If you’re thinking about heading to the Shedd on free day but wondering what the deal is I’ve done the legwork for you. Here’s what you get (and don’t get) at the Shedd Aquarium 1200 S Lake Shore Dr, 312-939-2438. All free museum days.
Regular admission is $8/$6/$9/$9 for adults/children 3-11/seniors 65+/students with college ID. On free day they will check proof of residency for all adults in your party. Map
You will get access to all the regular exhibits located on the main floor only. This includes Waters of the World, Amazon Rising and the Caribbean Reef where divers feed the animals periodically throughout the day.
You do not get access to any exhibit or show that is accessed via stairs or an elevator. They have security stationed throughout the building that will be checking for wristbands and tickets for various shows and exhibits.
You do not get access to the Aquatic show in the Oceanarium which is the big show with the dolphins and whales and a 4D kids movie (choice from 2).
You also do not get access to any of the following exhibits:
- the Oceanarium where you may view whales and dolphins swimming between shows if they come to the surface, the sea otters and sea lions.
- the Polar Play Zone which is the level below the Oceanarium where you can view the dolphins and whales swimming below surface and the penguin exhibit.
- the Wild Reef where you view sharks, stingrays and living coral all below surface
- Sting Ray Touch where stingrays swim around in a shallow tank and you can feel them as the swim up or swim by (Spoiler alert: they’re firm but squishy).
Unlike other museums you are not allowed to add on any attractions a la carte from the basic general admission. You will have to buy a pass and if you are at the ticket counter they will deduct the general admission fee from that pass price.
The other issue with the Shedd are the lines. Last summer the lines were as depicted as in the picture above with a wait of more than an hour on a non-free day. If you want to get in for free arrive very early or be prepared to stand in line for at least an hour.
The are three ways to bypass the lines:
- Buy the Total Experience Pass online at least a day in advance which gets you access to everything for $37.95 adult and $28.95 children or $133.80 for a family of 4 ($3 discount per person).
- Buy this the Express Pass online the day of your visit or in a special no wait line at the Shedd for $54.95 per adult and $45.95 per child or $201.80 for a family of 4.
- City Pass This takes some planning as it is an excellent deal if you want to visit more than one Chicago attraction. It does not (!) include the Aquatic Show which is $2 extra per person.
- and the Go Chicago Card can result in up to 55% savings depending on which combination of attractions you chose to visit.
In summary, there is plenty to see and do with free general admission in just the original area of the Shedd which is 225,000 square feet. Just be prepared to stand in a very long line to gain admission. When you add on the Oceanarium and other newer areas the whole Shedd is 480,550 square feet which is a lot of territory to cover with small children. However if your children are older or you want to see the everything then you’re best bet is to plan out a series of museum visits and splurge on the City Pass which can be used over 9 days and five other attractions.
If you are thinking about visiting more than one attraction the City Pass or Go Chicago Card both offer the best discount you can find. Using these passes takes some planning but you will save a lot of money which you can reallocate to dining or hotel costs or something else.
The Shedd allows you to bring in your own food and beverages. You can dine in the Marine Lunch Room off the main lobby in the basement or on the North and South outdoor terraces. You cannot dine anywhere they sell food such as Bubbles Mess or Soundings Cafe.
If the weather’s nice you can head over to 12th Street Beach for a picnic or dine along the grassy slopes outside the Shedd and reenter same day with your wrist band and/or free general admission tickets. You can bypass the line to reenter.
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