Early last week, Ryan and I were both hit with the desire to go on a quick family adventure and centered our planning around Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, one of top-rated aquariums in the country. Since we had such a good time in Atlanta during our visit to the Georgia Aquarium, we figured we’d piggyback on that trip and Chase’s intense interest in marine life and plan a similar getaway. We tried to be just about as spontaneous as life with a 3 1/2 year old and a 9-month old allows us to be these days and didn’t do much planning beyond finding a hotel within walking distance of the aquarium in downtown Gatlinburg.
We checked into the Edgewater Hotel around 6 p.m. and unloaded our stuff as quickly as possible before I nursed Ryder and we headed out to explore.
I had a short list of “must try” restaurants on hand thanks to your recommendations but the timing of our arrival was less than ideal for an enjoyable restaurant experience with two kids who usually go to bed between 7 and 8 p.m. We ended up walking around for a bit before grabbing pizza and candy from an adorable little candy kitchen to bring back to our hotel room and eat in bed.
Whatever works, right!?
To be honest, ever since we began traveling with kids, I’ve tried to let go of any expectations of hitting up every “must see” attraction and dining at every “must try” restaurant. It’s simply not realistic and feeling some kind of weird vacation pressure to see and do everything doesn’t make for the best experience for anyone. Now our vacation itineraries usually include a loose list of things we’d like to do and we try our best to be flexible and account for plenty of stops, breaks and downtime to do things like watch a man reel in a trout from the river outside of our hotel because that’s what a 3 year old thinks is amazing.
So our itinerary for Gatlinburg looked like this: Check out the aquarium. Grab doughnuts at The Donut Friar. Ride a mountain coaster. Simple, realistic and flexible. Were there a handful of things we wanted to do that we didn’t get the chance to explore? Yes! But Gatlinburg is only 3 1/2 hours away and we will be back. (First up on our list for next time: Explore Pigeon Forge and Dollywood!)
Saturday was our day of exploration! We hit the ground running and arrived at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies the minute it opened at 9 a.m.
We’re all early risers in our family and that worked to our advantage because the aquarium didn’t feel the least bit crowded despite the fact that downtown Gatlinbug was absolutely crawling with people. (It’s definitely a very touristy-feeling area.) We followed the natural flow of the aquarium and spent most of our time looking at sandtiger sharks and a green sea turtle in the shark lagoon, watching the penguins during their 10:30 a.m. feeding and playing with Chase as he had a ball in the various kid-friendly play areas.
Ryan and I both agreed the aquarium was well worth the trip to Gatlinburg and is a must-see, especially for those with little ones. While we both preferred the Georgia Aquarium based solely on the amount of incredible marine life there is to see there, we agreed that Ripley’s Aquarium was even better for kids around Chase’s age because of the interactive exhibits and play areas. Chase had the best time pretending to be the captain of a big submarine, climbing up the jungle gym, touching the back of a jellyfish and peeking his head up into the observation peek-throughs in the various fish tanks.
The aquarium is very family friendly and while Chase was all about the sharks and stingrays, Ryder was most enamored with the big schools of little fish and seemed to love watching them swim around and around. (Since I’m always curious how other people handle traveling and exploring with kids of different ages, Ryder took his morning nap on me and snoozed in the ErgoBaby for about an hour during our aquarium adventure which worked well for us.)
We spent around two hours at the aquarium and left in the mood for doughnuts! A number of you recommended doughnuts from The Donut Friar during our visit and since we’re a doughnut-lovin’ crew, we knew we had to make that happen! As we made our way to The Donut Friar, we caught the tail end of a giant Santa parade and had to stop to watch and wave to more Santas than I’ve ever seen in my life.
Seeing so many Santas in one place prompted “the talk” with Chase about how not every Santa is the Santa and there are a lot of Santa helpers out there to help the “real” one. Crisis averted.
Once we made it to The Donut Friar, we wasted no time and ordered doughnuts and lattes.
The Donut Friar totally lived up to the hype and we were only slightly embarrassed to get back in line and order a second round of doughnuts for our crew less than five minutes after our first round. The plain glazed doughtnut stole the show for me but Ryan and Chase were all about the frosted sprinkle doughnuts.
With doughnuts in our bellies, we had a renewed burst of energy and made our way to Rowdy Bear Mountain to try out a mountain coaster.
Chase just made the height requirement (kids must be 38” to ride) and was thrilled to be able to hop on the coaster with Mom and Dad!
I’ve never been on a mountain coaster before but it was so, so fun!! Since I had Chase riding with me, I loved the ability to control the speed of my cart but was honestly surprised by just how much Chase loved flying around on that thing at the top speed!
Our final adventure of the day took us to Ober Gatlinburg, an adventure park and ski area. To get to the park, we boarded a large tram which took us high above Gatlinburg and up to the top of a mountain. Despite it not being too crowded, it wasn’t the most seamless experience and we waited for a while to board but thankfully managed to nab a spot on the tram near the windows so we could enjoy beautiful views. I also took advantage of our wait time to nurse Ryder which worked well.
Ober Gatlinburg was packed with plenty to do for kids and families and Chase loved the bumper tubes on ice and the carousel.
He was a little too small for some of the really awesome-looking adventures, including skiing, the alpine slide and the mountain coaster but we made the most of our visit and grabbed sandwiches and fudge and had a great time before boarding the tram and returning back to the base of the mountain. (Note: We really did enjoy Ober Gatlinburg but just in case any of you give it a try, be prepared for some long wait times for the tram and bumper tubes. I’m not sure if it’s always like this but it didn’t feel that crowded to our family and yet we still waited a lot. It seemed like it wasn’t operating as seamlessly as it could have been so I’m not sure if we were there during an “off” day or what but just wanted to be upfront about our experience!)
Since we had to be back home for an event on Sunday morning, our trip to Gatlinburg was a short one but still felt more than worth it for our family. We ended up heading home around dinnertime after a very full and very fun day!
The drive home actually ended up being one of my favorite memories from our trip. Ryder figured out how to make this little mouth noise that we’ve been teaching him for a while which cracked us up and we taught Chase how to play 20 Questions: Animal Edition and he was all about it! Ryan and I laughed really hard whenever it was his turn to think of an animal because he’d inevitably volunteer way too much information about the animal and give it away after one of our questions. When I asked, “Chase, does this animal swim in the ocean?” he replied, “Yes and it’s big and it’s blue and it has a blow hole!” He LOVED the game and we played many, many rounds.
The week ahead should be a relatively normal one around here and I’m off to get this Monday rollin’. I hope you all had a great weekend and, as always, I appreciate you stopping by PBF today!