help support the aquarium. So you can feel good about your dollars spent. Though yes, it's not cheap. This bucket of marine animals is a cheaper option that has enjoyed hours upon hours of playtime in our house.
It can get overwhelming in the aquarium, especially on a busy weekend. Plan for breaks where you can sit outside or get quiet time together. Bring snacks to eat outside and watch the waves. But be advised, the pigeons and seagulls will insist on to becoming friends.
What's the worst part?
All our parents agreed that the two bummers about this awesome place are the crowds and the prices. We heard, “There isn’t much to hate there except the crowds” and “I find it just too difficult to navigate the crowds at the Penguin feeding/demo. We couldn't see anything, and it felt claustrophobic. I recommend visiting the Penguins at a different, less crowded moment during the day”. Patience is a virtue…though not always possible with little ones. So consider going midweek or off hours (first thing or end of day).
So, how's the food?
Vivi loves the food at both the cafe and the more formal restaurant. Both dining options are totally kid-friendly and there is lots of choice. The more formal restaurant has a killer view, but be aware that you'll need a reservation to get a table.
You can easily pack in snacks and a small lunch to share with your three-year old. Alissa snuck in a bagel and it was all good (shhh) but she adds, “As for mama, any cafe that serves fresh greens with goat cheese gets my vote! The big kids and I loved it”. Eating outside is fun too . . . just remember the pushy birds.
Any other tips for your visit to Monterey?
Because Monterey is a couple-hour drive from the East Bay, parents have different strategies about how to time it with their children's needs. I love hearing the different approaches.
Sarah and Vivi make it an overnight and recommend membership. They arrive mid-day and stay for a while and then return to the aquarium in the morning when it opens and stay through lunch. It is worth getting a membership for this reason alone: the shorter visits. We have often come in the morning for 3 hours, gone back to our hotel/motel for naps or down time and then come back in the afternoon again. There is a lot of stimulus there so I think it is a lot to ask the little ones to stay all day and do everything.
Anna and Zayn made the aquarium a short part of a Santa Cruz – Monterey combo weekend. They did the 17-Mile drive through Pebble Beach right before the aquarium so that Zayn could nap in the car. When they arrived at the aquarium, Zayn was in a good mood.
Annika and Graham like to team up with a friend. She explains that the trick to going to these expensive places with a toddler/preschooler is that they are only good for about two hours. If you can piggyback onto someone's membership, it doesn't feel like a big waste if you don't spend the whole day. She suggests that you avoid school vacations to minimize the crowds. Her favorite hotel is the Butterfly Grove Inn.
Andrew and I like to keep it in our back pocket as a last minute family trip when we want to go somewhere “away” but not too far. It's easy to plan, execute quickly, and is relatively affordable. A hotel with a heated pool, snacks, and breakfast for dinner at Denny's make for the perfect family trip. We went over the Thanksgiving week and it wasn't all that crowded. Check out our Bay Area Road Trip Idea: Monterey Bay if you're making your trip longer than a day.
Other details to plan a visit
- RATES: Under 3 is FREE (sorry honest 3-year olds!); Adults ~$40, Student 13-17 ~$39; Children 3-12 ~$29; some area hotels will give discounted rates; AAA offers a discount. Buy tickets ahead online to avoid the line.
- GETTING THERE: 125 miles south of Oakland can take about 2 1/2 hours depending on traffic. Wondering whether to make it a day trip or weekend getaway? Here are some tips.
- PARKING: Official parking info > Unofficially, we say parking is so hard and expensive ($15-$30?!) right around the aquarium, but if you look in the neighborhood to the east and up the hill, you can generally find parking for free for the day. And there's a free old-timey trolley that'll take you around Cannery Row and the aquarium. Wahoo!!
- HOURS: Usually 10am to 5pm with some modified hours for events.
- GETTING AROUND: Monterey Bay Aquarium has a nifty, free app that you can download to help you navigate the space and the schedule throughout your visit.
- WEB: montereybayaquarium.org
Thanks to Sarah Capitelli, Anna Azimi, Chris Kiuchi, Annika Dukes, and Alissa McLean and their children for offering their very strong opinions about what's fun at the Monterey Bay Aquarium!