A Day At The Bay: Visiting Monterey Bay Aquarium With Kids

*Hosted visit by Monterey Bay Aqurium. All ideas and opinions expressed are that of the writer, Lisa McGuigan. Find additional disclosure information at the bottom of this article.*

A young girl sticks her fingers in a touch tank at Monterey Bay Aquarium.

From frolicking sea otters to their picturesque oceanfront location, there is something truly marvelous about visiting Monterey Bay Aquarium with kids. With over 200 exhibits and 80,000 plants and animals, this aquarium in Central California is home to the wonders of the ocean — but the depth of the aquarium goes far deeper than fancy exhibits and impressive sea life. Showcasing a strong emphasis on conservation, it’s transforming what it means to be an aquarium and inspiring a new generation of ocean lovers. So if you’re looking to plan your own visit to this wonderful destination, you’re in the right place! This article covers everything you need to know about visiting Monterey Bay Aquarium with kids, plus some more tips to make your trip go smoothly. Keep reading to find out more! 

Book your tickets to Monterey Bay Aquarium!

Monterey Bay Aquarium with Kids: Location, Parking, and Tickets

Several people meander a balcony area overlooking the ocean at Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Monterey is approximately three hours (125 miles) south of San Francisco and five and a half hours (360 miles) north of Los Angeles. Perfect for exploring this part of California with kids, the beautiful area also offers miles of beaches, hiking, and biking trails — plus nearby towns to discover the area’s history, culture, and art scene. The aquarium is situated on the stunning Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail. There’s free bicycle parking across the street from the aquarium’s entrance close to this bus turnaround. Metered street parking is available, and there are plenty of nearby lots.

For non-members, tickets must be pre-purchased online before your visit. There is no waitlist, and tickets are not available at the main entrance. After parking, hustle to the aquarium, as there will likely be a long line. The line moves efficiently, but we recommend arriving 20 minutes before opening. If you plan to visit the aquarium more than once, individual memberships start at $95. This is a far better deal than the single-day entrance. If you’re only visiting for the day, prices are as follows (as of the day of publishing): One Day Ticket: $49.95 (adults), $39.95 (youth), $34.95 (child), and four & younger are free.

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Experience Monterey Bay Aquarium: Best Exhibits for Kids

Several fish swim around in a tank at Monterey Bay Aquarium.

If you’re looking for a fun, educational day trip with the kids, look no further than the Monterey Bay Aquarium! There are several fascinating exhibits to experience during your day, and if possible, attempt to see everything. Each exhibit is unique and takes anywhere from 15-30 minutes. Here are some of our highlights!

Are You Afraid Of The Dark: Into the Deep Exhibit

Into The Deep allows families to dive below the surface of the ocean floor to discover a dark and icy world filled with fascinating creatures! Located on the first floor, this exhibit will teach kids all about deep-sea animals in North America, like giant isopods or glowing, transparent jellies. During your journey, you will see firsthand the amazing adaptations these animals have developed to survive in the deep sea. For example, the deep water sea toad “walks” on its large fins instead of swimming to save energy. Once settled, it fishes for food with a shaggy lure on its head!

Take in the Fresh Air: Life on the Bay Exhibit

Looking for a break from the inside? Head to the Life on the Bay Exhibit, which features an ocean deck with a great view to spot wildlife like birds, otters, seals, sea lions, and even whales! This is also a great spot for photos and an excellent opportunity to relax and breathe the salty ocean air. Tell kids a fun fact, like how more than 30 species of marine mammals live in or pass through the bay, ranging from the four-foot-long sea otter to the hundred-foot-long blue whale. You’ll also find a small exhibit near the deck with life-size models of whales, dolphins, and other sea creatures. 

Watch Sea Otters Play: Sea Otters Exhibit

Kids will love watching otters eat, play, and sleep at the Sea Otters Exhibit! This dual-floor exhibit features first-floor windows to give an underwater view of these adorable animals. Meanwhile, the second floor shows the surface, where families can see them bopping in and out of the water. During our visit, the sea otters played an entertaining ball game that seemed to delight them genuinely. We felt privileged to witness their pure joy. The exhibit also has a lot of fun facts about these animals that kids will love. For example, we learned a sea otter may hunt on the seafloor, but always returns to the surface to eat. Floating there on its back, it uses its chest as a table. It’s adorable and practical!

A Mesmerizing Underwater Forest: Kelp Forest Exhibit

Towering at 28 feet, the Kelp Forest is one of the tallest aquarium exhibits in the world! This exhibit is teeming with sea life like sardines, leopard sharks, wolf-eels, and so much more. Kids will love getting up close to the animals and observing their behavior as they weave in and out of the swaying kelp – just like they do in the wild! You’ll also learn how kelp forests grow quickly — about three to five inches daily at the aquarium, and about 10 to 12 inches in the Monterey Bay. Under ideal conditions, giant kelp can grow a whopping two feet each day!

Busy Hands Delight: Touch Pools

Seeing all the incredible sea life is one thing, but it’s another to be able to touch and interact! The aquarium offers beautifully designed touch pools that bring the tide pooling experience to you. My kids were completely enamored with the touch pools; candidly, so were we! Friendly hermit crabs, anemones, and helpful staff educators make this hands-on experience truly unique. Families can visit the Bat Ray Touch Pool at different times throughout the day to see a Bat Ray Feeding. If kids have ever wondered how these flat creatures eat with their mouths by their belly buttons, they’ll be able to ask about it! 

Meet the Master of Disguise: Giant Pacific Octopus Exhibit

When it comes to octopuses, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is home to one of the biggest in the world – the Giant Pacific Octopus. This exhibit is a great opportunity for kids to learn about these complex creatures up close and how they can solve mazes and even recognize faces. They’ll also see firsthand how this octopus uses its eight arms to move through the water and grab food. In fact, did you know a full-grown giant Pacific octopus can weigh more than 50 pounds? One of the heaviest on record weighed 200 pounds and measured nearly 20 feet long! 

​​Your kids will also love learning about the other animals that live in the same habitat as the giant Pacific octopus, like the purple sea urchin or rockfish. 

Keep Your Little Fishes Entertained: Splash Zone

For families with little ones, expect to spend a reasonable amount of time at Splash Zone, located on the second floor. Families can enjoy fun activities in this interactive exhibit, such as taking photos inside a giant clam, crawling through rocky tunnels featuring fish tanks, and so much more! Children can learn about playful penguins in the penguin area and see them diving or swimming. There’s also a toddler zone, Coral Babies, and a small playground. Remember to watch your little kids, as it gets busy, and bigger kids tend to overrun the play area. 

Don’t Forget to Eat! (Dining Options at the Aquarium)

A young girl looks at an array of food at the dining area in Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Whether you’re looking for a quick bite or a sit-down meal, the cafe at the Monterey Bay Aquarium offers sandwiches, salads, pizzas, and more, as well as a kids’ menu. Never once have I enjoyed an over-priced museum meal — until today. Not only were the prices reasonable, but the food was fantastic! The café even has an executive chef, Matthew Beaudin, who has crafted a menu featuring seasonal flavors and sustainable, farm-to-table cuisine. Grab a window seat to enjoy the ocean as you dine on what I know will be a fantastic meal. Even the coffee and pastries were delicious! We were delighted with our corn chowder, baked pretzel, and octopus donut! Note, the café gets extremely busy. Expect a long wait if you plan to dine during peak lunch hours.

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Spend Your Seashells at the Aquarium Stores

A young boy stands near a shelf filled with books in the gift store at Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Of course, no visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium would be complete without a stop at one of the on-site stores. With three locations throughout the aquarium, this is the perfect place to find souvenirs for your little ocean lovers (and big ones, too). You’ll find toys, games, apparel, books, and more – all featuring their favorite aquarium animals. And if you’re looking for something unique, check out the selection of handcrafted jewelry made by local artisans. We were particularly surprised by the vast collection of books and stuffed animals. We had trouble narrowing it down, but in the end, we added a new squid and sea otter to our overflowing collection. 

Pro Tip: Remember to save the gift shop for your very last stop. You won’t have to carry your bags, and encouraging well-behaved kiddos is a good incentive.

Act for the Ocean

A school of fish swim along together in a large aquarium.

As the world’s population continues to grow, so does the pollution and waste we produce. Much of this pollution ends up in our oceans, hurting marine life and affecting the delicate balance of the ecosystem. The Monterey Bay Aquarium aims to address climate change by ending plastic pollution, protecting fragile ecosystems, and improving seafood sustainability. During your visit, explore the biggest threats facing the ocean today, like climate change and plastic pollution, and talk with your kids about how we can take action to protect the ocean for future generations. Try to use less plastic, recycle when possible, and pick up trash when you see it. You can also help by raising awareness about ocean pollution and its effects on marine life. 

Pro Tips for Visiting Monterey Bay Aquarium with Kids

A young girl stands next to a water table at Monterey Bay.

Visiting Monterey Bay Aquarium with kids can be an excellent experience for the whole family. Here are a few tips to help make your visit more enjoyable!

  • Monterey can get chilly! Dress in layers and wear comfortable shoes for walking.  
  • To maximize your day, plan to arrive before the aquarium opens to allow time for parking, security, and ticket scanning. Use the ocean decks as an opportunity for a midday break.
  • While outside snacks are not permitted, we recommend that families bring a reusable water bottle (or two!) for use during the day.
  • The Behind the Scenes Tour lets you see what’s behind the aquarium’s world-class exhibits. For availability and reservations, call 831-648-4800 or check in at the Membership and Tours desk when you visit.
  • Strollers and wagons are permitted throughout the aquarium, except in the aviary and on the mezzanine of the sea otter exhibit. There are designated stroller parking areas throughout the aquarium.
  • If time permits, take a stroll down Cannery Row. With its picturesque charm and colorful history, Cannery Row is one of the most popular vacation destinations on California’s Central Coast.

Look for more tours in Monterey with Getyourguide or Viator here!

Where to Stay near Monterey Bay Aquarium with Kids

The indoor pool with lane lines in at the Four Seasons San Francisco.
Photo Courtesy: Four Seasons San Francisco

Now that you know why Monterey Bay with kids will be an epic adventure, you may be wondering where to stay! If you’re hoping to stay in Monterey, consider Spindrift Inn, which offers lovely ocean views for families. Then, Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa and InterContinental the Clement Monterey, an IHG Hotel, both offer outdoor pools. Finally, Holiday Inn Express Monterey-Cannery Row is another great option for families in Monterey.

Those staying in nearby San Francisco have several amazing options! If you’re seeking an upscale yet kid-friendly location, consider Four Seasons San Francisco. Continue the family fun by staying at Hyatt Centric Fisherman’s Wharf San Francisco, which offers a lovely outdoor pool. Alternatively, families also love The Westin St. Francis San Francisco on Union Square, Hotel Fairmont San Francisco, and The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco. Those looking for more options in San Francisco can read about the Best Family Hotels in San Francisco (With Great Options for Large Families & Pools).

Dive Into Family Fun!

We hope you liked this Guide To Visiting Monterey Bay Aquarium With Kids by our contributor Lisa McGuigan, aka Temecula Tots! From touch pools to whooshing octopi, there is so much to see, do, and experience at the aquarium. So, whether you’re on vacation or a Northern California local, add Monterey Bay Aquarium to your list of the best things to do with kids!

*Unless otherwise noted, all images within this article belong to and are courtesy of Lisa McGuigan.

*Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the attractions, accommodations, or things to do on this list may be closed. Please ensure availability before making your decision. 

*This post may contain affiliate links that may earn us a small commission, at no additional cost to you. Affiliate links in no way inform the hotels, sights, products, or other recommendations included in our articles. All opinions and recommendations expressed here are that of the attributed writer Lisa McGuigan.

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