We are a beach-loving family. A little sand and diggers for the boys, water stretching forever for the little mermaid, and Vitamin D all around (through 400 layers of sunscreen, of course, Momma’s not dealing with little people sunburn): it’s just what this weary family needs to restore ourselves after too many months of winter. But once all the diggers have been lost, the waves get a bit too rowdy with the mermaid, and soft skin turns pink (seriously, even through all of that constantly reapplied sunscreen) the sweetness of sand meeting sea, frankly, comes across as a little bitter. So when we’re in Florida’s Emerald Coast (the North West Gulf Coast), we like to take few hours and reset by going to Ft. Walton Beach’s Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park.
The Gulfarium, which was originally established in 1955 by a group of scientists and local residents, has a simple and inspiring mission. It is “dedicated to education, entertaining, and inspiring [their] guests to respect and preserve wildlife by providing unique and memorable experiences for visitors of all ages to connect to marine life.” And in their facility, they do just that through exhibits, shows, chats, and encounters with a variety of animals ranging from stingrays to loggerheads to tropical birds and to otters (and who doesn’t love an otter?).
The cost for seeing all of these critters starts at $21.95 for adults (13-61). Children 3-12 are $13.95, and infants under 3 are free. The Gulfarium also offers military discounts, Florida resident discounts, and Senior (62+) discounts. For those travelers who frequent the Northwest Coast of Florida, there are annual passes starting at $70. In addition to unlimited entrance, the annual passholders get invited to special events and discounts at the gift shop and on food.
Speaking of food (because there’s no getting through even a two hour stretch without feeding little people some type of snack), no outside food or drink is permitted except those with special diets and baby food. The Gulfarium does have it’s own food stand, the “Dive-In Eatery,” filled with the staples that little people generally love. Unless, of course, the littles are my littles who don’t like the things they usually like when those things are the only choices they have. Fortunately, the Gulfarium has thought of us poor souls lugging around little people who are fixated on eating merely cucumbers, salami, and chocolate chip pancakes. The pass into the Gulfarium is not a one time entry pass. In fact, it’s a daily pass, so it’s possible, and fairly easy, to leave the building and site entirely to get some good beach eats and then head back to finish up the task of exploring.
And the price and the food aren’t even the real reasons that the Gulfarium is a must do for anyone with little people who visits Florida’s Emerald Coast. And if I’m being honest (which I totally am), it’s actually a must do for everyone, even if the little people are no longer little or not even a spark in the eye. Here’s a few reasons why my little people (and their big people) love this place:
- The Variety of Species: Upon pulling into the parking lot, the Gulfarium looks like there may not be much to impress beyond the door. It’s an older building that’s weathered not just a few years of hard salt-filled air, it’s also been battered in quite a few hurricanes. But it’s important to look beyond that. After buying the ticket, we open the doors into the amazing underwater viewing windows of the dolphin tank. There’s nothing like pushing those doors open and being surrounded in that deep blue. But beyond the bottlenose dolphins, the Gulfarium offers Sea Lions, Harbor Seals, Sea Turtles, Stingrays, Sharks, Penguins, Alligators, and Otters (squeal!) to name just a few. And it doesn’t end there; there are Tropical Birds and a variety of Reptiles. There are animals everywhere. They’re inescapable, which is good because it’s the whole reason to be there (honestly I think it’s mostly the otters…but maybe that’s just me (doubt it though)).
- The Manageable Size: So, now that we’ve dragged our little people from the beach, we’ve clearly got to substantially entertain them or we will be facing epic meltdowns. And the last thing I need to deal with on vacation is one of the little people throwing sand in the eye of another while the third dramatically falls to the sidewalk a la Old Hollywood. But, each and every time we have packed them up to head to the Gulfarium, there have been nothing but giggles, which can largely be attributed to the size and layout of the exhibits. The Gulfarium is basically all outdoors, so for the little people, it isn’t so much taking them away from the beach that they adore as much as it’s changing their perspective of that beach. They still feel connected to the space they love. (It is covered too though, so it also makes a great rainy day activity.) Additionally, even though there are a ridiculous number of animals for the little people to watch and fall in love with, the exhibits are fairly small and close together, so it’s easy to navigate and see each of the animals in a reasonable amount of time. The littles get to see their favorite animals (OTTERS!), and they also get to dip a toe in the ocean later in the day. It’s the best of both world. And because of the smaller size of the exhibits, the little people get to be up super up close with the animals they adore.
- The Great Experiences: While looking at the animals is enough to awe the tiniest of the little people, there are a number of ways that can get them involved even more. The Gulfarium has two free shows: the Dolphin show and the Sea Lion show. In addition, the little people can learn about a number of their favorite animals through free chats that happen through the space. Here they can discover Sharks, Harbor Seals, Reptiles, Penguins, and Otters (!). And for those grown up little people, the Gulfarium provides “Animal Encounters,” which, so far, have been filled with the moments that memories are made of. The Encounters all have an additional cost and they have minimum ages starting at 3+ for the Kids Reptile Safari to 13+ for the VIP Trainer program. A list of the Encounters can be found on the Gulfarium’s website as well as posted at the entrance. As a side note, though they offer two different Encounters with Dolphins, the Gulfarium does not allow guests to swim with the dolphins (one does include being in the water with them though).
- The Conservation Efforts: Just because we’re on vacation, doesn’t mean that I don’t want my little people to be learning, especially if it’s learning about how to be a better global citizen. One of the ways this happens is by paying attention to the conservation efforts put forth by the Gulfarium. This information is disbursed throughout the entire space; it’s in the shows and chats, as well as in writing throughout the exhibit. The conservation focus of the Gulfarium is focused both on the animals themselves and on protecting their natural environments in the wild. For obvious reasons, they are also interested in research pertaining to the husbandry of the animals in zoos and aquariums. Their website lists ways in which little people and adults can contribute to their conservation efforts. Additionally, the Gulfarium has the “Gulfarium Sea Turtle CARE (Conserve, Act, Rehabilitate, Educate) Program” where the focus is on rehabilitating and releasing various species of turtles found along the Gulf Coast. So far the Gulfarium has been able to rehabilitate and release hundreds of turtles. When the littes are focused on digging in the sand, it can be easy for them to lose sight of their place in the wide world. The Gulfarium gently reminds them of this through their focus on conservation.
Every trip we need to find a way to take a vacation from our vacation. Days upon days of little people burying each other in the sand and the ensuing rumbles call for a few hours out of the sun and away from the sand. The little people need a momentary break in their routine (and the grown ups need a few hours to be sand and salt free). When we’re at Florida’s Emerald Coast, we find that break, that grounding place, at Ft. Walton’s Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park. And each time we’re in that part of the world, we keep going back (because, you know, OTTERS!)