11 Amazing and Affordable Aquariums

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Aquarium ticket prices can be scarier than great white sharks, but as a way to see exotic marine life, an aquarium visit is a bargain compared with the cost of a diving trip. Visitors who buy tickets through an aquarium's website often save a few dollars and skip the line. Coupons or cheap tickets are sometimes available from local stores, tourist brochures, and daily deal sites, and AAA members and active-duty military usually get a discount.

Another option is to join a local aquarium or zoo accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to receive discounted or free admission to aquariums participating in the AZA reciprocity program. Membership is often more than $100 but may be worth the cost for aquarium enthusiasts. For everyone else, here are 11 aquariums that offer adult admission for about $20 or less (before taxes). If the cost still seems high, remember that aquariums are often nonprofits that dedicate funds to protecting aquatic life and the environment, so a day of fun benefits a good cause.
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The Birch Aquarium in La Jolla, part of the University of California, San Diego, is a must for seahorse fans, with an exhibit dedicated to more than a dozen species. The Hall of Fishes has 60 habitats, including an enormous kelp forest. There are also outdoor tide pools to examine. Tickets cost $17 for adults, $14 for teens (13 to 17), $13 for seniors (over 60), and $12.50 for children (3 to 12). Check the aquarium website for discounts.
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Aquarium of the Bay is located at Pier 39, a popular tourist attraction, so be sure to plan some extra time for sightseeing. The exhibits feature local plant and animal life, including giant Pacific octopi, sevengill sharks, and river otters. Tickets are a little on the pricey side, at $22.95 for adults and $13.95 for seniors and children 4 to 12. However, there is a family package that includes two children and two adult tickets for $68. Additionally, residents of San Francisco County get lower rates: $19 for adults and $11 for seniors and children. Visitors may also be able to find discounted tickets or coupons online. SmartSave has a printable coupon for 20 percent off.
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Associated with the University of Hawaii, the Waikiki Aquarium in Honolulu, has exhibits featuring local animals and habitats. For an additional $5 a person, visitors can sign up for Critter Encounters, a half-hour interactive experience with Hawaiian reef animals such as sea stars and anemones. There is also a free educational activity, such as a Critter Encounter or a marine science craft, each Wednesday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $12 for adults and $5 for seniors (over 65) and children (4 to 12). Tickets for active-duty military and Kama'aina (Hawaiian residents) are $8.
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While the much larger (and far more expensive) Aquarium of the Pacific in nearby Long Beach gets more attention, the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro has the largest collection of Southern California marine life in the world. There's also something for architecture buffs -- the building was designed by well-known architect Frank Gehry. Best of all, entry is free (although a donation of $5 for adults and $1 for children is suggested). Visitors should note that parking outside the aquarium is $1 an hour.
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One of the largest indoor aquariums in the world, with about 32,000 animals, the Shedd Aquarium offers two tiers of tickets. General admission is just $8 for adults and $6 for children (3 to 11). This basic pass includes access to the Caribbean Reef, Amazon Rising, and Waters of the World Exhibits. The Shedd pass adds access to three more exhibits -- Wild Reef, Abbot Oceanarium, and the Polar Play Zone -- but costs $30.95 for adults and $21.95 for children.
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The Audubon Aquarium is near New Orleans' French Quarter on the edge of the Mississippi River. In addition to sea otters, seahorses, a stingray touch pool, penguins, and jellyfish, there are exhibits dedicated to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico. General admission costs $24.95 for adults and $18.95 for seniors (over 65) and children (2 to 12). AAA members and retired military also receive discounts. To bring the price below $20 for adults, check Big Easy Deals, which offers discounts year-round on tickets ordered by mail.
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Exhibits at the National Aquarium include several on the wildlife and habitats of creatures from Maryland, Australia, and the Amazon River. Blacktip sharks swim alongside stingrays, fish, and a 500-pound sea turtle named Calypso. Live webcams offer a free preview. Standard prices range from $24.95 for children (3 to 12) to $39.95 for adults. From September to February, Maryland residents get $10 adult and $5 children's tickets when they visit Sunday through Friday before noon. Tickets are also half price for everyone on Fridays after 5 p.m. (the aquarium closes at 8 p.m.)
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The New England Aquarium in Boston features a four-story tank, a shark and ray touch tank, an interactive sea turtle hospital, and a seadragon exhibit that holds the only two known species of seadragons in the world. Standard ticket prices are $26.95 for adults, $24.95 for seniors (60 and older), and $18.95 for children (3 to 11). Between September and June, members of the Boston Public Library can reserve up to four free tickets online, and New England teachers get free admission year-round. For groups of 10 or more, the aquarium ticket price drops to $20.95 for adults, $18.95 for seniors (60 and older) and college students, and $13.95 for children (up to 17). Plan ahead -- group tickets (with express entrance) must be reserved at least two weeks in advance.
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One of the country's oldest continually operating aquariums, the New York Aquarium opened in Manhattan in 1896 and moved to its current Coney Island location in 1957. Visitors can enjoy several exhibits and watch penguin, sea otter, or walrus feedings, but some areas are closed while the aquarium builds a shark exhibit (due to open in 2017). Tickets are $10.75 online ($11.95 at the gate) for adults and children (over 3). In the fall, winter, and spring, there is pay-what-you-wish admission by donation on Fridays from 3 to 3:30 p.m. (the aquarium closes at 4:30 p.m.) and during summer Fridays between 4 and 5 p.m. (with closing time at 6 p.m.)
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The Dallas World Aquarium houses more than just sea creatures -- 20 mammals, including sloths, jaguars, lizards, snakes, and frogs, create an immersive experience. The aquarium showcases coral reef and kelp forest ecosystems, and visitors can walk through a tunnel under the 20,000-gallon tank. General admission is $20.95 for adults, $16.95 for seniors (over 65), and $14.95 for children (2 to 12). Active duty and retired military can purchase two tickets for $18.95 each.
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On the banks of Corpus Christi Bay, the Texas State Aquarium has two exhibits replicating habitats found in the nearby Gulf of Mexico, one of which formed around an oil platform. A massive 400,000-gallon saltwater dolphin tank with an underwater viewing area is one of the aquarium's highlights. Not all the exhibits focus on water-dwelling animals -- Eagle Pass is home to several raptors, including a bald eagle, rescued or cared for by the aquarium. When purchased online, tickets are $19.95 for adults, $17.95 for seniors (over 65) and military, and $13.95 for children (3 to 12).