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A Parent's Guide To The Great Smoky Mountains

Posted by Leif Palmer in Smoky Mountains

If you're planning a vacation in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee this year, there's a good chance that you'll have children going along for the ride. If that applies to you, and especially if your children are younger than teenagers, then you'll want to read on. This post contains a number of recommendations for things to do in the Smokies that are geared especially toward younger kids, or they're attractions and activities that are designed for the whole family to enjoy together. In the tourism business, we call that a classic win-win situation.

Watching the jellies at the aquarium in the Smoky Mountains.

Ripley's Aquarium Of The Smokies

This is one of those destinations that all ages will love. Located in the heart of downtown Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies has been entertaining and fascinating Smoky Mountain visitors for more than two decades with one of the most fascinating collections of aquatic life in the country. The many galleries of this self-guided tour showcase creatures from all the world's oceans and even several freshwater species. They include Ocean Realm, Tropical Rainforest, Coral Reef and Gallery of the Seas, just to mention a few. Specimens range from octopuses and stingrays to several varieties of shark.

What makes Ripley's Aquarium so great for kids is its interactive nature. For example, in Touch A Ray Bay, guests can pet live stingrays, with supervision from aquarium staff members, of course. One of the newer exhibits lets guests pet moon jellyfish. You can even get close to the sharks when you travel through Shark Lagoon in the aquarium's see-through underwater tunnel, which transports guests via a moving walkway. It's the next best thing to being in the water with the sharks, and it's a lot safer. Kids will also love the aquarium's penguin playhouse, which allows little ones to crawl through tunnels and get up-close views of these waddling creatures both above and under the water.

Riding a kid friendly coaster at Dollywood.

Dollywood Theme Park

Everybody loves Dollywood, but when it comes to rides and attractions, not everything is geared toward all ages. There are definitely some roller coasters and rides that younger children aren't big enough to ride. But Dollywood does a great job of creating experiences that accommodate families that have kids in that toddler-to-teen age range.

One must-see part of Dollywood is the Country Fair section. This is where you'll find most of the kiddie rides, like a junior-sized Ferris wheel, rotating swing, bumper cars, spinning teacups, flying elephants, a classic carousel and more. Also consider queuing up for the Dollywood Express, the vintage train that takes guests on a scenic tour of the park. Many other sections of Dollywood contain special play areas that are designed just for the kiddos. It allows them to have fun while big brother/sister or the parents take on the scarier rides.

Dollywood goes out of its way to accommodate parents and their kids with features like the parent-swap option (which allows parents to trade off child-care duties while waiting for the major thrill rides), plenty of stroller rentals and preferred-parking options that allow parking closer to the front gates, thus avoiding the hassle of loading strollers and other gear onto a shuttle.

Kids love to slide at waterparks.

Water Parks

Most kids enjoy doing anything in the summer that allows them to get wet. To briefly continue our Dollywood discussion from above, note that the theme park has several water-based rides that end up in passengers usually getting wet to some degree. Dollywood also has its own water park, Dollywood's Splash Country, which is adjacent to the theme park. There's also a newer water park called Soaky Mountain, which is located off Tenn. Hwy. 66 (Winfield Dunn Pkwy.) in Sevierville, between Interstate 40 and downtown. Both water parks have a wide variety of attractions within their gates, including water slides that range from tame to insane. Also look for lazy river features, wave pools, kids' play areas and much more.


This unique attraction is located on the Parkway in Pigeon Forge. It's best known for its interactive galleries that allow kids (and their parents) to get hands-on as they explore a variety of Wonder Zones. Each zone-Extreme Weather, Physical Challenge, Space Discovery, Light & Sound, Imagination Lab and Wonder Art-contains a variety of exhibits that help guests learn more about the world around us. Individual exhibits include the Earthquake Café (it shakes), Hurricane Shack (74 mph winds), lying on a bed of nails, making giant bubbles, wearing a NASA space suit and climbing inside a mockup of a Mercury space capsule. WonderWorks also has fun features like an indoor ropes course, a 4D simulator ride and a laser tag arena.

Great educational and fun learning place for kids.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

It would be a shame if you took your kids to the mountains and didn't introduce them to the wonders of nature in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There are more than 800 miles of hiking trails alone, which means there are treks suitable for all ages, from kids in strollers (there are a few paved trails) to teens who are ready to brave a day-long hike to the summit of Mt. LeConte and back. Other options for park fun include fishing in one of the many rivers and creeks, riding bikes through the Cades Cove Community, getting incredible views of the mountains from observation towers at Clingman's Dome or Look Rock, horseback riding and having a picnic at one of the park's many designated picnic areas.

The Junior Ranger program alone is one way to foster your child's interest in nature and the national park. All you have to do is purchase a Junior Ranger booklet from the Sugarlands Visitor Center, Elkmont campground or Cades Cove Visitor Center. These booklets contain a number of activities the child will need to accomplish in order to attain Junior Ranger status. He or she needs to complete eight of the 11 tasks, which include picking up a bag of trash within the park, attending a ranger-led program (there's a huge variety of those too), hunting for leaves and describing smells in the air.

Leif Palmer - Smokies blogger

About Leif Palmer

Leif Palmer loves residing in the Smoky Mountains. He is an avid outdoorsman: rowing for exercise on the lake, trail hiking, and free climbing rocks in the mountains. He indulges his arty side by periodically beating up pieces of marble by sculpting. He is always frustrated by his inability to sink long putts, and hates his curly hair (but his wife loves it). Leif has been known to muster enough courage to change a diaper, and hopes his son will become a chip off the old block.


This content posted by Smokies Travel Guide. Visit our home page, smokiestravelguide.com for more information on the Smoky Mountain area.

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