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Chattanooga’s A Child Again

Megan Kopp - Click to Enlarge
by Megan Kopp

Giggles erupt into laughter at the waterpark next to the carousel in Coolidge Park; oohs become awe at first sight of the 4-storey high tanks in the world’s largest freshwater aquarium; and even adults are tempted to make a little music at the Children’s Discovery Centre. 

Click to Enlarge - Coolidge Park, on the south bank of the Coolidge Park, on the south bank of the Tennessee River, features a reconstructed antique carousel, protected from the elements for enduring pleasure, rain or shine." 
Photo by: M. Kopp

Chattanooga, Tennessee is taking a step back in time, but it’s not regression. From polluted patriarch to playful adolescent, this southern town is gleefully reaping the rewards of a second childhood.

click to enlarge - Visitors to the Tennessee Aquarium are Visitors to the Tennessee Aquarium are 
drawn deep into the natural environment in life-like displays."
Photo by: M. Kopp

During the 1960’s the Environmental Protection Agency called Chattanooga “the dirtiest city in America.” Industrial pollution was so bad that workers often took a change of clothes with them to get through the workday. Times have changed.

From a seat aboard one of the free electric shuttle buses that now cruise the city’s inner core, views of an industrial past are rapidly being transformed. Decrepit brick buildings are outnumbered by construction cranes and work crews scrambling to keep up with revitalization of this enterprising city of 153,000 people. 

At the heart of the change is the $45 million Tennessee Aquarium featuring more than 9,000 living creatures -- from alligators to birds to catfish. Since 1992, visitors have been awed by the 60-foot high central canyon where rivers of neon light give way to massive acrylic exhibit tanks, spiraling downwards to a parade of painted turtles. Four main galleries follow the Tennessee River and its inhabitants from an Appalachian Mountain birth to journey’s end in the Gulf of Mexico.  Another gallery is devoted to Rivers of the World. 

Discovery Hall Gallery is a changing exhibit space currently housing “Venom: Striking Beauties”, on show for two years. It’s a stunning visual exhibition of some of the world’s most venomous creatures... a sight not soon forgotten by anyone who twinges at the thought of a snake or a spider or a centipede. The displays are eerily life-like.  Listen up, the barking dog is warning you about the cottonmouth now coiled around the cabin’s front porch step. 

Gulping down fresh air just outside, a stroll across the 100-year-old Walnut Street Bridge brings pedestrians across the Tennessee River to Coolidge Park and a restored 1895 Gustav Denzel carousel. At the hands of Bud Ellis and his students of the Horsin’ Around Carousel Carving School, new figures were painstakingly re-created. Today 52 animals including leaping tigers, frolicking frogs, flying fish and dancing dinosaurs, as well as the prerequisite horses, revolve amidst squeals of delight. 

While kids, parents and grandparents swing ‘round to the melodies of days past, other family members watch from the comfort of rocking chairs lining the perimeter. A nearby climbing wall and inlaid hopscotch courts allow visitors to work up a sweat before cooling off in the sculpted water park. Warning: the lion tends to spout off and the camel does like to spit!

Click to enlarge - At the Creative Discovery Museum visitors At the Creative Discovery Museum visitors don't have to wait for the doors to open to have a little fun."
Photo by: M. Kopp

Back downtown, lineups are forming at the entrance to the Creative Discovery Museum. Full-fledged artist’s and musician’s studio await the budding creators. Play a tune on a plastic pipe instrument or stamp your heart out, the options are varied. Those of a more logical mind enjoy uncovering dinosaur bones in the paleontology dig site or building robots in the inventor’s workshop. 

The Little Yellow House is unabashedly prejudiced, only little people Grade One and under are admitted. Here tiny tykes are free to whip up meals in the kid-sized kitchen, play games in the treehouse and make music on the front porch, perhaps accompanied by one of the cheerfully doting docents. 

Upstairs a floorful of K’Nexploration inhabits one of the changing exhibit spaces. Visitors 5 years and older are invited to build and take home free windmill or attempt to imitate any one of the intricate displays set up. Go on, try your hand at building an 8’ Rollercoaster! 

If the sight of millions of pieces of interlocking plastic becomes too much to handle, head up the stairs to the top of the observation tower. From here, the city spreads out towards the foot of Lookout Mountain where the founding family attractions, Rock City Gardens and Ruby Falls, survey the youthfulness of the city with almost paternal pride. 

As night touches down, the gas lights at Chattanooga Choo Choo Holiday Inn flicker on. From the grandeur of the reception area below the 85-foot freestanding dome in the restored 1909 Terminal, sleepy guests wearing conductor’s hats are guided to rooms aboard parlor cars or to suites overlooking one of the facility’s three swimming pools.  The clip-clop of horse hooves taking guests on carriage rides back to town echo across Victorian rose gardens. It’s almost another time, another place. 

A quote by Leonardo da Vinci on the walls of the aquarium reads: “when you put your hand in a flowing stream, you touch the last that has gone before and the first of what is still to come.” No longer static, Chattanooga is flowing on to the future with the wisdom of age and the soul of a child.

Getting There: 

American Eagle, Northwest Airlink, and U.S. Airways all fly into Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport. By road, Chattanooga lies at the intersection of Interstates 75, 24, and 59.

Packages: Chattanooga Choo Choo Holiday Inn (1400 Market Street) offers “Children’s Fantasy” -- $419 U.S. for a family of 4 includes 2 nights’ accommodation in a Victorian Traincar, 2 Choo Choo Engineer Caps, admission to Model Railroad Museum, Ruby Falls, Rock City, Incline Railway, Creative Discovery Museum, and VIP tickets to the Tennessee Aquarium. For information/reservations, call 800-TRACK29 or visit online at

For Further Information:

Contact the Visitors Center, toll-free at 800-322-3344, online at Also worthwhile is the SE Tennessee site,

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Megan Kopp is a freelance writer published in a variety of markets including Reader’s Digest, Canadian Living, Western People, YES Magazine, Western Parent, Northwest Family and The Traveler’s Journal. She has traveled extensively throughout Western Canada and the United States; spent time in the Cook Islands, New Zealand, Australia, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Belize and have recently been re-directing her writing efforts towards sharing my passion for new sights, smells and sounds.

Email:  Megan Kopp

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