Animal Therapy for me is a THING. I like to snuggle at home with my favorite fur babies, but I also find myself re-centered after a trip to a zoo or aquarium, being able to observe animals of all sizes just being. Two of my favorite places for Animal Therapy are the Minnesota Zoo and SEA LIFE at Mall of America, both of which I missed terribly during COVID restrictions. When I was asked what I wanted to do for Mother’s Day this year, I knew exactly what I wanted: Animal Therapy: Ocean-style! We hit the road and made the short trip to SEA LIFE at Mall of America, and I recommend you consider doing the same.
First: the pricing. Minnesota residents do get a slight discount: adults are $20.99 and kids from 3-12 are $15.99 (kids under 3 are free). For some families, this might be a little shocking at first, but I think it is important to note that we usually take 90-120 minutes per trip, and you can come back as many times as you like on the same day with your pass. Honestly, though, we found that since we make the trip to SEA LIFE quite a few times throughout the year, it was more cost-effective to get annual memberships for each member of the family. Membership packages vary in cost depending on if you prefer a weekday or weekend annual pass. For most of the packages, you’ve paid off the animal membership in two to three trips. Having a membership does have perks, too, like member-only events and faster entrance to the aquarium.
Before heading out on your SEA LIFE adventure, making a reservation online ahead of time is recommended, as they are currently operating at reduced capacity. This way, you are guaranteed entrance at your chosen time. You can do this when you purchase your tickets online ahead of time (you can buy tickets at the venue as well). Hours for SEA LIFE mirror those of the Mall of America for the most part, with the attraction closing one hour after the last ticket is sold. Parking is free at the Mall of America. We prefer going in the morning right when they open, since it is usually slower earlier in the day, and then we eat afterward and avoid both the lunch and dinner crowds.
SEA LIFE is an amazing experience and is set up as a journey for all of your senses. You start in the humid rainforest and end with tide pools where you can interact with sea anemones and starfish! Although you are separated from most of the animals by thin glass or plexiglass, you honestly feel much closer to them. There are spots for learning about many of the animals, and even opportunities for children to live like the animals by crawling into their habitats. Make sure you have your camera ready for creative pictures of your own critters, as well as those at SEA LIFE!
The first area on the impressive adventure is Brave the Rainforest. You’ll walk into the mist and flora and feel the humidity almost instantly. Along the trail, you’ll have the opportunity to come face-to-face with a caiman, which is so cute, it’s hard to believe it’s dangerous. His giant black eyes hypnotize me every time! Nearby are other amazing creatures of the rainforest like piranhas, poison dart frogs, and more. This trail twists and turns past a waterfall and, if you are lucky, you might hear a simulated thunderstorm.
Next, you’ll drop below the surface into Minnesota’s only underwater tunnel. First comes a dip below the depths of Sturgeon Lake. When I say below the surface, I mean the icy surface. SEA LIFE starts the underwater portion of the adventure with finned friends in a simulated winter atmosphere. These fish might seem familiar: they are from our own Minnesota lakes, including one of my favorites, the catfish, better known in my family as “Chinny Whiskers.”
The best part of the underwater tunnel is you are completely IN their watery environment without getting wet, or needing scuba gear! There’s a clear tunnel for you to walk through as the underwater friends swim next to and even above you! There are also little families of turtles swimming, giant gar, fish big and small, and boats above.
Remember to take your time to enjoy the views, look at the information on the fish, and then find them. If you want to step off the main path, it’s okay to let people pass and go at your own pace.
The underwater journey transitions to Wild Amazon, which is my favorite. Here, you’ll be able to spy sea turtles and manta rays as they swim alongside you and over you. Did you know manta rays are always smiling?
Following the Wild Amazon is Shark Cove, which is filled with just that: sharks! There are other sea turtles and fish here, as well, in addition to the main attraction: a large variety of sharks.
On our Mother’s Day visit, we timed out our travels through Shark Cove with feeding time, which was fascinating. Workers from above would drop fish in front of the sharks for a quick snack as well as drop fruits and veggies above us at the surface for the sea turtles.
Aside from the random fish head left over from a shark’s feeding, this was a highlight of the trip for me. After Shark Cove is the last section of underwater adventure: Rainbow Reef, filled with an incredible rainbow of fishy friends.
Coral Caves and the Seahorse Kingdom give you and your kiddos an up close and personal view of coral at its different phases of growth as well as the critters that usually call coral home, like seahorses, shrimp, starfish, and more.
I could easily watch the sea horses float and intertwine for hours, but of course can’t, because my family is often in a hurry to get to the last enclosed part of SEA LIFE: Jellyfish Discovery. This is the most mesmerizing part of the trail, for sure. You’ll feel like you’ve entered an other-worldly place, as you watch the Moon Jellies dance and change color.
Once you’ve left the animal exploration areas of SEA LIFE, the trail will take you through a gift shop (so be prepared for that), and then onto the Ray Lagoon. The rays of varying kinds and sizes catch the current in a small pool and swim in sweeping circles. A couple of years ago my family was there when one ray was pregnant; that same trip we saw a baby ray trailing her mama around the pool. It was adorable! If you smell something fishy in this area, it’s the cups of shrimp you can purchase to feed the rays. I couldn’t find the cost of this online, but I do remember it is worth every penny the times my family has done this; there’s nothing like a ray’s kiss on the palm of your hand.
Just past Ray Lagoon and the giant pirate ship is the last stop on the tour through SEA LIFE: the interactive Rockpool. This area mimics the tide going in and out and gives you and your children the opportunity to actually touch the tide pool’s inhabitants! Here, you can tickle anemones and pet starfish, as well as a few other slippery creatures. The tide pools are low enough for even the smallest members of your posse to play! Near these tide pools are also the bathrooms, which gives siblings a distraction while others in your group need to detour to the bathroom before continuing on to wherever your day takes you next.
In case you can’t tell, I absolutely love taking my family to SEA LIFE at the Mall of America. Although the animals and order don’t change much, each experience is different depending on the time of day and the moods and energy of the animals. I haven’t once left feeling like I didn’t get a unique and memorable experience. Each time, I am in awe of the creatures, and the pictures we’ve taken each trip seem to tell their own stories, too.