Most zoos and aquariums offer limited opportunities to get up close and personal with the animal inhabitants, but at the Houston Interactive Aquarium & Animal Preserve, 15 miles north of Downtown, human-animal interaction is the name of the game. The park is home to over 40 species of marine life, mammals, and birds, most of which visitors can touch, pet, or hand feed. There are other family-friendly activities too. From a bounce house to arcade games, virtual reality to zip lining.
I’m a Texas family travel expert and a mom of tweens. Our family has visited the Houston Interactive Aquarium & Animal Preserve three times. This guide will give you a complete overview of what to expect from your visit, including strategies on how to get from most from your experience and how to budget for a family-friendly day out.
How to get to Houston Interactive Aquarium
The Houston Interactive Aquarium is located on 5440 N Sam Houston Parkway E. The easiest way to get here is by car. If you’re familiar with driving in Houston, you probably already know that the city is full of toll roads. Most locals have EZ TAG or TxTag, which automates toll payments. If you’re visiting Houston, one of these toll passes will make your life easier.
Also, make sure you don’t confuse the Houston Interactive Aquarium & Animal Preserve with the Houston Downtown Aquarium. They are completely different activities.
Parking is included in the cost of an admission ticket; however, the parking lot is extremely small and typically fills up within an hour. There is an overflow lot just before you get to the aquarium, but it is not well-marked and easy to miss. Since the aquarium is on a one-way interstate access road, make a U-turn to get to the overflow lot if there’s no space.
There’s a $5 fee to park in the second option, which is unpaved with no parking space marker lines. There is a golf cart shuttle that will take guests to the front door, otherwise, it’s about a five-minute walk.
Tickets and opening hours
Tickets are $24.95 for adults (12+) and $19.95 for kids, military, college students, and seniors 55+. Annual memberships, called Adventure Passes, are $69.95. Purchase three or more Adventure Passes and the price drops to $49.95, making this a sweet deal for families who visit more than twice a year.
Purchase tickets online or at the entrance. Guests who buy online will receive an email with a bar code, but you will still need to queue to have the purchase transferred to an admission card.
Operating hours are 10:00 AM — 7:00 PM Sunday through Thursday and 10:00 AM — 8:00 PM Fridays and Saturdays. The park is open every day except Christmas Day. Holiday hours for Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day are clearly stated on the website.
The best time to visit the Houston Interactive Aquarium
This park is busy during summers and school holidays and on weekends. Visitors trying to dodge crowds are best to go during the week when school is in session or after 3:00 PM. Morning arrivals are popular with families with young kids, so timing when the early birds are leaving for the day usually means lighter crowds.
There’s little shade in the outdoor areas and Houston is hot and humid much of the year. The good news is that there are misters in the outdoor areas that do a fair job of keeping guests cool-ish when the temperatures rise. Wear comfortable clothes and shoes and bring sunscreen.
Credits and add-on experiences
My number one piece of advice for visiting the Houston Interactive Aquarium & Animal Preserve is to become very familiar with the pricing structure before you go. The base price includes admission, but feedings and close encounters cost extra.
The ticket price gets you in the door and access to most of the animal exhibits. Enhanced experiences and extras are categorized as credits or add-on experiences. Credits are used to buy animal food and get up close to certain animals, such as lemurs, sloths, and toucans. Snorkeling, snuba, and bounce house admission are categorized as add-on experiences, which require visitors to pay an extra fee to take part. Credits versus add-ons can be a little confusing, so I’ll break it down.
The credits are $10 per 100 credits. Most activities cost between 60 and 120 credits per person, although there are a handful that are more. Turtle and fish food are 30 credits per small cup. Credits can also be used for snow cones, balloon animals, glitter tattoos, and a myriad of other things designed to grab a child’s attention.
You can purchase credits at the ticket window or at a white self-service kiosk scattered around the venue. They then put these on your admission card, which is scanned prior to entering any activity that uses credits. The scanner will display how many credits you have. Note, you can use credits on future visits for up to one year from purchase.
It’s possible to enjoy the Houston Interactive Aquarium & Animal Preserve without purchasing extras, although some expectation management will probably need to happen. Kids seeing other kids petting lemurs and riding ponies are naturally going to want to do the same thing, so if you’re firm on not paying extra, I recommend prepping the kids before you go. If you’re watching your budget, I suggest picking one or two things you really want to do and factoring that into the cost of the outing.
You can add snorkel and snuba experiences and bounce house admission to your ticket. Snorkeling is $49.95 and snuba is $69.95. Participants must be at least six and a paid adult must accompany kids under 12. Bathing suits are required, and participants must be able to swim. The masks are included, but a wetsuit can be rented for an additional $9. The in-water experience lasts 20 minutes.
The bounce house in the arcade is $8.95 for kids 12 and under. The arcade is free to enter, but the games use credits. This is a popular spot for birthday parties and school groups to hang out and the area may get crowded.
What does a standard ticket give you access to?
It’s free to see most of the animals — there are a couple behind closed doors, but you can view all. With a standard ticket, you can also pet many of the animals.
Pony rides cost extra, but it’s free to enter the pony pen and engage with them. The stingrays won’t be super interested in you if you’re not offering food, but you can put your hands in the water and touch them — no credits required.
And while it costs extra (60 credits) to see a toucan up close, there are plenty of other large birds you can see in the indoor area, including a blue macaw who might want to chat with you.
How much time does it take to explore the Houston Interactive Aquarium?
There are four main areas at the Houston Interactive Aquarium & Animal Preserve.
The aquarium houses small sharks, rays, otters, and several tanks full of colorful and interesting fish. There’s a large room that houses reptiles, birds, and small mammals, such as rabbits, a sloth named Peaches, and the immensely popular lemurs. The outdoor area houses a selection of mammals, such as donkeys, warthogs, ponies, emus, giraffes, and more. There’s also a separate walk-through aviary where you can check out various species of birds.
It’s very easy to see everything on a single visit. If you don’t purchase credits or book add-on activities, an hour and a half to two hours is plenty of time to explore. On our most recent visit, my kids and I spent three and a half hours, and that included four animal encounters we had to wait in line for. We left no stone unturned and saw everything.
The most popular habitats are the lemurs, the aviaries, and the petting zoo. You’ll need some expectation management if you opt to do the lemur experience because it isn’t exactly like the pictures. Both the website and the video playing outside the habitat show a more robust level of human-lemur contact than what actually happens. Guests are allowed to pet the lemurs perched on a post under the close supervision of a zookeeper. The interaction only lasts about five minutes.
If you want to feed the birds who live in one of two onsite aviary rooms, go as early in the day as possible. A palm full of bird seed is less appealing to a bird when they’ve been snacking all day long. Guests that get in there early have the best chance at hungry birds and hungry birds are interactive birds. Clothing and hair are subject to random bird droppings — expect to get messy.
Potential downsides are a lack of labeling on some habitats in the aquarium and reptile areas and queues that feel chaotic. Although not all the enclosures have labels to clue visitors on what’s living inside, there are QR codes on some of the habitats that pull up TikTok videos of the animal in different settings.
The animal encounter can only handle a few people at a time and there’s no dedicated spot to get in line. The area between the lemur habitat and aviary (two of the most consistently popular experiences) is a high-traffic area and it gets confusing to figure out where the line is.
Where to start with a visit to the Houston Interactive Aquarium
The natural path after you scan your card at the entry will lead you into the two aquarium galleries. After you exit the second and largest section of the aquarium, you’ll see a three-way sign pointing you to the other parts of the park and you can make your decision from there.
There are maps scattered around that show the location of the various animal habitats so you can make your decision on what to do first based on what you’re most interested in seeing. It’s also easy to do a quick walkthrough to determine how you want to spend your time.
There’s no wrong way to explore and no specific order you need to get the most out of this activity. The weather may dictate the timing of exploring the outdoor portions versus indoor portions. It might make sense to explore the outdoor areas early in the day when it’s hot outside and save the cooler indoor exhibits for later in the day.
While a trip to the Houston Interactive Aquarium & Animal Preserve is full of opportunities for animal education, the wow factor is the more intimate interactions than what’s typical of most zoos and aquariums.
The Houston Interactive Aquarium and Animal Preserve are not currently accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.