Theme Park of the Day: Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom

Pandemic Adventures through the Southeast Volume 2: Atlanta Area Attractions and Baseball

Edited: July 21, 2021, 9:47 AM

As I noted at the conclusion of the first installment of Pandemic Adventures, we had initially planned additional time at Six Flags Over Georgia during the rest of our stay in the Atlanta region. However, since we had such a good day at the park on Wednesday, and rode all of the unique attractions multiple times, we didn’t feel the need to return to the park. We had considered going back to the park on Saturday night to see the 4th of July Weekend fireworks, but the prospect of a long walk from the back of the parking lot to the gate and wading through dense weekend crowds to find a decent viewing spot just wasn’t appealing.

While there are no other major theme parks in the Atlanta area, there are plenty of other themed attractions and points of interest in the region. However, due to the pandemic, a number of them were still closed when we were in the process of planning our trip in the spring (a few are now open while many are still closed) including the CNN Studio Tour, Mercedes Benz Stadium Tours, and The King Center. My wife and I had visited some of these attractions in previous trips to Atlanta, but we were a little disappointed that we wouldn’t have a chance to share those experiences with our son, particularly The King Center. Nonetheless, a number of major attractions were open with many returning to pre-pandemic-style operations just before we arrived.

As in most major cities around the world, Atlanta has a CityPass product that grants admission to multiple attractions in the area for a single price. The cost and value of different CityPasses around the world vary from city to city, but most allow you to save 25-30% on admissions if you make sure to visit the most expensive attractions available. In Atlanta, the two most expensive CityPass attractions are Zoo Atlanta and the Georgia Aquarium. Visiting those 2 attractions alone with the CityPass would match the cost of buying each admission separately, so visiting any additional CityPass attractions would essentially be free and represent the value in buying the CityPass. While none of the attractions we visited as part of the CityPass would be categorized as theme parks, many are created, developed, or partially engineered by people within the themed attraction industry and have some resemblance to the displays, attractions, and/or rides you might find at a major theme park.

Flora and fauna have become an intricate part of modern theme parks, and it’s rare to walk into any theme park in the country and not see some local plants and/or an animal show/display. Zoo Atlanta located just east of the downtown core is a moderately sized facility that offers a solid half-days’ worth of exhibits and displays. Nestled in a mostly wooded area, the walkways and exhibit areas offer plentiful shade on a hot and humid day that's common in Atlanta during the summer. The newest portion of the zoo features a huge elephant habitat and care facility, which follows a trend nationwide of zoos expanding and renovating their pachyderm facilities to meet the demand of former circus elephants needing to find homes after the demise of their traveling exhibitions.

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Zoo Atlanta also features a large gorilla exhibition space that is on par with other major zoos as well as habitats found at Busch Gardens Tampa and Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

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The zoo also has a family of giant pandas, which are becoming a rare sight in American zoos as China has recalled many of the animals the country had loaned to the States over the past 10-20 years. Currently, only 3 zoos in the US have giant pandas, The National Zoo in Washington, DC, Memphis Zoo, and Zoo Atlanta.

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As with most zoos, there is a mix of newer exhibits that have either been built or renovated recently alongside older exhibits that look and feel antiquated. However, Zoo Atlanta has an excellent mix of animals you would expect to find at a major zoo as well as a number of animals you may have never seen before. On trend with other zoos around the country, there are numerous small carnival-style rides to entertain the little ones. Zoo Atlanta also has a pretty large zipline/ropes course for the more adventurous ones that is reasonably priced ($16/half hour). After dragging our son around animal exhibits for a couple of hours, 30 minutes of ziplining and belaying across obstacles was the perfect remedy for his fear that our vacation was becoming too educational.

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If you plan on visiting Zoo Atlanta, expect to reach the facility by car as the only public transit is a bus route that operates on 30-minute intervals. Also, while the zoo has a parking lot with metered spaces at the entrance to the facility, ample free street parking is nearby and necessitates no more than 100 yards extra of walking. Zoo Atlanta also offers a number of behind the scenes programs and animal interactions that cost extra along with a schedule of keeper talks throughout the day that could provide a full-day of activities, though most guests can probably expect to spend 2-4 hours to see a majority of what the zoo has to offer. Zoo Atlanta might not be the biggest or best zoo in the country, especially as major metropolitan area zoos go, but it’s certainly worth a few hours on a multi-day trip to the region.

After spending the morning and early afternoon at Zoo Atlanta, we had worked up an appetite. If you have never been to Atlanta before, the iconic must-see restaurant on anyone’s list should be The Varsity.

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The original location, along the I-75/85 corridor across the highway from Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium, is straight out of a postcard and serves up a very standardized menu of burgers and hot dogs. I recall visiting The Varsity for the first time in 1993 as a member of the University of Maryland Marching Band following our morning rehearsal and before a football game between the Terrapins and Yellow Jackets later in the day. It was my first college away trip, and my meal from The Varsity and the insane pre-game crowds that flooded the restaurant still stick with me to this day. On this occasion, the restaurant was still very crowded, but not quite as insane as that pre-game environment (maybe because of COVID, maybe because there wasn’t a college football game being played steps away). This is one of those places you would expect to see on “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives” (and indeed it has appeared on Guy Fieri’s iconic Food Network show) that operates with military precision to serve thousands of guests each day. There are probably better hamburgers, hot dogs, and fries elsewhere in Atlanta, but none that can boast the moniker of World’s Largest Drive-in restaurant (though it rarely operates as a drive-in anymore).

After our nostalgic and filling lunch, it was time for us to make our way back to the hotel to get ready for our first baseball game of the trip. We planned to see 2 games at Truist Park while in Atlanta, so I’ll save the details about the Battery and the ballpark until the end. Friday was reserved for downtown attractions around Centennial Olympic Park included in our CityPass. This area of downtown Atlanta was carved out for the 1996 Olympic Games to serve as a central location for medal ceremonies, festivals, and concerts, but now is a public park surrounded by mostly tourist attractions. We had hoped to have some time to walk around the massive park, but due to attraction hours and weather, we ended up just exploring three of the attraction in the area and skipped the actual park.

The College Football Hall of Fame is a newer museum, opening in 2014, and celebrates all things college football. Like many other sports halls of fame, it contains exhibits, displays, and artifacts from the history of the sport.

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Since it is a newer museum, it also incorporates technology using RFID chips in access passes given to each visitor along with readers built into some of the exhibits and throughout the museum to make it more personalized for guests.

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For us that meant variable displays showed photos, videos, and information pertaining to the University of Maryland. Also, many of interactive exhibits and activities are also linked to the RFID chip inside your access pass to save photos, videos, and experiences, but it appeared that not all of the systems were working correctly. Perhaps this was due to the museum being closed for much of the past year or because of understaffing experienced by many tourist attractions across the country due to the pandemic. However, it was a bit disappointing to see a museum that is not that old to be experiencing so many technical issues, particularly since a number of the displays relied on technology. The museum concludes with a chance for visitors to kick, pass, and catch on an indoor field followed by the obligatory exit through the gift shop.

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Hard core college football fans could probably spend 3-4 hours here, but even those not that interested in college football could easily spend @2 hours wandering this museum.

After lunch at a nearby local coal fired pizza place, we made our way over to The World of Coca-Cola.

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This is corporate brainwashing at its best with endless exhibits, promotional antiquities, a 4-D movie (though the 4th dimension appeared to be disabled perhaps for pandemic reasons), and everything Coke.

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The end of the experience is virtually identical to the one guests used to get inside Club Cool at EPCOT with endless samples of Coke-made beverages from around the world. The tasting room here also has standard Freestyle machines where guests can sample more recognizable drinks or create their own using the familiar touch screen interface. I found it odd that the lines for the Freestyle machines were significantly longer than the foreign beverage fountains. I checked with the staff to see if the Freestyle machines were any different than the ones you can find in a restaurant or theme park, and was told that they didn’t contain any foreign bases or flavors. I’m not sure if visitors have never seen a Freestyle machine before or just aren’t interested in seeing what people from around the world drink, but I bellied up to the surprisingly vacant Beverly fountain and dispensed numerous doses of the elixir to satisfy my craving until we get a chance to revisit Club Cool again in a year or 2. Because of the popularity and layout of the World of Coca-Cola, the experience takes at least 60-90 minutes, but I couldn’t see spending more than 2.5 hours being bombarded with endless corporate propaganda.

After coming to the epiphany that Coca-Cola is the greatest liquid on the planet, we made our way to the Georgia Aquarium, which shockingly did not have tanks filled with Atlanta’s most iconic beverage. When we were making the final arrangements for our trip, we noticed that the aquarium required timed entry reservations and grabbed the earliest time available on the day we were planning to be downtown, which was for 4 PM. However, it appeared that the aquarium was doing little to actually control entries into the aquarium, and there were clearly no capacity restrictions for the facility. Because of this, we were caught off guard by the intense crowds throughout the aquarium as well as the inability to reserve tickets for any of the shows or special presentations for the day. Tickets for all of the shows and limited capacity presentations are first come first serve and had been claimed by guests entering the aquarium before our reservation time, meaning that it was impossible for us to see anything beyond the standard exhibits - No dolphin show, no sea lion show, and no 4-D theater. It really bothered me that they made it seem like you had to enter at a specific time (implying limited capacity), but those forced to enter later in the day were not able to take advantage of the special presentations that are included in the cost of admission. Because of this, it essentially means that guests who reserve entry times later in the day are being given a lesser experience by not having access to these special programs – it would be like Disney forcing guests to enter DHS at 2 PM, after all RotR Boarding Groups have been claimed. Also, based on the crowd to staff ratio, it was pretty clear that they had rapidly increased capacity without fully considering the ramifications of those increases or modifying staffing to handle the intense crowds. I could only imagine what the aquarium looked like on a Saturday instead of the Friday afternoon when we visited.

While I was pretty upset at not getting to see any of the special presentations, we still enjoyed our tour through one of the largest aquariums in the world. We’ve been to a number of aquariums around the country as well as all three American Sea World parks, and the Georgia Aquarium is on par with the best like the National Aquarium in Baltimore and the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. The highlight of the Georgia Aquarium is the massive Ocean Voyager exhibit containing giant Manta Rays, Whale Sharks, and thousands of other marine animals.

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There are plenty of other great exhibits and habitats throughout the aquarium, but the Ocean Voyager is true a showstopper.

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At 6.3 million gallons, it is the largest indoor ocean habitat in the world – for comparison Sea Base Alpha at The Living Seas in EPCOT is 5.7 million gallons.

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We spent well over 2 hours exploring all of the exhibits, but we probably could have spent close to 4 hours here if we were able to see all of the special presentations.

Since we decided not to return to SFoG on Saturday, we essentially had a free day, and spent much of the morning at Main Event, which is an entertainment complex located near our hotel. For early birds, you can purchase a discounted all-day pass that gives you all the bowling, pool, shuffleboard, laser tag, and ropes course you can handle. Even with the steep discount, the complex was virtually empty, meaning that we had ample distance and no lines or waits for the games we wanted to play. We played for the entire morning and into the early afternoon before venturing back downtown to the Fernbank Natural History Museum.

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Admission to this museum is covered by the CityPass, so it was an easy choice for us to visit. However, I found the museum to be rather underwhelming when compared to other major natural history museums around the country, particularly the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. There are a couple of nice rotating exhibit spaces, a lovely outdoor walking trail, and a thorough, though antiquated, exhibit on the geologic history of Georgia. However, when the collection of rocks, minerals, and fossils in the gift shop is better than what is on display in the museum, this particular professional geologist isn’t going to be very impressed.

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If you’re not using the CityPass, I probably wouldn’t recommend visiting this museum, but I didn’t think the 2 hours we spent at the Fernbank was wasted.

For those who didn’t know, the Atlanta region has become a very popular area for filming movies and TV shows, including a number of Marvel movies. There are dozens of websites that provide details and directions to iconic filming locations in the area, and we took a brief detour to visit a location used in Stranger Things. Little did we know that the production was actually in the area and had filmed the day before and was scheduled to film the day after we drove by the location, meaning we could walk around an active set to get a taste of Hollywood in suburban Atlanta.

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Our final day in the Atlanta region was the 4th of July at Truist Park to see the Marlins battle the Braves. This was our second baseball game on this trip after seeing the Mets against the Braves on Thursday night (for baseball fans, a deGrom 14-strikeout performance with a Freddie Freeman walk-off). Truist Park (formerly Sun Trust Park) is the second newest stadium in MLB (after Globe Life Field in Arlington, TX that opened last year), but is contrary to the recent trend of ballparks being built in downtown areas with the cityscape as the outfield backdrop.

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Truist Park is located @20-30 minutes from downtown, and is not easily accessible by public transit (buses run from the nearest MARTA subway station @15 minute away).
Parking in the area is difficult and expensive on game day, but fortunately, our hotel was a 15-minute walk from the stadium and the surrounding entertainment district called The Battery. The Battery is like other entertainment districts around the country with a movie theater, bars, shops, restaurants, concert venue, The VOID, and even escape rooms. It’s essentially like Disney Springs/Downtown Disney or City Walk, but turns into a giant outdoor baseball festival when the Braves are in town.

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While both games we attended included stadium giveaways, I was still shocked by how early fans congregated in The Battery long before the ballpark gates opened (even on a Sunday morning).

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Inside, Truist Park has the typical features you expect to find from ballparks built over the past 20 years with open concourses, unobstructed sightlines, historical team displays, and plentiful options for food including the Gigante Burrito, a family-filling 2-foot long Mexican feast.

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The ballpark also features a prominent kid’s area along the left field concourse with a zipline, climbing wall, and carnival-style games.

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We were surprised by the size and popularity of the kid’s area on Thursday night, especially since they were charging for all of the attraction, but little did we know that on Sundays all of the attractions are free, so there was no way we were going to pass up ziplining in a ballpark despite a 30-minute wait. After an extremely long baseball game (over 4 hours ending on a walk-off pinch hit by a Braves starting pitcher) and a run around the bases, it was time to end our stay in Atlanta.

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Next up – Dollywood

Replies (5)

July 20, 2021, 6:40 PM

I absolutely love these trip reports. Thanks Russell!

FWIW, to everyone else reading, here's a link to get that Atlanta CityPass that Russell mentioned. It's $83.77 per adult and $83.77 for kids, plus a $2 service charge at checkout.

July 21, 2021, 11:37 AM

With the Bears recently announcing a bid to purchase Arlington Park it makes me wonder if they have the same idea as the Braves where they basically become real estate developers in addition to a pro sports team, owning all of that property around the stadium and leasing it out for an entertainment village around their stadium. Right now like many other teams they are paying rent to the city for use of Soldier Field.

Personally i'm not a big fan of this I prefer the downtown stadiums over suburbia, but ultimately these teams are going to do what increases their team value the most so it doesn't surprise me. IMO Atlanta took a big L with the Braves moving out, not only is that downtown lame to begin with but now they are stuck with a big empty stadium with no tenant that anyone cares about. Georgia Tech plays on their own campus just 10 minutes away and Georgia State games are depressing with all of those empty seats.

July 21, 2021, 12:34 PM

It is quite a conundrum with trends in stadiums the_man. I agree that team owners should be able to do whatever they want to increase the value of their franchises (within the limits of the law, of course). If that means leveraging the property around their stadiums to develop entertainment or business districts, so be it. However, the public should also have a say in the matter, particularly if public financing and/or tax incentives are used to build and develop the stadium district (or entice development in one area over another). I don't know the full story of why the Braves ended up so far outside the city, but I think history has shown that baseball stadiums, particularly those of mid-market teams, perform best in downtown districts with adequate public transit. Turner field was essentially foisted upon the Braves after the Olympics to repurpose what was the Olympic Stadium (demolishing Fulton County Stadium was always part of the Master Plan), but the modifications during the conversion (and a second renovation in the 00's) made it a pretty decent, though a bit cavernous, ballpark (the fences were moved in twice that I know of). Plus, Turner Field had a decent amount of surface parking in the area (as well as by the nearby Georgia Dome and Phillips Arena) along with a MARTA station <10 minutes away by foot.

Having a brand new stadium deliberately located so far from a MARTA station is short-sighted from a urban planning and community standpoint, and ignores the civic responsibility expected from millionaire/billionaire team owners. Yes, these owners have the right to grow and profit from their businesses, but doing so should be done in a responsible way that does not divide or damage the greater community.

The crowds we witnessed gathering in The Battery over an hour before the ballpark gates opened seemed to suggest a willingness at least from baseball fans to tolerate the remoteness of Truist Park, but what will the scene look like in 15-20 years when people are snarled in even more severely gridlocked traffic with no other convenient way to reach the ballpark? Will the city bow to the development around the ballpark and invest in more public transit that should have been paid for by the developers, or will property/team owners step up to invest in infrastructure that should have been built BEFORE plopping a ballpark district 15 miles outside of the city?

July 21, 2021, 2:12 PM

You hit the nail on the head, Atlanta is the poster child of bad urban planning and has the worst of all of the side effects like insane traffic, obseity, wealth inequality, etc. The traffic I think is one of the main reasons the Braves wanted to move, they figured a lot of people weren't going to their games because getting to downtown Atlanta around rush hour was impossible for a Braves game so they went to a wealthier part of town. The sad thing is the vote to expand MARTA further out has come up many times over several decades but it would always get voted no because the suburbanites didn't see the value in paying for it, leading to its unfortunate nickname (Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta), it generally is believed they didn't want black people coming into the suburbs. It hasn't been until very recently that expanding public transport has been taken seriously.

July 21, 2021, 2:27 PM

While I have family in Atlanta, only visited twice, in 1992 and '95. Did the Coke Museum and MLK museum but not much else (aside from a stop at Mall of Georgia) but struck me a fun place to visit, not sure of living there full time.

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