The challenge: Tour as many of Atlanta’s famous attractions as possible in one week. The verdict from all is that it was well worth the effort to entertain everyone.
Our crowd included Jacob, an intelligent and somewhat impatient 10-year-old fifth grader; Jackson, a reserved but very active 4-year-old preschooler; and Emerson, an expressive 3-year-old daredevil.
The outcome included blisters, sunburns and previously unknown levels of exhaustion. These negatives, however, were rendered completely irrelevant as the kids fell asleep every night with smiles on their faces.
The Georgia Aquarium
This newest attraction in the Centennial Olympic Park area is also one of the world’s best aquatic adventures. It explores river life like otters and coldwater creatures like penguins.
Adults and children enjoyed the touch pools filled with rays, sharks, sea stars and anemones in the Georgia Explorer section, and lingered in Ocean Voyager, especially the impressive walk-through ocean tunnel where the giant resident Whale Sharks regularly pass overhead. A “4D” theater uses 3D animation along with tactile additions like blasts of cool air and sprinkles of water.
Verdict: Three thumbs up
Feedback: “I like da stickies (sea anemones),” Emerson said.
If you go: Get there just before it opens at 10 a.m. and you’ll avoid lines and large tour groups. But the real reason is to watch feeding time at the sea lion exhibit at 10:30 a.m., with the otters and Beluga whale feedings following just after.
Best for: Everyone except animal-rights activists. We can’t have penguins roaming Peachtree Street.
Don’t miss: The sticky sea anemone touch experience or the majesty of the ghostly Beluga whales
Bring: Parking money, a camera, comfortable shoes, gift shop escape clause (you have to walk through the gift shop to exit the aquarium), socks for the children’s play area.
Admission: Included in the Atlanta City Pass. Individual prices: $19.50 per child, $21.50 per senior and $26 per adult. Children 2 and under are free. Four-D theater tickets are $4 for children and $5.50 for adults. Or get a premium day pass that includes theater tickets, too, and save $3 per person. For a truly extravagant experience, book a behind-the-scenes tour or a swim or dive with the whale sharks.
What to do after: Have a picnic lunch in Centennial Olympic Park. Bring towels for the kids to dry off with after playing in the park’s animated fountains.
World of Coca-Cola
This boasts the world’s largest collection of Coke memorabilia, a fully-functioning bottling line, a tasting experience with more than 60 different Coke products from around the world and a 4D theater. It’s twice the size as the previous World of Coke museum and a great deal more interactive. Don’t misunderstand the message behind it: Coca-Cola wants you to buy their products and their public relations officers are freakin’ geniuses for coming up with this.
But getting a glimpse at how they became one of the most recognizable brands in the world (hint: they say it’s distribution) is fascinating. Adults will see through it; kids may not. Prep them for the hard sell.
Verdict: Two thumbs up
Feedback: They could only spew unintelligible gibberish because they were too hopped up on sugary soda.
If you go: Be prepared to wait to get into the museum. Tour groups are allowed in batches because the first exhibit, a clever film presentation of what happens inside a Coke machine, has limited seating in what’s called the Happiness Factory Theatre. Advice: try not to drop your wallet in this room like I did.
Best for: Preteens and the extremely brand conscious.
Don’t miss: The tasting room. Some of the flavors, we were certain, were developed just to mess with us. Nalu is a vitamin-packed mango-flavored soda that I wish was available in the U.S. But the sharp, herbal flavor of Mare Rosso can stay in Spain. It tastes kind of like Angostino bitters.
Bring: Parking money, comfortable shoes, a camera, gift shop money, a picnic lunch for Centennial Olympic Park and towels for the kids to dry off with after playing in the park’s fountains.
Admission: Included in the Atlanta City Pass. Individual prices: $9 per child, $13 per senior and $15 per adult. UGA Alumni Association members get $2 off at the ticket window. Children 2 and under are free.
What to do after: Have the kids walk off their sugar highs by staging a forced-march to the Hard Rock Cafe a few blocks away — or catch MARTA and try the world-famous Varsity. Just make sure no one orders soda with dinner.
The vast array of animals in their natural habitats in the middle of the urban green space that is Atlanta’s Grant Park was staggering. From sleepy tortoises to terrible tigers, unless all you see is a collection of walking rugs or coats, no one will want to miss out on this anthropomorphic experience. Still, it was a little disappointing not to have the voiceover announcer for “Meerkat Manor” narrate the lives of the giggling grranimals. But you can provide your own play-by-play when the ostriches take off running for no discernable reason. They really do look like the cartoon Roadrunner.
Verdict: Three thumbs up
“My favorite was the alligator snapping turtle. It was huge. It was bigger than Jackson,” Jacob said.
If you go: Watch the gorilla feedings from 2-3 p.m. and the orangutan feedings from 2:30-2:45 p.m. Also, your kids will hate you if you don’t shell out for the train, the carousel and the rock-climbing wall. It’s $2 for any two of the three, but just buy the dang unlimited option for $6.50. You know they’re not going to get to the top of that wall on the first try.
Best for: Everyone. But watch the younger kids closely in the petting area.
Don’t miss: Pandas!
Also Bring: Comfortable shoes, sunscreen, gift shop money, a camera, snacks and water in a backpack.
Admission: Included in the Atlanta City Pass. Individual prices: $13 for children, $14 for seniors, military and college students, $18 for adults. Children 2 and under are free. Parking is free.
Fernbank Natural History Museum
Standing next to the three-story skeleton in the first-floor atrium at Atlanta’s natural history museum really helped me appreciate Palmetto Bugs. They are nothing compared to the dominating dinosaurs. Full of hands-on exhibits and collections, not to mention anthropological art displays like a photographic exploration of the Gullah people, the museum offers an exploration of the natural world that surrounds the concrete and steel so quickly overtaking the Peach State.
Verdict: Two thumbs up
Jackson: “What I really wike was the pway pwace (play place) — the one where you can fish the fishes.”
If you go: The little ones won’t get as much out of the walk-through exhibits, and their attention may wane in the 45-minute movies. If or when that happens, take them to the third floor, where the interactive play areas abound. But save that area for last.
Best for: Tweens and teens that have yet to hit “surly” on their biological alarm clocks will get the most out of the museum overall, but there is something every family member can appreciate.
Don’t miss: The IMAX movies. The experience of flying through the movie really can’t be beat. Older folks will enjoy “Mystic India.” Younger folks will dive into “Dolphins.”
Also Bring: Comfortable shoes, gift shop money, a camera, snacks and water in a purse.
Admission: Included in the Atlanta City Pass. Individual prices: $13 for children, $14 for seniors, $15 for adults. IMAX tickets are $11 for children, $12 for students and senior and $13 for adults. Or, buy a value pass that includes one IMAX film: $19 for children, $21 for students and seniors, and $23 for adults. Children 2 and under are free. Parking is free.
What to do after: Check out the nearby neighborhoods: Indie shopping and ethnic eats in Little Five Points, where The Vortex was voted Atlanta’s Best Burger; dinner and a movie at the historic Plaza Diner and Plaza Theatre on Ponce de Leon Ave.; or boutique shopping and trendy dining in Virginia-Highlands. Try Noché. Ask for Kelli.
For crowd-pleasing experiences, Six Flags can’t be beat. They offer everything from stage shows to scare tactics, concerts to coasters. And everyone in the family can join in the fun.
Our toddler would have ridden the back of a dragon to the front gate, so our issue with her was keeping her off the larger rides. The preschooler wished he could ride the larger rides with his older brother, but it wasn’t likely he would have survived them emotionally intact.
He was too frightened of an actor playing Batman to go near him. The 10-year-old, well… the adults had to tag team riding with him. There was just no stopping him. One adult gave up halfway through the day and returned home early to rest. But the children didn’t let up all day long.
Verdict: Three thumbs up
Feedback: “OHMYGOSHTHATWASSOCOOL!” Jacob said
“Can we go on the water ride again? Can we go on the water ride again? Can we go on the water ride again?” — Jackson
“’Member when I wide da boats? An’ it go wound and wound? And den — SPWASH!” Translation: she liked the Santa Maria and the Log Flume. — Emerson
If you go: Go in the middle of the week when the crowds are smaller. Load up on sunscreen. Wear light-colored natural materials that dry quickly. And definitely splurge for the Flash Pass that will cut your wait times greatly. The wait time for some of the rides can be an hour or more. Remember that crowds are large so it’s best to implement security measures like the buddy system, meeting points, synchronized cell phones and strict enforcement of behavioral standards.
Best for: Everyone. With family rides, Bugs Bunny World and the brand-new Thomas Town, not to mention the water-soaked Skull Island, everyone can have fun all day. Granted, the over-48-inchers in the family will have more options. But the lines aren’t as long for children’s rides so they can ride them over and over, the same way they watch Dora videos.
Don’t miss: The Superman Ride, the free-with-admission concert series, Skull Island, the Souvenir Cup beverage deal: $13 gets you free refills all day on the day of purchase, and 99-cent refills on subsequent visits. Otherwise you’ll be either weighed down with beverages or slowed down by dehydration.
Also bring: $20 for parking, comfortable shoes, sunscreen, towels, bathing suits, a cooler with lunch, a small backpack or messenger bag with snacks, small bills for the lockers and a stroller or wagon for younger children. Both preschoolers were crammed into one rental stroller by 4 p.m.
Admission: Summer special: Now when you buy your tickets online, everyone pays the kids price of $29.99. Children 2 and under are free. Plus, you can print your tickets at home and go straight to the gate. Again, buying the Flash Pass online rather than waiting to do so at the park will save you a few bucks. The prices range from a $26 for a one-person to $106 for a six-person regular pass; or $53 for a one-person or $193 for a six-person gold pass.
The High Museum
Museums are built on reputation. So the recent 177,000 square-foot expansion to the museum didn’t do as much for the organization as one might think. But they have provided space for exhibits on Picasso, Toulouse Latrec and from the Louvre’s own collection. Just open: “Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement, 1956-1968.” It is absolutely incredible. But the museum, for all the many exciting things that drew the adults in our party, is not for every age group. The children’s area bored Jackson — or so he said, and then spent 30 minutes arranging blocks on the building tables. Emerson had to be dragged away. Jacob didn’t find the art all that interesting. He’s more science-oriented.
However, we brought Emerson here when she was just under a year old, and the visuals entranced her. This time it devolved into a dramatic performance of the Don’t Touch That Opera.
Verdict: One thumb up
Feedback: “There isn’t anyfing here that I wike,” Jackson said.
If you go: Don’t. Wait for a group of very artistic youngsters, older teens and adults. This wasn’t the best place for our two younger tagalongs.
Best for: Teens and adults, but if you have calmer more complacent children, or those who are quiet and confined to strollers, this is an excellent venue to get them started on cultural appreciation.
Don’t miss: In the excitement about the Louvre exhibits and the Civil Rights photography, many people forget about the museum’s rotating permanent exhibits. Don’t. The seeming translucence of the veil over one marble sculpture’s face is worth the price of admission.
Also Bring: Comfortable shoes, $10 for parking
Admission: Included in the Atlanta City Pass. Individual prices: $11 for children, $15 for students and seniors, $18 for adults. Children 5 and under are free.
What to do after: Your gang of sophisticated adults will enjoy the short hop over to the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s Thursday night Cocktails in the Garden or one of their concert presentations with artists like Shawn Colvin and Lucinda Williams. You can also stroll Piedmont Park, which is surrounded by neighborhood eateries and hosts a Screen on the Green film series, or return to Fernbank on Friday nights for their “Martinis and IMAX” event.