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Residing between the thrilling rollercoasters and waterslides of Elitch Gardens Theme and Water Park and the trendy bars and restaurants of the Highland neighborhood, the Downtown Aquarium is an often-overlooked Mile High City attraction. Overlooked, that is, by everyone except the hordes of families mesmerized by its more than one million gallons of tanks every summer.
Within those tanks? Everything from the Greenback Cutthroat Trout (Colorado’s state fish) to stingrays (that you can pet) to sharks (that you can actually swim with). To ensure you see each and every one of them during your visit—along with the other land-loving critters on site—we compiled the essential guide to the Denver’s Downtown Aquarium.
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The most convenient way to secure admittance is to buy tickets online before your visit, an ironclad strategy on the weekends when the crowds descend en masse on the aquarium. As of June 15, reservations are staggered every 15 minutes to ensure social distancing. (Visitors ages three and older are still required to wear masks.) Be sure to use the ticket within a half hour of your time slot, or it will become void. That said, during our visit, the staffer at the ticket booth said that on weekdays tickets were typically readily available on a walk-up basis.
- Adults (12-64): $23.50
- Seniors (65 and older): $22.50
- Children (3-11): $17.50
- Children younger than two: Free
- Parking: $8
The main exhibit is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sunday.
In non-pandemic times, the aquarium typically offers additional experiences through premium ticket options like the Aquarium Exhibit Plus Pass, which runs an extra $5 more than general admission and grants its holder entrance into a 4-D Experience viewing (a 15-minute movie in a 40-seat theater equipped with physical effects). Or for $6.50 more than the standard fare, the Aquarium Exhibit Value Ticket will get you into the 4-D Experience, along with your pick of two of the following perks: food for the interactive stingray exhibit, face paint, a small soda, or a climb up the Coconut Tree (an artificial tree you can ascend with the help of a rope and harness).
However, with the 4-D Experience and other extra attractions are still temporarily suspended because of COVID-19, and the Value Ticket and Plus Pass are currently unavailable. But be sure check the aquarium’s website for updated information on reopenings and premium ticket availability.
What to Do
Aquarium Adventure Exhibit
The main attraction. This exhibit comes with the price of general admission and winds through nine different habitats, from North America to the rainforest to a coral lagoon. Highlights include: Emmet, a 10-year-old North American River Otter who can swim seven miles per hour and delights in displaying that speed as he zips around his enclosure; a glass tunnel over which large stingrays drift; Besar, a tiger who’s known to enjoy a nap after devouring a heaping helping of pork; and 20-foot-long sharks. Your children’s favorite comes at the end, when an open-air tank allows them to lean over the glass and touch passing stingrays as they circle in the water.
Swim with the Sharks (and Other Sea Creatures)
With the help of Littleton-based A-1 Scuba & Travel, the Downtown Aquarium also provides its patrons with the chance to dive. On Saturdays and Sundays starting at 9:30 a.m., customers ages six and older can snorkel with rays, grouper, and eels in the Under the Sea exhibit ($85). Beginning at 1:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, certified divers can examine sand tiger sharks up close in the Sunken Shipwreck exhibit ($185; all required equipment is included in the price). For those who want to feel the thrill of being shark bait but don’t have their diving certifications, there’s also the Shark Cage Experience on Saturdays and Sundays (for ages eight and older; $100 for 20 minutes underwater).
Throughout the summer, the Downtown Aquarium offers educational programming for its younger customers. Students can participate in daylong learning through the “Marine Biologist for a Day” and “Zoologist for a Day” tours (both are $65 per day and run from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; check the calendar of events to find the allotted day for your child’s grade). If a single day won’t cut it, the Downtown Aquarium also hosts first through sixth graders for five-day summer camps. On July 2, 16, and 30 and again on August 6 and 27, children ages five to 11 (who are accompanied by an adult) can spend the night at the Downtown Aquarium ($65 per person; every adult is free with five paid kids).
Aquarium Express and Aquatic Carousel
Stationed between the aquarium and the South Platte River, the Aquarium Express is a kid-centric electric train (though riders shorter than 36 inches must be accompanied by a guardian). Similarly, the Aquatic Carousel (kids under 42 inches must ride with a guardian) replaces traditional horses with sea monsters. Both cost $3 per ride.
Where to Eat
The Downtown Aquarium is owned by Landry’s Restaurants, the proprietor behind chains such as Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., and, yes, Aquarium Restaurants. Naturally, the menu at the Denver outpost is seafood and steak heavy, featuring everything from a grilled Atlantic salmon to the Broiled Captain’s Platter, or some classic steak and lobster. Of course, there’s also a kid’s menu stacked with mac and cheese, pizza, and grilled cheese. The main attraction of the on-site restaurant, though, is the 50,000-gallon aquarium full of fish.
However, if dining on tilapia while other sea creatures watch on feels fishy to you, there are plenty of alternate dining spots in the area. Just to the east, Platte Street is lined with well-regarded restaurants. Proto’s Pizzeria Napoletana bakes thin-crust pies, while Brider’s sandwiches are perfect for a quick lunch. At the east end of the street, Maria Empanadas offers delicious and affordable selections that even the pickiest of kids will appreciate (just see if they can resist the ham and cheese).