Kids and animals go together like, well, this Jersey Girl and the beach. So when my family took our recent weekend getaway trip to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, we knew that we’d have to include seeing animals on our agenda. Luckily, planning some unique animal encounters in that area was easy to do, thanks to our proximity to two very different, unique Myrtle Beach venues – Alligator Adventure and Ripley’s Aquarium.

Sunrise on the Swampland

Myrtle Beach animal

First animal encounter of the day – Libby pets a tortoise at Alligator Adventure. Photo by Mary Lebeau, East Coast TMOM

After filling up on breakfast at one of the many pancake houses that line Highway 17, we headed north towards our first stop – Alligator Adventure at Barefoot Landing.

Billed as “The Reptile Capital of the World,” Alligator Adventure didn’t disappoint – and we’re veterans of the infamous Gatorland Park in Orlando. But while that park seemed a bit sad – the gators jumping so high for chicken, it made you wonder if they were ever fed without an audience – Alligator Adventure offered an impressive array of clean, well-maintained habitats housing an array of alligators, crocodiles, lizards and TMOM Travel Disclosuresnakes – all of which seemed well-fed, cared for and happy.

Oh, and don’t let the name fool you. Although Alligator Adventure did boast more than its share of local and exotic gators, other animals were on display there as well. Amphibians such as colorful tree frogs, birds such as the exotic emu, and an assortment of mammals including squirrel monkeys, kangaroos and warthogs all make their home at this “Reptile Capital.”

We had just missed the first feeding (I guess the gators were eating breakfast the same time we were), so we decided to explore a little before catching the next show. Our first stop was at the giant tortoise exhibit, where the girls petted and posed with the sweet, ancient looking creatures. (I think hanging with tortoises – which can live upwards of 150 years – makes me feel young!)

Myrtle Beach animal

Gators of all kinds – even albinos – make their home at Alligator Adventure. Photo by Mary Lebeau, East Coast TMOM

Next stop was at the enclosed swamp area that was home to Utan, proclaimed the “King of the Crocs.” Utan at 51 was a little younger than the tortoises, but he topped them in every other way. In fact, weighing in at just about 2000 pounds, Utan is believed to be the largest crocodile on display in the country. And, unlike the crocs we’ve seen at the Philly Zoo (which don’t even blink, even during the on-the-half-hour simulated rain storms), Utan is lively in his murky swamp. He swims laps in his pool and pulls his massive body out onto the grass, head poised to snap at the whole chickens that look like “chicken nuggets” in comparison.

Speaking of lunch, visitors to Alligator Adventure should not miss the alligator feeding, which occurs several times a day. The gators propel themselves out of the water and snap their jaws around the food carefully offered by the trainers. The park also offers shows on snake handling and, in the cooler months when there aren’t as many feedings, alligator handling. (But seriously, would you want to handle one after seeing the way they eat?)

Finding Nemo in Myrtle Beach

The next stop in our minivan safari was the lagoons, tidewaters and murky depths of Ripley’s Aquarium Myrtle Beach. Believe it or not, this is part of the national Ripley’s chain (see what I did there?) that includes museums across the country (including the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not near home, on the Atlantic City boardwalk).

In Myrtle Beach, Ripley’s seems to have an entertainment monopoly, owning five unique and popular attractions in the city. Besides the Aquarium, there’s also a 5D Moving Theater, Ripley’s Haunted Adventure, the Marvelous Mirror Maze and, of course, the trademark Believe It or Not! Odditorium.

Myrtle Beach animal

You can meet a mermaid (and even dress up like one) at Ripley’s Aquarium Myrtle Beach. Photo by Mary Lebeau, East Coast TravelingMom

But the girls wanted the aquarium. Although Libby was in search of starfish and seahorses, her friend Kaley had her heart set on just one encounter. “I want to meet a mermaid!” she announced, claiming to have hoarded all her souvenir money for just that experience.

Then, as we entered the Aquarium, she changed her mind…a little. “I want to be a mermaid!” she informed us.

Okay, for you fans of the Bibbidi Boo Boutique, enchanted princess teas and other such girl-fantasy experiences, Ripley’s Aquarium offers just that – the opportunity to become a mermaid at the Fancy Fins Mermaid Boutique.

OK, maybe it’s not permanent. Instead, girls can dress in bikini tops and iridescent fins for a photo shoot with “under the sea” backgrounds. Still, for $29.99, a girl will walk away with shimmering makeup, a hairstyle of her choice, a beauty bag and a mermaid T-shirt. (Photo packages were extra.) Upon hearing that she wouldn’t actually get to keep the fin, Kaley opted out of the whole experience and spent some of her souvenir money on a selfie stick instead.

The girls, though a bit older than the targeted audience, did play along at the mermaid meet and greet. They posed at the edge of the water as a woman donning a fin pulled herself up and smiled for the camera.

Though the mermaid experience wasn’t a splash with the tweens, we did enjoy the rest of the aquarium (you know, the part with real fish). Our family favorite was the underwater tunnel through the dangerous deep, where sharks of various types swam over and alongside us. We found Nemo, Marlon and other colorful clownfish darting among the anemones at the Rainbow Rock exhibit, a personal favorite of mine. And Libby was thrilled to spot seahorses among the oddities (like sea dragons and octopus) in the waters of the Living Gallery. We stopped to pet the sting ray (they feel like wet velvet!) before heading out.

Myrtle BeachNew since we left is the Slime exhibit, which features the creepier side of the sea. If you’re curious about mudpuppies, banana slugs, and the way male lobsters fight (by peeing on each other!), don’t miss this temporary exhibit.

If You Go

Alligator Adventure

Highway 17 at Barefoot Landing, North Myrtle Beach, SC

843-361-0789

Admission (as of 7/2015): Adults (13 & up) – 21.99; Senior Citizens 19.99; Military 18.99; Kids 4-12 16.99; Children under 3 free.

A current promotion offers a second day free if you visit within the same week.

Ripley’s Aquarium, Myrtle Beach SC

1100 Celebrity Circle, Myrtle Beach SC

1-800-734-8888

Ticket prices vary depending on how many Ripley’s attractions you want to attend. A stand-alone aquarium ticket costs 24.99 for adults and 16.99 for kids at the door, though you can get a $2/ticket discount by using the web site.