When people visit the mountains, they typically are likely to see native wildlife like black bears, deer or wild turkeys. But if you happen to be in Gatlinburg, you’ll also see some of the world’s most fascinating underwater creatures, but it’s something you’ll only experience at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, located in the heart of downtown.
Open since 2000, this world-class attraction has consistently been one of the area’s top tourist draws thanks to two levels and tens of thousands of square feet of unique exhibits showcasing species that hail from oceans around the globe. The self-guided tour takes approximately two hours, but you could easily spend more time than that if you allow yourself to become fully immersed (figuratively speaking) in the dozens and dozens of exhibits.
On the upper level, you’ll encounter sections called Tropical Rainforest (which houses freshwater species), Ocean Realm, Shark Lagoon and Touch A Ray Bay, a shallow lagoon where curious guests of all ages can reach in and pet a live stingray – under staff supervision, of course. Shark Lagoon alone is worth the price of admission as it is the largest single tank in the entire aquarium, and you can view the sharks from underwater as you travel along the moving walkway in the aquarium’s see-through tunnel.
The lower level is home to exhibits like Coral Reef, Gallery of the Seas and Stingray Bay, which is different from Touch A Ray Bay in that it is a larger tank where aquarium staff often swim with the rays and feed them by hand, and you can see it all through the tank’s giant see-through walls. Also on this level, look for the Discovery Center, a hands-on area where kids and their parents can get interactive with puffer fish, horseshoe crabs and more.
In addition to the regular tour, the aquarium offers several add-on experiences such as the Penguin Playhouse, which allows guests to go nose-to-beak with these Antarctic creatures by exploring tunnels in the penguins’ state-of-the-art indoor/outdoor habitat (check it out on the aquarium’s live Penguin Cam). You can also take the Touch A Ray Bay experience to the next level with Splash With The Stingrays, where guests actually get into the lagoon to get hands-on with the rays.
The Sleep With The Sharks program has been a component of the aquarium experience since it first opened. This allows families and groups to sleep overnight at Ripley’s Aquarium in the underwater tunnel, following a night that includes a dive show, scavenger hunt and more.
While you’re at the aquarium, you can grab a bite to eat at the Feeding Frenzy eatery, and at the end of your visit, you’ll get an opportunity to browse through Ripley’s Cargo Hold gift shop.
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies also hosts a number of city-sponsored special events throughout the year, and you can book the facility to host birthday parties, wedding receptions and more.