Sea-Life Aquarium, Carlsbad CA – 2/14/2009

Last summer, Legoland California in Carlsbad opened the new Sea-Life Aquarium.  Legoland’s parent company, Merlin Entertainment, already had several similar aquariums in various European locations, but this was their first in the US.  We took the opportunity to visit the attraction during a trip to Legoland over the recent President’s Day holiday weekend.

Sea-Life Aquarium Themed Display

My reaction to the aquarium is conflicted.  I was quite impressed by its theme and decor and I felt that the overall child-friendly design of the exhibits was absolutely outstanding.  If the aquarium was presented as an included attraction at Legoland, or for a very low extra charge, I would be praising it very highly as an excellent addition.  Unfortunately, they have instead decided to position it as a stand-alone attraction with pricing to match.  In my view, it just doesn’t offer enough to justify that approach.

The full priced admission to the aquarium is currently listed as $18.95 for each adult and $11.95 for children.  At least at present, they are offering admission to Sea-Life as a $10/person/day add on with Legoland admission, but even that feels a bit high.  We spent about 90 minutes going through the entire attraction twice and it felt like we were stretching it out quite a bit.   We were able to take advantage of an $8/person price currently being offered to Legoland annual passholders (with a coupon) until the end of March and even that felt a bit high for our family of three for that amount of time, although I suppose that price/time combo is pretty comparable to a movie.

Sea-Life Aquarium Sea Horses

I was surprised that the aquarium has a linear design that pretty much forces guests to tour the exhibits in a specific order.  I had expected a more traditional museum-type design where a central lobby would provide access to the various exhibits that could be visited at leisure in any order.  I think the one-way, linear design of Sea-Life played very heavily into the fairly fast speed at which we finished with the whole attraction.  The design didn’t really seem to encourage lingering anywhere overly long and certainly didn’t make it easy to go back and re-visit specific parts.

The first indication of the attraction’s linear design was a sign out front warning that the only restrooms in the facility are at the very end of the tour.  The sign also advised visiting the restrooms next to the entrance to Legoland before entering the aquarium.  The failure to include a set of restrooms about mid-way through the facility definitely seems like an oversight in an attraction of this type, particularly since families with children are the main target audience.

The main entrance to the aquarium is on the front, right-side of the building with just a couple turnstiles and ticket scanning machines providing access.  There is also a second entrance from inside of Legoland, but we didn’t use it and I’m not entirely certain where it actually entered.  My guess is that it probably just provides access to a pathway that goes to the same small waiting area outside the main doors.  After going through the turnstiles, we had a short wait before the doors opened and we were directed into a small pre-show room.  A day ticket to the aquarium does allow for unlimited readmission, but you do have to repeat the pre-show each time.

In the pre-show room, there is a single flat-screen monitor where they show a short introductory video.  This video provides a brief overview of the various exhibits in the aquarium and also quickly goes over a couple very basic rules, specifically asking guests not to tap/knock on the tanks and asking for flash photography to be minimized (although it isn’t prohibited).  The video features an actor who is supposed to be Poseidon, but is laughably bad.  The actor was clearly in his early to mid 20s at the most and was obviously way too young for the part.  Even worse, he is wearing one of the worst fake beards I’ve ever seen.  During portions of the video, it kept shifting so it wasn’t even over his mouth.  It was pretty funny, but not in an intentional way.

Sea-Life Aquarium Play Slide

After the pre-show, the first room you is a Lake Tahoe themed area that contains a few fish tanks, but is mainly dominated by a fairly typical playground-type slide.  My son had fun going down the slide several times (and other kids were having fun there as well), but the placement definitely struck me as rather strange.  Perhaps the theory was that it would help kids to get a little energy out before touring the rest of the aquarium, but it seemed to me that it worked more as a bit of a distraction right at the start.  During the first time through, our son went down the slide a couple times, but was then pretty anxious to move on to the marine exhibits.  He did end up spending about 10-15 minutes there when we went back through the attraction a second time.

Sea-Life Aquarium Kid Dome in Tank 

The biggest strength of the aquarium is the very kid-accessible designs to the exhibits.  The majority of the tanks have viewing windows at low heights making it very easy for kids to see without having to be lifted.  These viewing windows are also typically large enough in size or quantity to accommodate multiple children without a lot of waiting.  One feature that was especially popular with our son was the inclusion in a few tanks of glass domes that kids could climb into and be basically surrounded by the fish.  Of course, these also provide a great photo opportunity for parents as well.

 Sea-Life Aquarium Kid Dome in Tank Sea-Life Aquarium Kid Dome in Tank

The aquarium also provides a number of interactive elements for kids. Upon first entry, kids are given a quiz card to fill out during the visit. The card has the answers to a number of multiple-choice questions, with scratch-off spaces to reveal if each is right or wrong. The actual questions are on wall signs throughout the attraction and the correct answe can always be found from the informational signs in the same room. At the exit, kids can exchange the completed card (regardless of the accuracy) at the gift shop for a sticker.

The idea here is great, but I thought the execution was a bit off. The sticker given is a very cheap prize, so I don’t really get why they insist that the kids surrender the completed card to receive it. In many cases, I actually think the card is the better souvenir. I also thought they needed different, age-targeted versions. My son was really too young for it and I think a picture-based version for non-readers would be a great addition.

There are two "touch pools" where kids are given the opportunity to put their hands in the water and actually touch harmless sea animals such as starfish.  The first is located about half way through the attraction (in a small outdoor section) while the other is at the end of the tour, right before the exit.  Both locations are fairly nondescript open-top tanks and they are staffed with employees who stand behind and make sure that the kids don’t cause problems.  I did think these locations could both stand to be larger as they don’t accommodate very many kids at once and, at least on the day we were there, the employees didn’t appear to be enforcing any time limits.  By both touch pools, they have paper towel dispensers and hand sanitizer so that the kids can clean up a bit, although I really think they should have installed actual sinks with running water.  Despite these caveats, my son (and other kids in the area) did seem to really enjoy these close-up encounters with sea animals.

Sea-Life Aquarium Arts & Crafts Table Sea-Life Aquarium Arts & Crafts Table

Near the first of the touch pool, there was a craft table set up where kids can do a small art project.  Since the day that we visited was Valentine’s Day, the project was to make a fish out of heart-shaped pieces of construction paper.  They also had googly eyes and crayons available for additional decoration.  This wasn’t anything fancy, but my son enjoyed it and I thought the staff members that they had working this location were very good at interacting with the children.  The woman that helped my son was particularly quick to adapt when he decided that he wanted to draw the eyes on his fish instead of use the glue-on eyes.

Sea-Life Aquarium Lego Theming

While the Sea-Life chain is technically separate from Legoland, the design of this location does wisely acknowledge that it is part of the overall Legoland complex by including Lego theming in a number of the exhibits.  Several of the aquarium tanks included fairly-elaborate, and generally quite amusing, Lego structures.  Two particularly fantasy-oriented sections, areas themed to Atlantis and to a shipwreck, are the primary location for the Legos.  Continuing the interactive nature much of the attraction, a couple of these include buttons that kids (or adults…) can press to activate animation and/or sound effects.

Sea-Life Aquarium Lego Theming

The shipwreck area is one of two main areas where a fairly substantial amount of seating is provided to allow guests to sit for a while to just watch the fish and other sea creatures.  In the shipwreck area, there is a set of of theater-style benches providing viewing of the main window to the tank.  To be honest, I found this particular viewing area a bit puzzling, though, as there really isn’t anything exceptionally impressive to view here.  The tank really is primarily dominated by the Lego structures, which are fun to see but not really something to watch at length.  We noticed that the benches were largely going unused here.

Sea-Life Aquarium Shoaling Ring

The other main location where guests are encouraged to sit and watch for a bit is the “Shoaling Ring”, a room that comes fairly early in the tour.  This is a large circular room with benches in the middle and large windows providing a 360 degree view into a tropical fish tank.  It is a pretty view, although I thought it would have been even better had they continued the tank overhead with a transparent ceiling in order to completely surround the viewer.  The Atlantis area later on does include a hallway where you are surrounded by viewing windows to a tank on all sides (including above) and I actually thought that was the more impressive view.

The exit to the aquarium is through Ocean View Cafe, a fast food restaurant that is also accessible through a front entrance that is accessible without purchasing admission.  We actually had lunch there before going into the aquarium and found it to have pretty good food, although a very limited selection.  While the decor in the restaurant is fairly typical for a cafeteria, there were at least a few bits of decoration that tied it in to its location.  There were a few Lego figures in the restaurant as well as a fish tank on one side of the dining room.

The restaurant is set up food-court style, with four different serving stations and a centralized set of cash registers.  The featured items at the serving stations are macaroni and cheese (cooked to order), Sandwiches (including cooked-to-order grilled cheese), salad, and a juice bar.  The mac & cheese station is probably the most novel offering at the restaurant, with the pasta cooked fresh in sauce pans and then mixed with the melted cheese.  A variety of meats and vegetables were also available to mix-in.

My wife and I each got a grilled cheese sandwich.  She went with the standard version with American cheese on white bread while I went with a deluxe, 3-cheese sandwich that was served on sourdough.  We both enjoyed our sandwiches.  Our son had the macaroni and cheese which he liked, although it was too big a portion for him to finish and they didn’t offer a child’s portion.  The juice bar was a particularly good example of the very limited selection as the only item they were offering was a strawberry-banana smoothie.  My wife and I each got one and I liked it ok (although it was a bit sour), but my wife felt that the banana was too pronounced and would have vastly preferred one with just the strawberry.  Since these weren’t pre-packaged or anything, I had a hard time understanding why they couldn’t be set up to at least offer plain strawberry.

As I said at the top of this post, I’m very conflicted about the Sea Life Aquarium.  I thought it was overall a nice facility and it should be a very positive addition to the Legoland complex, but it is severely overpriced for what it offers.  At its full price, it even starts to approach the kind of discounted pricing you might be able to find for Sea World, which certainly offers a marine life experience of a dramatically larger scope.  While the aquarium is a nice facility, I can’t really recommend it unless you are able to get in at a very substantial discount.

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