"But this is a mall."
We were headed to Sea Life Aquarium Charlotte-Concord and my daughter was confused. The place we were pulling into didn't look like any kind of aquarium she'd seen, but we were in the right place. Indeed, Sea Life is in a mall - Concord Mills Mall, to be exact, entrance 7, to be even more specific.
Opened in February 2014, the 26,000-square-foot destination is designed especially for young children and their families. Many of the 20 exhibits are immersive.
Big windows, for instance, look into giant tanks that sit low to the ground so toddlers and preschoolers can get a clear view. Visitors get the feeling they're walking underwater with fish and other creatures swimming around you in the ocean tunnel. And, scattered about the space, you'll find small places designed just for small kids to climb through and explore.
"It's really geared toward kids," said David Cochran, curator. "It's down to that level."
You may have seen Sea Life Aquariums elsewhere. It's part of Merlin Entertainments, a collection of attractions and parks that also include Madame Tussauds and Legoland. Other Sea Lifes are scattered around the country. The Charlotte location sits just down the street from Great Wolf Lodge, making for a great diversion after hours at the water park.
We spent about two hours at Sea Life, chatting with Cochran and exploring the exhibits. The aquarium covers both freshwater and saltwater fish and invertebrates. There's an exhibit, for instance, about creatures found in the Catawba River. You'll also find octopus, sting rays and a sea turtle named Neptune.
- The touch pool where visitors can get up close with sea stars, urchins, hermit crabs and more.
- Sting Ray Bay with its collection of sting rays and other sea life.
- The Tropical Ocean exhibit and tunnel.
- And the Seahorse Nursery.
Sea Life also features regular talks, feedings and programs throughout the day. We really enjoyed the Behind the Scenes tour, which start at 11 a.m., 11:30 a.m., noon and 12:30 p.m. When you get there, be sure to ask for the meeting point.
During these tours, visitors can see how the aquarium is run and managed - from the laboratory and food prep areas to views from above the giant tank.
To keep kids from completely bouncing from one exhibit to the next, there's a scavenger hunt booklet that you can pick up when you get your tickets. The booklet highlights facts about sea life, conservation efforts, which Sea Life emphasizes, and more throughout the aquarium. If kids find all of the answers, they can pick up a small prize in the gift shop.
At the end of the exhibit area, you'll also find a soft play area for kids to run around and get their wiggles out.
If you go, be sure to get your tickets online to take advantage of discounts. Tickets are $19.95 at the door for adults and $14.95 in advance. For kids ages 3 to 12, tickets are $14.95 at the door and $9.95 online. Kids 2 and under are free. The ticket covers all-day admission so you can get there in the morning, head out into the mall to the food court for lunch and return if you want.
On Tuesdays, admission is free for a child with the purchase of an adult ticket. Each additional child, ages 3 to 12, are $5 each (up to five additional kids). You can buy those tickets online or at the door.
Sea Life's website has more information.