Maybe your family doesn’t share your Gone With the Wind fetish. Maybe your kids are a bit jaded, or a bit too politically correct, to do the “tomahawk chop” at Braves games. Don’t worry — there’s still hope for family bonding in Atlanta.
Just to set the scene: In this article you’ll encounter pandas, whale sharks and entirely too much high-fructose corn syrup. But take heart: What you won’t encounter is the question “Are we there yet?”
Savvy families visiting Atlanta can escape the heat and stifle whining by steering kids toward the Big Three: The Georgia Aquarium, the New World of Coca-Cola and Zoo Atlanta. It’s easy to find the first two downtown hotspots — they’re located directly across from each other at the same end of Centennial Olympic Park.
Hit the water
Hit the Georgia Aquarium first. Be warned: weekends are almost impossibly crowded. A weekday at opening time will find you in a short line, ready to make the best of your tour. The walk from the parking garage to the entrance is open to the elements, so dress appropriately. Bring a stroller for toddlers or short-winded youngsters.
First things first: beat the crowd to the Ocean Voyager exhibit, located at the rear of the aquarium. The hundred-foot-long acrylic tunnel offers a clear view of whale sharks the size of school buses, and you can also feast your eyes on giant grouper, stingrays and hammerheads. A moving sidewalk ensures that everyone scoots along. Tired? Plant yourself by the huge viewing window to watch the fish swim through the six-million-gallon tank.
Next, head to Coldwater Quest to check out the beluga whales. If the crowd downstairs gets too pushy, head upstairs to the second level. The viewing platform is just as good, but you won’t have to deal with everyone else’s pesky kids or oversized strollers. Coldwater Quest also lets you get whisker-to-whisker with California sea lions, sea otters, Japanese spider crabs and more. In the African black-footed penguin exhibit, a kid-size viewing tunnel lets youngsters get, well, a penguin’s-eye view of their rocky habitat.
Your next stop should be the River Scout area, where freshwater fish cruise over your head in see-through tunnels above the larger tanks. Next door is the Georgia Explorer attraction, where you can dangle your hands in touch-pools to feel up horseshoe crabs, stingrays and other fish.
For a Zen experience, finish up with a trip through the mesmerizing Tropical Reef exhibit. If your little darlings need to blow off a little steam, you can send them to the kiddie play area to run through a dockyard maze. Finally, a 4-D Theater featuring a “Nemo” look-alike called — lamely — “Deepo” lets youngsters feel as well as watch a trip through the briny deep. (Don’t forget to make reservations for the show when you purchase your main-entry tickets.)
The centrally-located Café Aquaria offers kiddie faves like pizza and fries as well as more healthful treats like salads and sandwiches. Got money to burn? Backstage tours of the tanks and care facilities will set you back a mere $50 per person.
Finally, we find something fishy in being forced to exit via the Aquarium’s gift shop. But take heart — you can always buy stickers on the cheap and hustle your kids past the larger-than-life stuffed animals.
A whole new world
The New World of Coca-Cola lies just across the green from the Georgia Aquarium at Pemberton Place. The 90-minute tour is mostly self-guided, but “ambassadors” can help you find your way if necessary. Timed tickets keep lines to a minimum.
First, let’s answer the Big Question: Why pay $15 to look at soda memorabilia? Sure, the pavilion is one huge marketing juggernaut. But try to think of it as the soda equivalent of the Baseball Hall of Fame — just as American, just as pervasive and almost as historic as our country’s favorite pastime. For any skinflints not convinced by history: you get free drinks at the end of the tour.
The museum’s lobby is designed to look like a large block of ice that encases a 30-foot-tall Coke bottle. If the drama of a giant bottle escapes you, keep moving to get to the good stuff. First stop: the Coca-Cola Loft. It’s basically a fancy name for the holding space where you wait to enter the Happiness Factory Theater. The walls and ceiling are covered with hundreds of cool pieces of Coke Americana to keep you in a waiting frame of mind. (Naturally, there’s a Coke machine nearby to quench your thirst.) Then comes the animated film. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at a fantasyland that — in the ads, at least — exists inside every Coke machine.
After the movie you’ll be herded to the Hub. This central space is where you and the kids can get your picture made with the Coca-Cola polar bear mascot. Then flip a coin to go upstairs or downstairs to the main exhibits.
Downstairs, the Milestones of Refreshment galleries show a wide variety of artifacts, including the first prototype “contour” bottle (one of only two in existence). You’ll also see the original recipe notebook for the soda. (Sadly, the page is not turned to the actual formula). More exhibits focus on various highlights in Coke’s history — including Olympic memorabilia, various ephemera and a host of failed products. (It’s strangely heartening to see that even the most popular soda ever has had its share of strikeouts.)
The cool factor kicks into high gear when you enter Bottleworks. This functioning factory produces 1,200 bottles of Coke per hour. Visitors wind through the Wonka-esque factory via a glass-walled tunnel. Kids tend to hover near the robots that place and pack bottles, as well as the quality control area. Robots rule.
Upstairs lies the Secret Formula 4D Theater, where vibrations and other special effects enhance a humorous short film about (duh) the secret of Coke’s success. Next door, the Pop Culture Gallery offers Coke-centered art. You’ll see pieces from Andy Warhol and Haddon Sundblom, who invented the jovial Santa that permeated Coke’s Christmas ad campaigns for years. Looking for your own 15 minutes of fame? Interactive displays let you create your own digital pop art, which can be picked up before you leave. Nearby, the Perfect Pauses Theater lets you relive your childhood via famous commercials such as “Mean Joe Green” and “Hilltop.”
Finally, let your kids and your tastebuds run wild in the Taste It! Area, which dispenses sodas and drinks offered around the world. Some are amazingly sweet; others are crushingly bitter. In other words, taste at your own peril. You can also pick up a free souvenir bottle of Coke, made downstairs in the factory. Exit the museum through the gift shop, where retro ads and designer housewares mingle with the usual T-shirt and baseball cap collections.
Walk with the animals
If you’re tired of indoor pursuits, it’s time for a trip to Zoo Atlanta. A bus runs from the Aquarium straight to the zoo in Grant Park, but you may want to visit on separate days to spend quality time at both attractions. The zoo’s animal exhibits include old standbys like elephants, tigers and zebras, as well as rarer finds like the not-to-be-missed white peacock. Because the outdoor animals tend to be more active in the cool of the day, an early-morning arrival is important if you want to see more than a whisker of the big guys.
The main animal celebrity is Mei Lan, Zoo Atlanta’s new panda cub. She’s a cuter and fuzzier Paris Hilton. You’ll need to reserve a timed ticket for the pandas when you first arrive. In fact, you may want to scoot back to the rear of the park to see the pandas first before heading to the other exhibits. Mei Lan’s neighbors include the reptile house, an orangutan playground and the tiger enclosure. If you’re lucky, the tiger will come out of hiding to play in his pool in front of the viewing window.
Heading back towards the front of the park, the Ford African Rainforest offers a glimpse at gorillas in a huge outdoor exhibit, along with a smaller monkey exhibit and a lemur cage. Kids will enjoy climbing on the statue of long-time resident Willie B, the zoo’s dear departed silverback. You may want to check schedules to catch an afternoon gorilla feeding time. Feel free to offer your kids advice on the finer points of table etiquette as you watch.
Next, head to the African plains exhibits, where giraffes, zebras and black rhinos kick up their heels (or just wallow in the mud). The lion enclosure and a view of warthogs and meerkats lead you straight to the elephant compound. If you time it right, you can hang out in the (very smelly) Elephant House for a closer look at the pachyderms as they feed or get washed down by keepers.
The KidZone area features Outback Station, where you can get an in-the-round view of kangaroos and wallabies from down under. Other exhibits include cassowaries, exotic birds, giant tortoises and a petting zoo for kids. Save this shady area for an afternoon stroll, and don’t forget to purchase tickets for the train ride and the carousel (a parent rides free with a small child). There’s also a climbing wall and a playground to let your own little animals blow off some steam.
Speaking of feeding times: Don’t expect much in the way of healthy food at the zoo. Concessions tend to focus on hotdogs and sodas, so you may prefer to pack your own lunch. Sunscreen and a hat are a must to prevent sunburn, and a cold drink will keep you from succumbing to the humidity.
Melissa is an Atlanta-based writer who is about halfway through her second pregnancy. Her favorite writing topics include food, travel and parenting, and she has been published in a variety of parting publications, as well as cnn.com and Daily Candy.
225 Baker St., Atlanta, GA 30313
(A 10-15 minute walk from either the CNN Center or the Peachtree Center MARTA stops.)
Regular hours: Monday-Thursday: 10 a.m-5 p.m. Friday-Sunday: 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
Adults: $24 ($29 with 4D Theater ticket); seniors 55 and older: $20 ($25.50); kids 3-12: $18 ($22); kids 3 and under: free.
New World of Coca-Cola
121 Baker St., Atlanta, GA, 30313
Cross Street: Centennial Olympic Park Dr.
Daily hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Online tickets: $14 for adults; $12 for seniors 55 and up; $8 for children 5-12; and free for children 4 and under.
Located in historic Grant Park, with parking lots located off Boulevard or Cherokee avenues.
The zoo can also be reached via MARTA bus route 97, which also runs to the Georgia Aquarium.
Weekdays: 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.
Weekends: 9:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m.
Ticket booths close one hour before the grounds
Adults: $17.99; children 3-11: $12.99; children 2 and under: free; seniors 55 and older, military and college students: $13.99.