If there is one sacred institution in Baltimore, it is the Aquarium. Whenever the name of this prized downtown attraction is mentioned, eyes close in rapture and turn to the heavens. "It is just in-CREDible." "Mind-blowing." "I could spend a month there!"
After years of going with the conventional wisdom, praising the Aquarium, assuming I must be missing something in my visits there, I'm ready to admit: I don't get it.
Putting aside the absolutely absurd prices—which are quite unwieldy to put aside, as I'll get back to—I just don't get the great appeal of the place. Of my several visits as a kid, I mostly remember the monotony of fish tank after fish tank. Maybe the first couple bright-yellow fish were cool, but I just didn't care that this one has a pointy nose, that one squirts ink when it's scared. I remember walking a lot, I remember huge crowds. Of course, we never got to see any of the dolphin shows or movies—they cost extra—so we only saw the main exhibits. I remember feeling pretty much the same as I felt on all the museum field trips we took with school: "I'm bored, but at least I'm not at school. When's lunch?"
Over the 15 or so years after my last adolescent visit to the Aquarium, I heard the relentless drumbeat of praise for the place and I gradually changed my tune. I must not have gone to the really cool exhibits. Maybe they've added something since I was there. I was so immature then—I'm sure I'd appreciate it now. I started to believe the hype. When out-of-towners came to Baltimore, I told them they must go to the Aquarium. "It's magical," I imagined.
I moved away, got married, had kids. I remember one of our first trips back to Baltimore after having Jack. We were walking around the Inner Harbor, checking out the Science Center, the Pavilions, and I had a great idea: "Let's go to the Aquarium!" As we rushed to the pier, I babbled to Jack about what a magical experience he was going to have—then we saw the prices: $24.95 just to get in the door. Each! $27.95 if you want to see the dolphin show. If you also want to go to the 4D Immersion Theater, well, you might have to refinance your home. Rather than spend upwards of $100, we bailed, but I still assumed I was missing something.
After we moved to Baltimore, I heard about "Dollar Days." Every year for one weekend in December, all downtown attractions, including the Aquarium, reduce their fees to $1. Now was our chance, I thought.
On the first Dollar Day, the Aquarium was a packed madhouse. This was no surprise, of course, since it's the only weekend of the year when the majority of Baltimoreans—those without hundreds of dollars in disposable income—can afford see our city's crown jewel attraction. I tried to get Jack, then two years old, excited about the manatees and giant sea turtles, but after a few minutes, he lost interest. The succession of aquaria were only occasionally exciting. For him, the highlights were the tubes of water near the entrance to the main exhibit hall where bubbles shoot up and down, and the wood-plank bridge connecting two levels. Oh, and, of course, lunch.
Needless to say, "Dollar Days" do not include admission to the dolphin show or 4D Immersion Theater. But the Aquarium did let some of the attendees into the dolphin show arena to watch the porpoises in training. Suddenly, Jack came alive. He loved watching the dolphins jump and flip and splash—this was a show. I left that day kinda down on the Aquarium, but still thinking maybe Jack was too young to appreciate it. A few months later, I had the opportunity to go the new dolphin show—for free!—and I wrote about it on this blog. We had a great time and, as you can see, I was still giving our treasured institution the benefit of the doubt.
But after a subsequent visit and underwhelmng testimonials from my nieces, ages 7 and 9, I'm ready to admit that I don't get what's so great about the Aquarium. Granted we've never been to the 4D Immersion Theater—maybe it truly is transcendant—but I'm not ready to take on a second job to save up for it. And, yes, we loved the dolphin show, but it really bothers me that you have to pay extra for it. Two of the first three exhibits listed on the Aquarium web site are the ones you have to pay extra for. At $25 per person, I think there should be a little more emphasis on the main attractions.
I should add that I can only begin to imagine the vast resources, in terms of staff, equipment, and kelp, it must take to keep the Aquarium running. John Lewis's excellent story, "The Life Aquatic," about the Aquarium's inner workings earlier this year was fascinating and really put into persepctive how vast an enterprise the place really is.
It's possible—likely even—that I'm just an outlying scrooge. After all, they have lines out to Pratt St. every weekend, so they must be doing something right. Maybe my brain is somehow smaller in the area that appreciates the Aquarium the way it's also deficient in the area that appreciates classical music. But I also wonder if there are others out there who, like me, never really understood the great appeal of the Aquarium, were aghast at the prices, but kept quiet, assuming they were alone. To them, I say, "You're not alone!" To everyone else, please tell me, convince me: What do you love about the Aquarium? What am I missing?
[photo courtesy daveb_md via flickr.com]