Georgia Aquarium: CVI-Friendly Family Fun

I love visiting aquariums. And considering my husband’s first dream job as a child was to become a marine biologist, it’s safe to say he likes them, too. We first explored the Georgia Aquarium when we attended a friend’s wedding in Atlanta back in 2014, and it quickly became one of our favorites – mostly because it is the only aquarium in the Western Hemisphere that has whale sharks(!), but also because it is a great aquarium all-around. So, as soon as we moved within 7 hours of Atlanta a couple of years ago my husband began plotting our eventual return with the kids….

When our daughter, Rosalie (who has congenital hydrocephalus and CVI), was born we necessarily stuck very close to home (and our hospital) for a long time. Once she remained surgery-free for awhile and things seemed stable with her shunt we carefully eased ourselves back into travel with a few weekend trips in-state, no more than 2-3 hours away.

Last month, when Rosalie was 11 months old, we did our first out-of-state travel as a family of 5 because I was the Matron of Honor in my best friend’s wedding. The fact that Atlanta was the halfway point on our road trip sealed the deal: we couldย finally take the kids to the Georgia Aquarium!

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Whale shark sighting!

Because Rosalie is so young, we do not yet plan family outings “for” her; instead, we do things geared towards her big brothers’ interests and abilities – as long as it can accommodate Rosalie’s needs and not overwhelm or scare her.

I had heard that aquariums tend to be a favorite of kids with CVI – with their low lighting contrasted by luminous tanks, brimming with highly-saturated hues of marine creatures. This is not unlike the reason why iPads, with their back-lit screens, can be so beneficial for visual attention in children with CVI.

We began our aquarium adventure by making a beeline for the “Ocean Voyager” exhibit, which houses the whale sharks and manta rays. The exhibit first takes you through a 100-foot-long tunnel in which you areย underneath the giant tank.

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Mesmerized by her first whale shark encounter.

We love the Ocean Voyager more than any other exhibit, so after we saw every other part of the aquarium we came back through it one more time. This was the best thing we could have done, because the second time through the crowds had cleared out significantly since the aquarium was closing early for a private event.

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Spotted: a whale shark & manta ray crossing!

Once you exit the “underwater” tunnel, the exhibit winds through a hallway that eventually opens up into a large room with a massive viewing window that takes up the entire 23×61 foot wall. The crowds were so thick the first time we went through that I kept Rosalie in the stroller while her big brothers went up to the front with my husband. The second time through, however, we had the entire gigantic room almost entirely to ourselves!

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This time around I was able to sit down comfortably with the kids (Rosalie included!) and really soak it all in. As a mom to 3 young children, I felt much more relaxed and able to enjoy this part of the aquarium to the fullest extent because the room was largely-vacant, free from distractions (aka those things that keep parents of small children in huge public crowds on high alert), and so, so peaceful.ย 

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This got me thinking: if I experienced such a dramatic shift in how I was able to enjoy this part of the aquarium from when it was crowded to practically empty, how much more of an impact the less chaotic (and therefore less complex) environment must have made for my infant daughter with Cortical Visual Impairment!ย 

Suffice it to say, that second time going through the Ocean Voyager exhibit wasย nothing short of MAGICAL.

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Despite the fact that Rosalie’s visual functioning has improved markedly since we got her diagnosis and began adapting her entire world, the truth is that most public places still look like nonsense to her (especially considering the sensory array of complexity). We make sure we have strategies in place to help her use her vision while we are out and about (typically by packing a variety of toys for her to play with and/or look at in the car seat/stroller and making sure she gets plenty of “face time” with one of us peeking in and talking to her), but as an infant with physical developmental delays and a disability of visual access it is incredibly rare for Rosalie to be able to get out of the stroller in public AND participate in the actual activity we are doing.ย 

That afternoon at the aquarium was literally unlike any other I’ve experienced in my sweet daughter’s young life.

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As soon as I sat Rosalie up in front of the tank her eyes lit up, she grinned, and promptly smacked her lips in the baby “kissing” sound she currently does whenever she is thrilled with someone or something! She also started kicking her legs and bouncing on my lap, which is something else she does to express her enthusiasm. I have no words for how full this made my heart that day.

If you’re contemplating an aquarium trip with a child with CVI, I cannot recommend Georgia Aquarium enough. Something else I loved is that they have designated mats reserved for handicapped individuals in front of most of their largest viewing tanks throughout the entire building. I’ve been to a lot of aquariums, and I have yet to see this level of accessibility and inclusion elsewhere. My only complaint is that their dolphin show utilizes loud sounds, colorful flashing lights, and strobe lights – which prevents many with seizure activity/epilepsy or sensory disorders from watching.

If you have a favorite aquarium or other CVI-friendly family activities I’m all ears!

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