The Northwest, known for its expansive coastlines and abundant wildlife, is also known for a cold, rainy season that makes year-round outdoor events impractical. An aquarium, however, combines the charm of an outdoor venue with the flexibility of an indoor facility, boasting a temperature-controlled view of natural beauty and plenty of interactive opportunities. The six Northwest aquariums on this list can host private and corporate events from small to sprawl, and each offers unique activities, including private tours and guided animal experiences, along with an unforgettable atmosphere for any gathering.
Located on Pier 59 in downtown Seattle, the Seattle Aquarium has space for up to 800 guests. Ackerly Foundation Puget Sound Hall is a perfect vantage point for sunsets, as it looks directly onto Elliot Bay with views of the Olympic mountain range. Inside, hundreds of fish swim around as live decorations, and the aquarium offers feeding sessions featuring northern fur seals or sea otters followed by a Q&A with aquarium interpreters, so guests can interact with maritime animals.
On-site catering is committed to sourcing food and wines locally, which means guests can appreciate the bounty of Washington state via land and sea. Those who want an additional taste of Washington before or after the event can wander iconic Pike Place Market nearby, learning from jovial fishmongers at Pike Place Fish Market how to toss salmon, sipping boozy mules or virgin floats at Rachel’s Ginger Beer and sampling the end product while cheesemakers separate curds from whey at Beecher’s Cheese.
POINT DEFIANCE ZOO & AQUARIUM
Point Defiance is located six miles from downtown Tacoma, which features a booming restaurant scene, numerous high-quality brewpubs and even famous glass sculptor Dale Chihuly’s breathtaking (and free-to-the-public) Bridge of Glass. The aquarium is split into two venues: The North and the South Pacific Aquariums, containing aquatic life based on the regions they represent. Planners may host 150 seated guests in the North Pacific Aquarium, 85 in the South Pacific or up to 300 by combining the two spaces. It’s worth noting, however, that when the spaces are combined, not all guests will be seated in the same location.
With open access from the North Pacific Aquarium, the Jammin’ with the Jellies exhibit offers a scenic backdrop for event displays. Likewise, the shark and tropical fish tanks are dramatic backdrops for unforgettable photos.
In-house caterer Lancer Catering embraces the aquarium’s mission to utilize sustainable practices and organic products. Emily Childs, director of business development for Lancer, explains that the caterer has committed its efforts to shrinking its carbon footprint in part by reducing single-use plastic, utilizing 100-percent compostable service ware and composting food scraps.
Animal encounters, during which a handler talks about survival, adaptation and other facets of animal life, are available upon request. Likewise, the South Pacific Aquarium’s Stingray Cove touch tank can be opened for an additional fee during private events.
OREGON COAST AQUARIUM
The Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport welcomes up to 100 people at a time in the Passages of the Deep or the Gleason Room. If more space is needed, the full facility can also be booked. Encompassing approximately 4,300 square feet of total space, the full facility option includes the Great Hall’s 2,000-square-foot front lobby, four main galleries and a theater, with a capacity of 150 to 200 guests seated at rounds.
For standing receptions, the Passages of the Deep and Gleason Room are terrific options. The Passage is more than 150 feet of underwater tunnel exhibits, offering a stunning view. The Gleason Room, at 937 square feet, has the option to be expanded into the exit lobby, adding an additional 700 square feet. Expansive outdoor areas are also available.
Daytime events at the aquarium can add a behind-the-scenes tour or a “Seal or Sea Lion Kiss” for guests eager to get up close and personal with the resident sea mammals. After-hours full facility events are staffed with an education specialist to open the touch pool in the Rocky Shores gallery, giving attendees the chance to have their questions answered by an expert while they get hands-on with the likes of starfish and sea urchins.
Ceiling-mounted screens and projectors are available in both the theater and the Gleason Room, while a portable screen and projector can be set up in the Great Hall. WiFi and Bluetooth capabilities keep everyone connected throughout the entire building.
“We feature animals that are found directly off the Oregon and Northwest coast,” says events manager Jason King. His favorite thing about the Oregon Coast Aquarium experience is how guests leave with, “a greater knowledge of our natural surroundings and the wildlife that call the Pacific Northwest home.” The location of the aquarium itself offers miles of beach access, allowing guests to seamlessly transition to the real deal with newfound knowledge. Other Newport attractions include two lighthouses, Yaquina Bay and Yaquina Head, and neighboring Rogue Brewery Pub & World Headquarters—the perfect venue for an afterparty.
VANCOUVER AQUARIUM AND OCEAN WISE INITIATIVE
Vancouver, British Columbia
Offering the largest aquarium venue in the Northwest, the Vancouver Aquarium has a cocktail reception capacity for 2,000 people to schmooze and dance among exhibits that are home to more than 5,000 aquatic creatures. For more intimate affairs, the space can be sectioned off, allowing for plenty of flexibility. Stellar’s Bay, for example, offers sit-down dinner service for 100 diners, not counting the bellowing sea lions offering endless entertainment.
Each gallery rental rate at the Vancouver Aquarium covers staffing labor, security, and servers, and most galleries include outdoor decks providing additional access to sea life exhibits. A sea lion show or dolphin education program can even be added to the festivities, depending on the space rented.
Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of the Vancouver Aquarium events program is found in the kitchen. As part of the company’s Ocean Wise Initiative, a conservation program created to encourage ocean-friendly seafood practices, all of the seafood served at the aquarium is Ocean Wise-certified. Chef Ned Bell, formerly of the Four Seasons, develops seasonal menus and custom dishes for events featuring sustainable proteins and farm-sourced produce, and he can cater to a variety of dietary needs.
The aquarium is conveniently located in the western end of the city, near beautiful Stanley Park, so activities like a visit to the park’s Brockton Point Lighthouse and totem poles, or a boat cruise around the harbor are close at hand.
AQUARIUM OF BOISE
The smallest venue on the list, the Aquarium of Boise, Idaho, is only 10,000 square feet total. With two event spaces available, it can host up to 40 guests seated in an exhibits space or up to 100 for a cocktail reception in the gallery. The aquarium focuses on tropical and freshwater fish displays, with an impressive sharks and rays exhibit acting as a focal point during events.
While the Aquarium of Boise doesn’t offer catering on-site, resident marine biologist Nate Hall says food trucks are a great option for events. Trucks can station themselves in the aquarium’s front parking lot, offering easy access for guests. Hall recommends a favorite of Boise burger lovers: Big Jud’s, which gained national attention when its four-pound whopper was featured on Travel Channel Show Man Versus Food.
During aquarium events, animal enthusiasts can get up close and personal with add-ons like Feed the Sharks and Morning Rounds, which offer behind-the-scenes food prep and animal engagement led by a marine biologist. Planners who want to extend the nature experiences outside the party locale can book further excursions to the Idaho Botanical Garden, which boasts seasonal horticulture exhibits year-round, and the World Center for Birds of Prey, a unique conservation and education center that allows visitors to interact with a wide selection of raptors, from eagles and falcons to hawks and owls.
ALASKA SEALIFE CENTER
The Alaska SeaLife Center offers event spaces for 20 to 200 guests. The Rocky Coast Gallery can accommodate up to 200 people either sitting at table rounds or in theater seating. Chairs and tables are provided by the aquarium. Additional private rooms host 20, 32 and 79 guests.
Unlike the other aquariums on this list, the SeaLife Center does not provide in-house catering, but instead welcomes certified caterers. Caterers should note, however, that there is no prep kitchen on-site. Depending on the size of the party, a private tour, touch tank or guided animal experience can be added to the event. Each behind-the-scenes tour, for example, can host twelve people, and multiple tours may run at once. The puffin experience, featuring one of Alaska’s most beloved and distinctive seabirds, can accommodate a group of 70 who want to take part in feeding the short-winged waterfowl and learning how Alaska’s extreme climate affects puffins’ behavior and appearance each season.