If you are ever visiting NYC and have time for a day trip out on Long Island, I would highly suggest the Long Island Aquarium and Exhibition Center out in Riverhead as an excellent family destination. The center is about a one-hour drive from Queens on the Long Island Expressway. As an added benefit, there is a hotel right next door to the facility if you decide to spend additional time in the area.
I have been to many small public aquariums during my work travels around the world, and due to its initial apparent size, I expected to spend no more than one or two hours going through the entire exhibit with my wife and seven-year-old daughter. I usually grade any attraction by the quality of the exhibits and how well it holds my daughter’s attention. I must say the Long Island Aquarium surprised me as we ended up spending up to four hours there and it was a lot bigger than I expected. My daughter was pleasantly entertained the entire time without any complaints.
As you walk towards the entrance, a beautiful fountain greets you and draws you in. The exhibits focus on the local native species and ecosystems, Joe Yaiullo’s famous 20,000-gallon reef system, and a shark tank you can dive into.
All I can say about Joe’s reef system is that it’s one of the most magnificent aquarium displays I’ve ever seen at any public aquarium, large or small. The livestock was healthy, vibrant, and mature. The amount of color and diversity of life in this condensed, manmade “soup of nature” is quite astonishing to see. In addition to the various mature SPS colonies, I really love the island of large magnificent anemones that are thriving in it. I can’t even fathom what it takes to maintain this.
Once you complete your walk through the interior displays, your family can enjoy the outdoor attractions that make it more than a typical aquarium. There are marshland wading pools, reptiles and sea lions, penguins, rides, arcades, and a saltwater swimming pool stocked with fish. If you are a boater, you can even visit via their dock off the Peconic River or take one of their boating tours of the river.
As you leave, stop by the butterfly exhibit and pet/feed the stingrays. The hands-on interaction my daughter had with the stingrays really made quite an impression on her. It actually reignited her interest in her little 29-gallon freshwater tank at home.
The entire facility is well run and has an excellent stream of visitors throughout the day, even on weekdays. It may not be as big or well-funded as the NY Aquarium out in Coney Island, but it’s a hidden gem worth visiting.
As a hobbyist, I still envy and am amazed by any well-kept aquarium exhibit. Working with your local fish store there’s a chance you too can own a piece of Joe Yaiullo’s master reef in your own tank. Too bad they didn’t have frags at the gift shop or else I would have picked some up myself.