The city of Coca Cola. And CNN. Which came first? Which is better to visit? And which is better for your health? These pressing questions will be answered and more in tonight’s episode of Travel With Bender.
Witness An Underground Waterfall At Ruby Falls
On the way to Atlanta from Nashville we stopped off in Chattanooga to see Ruby Falls. Compared to caves managed by the National Parks Service, this private cave is expectedly overcommercialised and very tame. But it still provides a fun stop for kids or more mature visitors. Navigating the paved paths was easy and there were no strictly enforced rules about touching the walls. To this effect the cave has lost some of its raw appeal and wild-ness. Our humorous guide kept our large group together, maximising the small space in the cave tunnels.
But the moment when we finally saw one of the world’s largest underground waterfalls, complete with its carefully choreographed “ta-da” music and coloured light sequence, was spectacular nevertheless. To me Mother Nature cannot be outshone. Except by the free Wi-Fi hotspot in the cave.
Now, let’s cross back over to downtown Atlanta and see what family-friendly activities this crazy family of 4 have discovered.
1. See A Whale Shark At Georgia Aquarium
We visit lots of aquariums all over the world so initially I wasn’t keen to visit yet another one… until I heard this was the largest aquarium in the western hemisphere. In fact it was the largest in the world from when it opened in November 2005 right up until 2012.
The aquarium entrance is designed as an impressive circular hub with 5 areas extending in all directions. A friendly staff member greeted us with a map and described each area to us.
The 5 unique galleries include:
Tropical Diver – features mainly Indo-Pacific fish. Highlights were the jellyfish and, of course our kids’ favourite, Nemo (aka Clown Fish). You can also watch a 4D movie here too.
Ocean Voyager – this area contains 6.3 million gallons of water and several thousand fish. It holds the record as the largest indoor aquatic habitat in the world! My highlight was the graceful whale sharks, which you could see from one of the world’s largest viewing windows.
Cold Water Quest – features animals from the world’s polar regions. Highlights included the beluga whales and the African penguins.
River Scout – this gallery reflects regional environments. The highlight was an overhead river where we could see North American fish from beneath. Oh, and piranhas. Everyone loves piranhas.
Dolphin Tales – this last gallery is arguably the most controversial since it houses an indoor dolphin stadium, much like SeaWorld. Depending on where you stand on the topic of dolphins in captivity you may or may not want to see this informative and educational show involving dolphins and their trainers. Be warned: if you sit in the soak zone, you will get (at least a little) wet. Thankfully 5-year-olds make for perfect body shields.
Plan to spend at least 3-5 hours at the aquarium; there is a lot to see.
Tip: onsite parking is US$10, however there are several parking lots along Luckie St NW across the road from the aquarium where all day parking is just $5.
2. Educational Play At Children’s Museum of Atlanta
Located downtown opposite Centennial Olympic Park, is this delightful children’s museum perfect for kids 2-10 years old.
In mid-December 2015 the museum finished major renovations and is now looking great, with a number of unique features not found in other children’s museums. Our kids had a blast in every exhibit, from the Waffle House kitchen/restaurant (where they served food), to the Science Bar (where they made real slime). Other favourites were the climbing frame, air-blast rocket launcher and several interactive shows throughout the day.
Josh and I both found the unique topographic augmented reality kinetic sand pit a brilliant idea. It featured coloured lights projected onto the sand which changed in real-time depending on how the sand was built up into mountains or scooped out to make rivers and oceans.
Also don’t forget to listen to the stairs as you climb them, you’ll be making a beautiful tune on a giant piano.
A sitting area is located on the mezzanine floor if you bring your own food (there’s no onsite café), or just ask for a hand stamp as you leave and return later. I particularly liked the vending machines which were reasonably priced and offered healthier snack options.
Each activity and exhibit has been thoughtfully designed, making it one of the best equipped children’s museums we’ve been to.
3. Outdoor Play At Centennial Olympic Park
Located in the heart of all these attractions is this public park covering 21 acres. Our kids enjoyed several playgrounds and it’s a popular spot in summer for music concerts.
4. Ride The World’s Longest Freestanding Escalator At Inside CNN Studio Tour
Want to show your kids the real news story? Then organise a CNN tour. It starts off with a real bang as you ride the world's longest freestanding escalator - 196 feet long (60 meters) and 8 stories high.
Our friendly guide proceeded to show us around the building, stopping to watch live news broadcasts and peeking over the shoulders of the 250-something journalists hard at work behind the scenes collecting and producing the news that gets broadcasted to over 200 countries.
We were accompanied by a security guard the entire way and it felt a little intimidating, but I can understand the need for that in the United States.
5. Overdose On Sugar At World of Coca Cola
The highlight of our time in Atlanta was visiting the World of Coca Cola – a museum showcasing the history of The Coca-Cola Company. We were invited to try the VIP tour, which included a staff member showing us around the museum. This is a great option if you want an overview of the museum without spending the time reading through all the interesting artefact displays. Our guide Ann had been working there for over 16 years and was a wealth of knowledge with plenty of fascinating stories and insights. However if you prefer to take your time and wander through everything slowly or spend more time at a particular exhibit with the kids, the regular self-guided tour is just fine too.
Once we got through the airport-style security we entered the lobby where, of course, we were handed a bottle of coke to start that refreshing feeling straight away.
Inside you can watch old coke TV ads, see the very first print ads, read the story behind the drink, admire coke-inspired art, see how they are bottled and packaged, watch a 4D movie and so much more. I loved the old memorabilia and my marketing degree really buzzed witnessing all the right moves Coke made from its first moment of creation in 1886 until today when over 1.9 billions drinks are served worldwide every day.
Make sure you see the on-site vault which is said to contain the secret formula. The myth says that only 2 people know the formula and each only know half. Truth or not, it’s a great marketing scarcity technique. But our guide Ann was pretty convincing explaining that she once saw the box that supposedly held the recipe as it was transferred from it’s former home in a bank vault.
Inside the museum you will find handy free phone charging boxes, and my kids’ favourite gallery – the Tasting Room where you can sample 64 different products offered by Coke worldwide. My favourite the Kiwi Fanta flavour from Thailand, while Mia fell in love with a strange South African drink. I was a little sad there was no Lift from Australia.
Adjacent to the tasting room is the freestyle self-service Coke machines, delivering 100 carbonated and non-carbonated beverages produced by the company. You can mix and match flavours into unholy concoctions like a witch brewing a magic potion (broomstick not included).
Lastly if you have not been completely coked-out, on your way out you are given another bottle of coke for the road.
My 5-year declared this triumphant statement as we left, “This is my favourite museum in the whole wide world.”
The Bottom Line
The best thing about this list of downtown Atlanta attractions is they’re all within easy walking distance of each other. And if you want to save a few dollars on 3 of these, check out our favourite discount booklet, CityPASS (plus it also includes access to the Fernbank Museum of Natural History and Atlanta Zoo which we didn’t get a chance to visit).
We only had a short time in Atlanta, and I am sure there is so much more to see and experience. But we are quite confident that these 5 make a wonderful start to a family weekend getaway in the city of peaches.