Newport Aquarium in Kentucky

I dragged a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old out of bed early for a trip to the Newport Aquarium, just south of Cincinnati. All I could hope was it would be a different enough experience from our own wonderful Columbus Zoo's aquarium to justify the hour-and-a-half drive (and endless games of 20 Questions). I need not have worried.

We were there for more than four hours, and our boys could have easily spent more time taking in the sights. It's not a cheap outing: Admission is $22 for adults and $15 for kids. But the variety of exhibits and the opportunity to closely study marine life makes it worthwhile.

The boys loved the two touch pools where visitors can pet crabs, sea stars and sharks, and peppered the friendly, young volunteers with questions about the creatures. (Consider packing an extra shirt if you think you might have an obsessive shark-petter in your family. The ledge around the tank gets pretty wet.)

We also spent lots of time in the Bizarre and Beautiful Gallery ogling the giant Pacific octopus, the Japanese spider crabs and the spotted garden eels.

The kids enjoyed winding through the aquarium, which is laid out so visitors follow a path from one room to the next. Many areas are connected by tunnels through tanks of sea life. Visitors routinely pause in the tunnels to watch animals swim overhead and alongside.

About midway through the exhibits lies Frog Bog, a perfect place for kids to let some energy out. In addition to more than 20 species of frogs, the area includes a play set with tubes, slides and a supersized Frogger video game, where kids stomp on pads to make the animated frogs jump. My only criticism was the play set is almost completely enclosed and there's no way to see your kids while they play.

Another downside: The aquarium's layout makes it difficult to leave the facility for a meal or snack. In order to exit you have to walk through most of the exhibits.

The cafeteria is located close to the end of the attraction, which also makes breaking for lunch challenging. The cafeteria serves up typical kid fare - pizza, soft pretzels and hot dogs. Kid's meals cost $4.75. A taco salad was $6.

We followed the suggestion of someone who had previously visited and left the aquarium to dine on burgers and fries at Johnny Rockets on the levee (the kids liked the atmosphere and the free balloons, and the four of us ate for $40).

We returned for more shark petting and the last two exhibits at the aquarium, which were exceptional. Whole families spent many minutes sitting together watching the penguins waddle and dive. And a final look at the shark tank made a cool last impression.