Our guide to fun at the Shedd Aquarium

I’ve been taking Lucy out of preschool one day a month for a family field trip. In October, we went once again to one of our favorite places, the John G. Shedd Aquarium. We’ve got a few tips about how to make the most of a visit there.

At the beginning of the school year, I felt a little grumpy about our preschool’s afternoon time slot, beginning at 12:45. I thought we might be able to squeeze in some fun morning outings before school, but it quickly became clear that breakfast + fun + lunch + getting ready for preschool would not be possible before 12:45. So I declared a monthly Boyd girls’ field trip, starting with the Brookfield Zoo in September. And October brought us back to the Shedd Aquarium.

Our amazingly generous neighbors gave us a gift membership last year which we took full advantage of. This year, I decided to try going with the Chicago Public Library Great Kids pass, but my plan did not unfold as intended. It turns out that you only have access to the main floor with the library pass — no Oceanarium, no Polar Play Zone. Since I know my girls love those two features in particular, I renewed my membership for another year.

I wondered if the Shedd would be a little dull for the girls this time, since we went so often last year. But my fears were unfounded. In fact, their familiarity with the environment seems only to add to the joy they find in watching animals and playing with fabulous toy submarines. We have quite a routine now, and we thought we’d lay it out here for anyone else who is looking to have fun with dolphins and small children. Enjoy!

  • Prepare for departure. Get dressed in comfy clothes and good shoes. Pack lunches, extra clothes, lots of quarters, and probably a stroller. Breakfast at home is nice if you’re up early enough, or you might choose to eat breakfast in the car so you can achieve your goal of an…
  • 8:30 departure time. The Shedd opens at 9:00 am, and the parking meters start running at this time. It’s great to get there early to beat the crowds and get a good parking spot.
  • Parking meters. There is plenty of metered street parking, with parking prohibited from 7-9am. This means there are tons of spots at 9 am. Start saving your quarters early — rates on “the Daley tax” have recently increased to $1.50 per hour, so you’ll need a lot. We generally put enough in for a four-hour visit.
  • Stroller entrance. This entrance is closer to the parking spots, doesn’t have stairs, and you can rent a locker for coats if you’d like (more quarters needed; I think it is $1 for a big one, $.75 for a smaller one.)
  • First bathroom stop. With two children and a well-hydrated adult, plan for an average of one bathroom visit per hour.
  • After entering the museum, stop at the big tank and see if you can spot the giant tortoise, or even a diver caring for the fishies.
  • Main floor. Take a look around at the jellyfish (near the Wild Reef entrance), seahorses, and a real Nemo.
  • Down to the Oceanarium. Drop off the stroller in the Welcome Center. I also like to leave bulky or heavy things (like water bottles) in the stroller, too.
  • The Show. Lucy and Rosie love to see the aquatic show. This time, it was a little slower paced, but our favorite part was watching a diver jump into the water and play with the dolphins. (We hear that there’s a new show being developed for the holiday season.)
  • Lunch. I don’t know why, but whenever we are out for an adventure, my girls start asking for lunch at 10 am. It’s easy to work up an appetite from enthusiasm, plus it’s just fun to eat a sack lunch! In the summer, we go outside to the terrace sometimes, but our girls’ favorite spot is the cozy darkness of the Welcome Center.
  • Polar Play Zone. The early lunch pays off, since this area is practically empty during the traditional lunch hour. My girls had an especially fun time touching a live starfish this time. Lucy jumped at the chance to ask the staff person her jellyfish research question: “We know that jellyfish lay eggs, but how do the eggs come out?” We stump him, then the girls play with the fake shells and real water. (This is why you’ve packed an extra set of clothes.) If you’re obsessive like me, hand sanitizer comes out after discovering that there is no soap at the “hand-washing station.”
  • Refuse to pose with dolphins. Do all children do this?
  • Beg for a snow globe at the gift shop. I only submit to this request because it is the very first snow globe I’ve seen that is made of plastic, not eggshell-thin glass. We have to buy two.
  • Pretend to be a penguin in the penguin-slide area. Discover that my younger child has lifted a set of binoculars from the gift shop, which we return.
  • Play in the submarine. Extra fun to have the submarine all to ourselves today (since it is really still lunchtime!). Rosie gets a little alarmed by the sounds coming from the beluga whale tanks a few feet away.
  • The Wild Reef. We head over to see some sharks. I should have known better; the girls were really starting to reach full capacity. We wander around exhausted, slurping water from any drinking fountains they could find. “Pick me up!” cries Rosie. We’ve had enough.
  • Head out, avoiding the gift shop. Upstairs, we find an employee who solves our jellyfish dilemma. The answer: eggs come out of the same place where they poop. Fascinating!
  • Back at the car. We’ve got seven minutes to spare on the meter. Nice.
  • Eat a snack on the way home. This will help you to fend off the post-museum crazies. You might also want to put on Laurie Berkner’s Rocketship Run — always a favorite for the after-adventure cool-down.

And just in case you’re interested, here is my packing list for an adventure at the Shedd. It should all fit in a backpack.

  • snacks and lunch
  • small bowls (to dole out snacks)
  • waters cups for all
  • extra undies for children
  • wipes
  • hand sanitizer
  • wallet
  • phone
  • iPod
  • extra outfit for each child
  • car keys
  • a toy for each child to hold in the car
  • stroller
  • appropriate outdoor gear
  • loads of quarters

4 Replies to “Our guide to fun at the Shedd Aquarium”

  1. We did the Shedd in October too! I happened to get two free passes from a grocery deal over the summer. Loved the meter parking! So close and way less expensive than the garages!! Being from the burbs we didn’t get there until 10 (breakfast, changing, packing, doublechecking – really takes up time!) and there were still lots of good spots. My girls were scared at the Wild Reef exhibit… weird, I just got deja-vu! :) Abby wouldn’t touch the live starfish. Maybe when she’s older. They didn’t mention the gift shop so I avoided it. :) Did you get your picture taken? Almost had a meltdown when we looked at them but didn’t buy them. Phew!

  2. Ann, you are one amazing individual. So great that you share your experiences with others and that prompts others to share their experiences with you! That is one great combination. The details – the strategies – the decisions that influence eager questions and curiosities – this is simply a wonderful example of the work involved in skilled (and happy) parenting. Grammy and I salute your hard, creative work – and, of course, it is always a thrill to watch the girls respond to the depth of your love. I send you (all) my love…

  3. Keri — we also left the tutus at home. Very important.

    Jolinta — Good to know about parking spots being available at 10am! I forgot about the picture-taking. We just cruise right past it every time! I know we aren’t going to buy them, so we just say “no thanks.”

    Grandpa — you are so sweet. The girls are so lucky to have such loving grandparents, eager to hear about them. And I’m so lucky to have such wonderful in-laws! :)

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