Ultimate Guide: Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies Gatlinburg

Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies

Looking for unique things to do in Gatlinburg, Tennessee? Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is a must-see spot that will make your smoky mountain family vacation unforgettable. While traveling through the Smokey Mountains, our family spent a day exploring the area and decided to explore the aquarium. Forget any cheesy 80’s TV shows you might link with the name Ripley’s—this place is all about great exhibits with real-life sea creatures.

Ripley's aquarium smokies stingrays
Stingray Exhibits: You can touch and feed the stingrays as they glide by in their large, open tank. It’s like shaking hands with the ocean, and kids and adults alike love it!

A Bit of History: How Ripley’s Swam into Gatlinburg

Before we dive in, did you know Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies opened its doors in 2000? Yep, it’s been a part of Gatlinburg for over two decades. The place is named after Robert Ripley, a guy who loved collecting weird and cool stuff from all around the world.

Our First Time at a Ripley’s Spot

Alright, I gotta be honest. This was the first time we visited a Ripley’s attraction. I was a bit nervous. Why? Well, I kept thinking about that old 80’s TV show with all the strange and freaky stuff. But guess what? My worries were all for nothing!

Jack Palance Ripley’s believe it or not
The first thing I think of when I hear about anything “Ripley’s”

From Penguins to Jellyfish: The Can’t-Miss Exhibits

Beyond its famous shark encounter, Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies offers a bunch of other amazing spots to meet sea creatures from all corners of the world. Whether you’re into adorable penguins or mesmerizing jellyfish, this place has an exhibit that’ll wow you. So, let’s get into some of the other can’t-miss exhibits that make this aquarium a Gatlinburg must-see.

Ripley's aquarium smokies Australian cow fish
Australian Cow Fish look funny with horn-like fins, but they’re super interesting to watch! These were my favorite fish of the aquarium.

The Ocean Realm: A Calm and Peaceful Experience

Step into the Ocean Realm and it’s like you’re floating through a big, calm sea. This place is full of fish that look so elegant, you’ll want to sit and watch them all day.

Ripley’s aquarium smokies lion rockfish
Lion Fish (left) and Rockfish (right): These striking fish have spiky fins that look like a lion’s mane, but watch out, they’re venomous! They’re both beautiful and a bit dangerous, making them a must-see at the aquarium.
Ripley's aquarium smokies Japanese spider crabs
With legs longer than your arm, these Huge Japanese Spider Crabs are like something out of a monster movie!
Ripley's aquarium smokies gobies fish
Gobies are small fish that pack a lot of personality! They dart around their tank and even “talk” to each other with little movements, making them super fun to watch.
Ripley's aquarium smokies sea anemones
Anemones: Touching anemones in the touch tank is like a high-five from the ocean; they’re squishy and awesome. These were in an exhibit you couldn’t touch.
Ripley's aquarium smokies cuttlefish
The cuttlefish exhibit is like a magic show of the sea! These critters can change color super fast and even “disappear” by blending in with their surroundings. They’re kinda like the ocean’s chameleons and totally worth seeing!

The Shark Encounter Tunnel: Jaw-Dropping Fun

Okay, we have to talk about the shark encounter tunnel. It’s so good it blows other shark tunnels out of the water! You get to walk through a glass tunnel and see all sorts of sharks and fishes swimming around you. It’s like you’re inside a National Geographic show but way cooler!

Ripley's aquarium smokies shark lagoon tunnel
Ride along a moving walkway that’s as long as a football field (340 feet) and feel like you’re strolling on the bottom of the ocean! As you go through the tunnel, you’ll get super close to sharks, sea turtles, huge stingrays, and other awesome sea creatures.
Ripley's aquarium smokies sawtooth and tiger shark
Longtooth Sawfish look like they’re part shark, part saw; they’re super unique and fascinating.
Ripley's aquarium smokies shark encounter
The shark encounter is filled with other fish that seem to swim in harmony with these predators
Ripley's aquarium smokies sawtooth
A few of the long tooth sawfish like to rest on top of the tunnel. While I know they don’t have eyes on their bottoms, it sure looks like they are staring at you!

Penguin Playhouse: Meet the Cutest Birds on Ice

Ever wanted to watch penguins waddle, swim, and just be their adorable selves? The Penguin Playhouse is your spot. This icy wonderland lets you see these cute birds from all angles—even from underwater!

Ripley's aquarium smokies penguins
Penguin Exhibit: You’ll fall in love with these adorable penguins as they waddle around and even paint art with their feet. It’s not just cute; it’s also for a good cause, helping injured wild penguins!

Jellyfish Gallery: An Underwater Light Show

The Jellyfish Gallery is all about color and light. With tanks that change color, it’s like watching a light show, but with jellyfish! These floaty, glowy creatures make this a magical spot you’ve gotta see.

Ripley's aquarium smokies pacific sea nettle jellyfish
The Nettle jellyfish are like underwater dancers with their flowing tentacles. They’re really graceful but don’t let that fool you; they can sting! Watching them glide through the water is like seeing a live light show in the ocean.
Ripley's aquarium smokies japanese jellyfish
The Japanese jellyfish look like floating space aliens; their slow dance is mesmerizing to watch.

The Mermaid Show: Not Our Cup of Tea

Now, not everything was a splash hit. We caught the mermaid show, and let’s just say it was a bit cringy. Imagine people in mermaid costumes doing flips and tricks. It sounded cool, but it wasn’t our thing. Still, some kids seemed to like it, so maybe it’s just us.

Ripley’s aquarium smokies cringy mermaid show
Can you spot the “mermaid” at the top of the aquarium? We had a hard time staying long enough to take a good picture because the “show” was so cringy!

Learning is Fun: Education Stations

They also have stations where you can learn cool stuff about sea animals. They’re easy to understand, even if you’re not a fish expert. And hey, who doesn’t want to go home and tell their friends they’re now a shark whiz?

Ripley's aquarium smokies 3-story playhouse
This 3-story play center is like a jungle gym on steroids; kids can climb, slide, and have a blast.
Ripley's aquarium smokies peek-a-boo clown fish
Peek-a-Boo Clown Fish Exhibit: At Ripley’s, there’s a special tank where you can actually pop up inside the tank to spot clown fish up close. It’s like a playful game of hide-and-seek with these colorful, famous fish!
Ripley's aquarium smokies peek-a-boo puffer fish
Enjoying the peek-a-boo aquarium exhibit. Puffer fish are some of my favorites!
Ripley's aquarium smokies peek-a-boo lobsters
Check out this lobster, a real-life ocean giant with big claws and a tough shell! You’ll be amazed by how it moves and hides among the rocks.

Penguin Fine Art

At Ripley’s Aquarium in the Smokies, guess what? The penguins are artists! That’s right, these cute little guys dip their feet in paint and waddle across a canvas. The result? One-of-a-kind art that you can actually buy. The best part is, the money goes to helping injured wild penguins. It’s a win-win: you get cool art, and you’re also doing something good. So, of course, we had to buy one! Don’t miss this when you visit! It’s super special and helps our flippered friends in the wild.

Ripley's aquarium smokies penguin painting
You can buy paintings made by the actual penguins; the money helps save injured wild penguins!

So, Should You Go?

Totally! From the history to the award-winning attractions, Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is a must-visit spot in Gatlinburg. Just maybe skip the mermaid show if it’s not your thing. But don’t miss the shark tunnel; it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

So next time you’re in Gatlinburg, make sure Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is on your to-do list. Trust us, you won’t regret it!

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