Southeast Vacation: Ripley’s Attractions in Gatlinburg

Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies

After leaving Oak Ridge, we had a drive of an hour or two. We passed by Knoxville. I’d been there in 1982, on a family vacation to the World’s Fair. I was so excited to see this on the horizon — I remembered if from the fair!

Sunsphere Knoxville ball World's Fair 1982

A bit of searching reveals that it is called the Sunsphere, and is one of the few remaining bits of the World’s Fair.

Pigeon Forge TN Mt Rushmore King KongOn through Pigeon Forge. I’d never been here, that I remember, and from driving through, it reminded me a bit of Las Vegas — lots of big, glitzy fronts.

Wonderworks Pigeon Forge upsidedown house

We didn’t stop at any, but it was still interesting to drive by them. We got a pretty good look too, because we were in the area around dinner time, and traffic was not moving fast. I took from this experience that early-mid July may not be the best time to visit a touristy spot like Pigeon Forge.

Titanic Pigeon Forge

We drove on to Gatlinburg, about 10 miles farther down the road, which wound through parts of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Our destination: Ripley’s attractions. Yes, attractions with an “s,” because there are eight of them. A big thanks to Ripley’s for our tickets to these attractions — now, read on to hear my unbiased opinions!

gatlinburg attractions

Our first destination was what I’d consider Ripley’s main attraction in Gatlinburg: Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. It was located at the north end of the “main drag” through Gatlinburg, US 441. After a few anxious moments driving around the area (to say it was packed would be putting it mildly), we got situated in the parking garage, and our adventure began …

Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies

I’d read excellent reviews on the aquarium, and I can see why. It’s truly a neat place to visit.

Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies

Once you get inside, you’re in a vast space, with all kind of possibilities of things to see. A schedule for the day, available inside the entrance, informed me of shark lagoon dives, penguin feedings, marine science classes, and more. Unfortunately, we arrived too late for the live mermaid show 🙁

Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies

We were, however, in time to watch an aquarium feeding. I love how the stingrays seem to have smiles on their “faces.” There was one pretty aggressive one, who the feeder had to keep pushing away. Neat to think even stingrays have personalities.

Ripley's Aquarium Gatlinburg Weedy Sea Dragon

There were many displays of fascinating sea creatures, like this Weedy Sea Dragon. Looks like a bit of seaweed, but it’s alive! The camouflage allows it to stay safe from predators. Like seahorses, the males of this species are the ones who have the babies.

Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies crab

How about this giant crab? It was about 3 feet wide, and honestly a little bit creepy.

Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies Swarm

One of my favorite exhibits was called “Swarm.” Have you heard about the pedicures where fish nibble the dead skin off your feet? Well, this is similar, except you put your hands into the water. Soon, lots of little “Doctor Fish” swarm up and begin nibbling the dead skin from your fingers. Maybe I didn’t have much dead skin, because I never really attracted what I’d call a swarm, but it did feel good. And the kids taking part absolutely loved it.

Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies escalator overhead fish

Okay, this was neat too: stand on a moving walkway, which takes you through an aquarium — all around you, even overhead. So many good photo opps, and so neat to see all the fish surrounding you! Even three teens loved it.

Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies escalator overhead fish


Since it was evening, and we hoped to see more attractions, we kept moving. The other attractions are easily accessible by foot. We took off down the main street to explore …

Gatlinburg busy street

Both the street and the sidewalks were packed. Although, I suppose it could have been worse — when I mentioned the crowds to the lady working at the Aquarium ticket booth, she told me, “You should be glad you weren’t here on the fourth of July!” I was.

Ripley's Mirror Maze

Next stop: Ripley’s Mirror Maze. The teens excitedly headed into the maze, after donning the provided 3-D glasses.

Ripley's Mirror Maze

Once inside the maze, I just followed them …

Ripley's Mirror Maze

… through many rooms like this. They made it through the entire maze in probably under a minute, and promptly did it again (once you have a ticket, you can go through as often as you like). I am sure it would take younger kids (or probably adults too) quite a bit longer. Fun.

Ripley's Haunted Adventure Gatlinburg

Next stop was Ripley’s Haunted Adventure. Okay, I had a bit of pause at this one. A creepy-looking guy in the entrance was shouting insults for effect at passers-by, particularly those entering the attraction. My middle daughter was excited about this one, while the oldest and youngest took a look and quickly decided NO. I might have joined them, but readers, I am here to be your presence-on-the-scene, so how could I decline? I got into the cage-like enclosure with my teen and a few other nervously-giggling tourists, and soon we were off into the Grimsby & Streaper Casket Company. We were instructed to hang onto the shoulder of the person ahead of us, and this was sound advice.

For the next ten minutes or so (maybe less, but trust me, when you are run/walking through the dark, dodging fake corpses and having the ground shift beneath your feet, it seems longer), I hung onto my daughter’s shoulder for dear life as the line of us braved our way through darkness, punctuated by screams, shouts, and even the occasional disco-ball lighting. Finally, gratefully, I emerged back into the evening light. Fun — if you’re into scary. If you’re a teenager.

Ripley's Moving Theater 3D Gatlinburg

When we came out, my youngest daughter, who’d been waiting patiently, was glad to see us. We all headed next door, into the Ripley’s 5D Moving Theater.

Ripley's Moving Theater 3D Gatlinburg

We put on the 3D glasses again, and fastened our seatbelts. Then, after a wait of 10 minutes or so (waiting for the theater to fill up?), we saw 2 films. One was about a pig and his farmyard friends, who went on a wild adventure, and the other was wintery, about a snowman going on a boisterous trip. The whole time, our seats moved and the 5D effects (5D? well, it snowed on us ….) made both adventures seem, well, adventurous!

I’d say each film was about 3 minutes long, and again, if you were here for the day, you could easily view them several times throughout the day. Fun and light-hearted; a good way to settle back down after being scared in the Haunted Adventure.

Ripley's Gatlinburg Believe it or Not

Yikes; the sun was setting, and we hadn’t yet taken in all the attractions. Let’s keep moving, this time to Ripley’s Believe it or Not Odditorium. This, to me, is kind of what I think of when I think of Ripley’s: odd things. Sure enough, that’s what the inside was full of.

Ripley's Gatlinburg Believe it or Not

Exhibits like this one, about a guy born with only the top half of his body. And more, and more, and more — unusual things of all types. I could go on and on, but honestly, I’m getting tired!

I was also tired that day. Remember, I’d been on a 3-hour tour focused on enriching uranium. Oh my, all the things there are to learn in the world …

My take: the whole family (me, husband, three teens) all enjoyed the Ripley’s attractions a lot. We didn’t even make it to the Guinness World Records Museum, or the Mini Golf attractions. My recommendation would be to plan on a day in Gatinburg, seeing as many of the attractions as you can. We were rushed trying to do a bunch in about 3-4 hours, but a full day would be great — you could alternate attractions with window-shopping (of which there’s plenty) along the streets of Gatlinburg. No need to move the car. I would park at the Aquarium parking garage ($5 max for the day) and walk from there.

If you only have a few hours, I’d most recommend the Aquarium. Beyond that, choose the attractions that are most interesting to your traveling group. The tickets are flexible enough that you can buy whatever amount interests you.

Thanks if you’ve stuck with me through this lengthy post! Let’s call it a day …

6 thoughts on “Southeast Vacation: Ripley’s Attractions in Gatlinburg

  1. I read every word. It sounds like there were attractions that would appeal to everyone. I would have enjoyed some more than others. Thanks for letting me tag along!

  2. That would indeed be a busy day! Of those, I have only been to the aquarium and “Odditorium” – on different days. Christmas time is another time it is super-busy there. One year we went to Gatlinburg at Christmas for one of those drive-through Christmas light displays where you can tune in to the music they are playing, and the blinking lights synchronize with the music. But traffic was at such a crawl we didn’t make it that year – we ended up stopping at Mellow Mushroom for pizza and then heading home. We did, however, make it in subsequent years.

    We’re about an hour from Gatlinburg and haven’t been there often, but whenever we go we do enjoy strolling along the main drag and stopping in shops and getting snacks.

    If you’re ever back in that area, Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede is a lot of fun. It does take a while, but they serve a full meal while a “Wild West” type show is going on as well as contests with audience participation. They don’t give you utensils for the meals, and when I heard that I brought a bunch of plastic ones in a ziploc bag, and our waiter kept teasing me about “contraband.” 🙂

  3. Well, this was interesting! I wish I’d known you were going to Gatlinburg. I would have told you about an interesting museum there of ancient Scripture manuscripts.

  4. What a great post! I felt like I really was along for the ride. I’d have waited outside on the creepy place–I’ve never enjoyed being scared, even something like that that I know is fake. Love the aquarium and the movie thing sounds fun.

  5. Now I can’t wait to see The Aquarium whenever we make it to Gaitlinburg again! Of all of the attractions that you visited in such a short time, I feel quite sure that your favorite would also be my favorite. I never have been a fan of scary things, even a Haunted House on Halloween.

  6. Whoa…..I went to Garlinburg for a week several years ago and went to the aquarium and the national park. Shopping on the main road was fun but I loved the hiking! I even saw bears, which is my favorite thing in the world!

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