The latest addition is called KidZone, a smaller-scale enterprise which is a re-working of the previously under-utilized third floor, also known as "Zone C". The exhibit's designers have engineered a combination of kid-friendly sea life exhibits with an ocean-themed playground that's geared toward the youngest of visitors.
Arriving on the third floor, those who've been to the aquarium previously will recognize the old see-and-touch station staffed by an interpreter. The newer area is to the right and takes-up the rest of the floor. There are multiple displays, many consisting of smaller tanks positioned only about three feet from the carpet. It's close to the eye level of toddlers, but no not so low to encourage that naughty tapping on the glass.
The aquarium staff has included species like the Finding Nemo orange and white clown fish which have a better chance of holding interest for youngsters. They've also kept the toothy caiman in this area, which was drawing a lot of oohs and ahs from toddlers and their parents when I visited last week.
In addition, there's another moderate petting pool with some small, colorful fish, starfish and undersized crustaceans, as well as two additional exhibits where kids can touch a lobster or one of New Jersey's famous horseshoe crabs (the living version versus the dead variety you usually see on local beaches).
KidZone is more than just an observation area. There are opportunities for little ones to climb out of the strollers and get some of that energy burned-off.
They can grab some sticks and rumble away on drums that actually sound like the bell on a buoy. The sound doesn't get too loud, which is nice, and there are mazes and other playground-type opportunities to get a little active.
Probably the cleverest is the fish tank that allows kids to scramble underneath and poke their heads up into clear, plastic domes that protrude into the tank's floor. It's a great picture: your kid's head right there among the fish. There are several of these bubbles for kids to share, although overall, it's a moderately sized tank.
Signage includes happy, cartoon characters and the loosely-connected sections of KidZone have fun names like Lizzie's Lagoon and Bobbi's Beach. There's no music or extra sound being pumped into the space and everything is carpeted. Other than the kids pattering around and the occasional gong of the buoy bells, you do not encounter much sound overload, which I think is nice.
There are a couple of things to note. First, the area is fairly expansive and there was plenty of floor space for the sixty plus children and parents (plus a dozen strollers) who were there on a Thursday morning. I could see things getting a little tight on a busy weekend, typical of most family attractions.
Second, the area is definitely geared toward younger kids. Toddlers, pre-school and kindergarten-aged children will have the best chance of enjoying everything offered here. Younger grade-school kids may also find enough to interest them for a half-hour or so. For older grade school kids, my sense is that KidZone will be a pretty quick stop on the tour, unless they really like the sea life in the petting stations.
I've been to the aquarium many times over the years with kids of varying ages and now there's more to see and do than ever. The KidZone addition may not be the biggest splash, but I take my hat off to the management for turning their attention toward what seemed to be a less-exciting section.
And by the way, the exhibits aren't bad, so even if you go without kids or with older children, I'd still recommend a swing through here. The lobster, horseshoe crab and caimans are pretty neat and the aquarium displays, while small, still contain some very beautiful specimens that fish fans of all ages will enjoy.