Last week I took Leo to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. My son is a huge fan, and would visit every day if he could; but the Aquarium is a very popular and often crowded place, and so not always the ideal environment for a child with autism. Not for my active, vocal, unpredictable, and easily overwhelmed boy with autism, anyhow.
We are fortunate to live nearby and visit frequently. After many, many successful visits and a few catastrophic ones, I now know what helps my son have The Best Visit Ever. Here's what I recommend for Aquarium-bound families like ours.
Locals: Buy a Membership
At $120 for one year, the basic family membership pays for our family of five on the first visit. Every visit after that is essentially free. As members, we have never had to wait more than two minutes to get in, which really helps squirmy boys who are still learning to stand in line. (Note: our current membership expires at the end of this month, but I'm not going to renew it until September because we don't visit during seethingly-crowded July & August.)
Out-of-Towners: Buy Your Tickets Ahead of Time
Leo doesn't like to wait in line, and neither do most of his friends. Plus the ticket lines for the Aquarium can be quite long. If we weren't members, I'd buy my tickets online so we could walk right in.
We arrive the moment the doors open, 9:30AM during summer and 10:00AM the rest of the year. Timely arrival makes the difference between Leo getting to bliss out and commune with the jellies in relative solitude:
... and Leo fighting his way through jellyfish-ensorcelled mobs one hour after opening:
Since our recent visit was technically during summer (i.e., after Memorial Day) even though many local schools are not yet out, I knew we wouldn't get primo viewing or access to all of Leo's favorite exhibits. We had to make some choices. After the jellies, my son is most obsessed by the Outer Bay tank and its sharks, so we went there second. (And fifth. And seventh. And ninth.)
Sometimes, if the main Outer Bay viewing area's crowds aren't too tightly packed, we can shoehorn ourselves between a wall and one of the tank's corners, where Leo's spinning and glee and squawks only elicit questioning glances from one side.
Other times we turn around and head upstairs to the tank's viewing balcony. This last time, Leo was content to sit in the dark on the balcony for a good thirty minutes, while I bounced him in my lap and sang to him and gave him my full attention. This was possible because -- for the first time -- it was just the two of us. No sisters, no friends, no helpers. I had thirty precious minutes of uninterrupted joy with my son. I think there's a MasterCard commercial to be made from our experience.
During really bustling times, we head downstairs to the Outer Bay tank's ground floor viewing area, which is tucked away in the Vanishing Species exhibit between Wild About Otters and The Secret Lives of Seahorses. Few visitors seem to know about this alternate viewing area, which is nice for families like ours. The experience is not as immersive nor as dark as it is upstairs, but you get even closer views of the rays (that's *Mr. Ray* to Nemo-loving kids like Leo) and hammerheads. And Leo loves all the levers on the adjacent displays.
Cut Your Losses
We managed to get into the excellent new exhibit, The Secret Lives of Seahorses, but it got too bustling for us very quickly. So I kept us back from many of the tanks, as Leo's unpredictable behavior makes me leery of close quarters with strangers and their tiny children.
Both of us thought the seahorses were a trip, and Leo enjoyed the tactile experience provided by the giant seahorse statue. Next visit we will hit this exhibit first, so we can spend more time wondering at the seahorses and their hemispheric aquarium habitats.
We staked out the self-service cafeteria so we could get in right when the doors opened (11AM on weekdays, 10 AM on weekends). Otherwise, the chaotic mass of perplexed food-seekers in the slightly confusing kitchen area couldn't be more overwhelming for a child who dislikes noise, disorder, and crowds. Should you choose to brave the cafeteria during peak hours, note that grab-and-go beer and wine are also available.
Early diners also get the best seats in the cafeteria's dining area, with views of seals and cormorants, boats and divers, and sometimes even kayakers. Later diners can't always find a place to sit down, one of my worst-nightmare scenarios for an outing with Leo because he doesn't understand why we can't just eat all the food on the tray I'm holding right where we're standing.
If the cafeteria doesn't work for you, or if your kids aren't going to eat that early, you can bring your own food to the main amphitheater outside the cafeteria dining room, or the exterior amphitheater just past the Groups & Will Call entrance. You're not supposed to eat in any non-restaurant/cafeteria areas inside the Aquarium.
If you really, really don't want to worry about where you're going to eat, and your child can tolerate a waiter-service restaurant meal, the Aquarium's swanky reservation-taking restaurant is open from 11 to 3 (its bar is open until 5:30, which is good news for those who've had a grueling visit and are accompanied by a designated driver).
Make Use of Bolt-Holes
Like many kids with autism, Leo craves small enclosed spaces. There are several throughout the Aquarium. I prefer the two pictured below (exterior of the Wave Tunnel pool, Wild About Otters), because they are small -- Leo is not going to get overwhelmed by jostling kids -- and they're shallow enough that if need be I can easily reach in and yank him out.
Unless you're visiting on a really slow day, you're going to have a long walk between your car and the Aquarium. If you've also had a long drive, and your child is still mastering bathroom skills, you might be anxious about ticketing areas delays impeding a critical pit stop. Please know that the Aquarium thoughtfully provides *outside* bathrooms opposite the Groups & Will Call entrance.
Even on busy days, the Aquarium has many underused areas to take overwhelmed children who need to chill out. We like the area outside the Touch Pools (pictured, see if you can find Leo), but the benches between the Skywalk and the Anchovy Dome entrance to the Jellies Gallery are also rarely used. On slower days, the decks past the Splash Zone slide or opposite the Outer Bay/Jellies Gallery are good places to exhale.
Make It a Learning Opportunity
Leo likes the Aquarium so much that it qualifies as a motivator, and we've incorporated it into his learning. I made him this simple sight-reading grid in Gimp, and then laminated it so we can bring it on our visits.
At home, I've turned the grid into a two-sided sight-reading and matching game. He can match pictures to the picture and word, or just word to word -- but either way he stays engaged, because he's looking at pictures and words from one of his favorite places.
Leo thinks the Aquarium is a magical place. There are few other places he can have so many self-guided positive sensory and engaging experiences. He can commune with the "Nemo" fish in the Splash Zone coral reef tunnel indefinitely, he would dance in the Wave Tunnel forever. Though I am usually an impatient sort, when I see my son having the kind of fun the Aquarium provides, I surrender. I'll stay with him as long as he wants, doing whatever he wants. And I'll keep bringing him back.
Please note that the Aquarium has its own list of tips for visitors, including disability access. For families that need accommodation, and with two weeks' advance notice, the Aquarium will arrange special tours.