February 16, 2022
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For kids age five or 15 – these family-friendly things to do will leave everyone smiling. Read on for fun things to do in Tennessee with kids for your next family vacation.
Several popular family destinations across the state have been “Kid Reviewed” by children, who have voiced their opinions about what they liked best about a particular attraction. Some kids even wore a Laugh Tracker device, which gauged both excitement and laughter at each place they visited. Note that several of these kid-friendly attractions are also sensory-friendly. For more information, visit belikebuddy.com/tennessee.
Aquariums in Tennessee
Watch river otters play and penguins waddle at the Tennessee Aquarium on the Chattanooga Riverfront. Housed in two buildings – River Journey and Ocean Journey – the Tennessee Aquarium celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2022 and immerses guests in an underwater adventure to discover sharks, jellyfish, turtles, alligators, stingrays and much more. In Gatlinburg, Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies also fascinates visitors of all ages with more than 10,000 creatures representing 350 different species. Don’t miss the cool shark tunnel with its moving walkway – it will inspire a sense of awe even in teenagers.
Kid-Friendly Waterparks in Tennessee
Tennessee’s newest water park, Soaky Mountain, splashed onto the scene when it opened in 2020 in Sevierville with a first-of-its-kind Avalaunch water coaster. The attraction’s Blue Mountain Mayhem raft ride and Rainbow Revenge waterslide can hold the whole family, creating unforgettable and thrilling experiences. Nearby, Wilderness at the Smokies Resort is a favorite year-round destination with overnight accommodations and three water parks on-site. It’s home to the Wild WaterDome, Tennessee’s largest indoor water park, as well as the Lake Wilderness and Salamander Springs outdoor water parks. In Nashville, Soundwaves at Gaylord Opryland offers a one-of-a-kind indoor/outdoor water park experience with pools, lazy rivers and rides accompanied by LED lights and music, both relaxing and thrilling. Nashville Shores Lakeside Resort in Hermitage is another recreational paradise located on the shores of Percy Priest Lake, featuring more than 20 rides and attractions as well as a beach with pontoon boat rentals.
This year marks the 85th anniversary of Tennessee State Parks, which have been protecting natural, cultural and historic resources since 1937. Explore mountains, rivers, lakes and historic landmarks at one of Tennessee’s 56 state parks, many of which offer overnight lodging in cabins, lodges or campgrounds. Rock climbing, boating, fishing, swimming, hiking, birding, paddling and horseback riding are all popular outdoor activities at the state’s network of parks.
See a comical sea lion show, feed a giraffe, ride a camel or watch giant pandas from China munch on bamboo at the Memphis Zoo, home to more than 3,500 animals. The zoo has been a destination for animal lovers since 1906 and is one of only three zoos in the United States where you can see giant pandas. At the Nashville Zoo, you can pet kangaroos in the Kangaroo Kickabout, feed lorikeets in Lorikeet Landing, interact with goats in Critter Encounter and take an exhilarating flight down the 110-foot-high Soaring Eagle Zip Line. Experience even more animal encounters at Zoo Knoxville, the Chattanooga Zoo and Brights Zoo in Limestone, which has recently welcomes a new spotless giraffe, one of the world's rarest giraffes.
Children's Museums in Tennessee
Children’s museums are known for educating kids through interactive play, and the Creative Discovery Museum in Chattanooga does exactly that. Kids can dig for dinosaur bones, discover how rivers flow and explore how electricity works. At the Discovery Center at Murfree Spring in Murfreesboro, kids can zip down the 2.5-story super slide, shop at a pretend farmers market, explore the five senses as a scientist or unleash their inner artist at Creation Station. The award-winning Children’s Museum of Memphis allows children to play pilot and air traffic controller in the Going Places exhibit featuring a full-size cockpit of a FedEx plane and a package conveyor belt. The CMOM also wows children with its H2Oh! Splash Park with 40 sprayers and its 1909 Grand Carousel. Additional opportunities for hands-on play can be found at the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge and the Hands On! Discovery Center at Gray Fossil Site.
Get 360-degree views of the Great Smoky Mountains at Anakeesta, a whimsical park located in and above the heart of downtown Gatlinburg. Guests can access the park by riding the scenic Chondola aerial lift or the Ridge Rambler adventure vehicle to explore its collection of magical, themed villages. At Firefly Village, ride the Rail Runner mountain coaster or get an adrenaline rush on the Dueling Zipline Adventure. Listen to live music or gather around the fire pit in Black Bear Village. At Vista Gardens, walk meandering trails past cascading waterfalls and play in the TreeVenture Challenge course. Climb AnaVista Tower for panoramic views from Gatlinburg’s highest point, and stroll along 16 swinging, hanging bridges that make up the attraction’s signature Treetop Skywalk. While there, savor a bite to eat at one of eight themed eateries serving everything from pie and funnel cake to steak and barbecue.
The secret’s out: Tripadvisor and USA Today both recently ranked Dollywood as one of the world’s best theme parks, and it’s easy to see why. Dollywood has a knack for winning over guests young and old with its world-renowned live entertainment, skilled artisans, Southern-style cuisine and more than 60 delightful rides and attractions. The Pigeon Forge theme park’s newest addition, Wildwood Grove, captivates guests of all ages with new rides and restaurants and the colorful Wildwood Tree, adorned with dancing butterflies that light up at dusk. Splash in the cool mountain waters of Wildwood Creek and discover the secret play area called Hidden Hollow. Dollywood’s highly anticipated Flower & Food Festival returns this spring, and Dollywood’s Harvest Festival will again light up the night with thousands of glowing pumpkins in the fall. During the holidays, make cherished family memories at Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas. When you book a stay at Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa or Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Cabins, you can make the genuine experience of Dollywood last for your entire vacation.
Union City welcomes travelers from around the world with its extraordinary Discovery Park of America, a 100,000-square-foot museum and 50-acre outdoor heritage park. The museum has a two-story slide and interactive exhibits on dinosaurs, Native Americans, the military, science, space, technology, transportation, agriculture, trains and much more. Older kids and teens especially love the Earthquake Simulator and Starship Theater experiences. Outdoors, explore the park’s mid-19th century frontier settlement, and let the kids climb, slide and ride the mini zip line in the interactive Children’s Discovery Garden.
Chattanooga’s famed Rock City celebrates 90 years as a mountaintop attraction, having first opened to the public in 1932. Perched atop Lookout Mountain, Rock City beckons visitors to “create memories worth repeating” by exploring its walking trail and gardens surrounded by geological and botanical wonders, including a 90-foot waterfall. See seven states from Lover’s Leap and cross the 180-foot-long suspension bridge for unparalleled views of the Chattanooga Valley. Deep inside Lookout Mountain, visit the underground cascading waters known as Ruby Falls, the tallest and deepest underground waterfall open to the public in the United States. Ruby Falls was discovered by accident in 1928 by chemist Leo Lambert, who named it after his wife, Ruby.
Have an Elvis fan or a wannabe musician in your group? At Graceland in Memphis, you can walk through Elvis Presley’s mansion, see his cars and custom jets, and explore the gardens on his more than 13-acre estate. Head across the street to explore Elvis Presley’s Memphis, a full city block of Elvis-themed museums, exhibits, shops and restaurants.
Ride America’s tallest freestanding elevator to the top of the iconic Memphis Pyramid and take in 360-degree views from the outdoor observation deck. Owned by Bass Pro Shops, the Pyramid invites you to shop, dine, view Tennessee wildlife and stay at the Big Cypress Lodge with rustic treehouse-style cabins.
Children’s Museum of Memphis
Take the kids to the award-winning Children’s Museum of Memphis for memorable learning experiences through hands-on exhibits. Be sure to ride the 1909 fully restored Grand Carousel.
From apple picking to corn mazes, area farms offer another great way to spend time together: Check out Baker Mountain Farm, Falcon Ridge Farm, Gentry Farm among others for a day on Tennessee's farms.
Family-Friendly Holiday Events in Tennessee
One of East Tennessee’s most beloved holiday events is the annual Sevierville Christmas Parade, and this year marks the 60th anniversary of the festive procession. It includes marching bands, fire trucks, and colorful floats decorated by local businesses and organizations, with Santa Claus bringing up the rear in his sleigh. Other holiday parades that spread Christmas cheer include Paris’ Holly Jolly Electric Christmas Parade, the Leiper’s Fork Christmas Parade and the Nashville Christmas Parade, a holiday tradition since 1927.