As a landlocked state, you might not expect Colorado to offer opportunities to observe ocean life. But we’ve got glowing jellyfish, sharks and even mermaids.
A whole underwater world lives at the Downtown Aquarium in Denver.
The Downtown Aquarium recreates habitats, such as coral reefs, coral lagoons and wharf habitats to give a glimpse of life at sea. The aquarium also features exhibits on desert life and the rainforest.
Denver’s aquarium began life as Ocean Journey in 1999, as a multimillion-dollar investment by the city of Denver. After years of leaking money, the city sold the aquarium to Landry's Restaurants in 2003. The redesigned aquarium reopened in 2005 as the Downtown Aquarium.
Today, the Downtown Aquarium features exhibits on freshwater fish native to Colorado, as well as oceanic sea life from around the globe.
More than 500 species of animals can be found at the aquarium, and the facility houses more than one million gallons of water.
A new highlight at the Downtown Aquarium is the Shark Cage Experience. Visitors can actually dive into an exhibit of a shipwreck and swim with five different kinds of sharks in the shark cage (as well as hundreds of other fish, but really, who cares? Sharks in Colorado!).
Another highlight of the aquarium is the exhibit on jellyfish, which glow in the dark under special lighting. Adventurous children and adults can also enjoy gently petting stingrays in the Stingray Reef touch tank.
The Aquarium’s Exhibits
The aquarium has a long list of different exhibits that you can visit. Many are themed by and environment. For example, see and learn about a simulated coral reef in the Under The Sea exhibit. There are also exhibits about the creatures that live at the wharf (with its constantly crashing tides), at the beach (with its shallow water just off the shore) and the lagoon (with its barrier reefs that mute wave energy).
Not all of the exhibits here are completely under water. For example, the North America exhibit shows the underwater critters and habitat in the North American continent region, and the In The Desert exhibit teaches about the kind of life that thrive in dry, hot climates. The Rainforest exhibit simulates various types of rainforests. Fun fact: The aquarium is also home to several Sumatran tigers, and three of the cats are from the same litter.
Other exhibits have fun themes, like Sunken Temple; it teaches about real-life temple ruins that have survived underwater and today contain some of the world’s biggest mysteries. Likewise, the Shipwreck exhibit replicates a sunken ship.
What Else to Do at the Aquarium
Beyond educational exhibits, the aquarium also has several family-friendly attractions. Ride the Aquarium Express, an electric train that chugs through the aquarium. Then ride the Aquatic Carousel, where many of the carousel animals are sea related.
The 4-D Theater shows immersive, short, ever-rotating films (such as “Ice Age,” “Planet Earth” and “Polar Express”) that have special effects so you can “feel” the action in the film.
The attractions and movie cost extra beyond the general admission ticket.
The Mystic Mermaids are another exciting feature at the Downtown Aquarium. Watch mermaid shows throughout the day, as they (er, actors dressed like mermaids) swim with the sealife (from various sharks to stingrays to barracudas) and teach about environmental stewardship. The show is choreographed to music and in the Under the Sea exhibit (an obvious nod to “The Little Mermaid”). This event is geared toward children.
After learning about marine life and watching mermaids dance with sharks, visitors can enjoy seafood and fish entrees in the Aquarium Restaurant, which offers unparalleled views of the 50,000-gallon centerpiece aquarium. The restaurant serves dinner and lunch daily.
The Dive Lounge also is a bar featuring happy hour specials throughout the week.
The aquarium is also home to a fully equipped ballroom that you can rent for meetings, special events or weddings, and even has places to go shopping. The gift shop has underwater-themed clothes, toys, home decor and more. The Downtown Aquarium offers special birthday packages, including one where you can hold a slumber party in an exhibit. Yes, you can sleep overnight at the aquarium and get served breakfast the next morning.
The aquarium also offers a variety of special programs, like a Sea Safari Summer Camp and the chance to be a marine biologist or zoologist for a day. There’s also a snorkel and Scuba adventure program. The list of ways to do the aquarium goes on.
How to get there
The Downtown Aquarium, 700 Water St., Denver, is easy to find and conveniently located. From Interstate 25, exit 23rd Ave and follow it east. You’ll see the aquarium on your right. From downtown Denver, head west on 15th Street. Take it to Platte Street. Follow that until it turns into (aptly named) Water Street. The aquarium will be on the left.
The aquarium has its own parking lot right across the street from the building. You do have to pay to park, although if you eat at the restaurant after 6 p.m., the restaurant will validate your pass. You can also park on the street at paid meters, although those are limited.
You may also be able to take a shuttle to the aquarium from many downtown hotels.
What Else is Nearby?
The museum is located next to the Children's Museum of Denver, which is packed with even more hands-on, interactive, original exhibits for kids.
The Children’s Museum, 2121 Children's Museum Drive, Denver, is all about investigating, exploring and creating. Snuggle up in the Book Nook or play firefighter for a day at the make-believe fire station. Kids can play in the mini market, pretend to be a vet taking care of animals or be a dentist in the various play areas.
They can learn about science in fun exhibits related to bubbles, kinetics, water and energy, and they can stimulate their creativity in the art studio, teaching kitchen or assembly plant. These are just a few of the many activities at the Children’s Museum.