Atlanta Aquarium

Atlanta’s aquarium is more rock stage than fish tank.

One of the featured attractions, and the hardest ticket to score when crowds back the lines up onto the street, is their dolphin show called Dolphin Tales. The 30-minute extravaganza is loud, musical, and kid-friendly: think Flipper + Glee. OK, also + Pirates of the Caribbean and go ahead and throw in + any random video game, except it’s 3D and involves an 800,000 gallon saltwater tank that sloshes over the edges. The same edge where you’re sitting along with the more adventurous of the happy fish fans of single-digit-age.

In the water are both dolphin-girls and dolphin-guys including one intrepid young lady who with arms plastered to her sides, makes her body into an underwater spear with a dolphin nose at her feet. She gets blasted through the water about 8 feet deep at speeds suggesting a tow rope accident. That’s before she gets launched.

The dolphins themselves come and go through an underwater gate that you can see opening and closing, but they are only on stage (on tank?) for half the show, because the rest of the show has a live singing act, a storyline with a legendary sunken ship that must be raised (by audience participation that includes what-they-kindly-term-singing-but-is-really-chanting-with-smiles and hyperventilation-inducing amounts of helping the North Wind blow). By this point the kids are enthralled, the adults are wondering what could possibly come next, and they haven’t even introduced the bad guys yet. It’s quite a show that keeps you spellbound with anticipation, at least if you are fortunate enough to land seats next to the tank. “You might get wet,” is the warning, and the tank sides do look high enough to keep all the water on the other side of the plexiglass, but that’s only until several 500-pound dolphins race into the tank with enough energy and power to convulse the water surface ten feet up. Yes, they’re also really good at giant splashes of the bellyflop sort. You repeatedly find yourself thinking, “Uh oh.”

The dolphin-girls look very happy to be in the water swimming pretty in their blue bodysuits, and the dolphin-guys, with bodies like dancers, look almost as happy. The star of the show plays a character who sings his story through a headset mic, gets to punch out the bad guys, and never even gets wet.

But the dolphins themselves are fabulous, though they never get introduced by name, and we’re never told what their favorite food is or who is frisky and who is petulant in training. No, this ain’t your parents’ dolphin show. It’s up-to-date, three-dimensional, high-def, crazy-busy though. And when it’s over you’ve saved the seas for all eternity, put a dolphin-shaped constellation into the sky so that kids forever after can be guided by the memory of your efforts, and filed out to make room for the 4 o’clock show. Take a deep breath, because now you have to go out into the actual aquarium exhibit areas.

The coolest thing they have, by far, is the giant tank of rays, deep-sea fish, and whale sharks that glide serenely past your vantage point, their rows of white dots going on forever a few feet from your face. It’s impressive even without the pop tunes blaring from speakers, the high-pitched chirps of pre-school fans of the animal planet, and the announcements. Yes, there are also snack areas, shops, interactive Please Touch exhibits, shops, narrative interpreters, penguins with observation booths inside their tank, sea otter preening areas, places where you can pet a sea urchin (no, they won’t sting! maybe), a coral reef video where you can contribute to reef restoration in the Keys, and shops.

A proper visit to the aquarium will require a half day of your itinerary allowing a half-hour to buy tickets, two hours to see everything you can handle in a single visit, and an hour afterward to decompress after you come to the surface.

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