My daughter became obsessed with Ariel long before she learned how to swim. For years, when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she replied, “A mermaid.” Now that she’s a tween, her career aspirations are less fictional, yet she’s as enamored of undersea life as ever. So we were excited to check out the recently opened National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey.
Located in the space that formerly housed Discovery Times Square, this 60,000-square-foot virtual aquatic adventure shouldn’t be dismissed as just another tourist trap. Granted, on weekends it’s inundated with vacationers and seems a bit expensive, especially considering the entire experience takes only about an hour. If you can go on a weekday, though, and remind yourself that a portion of the ticket price goes to ocean conservation, it’s worth visiting with young under-the-sea fans.
Ocean Odyssey is organized into a variety of environments, each offering a digital deep dive into a different part of the Pacific Ocean. Everything you see is virtual—there are no live creatures or water here. But thanks to cutting-edge technology, it’s often breathtaking and sometimes quite convincing—if you suspend your cynicism and forget you’re in Times Square.
My daughter and I loved the first encounter, a daytime view of a coral reef with dolphins, fish, stingrays, and other animals frolicking all around us. Young children were encouraged to chase the creatures as they swam by on the floor. This bit was so immersive, I felt my stomach jump as we zoomed into the water.
The next room revealed the coral reef at night as colorful bioluminescent creatures lit up the dark. This is definitely the most Instagrammable display—pictures are allowed throughout as long as your flash is off. This is also where I started to notice that the prerecorded narration sometimes overlapped with the patter provided by the live guides, who are primarily there to make sure no one lingers too long in any of the environments.
That wasn’t a problem in the next room which was pitch-black and meant to illustrate just how dark it gets at the bottom of the ocean. While there was little to see, we were encouraged to sit and listen to various ocean sounds, but frankly, it lasted a tad too long and almost lulled us to sleep.
We much preferred visiting the habitat of the ferocious Humboldt squid, which ended in a jaw-dropping battle to the death between two of the creatures. This is an excellent example of why Ocean Odyssey is recommended for ages 3 and up. Though the sequence isn’t graphic (no blood or torn flesh), it is potentially upsetting. Be aware that sensitive tots might balk.
The next two parts were our favorites—and I suspect most families would agree. The kelp forest maze, fashioned out of towering rows of seaweed and mirrors, was great fun and not as easy to navigate as I expected. There was a bit of a backup here, as the staff is careful to only let in small groups, otherwise, the dizzying effect is ruined. My daughter stuck her hand out in front of her in order to guide us through without literally hitting any walls.
Once you emerge, you’ll find a series of interactive screens where motion sensors allow visitors to manipulate sea lions. Kids absolutely loved this part as they made the creatures swim, flip, and even dance. Step stools are available for the vertically challenged. Good luck getting your tykes to move along from this section!
The climactic encounter is a 3-D underwater wonderland as penguins, turtles, sharks, and a humpback whale seem to swim all around you. It captures the ecosystem of the Pacific Ocean in all its glory, and is a smart way to segue to the educational part of the experience.
While most of our fellow visitors rushed through National Geographic Exploration Hall, this is the part where kids (and grown-ups) can actually learn something. Mini-documentaries featuring marine experts and alarming statistics make the case for the necessity of ocean conservation. (You’re also pretty much forced to take one of those overpriced blue-screen souvenir photos here, but no one makes you buy it.)
The final room is quite interactive, with stations where you can find out more about the sea creatures you encountered and educational games, like how to best clean up the ocean. Unlike the rest of the experience, you can stay as long as you like in these two rooms, and they’re certainly the most edifying. Warning: You must exit through the gift shop, where adorable undersea plushies may be hard for kids to resist.
While I’m sure National Geographic hopes Ocean Odyssey will be an all-ages attraction, I think it’s best enjoyed by families with younger school-age kids. Note that strollers must be checked, and there’s a fair amount of walking, climbing stairs, and waiting in line. (If your tots tire easily, you may want to wait until they’re older.) There are also crowd-control issues, but staffers are remarkably friendly and try to move you along as quickly as possible, though some patience is required.
National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey
226 West 44th Street (between Seventh and Eighth Avenues), Times Square
$39.50 for adults; $36.50 for seniors 65 and older; $32.50 for children ages 3–12; $20 more for a flex pass to use anytime
Get in touch with an experience adviser for tickets or swim over to Times Square for this one-of-a-kind aquatic adventure.