Activity Memberships in Chattanooga


Whether you’ve lived in Chattanooga your whole life or just moved here, you’re probably aware that this city offers a surprising number of family-friendly activities. The Big Three, as I call them, are the Chattanooga Zoo, the Creative Discovery Museum, and the Tennessee Aquarium. Known far and wide as among the best in children’s venues, these Chattanooga staples offer plenty of perks for families of any size.

But buying a membership can seem like a pricey investment. Will you really go that much? And do you need a membership to all three?

The answers to those questions depend on your interests and budget, but for me, I find memberships to all three to be useful and cost-effective. Here’s a highlight reel of the benefits and some things to keep in mind while you’re making that pros-and-cons list.

Chattanooga Zoo

My husband and I love zoos. We bought a membership to the Chattanooga Zoo pretty early into our marriage, and it’s served us well over the years. I haven’t met a kid yet who doesn’t like animals. Ours isn’t as interested in walking around and seeing them on display – he’d rather watch them on TV, which means we’re nailing this parenting thing – but since he’s unlikely to see most of these animals in real life, we keep taking him. My favorite exhibit here? It’s a tie between the red pandas and the meerkats. My kid’s? The Dippin’ Dots stand (again, nailing it).

Highlights: With a membership to Chattanooga Zoo, you get unlimited visits for the year, and they’re open every day of the year except for Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. The best times to go are weekdays in the fall (for the weather and crowd level). Parking is free, and there’s an onsite cafe, plus snack carts, to assuage your hangry toddler. Plus, kids 2 and under are free, which means you could buy an individual pass as a family of three if your kiddo is younger (it’s what we did until Arthur turned three). Bonus: Membership to the Chattanooga Zoo gets you reciprocal benefits (half off or free admission) to many other zoos nationwide. There’s a list available online.

Things to keep in mind: Chattanooga Zoo isn’t big. It’s certainly bigger than it used to be, and it’s been revamped over the years to include more exhibits (and more interesting animals). But for older kids, the novelty could wear off quickly, unless you’ve got a zoologist in the making. It’s the perfect-sized zoo for little legs.


Individual: $52.75

Covers 1 adult and 1 guest

Family or Grandparents: $79.15

The Family pass covers 2 listed adults and all children 18 and under in the same household; the Grandparents pass covers 2 listed adults and all listed grandchildren 18 and under.

Family Deluxe or Grandparents Deluxe: $165.85

Deluxe passes cover everything that the standard pass does, plus 6 one-time guest passes and 4 free (one-time) “Zoo Tour” upgrade passes.

Add-ons: To any plan, you can add an additional named guest for $30 or an unnamed guest for $35.

The capybara at the Chattanooga Zoo (a real-life ROUS!).
Cats are cats, no matter the size (jaguar at the Chattanooga Zoo).
Arthur and my mom at the Knoxville Zoo.
Arthur watching a tiger take a dip at the Knoxville Zoo.

Creative Discovery Museum

I have to admit that I wasn’t always a fan of the Creative Discovery Museum, which has been a staple of vacationing families for decades. But it’s become Arthur’s favorite place to play – he asks to go every week – and with a membership, regular visits are a low-cost way to spend a couple hours. I’ve come to appreciate the sheer volume of things that kids can do here, from making art to exploring electrical engineering (on a basic level). There’s actually something for everyone, which isn’t always the case for family-friendly venues.

Highlights: Unlimited trips to the museum for 12 months, which is open every day of the week for most days of the year. If you want to check out the museum without committing to a membership, the CDM hosts free nights each month, one of which is tailored to families with sensory needs. A membership here pays for itself in just a handful of visits, and there’s an onsite cafe as well. There’s also a traveling exhibit several times a year, hosted on the upper floor of the museum. My favorite recent one has been the Daniel Tiger exhibit. Bonus: If you visit the museum and decide you want to buy a membership, you can apply the cost of that visit to the membership and just pay the difference (which is what we did when we took Arthur for his second birthday).

Things to keep in mind: While the CDM is only closed on three major holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day), it also has a varying schedule of closures and changing hours depending on season. From September through February, for example, it’s closed on Wednesdays. Also, parking isn’t free. There’s street parking nearby, or you could park in the paid lot behind the museum for $5. I also recommend waiting on a membership until your child starts playing independently. We bought a membership when Arthur was a bit too young, but now that he’s 3.5, he loves everything about it. The sweet spot for the CDM is probably ages 3 to 10.


My Child & Me: $85

Covers 1 adult and 1 child in the same household

Family: $125

Covers 2 adults in the same household and up to 4 children (who don’t have to be in the same household); if you have more than 4 children, just let the museum know when you apply.

Grandparents: $125

Covers 2 adults in the same household and all grandchildren under age 18.

Add-ons: To any plan, you can add an additional unnamed guest for just $25.

Sand pit at the CDM (Arthur likes making “sand angels”).
Engineer in the making.
One of his favorite sections at the CDM (and one of mine).
You can imagine how delighted a three-year-old is by the trippy colors and his weird reflection in this room.

The Tennessee Aquarium

In my younger days, I wasn’t a big fan of the Tennessee Aquarium, which only had one building at the time. A spiral path of fish tank after fish tank made me woozy (thanks, inner ear issues). But that spiraling path doesn’t bother me much these days, and I enjoy the more diverse offerings in the Ocean Journey building, which was added in 2005. My in-laws bought us a family membership when our kiddo turned two and renewed it for us last fall. Arthur’s favorite parts of the aquarium include the pressed-coin machine and the undersea cavern replica. He’s also getting braver these days: Last time we went, he touched a stingray in the touch tank and only kind of recoiled.

Highlights: The aquarium is huge, comprising two buildings with different themes: ocean and river. I personally prefer the ocean side (the octopuses are my favorite), but you might appreciate the more relaxed approach of River Journey. There’s tons to see here, and there’s a daily schedule of educational talks and activities posted on the aquarium’s website. Arthur and I like it when the divers are out.

Things to keep in mind: There are two buildings, which makes it a tiring trek for younger kids. I usually do just one building per visit because I ditched a stroller months ago. The aquarium is also a hotbed of fieldtrip activity, so be prepared for some heavy crowds – especially in the spring and especially on Fridays. And there’s no free parking, though you can usually snag a nearby meter. There’s also a paid aquarium lot, which runs about $10.


Individual Plus: $120

Covers 1 adult and 1 unnamed guest of any age

Family: $175

Covers 2 adults and up to 5 of your children (or grandchildren) ages 18 and under

Deluxe: $300

Same as Family (with guest add-on), plus unlimited IMAX admission

Curator: $500

Same as Deluxe, plus exclusive events and the option to join an annual Backstage Tour

Add-ons: For an extra $50, you can add an unnamed guest to individual and family memberships.

{Limited Time-Seasonal Only} The Summer Family Pass $99

This is sold at Food City locations in Chattanooga, Cleveland and Dalton. The Summer Family Pass allows unlimited TN Aquarium visits from the date of purchase in May through Labor Day.

Stingray touch tank at the aquarium.
One of Arthur’s favorite aquarium spots: the rocking chairs overlooking the river.
Snack break at the aquarium (it’s always snack time when you’re three).
This nook in the undersea cavern at the aquarium is one of Arthur’s favorite spots.


Example: Family of four (two adults, two kids ages 3+)

Chattanooga Zoo

Creative Discovery Museum

Tennessee Aquarium

Cost for a standard family membership (annual as of 2019)




Cost of a single visit




How many visits until you make up the cost


Not even 2

Not even 2

In just two visits, you’ve made up the cost of these memberships. The real benefit, though, is having yet another tool in your arsenal of kid-friendly activities. I take Arthur to one of these places every week, usually the CDM or the aquarium since they’re inside. Once the weather gets consistently nice, we’ll add the zoo back into the rotation.

Are these places right for you? Cost-wise, memberships are an absolute bargain that pay for themselves almost immediately. You’ll just have to decide whether your family’s interests align with what’s on tap. And one final thought: Memberships make great gifts. Just sayin’, grandma and grandpa.


  1. I also recommend the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum. The one- hour Missionary Ride Local train ride is free until age 2, and when my son turned two I realized if I got my son and I each a membership it would pay for itself in about two trips. He is train obsessed so we go at least once a month (we skip the turnaround demo and hang out in the depot or on the train).

  2. The city needs to work with “the big three” and sell a combo membership. They could do something similar for tourists, like a city pass that covers single visits to several popular attractions.

  3. I enjoyed reading your article Jennifer. (And, I must say that Arthur’s shark shirt rocks!)
    I wanted to remind your readers that another option for the TN Aquarium is the Food City Summer Family Pass. This is sold at Food City locations in Chattanooga, Cleveland and Dalton. The Summer Family Pass allows unlimited TN Aquarium visits from the date of purchase in May through Labor Day. It’s good for two named adults and up to five children:

Comments are closed.