Locals and tourists only—Metropolitan Utah welcomed two large museums this year: The re-located and significantly expanded Living Planet Aquarium and the all-new Museum of Natural Curiosity. Although both have their heart in the right place, only one is worth your family’s time and money.
To find out, I tapped the most imaginative minds I could find: my kids. Within a four day period last month, my wife and I took the children to both museums for the first time. Upon visiting, we didn’t coax, herd, or otherwise rush them to any exhibits. Rather, we let them set the pace and decide the order of exhibits. Here’s how it went.
First up: The Living Planet Aquarium. Upon seeing the museum to your west from Interstate 15, it appears large enough to contain a few killer whales, if not a couple of Ikeas. In reality, the so-called “aquarium” is mostly underwhelming. Of the four attractions — a pay-to-play area, a simulated rainforest, tour of Utah biology, and salt water exhibit — only one is an actual aquarium, and it accounts for just one fifth of the total floor place by my estimation. That alone is misleading enough. When we visited on a weekend, my wife and I counted three empty viewing tanks and the “touch a sting ray” exhibit was closed. Sorry!
It wasn’t all disappointment, however. The underwater shark tank is undoubtedly the best exhibit — a place we took in for 15-20 minutes before the kids were ready to move on. The penguins were fun for 10 more minutes, according to my kids. The third most popular attraction was the Indiana Jones-style rope bridge in the rainforest section, which they traversed several times each. Other than that, I can’t think of another notable attraction. Moving at a kid’s pace, we exhausted (if not stretched) our interest in the museum by the hour and a half mark and promptly left with a shrug. My kids haven’t talked about it since.
Unless you live for for all things fishes, the Living Planet Aquarium is hardly worth the price of admission ($16 for adults, $11 for kids). Even Google’s 3.8 rating is generous, especially when you consider Cabela’s modest but still captivating free fish exhibit.
Three days later, our family visited the Museum of Natural Curiosity (adult admission is $15; kids are $12 each). I wasn’t expecting much as we pulled up to the unassuming exterior — it’s no where near as commanding as the aquarium’s presence. But like all things in life, never judge a book by its cover. The museum of curiosity is as enchanting as it is surprising. So much in fact that my wife and I went against protocol for this review and made the kids leave for dinner after the five hour mark. I think they could have stayed for at least two hours more.
Although much smaller in size than the aquarium, the curiosity museum feels substantially bigger. There are four indoor exhibits and one outdoor one. The town of Kidopolis and Discovery Garden (which has four times the number of rope bridges as the aquarium) were the stars of the show. The former is like a poor man’s Diagon Ally for any Harry Potter fans, only with a modern, if not ordinary, twist. The laundry mat might not inspire as much as a magical wand store. But it kept my sons interested for over an hour. The hidden walkways, music studio, dance studio, and art studio also held our collective interest for hours.
When we weren’t scaling, exploring, and sensing the two-story discovery garden for hours, we briefly enjoyed the water exhibit and outdoor playground, even in cold weather. The physics exhibit (spinning tops and optical illusions like you remember from middle school) was “blah.” But four out of five ain’t bad, which is appropriately deserving of curiosity’s 4.7 user rating. The only knock I have on the museum are the crowds. We played hooky on Monday during school, and the place was brimming with humans big and small. I can’t imagine how much elbow rubbing takes place on weekends, but I admit my agoraphobia settled down with the dwindling crowds at dinner time. All told, I was delighted by the Museum of Natural Curiosity.
Of course, I’m a big believer in “different strokes for different folks.” But there’s no comparison on value or entertainment when comparing The Living Planet Aquarium to The Museum of Natural Curiosity. For adults, kids, and captive minds alike, the latter dominates the former. If you’re into marine biology, you’re better off planning a trip to the highly-rated Georgia Aquarium, which I feel rivals Sea World: San Antonio (but not quite San Diego).
Final score: Living Planet Aquarium, two stars out of five for adults; three stars for kids for an average of two and a half stars. Museum of Natural Curiosity, four stars out of five for adults; five stars for kids for an average of 4.5 stars.—Blake Snow