Recently, I took my family on a mini-vacation to Moody Gardens as a birthday present for my daughter. It’s something I’ve been meaning to do for a while: stay two nights at the hotel and explore the grounds at our leisure without the weight of the long drive back to Houston hanging over our heads. I was particularly excited to see the recently renovated aquarium pyramid, the billboards for which you have probably seen all over the freeways.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s still a great aquarium. If you’ve never been, you definitely should go. It is absolutely worth the drive and the price of admission, and I say this as someone who usually gets into places free. This time I happily paid for a pass. The Moody Gardens aquarium is awesome, and anyone who says different has lost the taste of joy in his or her life.
The Downtown Aquarium is awesome-er, though.
First, let’s talk about those renovations at Moody Gardens. As far as I can tell, there are few significant new exhibits, and even though they were ostensibly finished, there were still signs done on printer paper and empty tanks. I’d be more forgiving if they'd just opened, but they’ve supposedly been done since June. The Humboldt penguin exhibit is cute, but not really any great addition to the Moody's already first-class penguin habitat. The mangrove lagoon is a glorified touch tank that even the Houston Museum of Natural Science — not known for its animal exhibits — has done better. Signage for the Gulf rig exhibit is so absent that I didn’t even know they had one until I was double-checking for this article, and the jellyfish gallery is skippable.
[location-1]I do want to give a brief shoutout, though, to the staff at the mangrove lagoon. We caught the exhibit at feeding time, and they were more than happy to educate us on many aspects of stingray physiology I was unaware of. Also, they explained the importance of asking where your seafood comes from, because apparently terrible people hole-punch rays’ wings and sell their flesh as scallops to the incurious. We ended up eating a lot of pasta on this trip.
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So, the Moody Gardens aquarium is maybe not the grand excursion I’d built up in my head as a vacation destination, but how does that make it less impressive than a theme restaurant? Well, here’s how.
The Moody Gardens aquarium is bigger, no argument there. However, bigger is not always better. Aside from penguins and seals, I am hard-pressed to think of any animal that Moody Gardens has that the Downtown Aquarium doesn’t. On top of that, the Downtown Aquarium beats Moody in several categories. For one, it has an electric eel. For two, it has a wonderful freshwater exhibit, and in Texas it just seems weird not to include the rich biodiversity of the bayous. I know that Moody Gardens is explicitly focused on the oceans, but there’s an awful lot of life in the non-salt waterways of the world.
[location-2]Then there are sharks. Let’s be honest; the reason many of us go to an aquarium in the first place is sharks. They’re the main attraction. No one ever goes to an aquarium and skips the sharks. Moody Gardens has big sharks, displayed in a large glass tunnel you walk through. It’s impressive enough, but the Downtown Aquarium tunnel has more variety (including the delightfully monstrous-looking sawfish, which is actually a ray), and they drive you through it on a whimsical little train to boot.
The restaurant is overpriced for the quality, but you do get to eat sitting next to a ballroom-size tank that is as impressive as anything you'd see at Moody Gardens. I'm not certain it's worth the $20 they want for a grilled chicken breast, but they will let you just walk up and take a look around for free. Even if you're not eating there, you should make a quick excursion to the dining room.
So, to sum up, aside from a few admittedly awesome animals, the Downtown Aquarium has a wider variety of sea life, rides and doesn’t require a drive to Galveston. On top of all that, it’s cheaper. Everyone should absolutely check out Moody Gardens at least once, but don't overlook the large variety of aquatic amusements in Houstonians' own backyard.