Vacations with School-Age Children

Grab Your Pillow and Dive In

It’s like walking into a fantasy world. Ocean-filled tanks bigger than a house, filled with sea creatures all the colors of the rainbow. So close, you feel as though you could reach out and pet a seahorse or splash a fast moving sea otter. A visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium has all the makings of the perfect day. Until you realize, a lot of other people had the same idea.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has been educating and entertaining visitors for more than a quarter of a century. Every year 1.8 million visitors flood through its doors. Just like you, they’re hoping to catch a sight of the elusive octopus or grab a front row seat to watch the diver plunge into the kelp forest. Crowds are part of the unfortunate reality of the world-renowned facility.

But imagine having the jellyfish exhibit all to yourself. Imagine your kids being able to just walk up to the almost 200 exhibits and look right in. No tippy-toes or craned necks. Sound like a dream? Grab your pillow and dive in.

A dozen or so times every year, the aquarium hosts Family Seashore Sleepovers. It’s a slumber party with some fishy company. You bring all the necessary supplies: sleeping bag, pillow, air mattress and toothbrush. The aquarium provides the entertainment.

The sleepovers are popular with families and youth groups so it’s not something you can do on a whim, you need to make a reservation. Kids must be 6 years old to spend the night. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Why would I want to spend the night with a bunch of strangers and their young children? The answer is simple. It’s fun, and as long as you bring an air mattress, you’ll sleep, and wake up with a smile on your face.

My family spent a Saturday night in the aquarium. When the doors opened at 7 pm, we were lined up and ready to set up camp. After dropping our sleeping gear in the storage area, our nighttime adventure began.

Our first stop was The Secret Lives of Seahorses exhibit. Did you know seahorses are the only family in the animal kingdom where the males get pregnant? My kids do, thanks to this fabulous exhibit. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has one of the nation’s largest collections of these delicate animals. With more than 15 species of seahorses on display, there were more of them than us.

We moved at a snail’s pace through the jellyfish exhibit. On the beach, no one wants to be near jellyfish, but when they’re behind glass you recognize what incredibly graceful animals they are. We probably would have spent all night there, if we hadn’t heard they were about to feed the otters. Just like fish, marine biologists must not sleep much. There were plenty on duty, giving lectures and answering questions. The only setback of the evening came when my kids realized Splash Zone, a popular exhibit geared at kids 9 and under, was closed. Their disappointment didn’t last long. It was time for a bedtime snack.

After eating our milk and cookies we settled in for the night in front of the jellies. There were about two dozen people in the exhibit with us, but as the lights went down, silence prevailed. Kids and grown-ups alike drifted off to sleep.

Waking up to the sight of jellyfish has an amazing effect on your blood pressure. We lingered as long as we could, then headed down to the café for breakfast. There was something for even the pickiest eater. The buffet included assorted fruits, yogurt, oatmeal and muffins. There were a variety of juices and freshly brewed coffee and tea. The food was good, the ocean views spectacular. We spotted half a dozen sea otters splashing in the waves, before my kids got up for seconds.

We had to leave before the aquarium opened for the day, but we never felt rushed. After breakfast we wandered out to the aquarium’s back deck. While we spied more otters and sea gulls, my fifth grade daughter struck up a conversation with a marine biologist. She had been struggling with a science project on blue whales. Half an hour later, my daughter was glowing, and her science project was suddenly one of the most exciting things going.

Expect to pay about twice the price to spend the night in the aquarium. But one visit without the crowds and you’ll be hooked. And when your daughter gets an A on her next science project, you’ll be on the phone booking another overnight aquarium adventure.

Relevant Links:

Monterey Bay activities

Ciao Bambino recommended Monterey Bay aquarium hotels

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