To help you decide what you and your family want to do on your trip, here are our picks for the top 10 kid-friendly activities in Gatlinburg.
1. Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, 88 River Road. Travelers on Trip Advisor voted this attraction the No. 1 aquarium in the United States. Walk through the underwater tunnel and you’re surrounded by an ocean teeming with thousands of exotic sea creatures. Watch 12-foot sharks as they swim over your head. See divers feed the fish. The Touch a Ray Bay provides a hands-on experience, and you can explore various areas such as the tropical rainforest, Coral Reef, Shark Lagoon and Penguin Playhouse.
2. Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium, 800 Parkway. Your kids won’t soon forget the bizarre sights they’ll see here as you wander through the Odditorium’s 12 galleries filled with more than 500 rarities and curiosities. The mind-boggling exhibits include two-headed animals, a spinning vortex tunnel and an authentic vampire killing kit. The Odditorium is just one part of the Ripley’s complex, which also includes the Moving Theater 5D, Haunted Adventure, Mirror Maze, Mini Golf and Guinness World of Records.
3. Fannie Farkle’s Family Fun Parlor, 656 Parkway. This family favorite is an amusement center with lots of non-violent games. Redeem your points for a wide variety of prizes. When you need a break, enjoy one of Fannie’s famous foot-long Ogle hot dogs.
4. Ober Gatlinburg Ski Resort & Amusement Park, 1001 Parkway. Ober Gatlinburg is a mountain’s worth of family fun. Your adventure begins with a breathtaking ride on the Aerial Tramway from downtown Gatlinburg to the resort. The ski area features nine runs for skiers and snowboarders from novice to advanced. Ski season winds down by mid-March, but the snow tubing lanes usually stay open until Easter. The resort also features a mall with a huge indoor ice rink, shops and restaurants. As winter turns to spring, the amusement park gears up with family-friendly rides like the Alpine Slide, Mountain Coaster, Carousel and Chair Swing. A new Mountain Coaster launches this spring. The youngest members of the family will enjoy the Kiddie Land park and rides, where they can scuttle through tubes, climb ladders, swing and slide. You won’t want to miss Ober’s Wildlife Encounter, where you can view bears, playful river otters, birds of prey, nocturnal animals and other species that are native to the Smoky Mountains.
5. Amazing Mirror Maze, 919 Parkway. Wander through a wonderland of mirrors that lead you around surprising corners, into dead ends and continuous circles, and through rotating reflections. Find your way out while your senses are filled with a state-of-the-art light and sound show.
6. City parks. Gatlinburg’s city parks are perfect for family get-togethers and picnics, and they’re replete with special features for kids. At Herbert Holt Park, located just off the Parkway on Pigeon River Road, children can fish in their own stream or enjoy a playground area, engage in a game of horseshoes or walk along groomed trails. Mynatt Park, located on Asbury Lane, also offers a kids’ fishing stream, horseshoe pits, a playground, picnic tables, grills and restrooms. Mills Park, on Mills Park Road just off Highway 321, features a 9-hole disc golf course, skate park, ball fields, playground and covered pavilion.
7. Junior Ranger Program, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Kids 5 to 12 years old can become Junior Rangers by completing a list of activities. Activities, which are listed in a Junior Ranger booklet, vary by age group. When your child completes the activities in the booklet, he or she can receive a Junior Ranger badge. Booklets are available at all park visitor centers and the Cades Cove and Elkmont campgrounds. Throughout the season, the grown-up park Rangers offer programs that help kids explore and learn about the park.
8. Easy waterfall hikes. Everyone in the family will be thrilled to encounter a lovely waterfall at the end of a hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. One of the best is Grotto Falls, a cascade of water you can walk behind. A short, easy hike off the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail takes you there. Another easy hike for kids as young as 2 is the Cataract Falls trail. Stop at the Sugarlands Visitor Center for a trail map.
9. Miniature golf. Gatlinburg has numerous courses for mini golf enthusiasts. Hillbilly Golf, 340 Parkway, is an unusual course you get to by riding the incline 300 feet above the city. It features two 18-hole courses with challenging mountaineer hazards. Other courses include Old Gatlinburg Golf and Games, 716 Parkway, and Ripley’s Davy Crockett Mini Golf, 188 Parkway. There’s even an indoor course: Treasure Quest Golf, 653 Parkway, which sports spectacular scenes including a black-light section.
10. Synchronous fireflies. If you’re planning a trip to Gatlinburg in late May or early June, you might be lucky enough to witness an amazing event. The synchronous fireflies that are found in a special area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park are the only species in America that can coordinate their flashing lights to form incredible patterns. The light patterns are part of the fireflies’ mating display, which lasts for about two weeks. The park provides shuttles between Sugarlands Visitor Center and Elkmont for viewing the fireflies. The National Park Service will announce the 2015 shuttle dates in late April.
There are hundreds more family-friendly things to do in Gatlinburg. But when you’re planning what to do on your trip, remember this tip from veteran Gatlinburg travelers: Don’t try to cram too much into one day. Take it easy and allow time for naps. Enjoy your family time together!