I was extremely skeptical of the Portland Aquarium.

The aquarium is out on the ragged edges of the city, past Milwaukie where the streets grow wide and lined with tire stores, in a former Black Angus steakhouse that two brothers purchased in June, promising an aquarium for Portland by December. The brothers, Ammon and Vince Covino, were fresh off opening an aquarium in Boise that faced massive delays and a board member charged with coral smuggling. On the grand opening day for members this week, the aquarium alerted its supporters via Facebook that a sudden emergency meant the aquarium would not actually open its doors until the late afternoon. Not a good start.

So it was with low expectations that I rolled into the parking lot of the Portland Aquarium this morning—and found it surprisingly delightful!

The aquarium opens to the general public tomorrow and make no mistake: This is not the Monterey Bay Aquarium or Boston's New England Aquarium. This is an aquarium built in six months in a former steak house. It has seven rooms of exhibits, two of which—the promised homes of its star attractions, otters and puffins—aren't done yet.

But the rooms that do exist are full of awesome fish, festooned with great nautical decorations, and, unlike those fancier aquariums, kids can touch pretty much everything. There is an iguana that loafs all day on a speedboat, a tortoise that hangs out in a corner, and an amazing giant tank full of tiny sharks and bat rays where you can reach in and feel their slimy bodies slide under your fingers. In one room, kids can buy seaweed and krill for $3 and hang it over a tropical fish tank where bright species will nibble it out of their tiny palms. In another, adults and kids can go inside an aviary and be covered tiny parakeets. The final room of the aquarium has a rack of animal costumes for children, resulting in an adorable menagerie of tiny sharks bumbling around on the floor. Along the way, there's two octopi, poisonous frogs, jellyfish and other wonders.

There is also the opportunity to purchase a horrifying octopus cake for any party occasion.

This is edible. Happy birthday!
  • This is edible. Happy birthday!

All in all, I think the Portland Aquarium will feel pretty podunk to anyone over the age of 10. But it will be a magical, educational dreamworld for small children. The aquarium is just the right size and level of interactivity for curious children who will get hungry after about an hour of poking iguanas, anyway.

The Portland Aquarium is located at 16323 S.E. McLoughlin Blvd, Milwaukie. Day tickets to the aquarium are $10.95 for adults and $4.95-8.95 for kids. Also, check out Alex Falcone's post from earlier today about fish facts!