Cruising down Interstate, as you approach your destination, you already get a sense of what GulfQuest is all about. The view of the museum, which is shaped as a ship, is breathtaking—especially when you consider its setting, aptly situated on the Mobile River overlooking the Port of Mobile. On the river, you’ll find global companies who design & manufacture ships, local companies that load and unload cargo from various vessels, and local fisherman heading up the river for the daily catch. Right in the middle of this busy hub of shipping activity is GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico. After one visit, it has easily secured a top spot on our list of favorite things to do in Mobile.
When I entered the museum, I was immediately caught off guard by its beauty. The rotunda, shaped like a globe to highlight the impact that the Gulf of Mexico has on the world, is spectacular. The flags surrounding the circular entryway represent the 90 countries that operate in the port throughout the year. I was a little shocked by the number. Nearly one hundred different countries come through here to do business? Ok, maybe I do have a little to learn….
Prior to my tour, I just assumed this would be another attraction I’d add to the list of great things to do in Mobile with kids on a rainy day. Upon arrival, I wanted to get the scoop and see if I was right. After becoming enthralled with the interactive map in the entrance to the museum for an unreasonable amount of time, I started to suspect that perhaps GulfQuest is fun for adults, too.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that around every corner and up every staircase, you’ll find some type of unique, interactive exhibit. Most of which are housed within the towering block of shipping containers (it’s a ship within a ship, if you will). Here, the engagement and interactivity continues. Captivating is an understatement. Learn how to tie nautical knots (not as easy as you’d think), race sailboats, play a navigation game, test your smarts with quizzes, learn how to plot your longitude … with over 90 exhibits, this list goes on and on (and on and on).
After awhile of playing exploring, I stopped to chat with a group of women from Michigan. “What do y’all think of the museum, I asked?” After giggling at my y’all and commenting on my accent, they described a phenomenon I had noticed myself, “From the moment we first walked in, we were just taken aback by the hospitality,” she explained. “It’s one thing to be polite, but we were really welcomed by the cleanliness of the place, and especially by the kind staff.” She was completely right. It seems the whole GulfQuest crew oozes Southern hospitality. And messiness? Even with a group or two of school children visiting for a field trip, the entirety of the museum was nothing short of spotless. “Plus,” she added, “the whole thing is wheelchair accessible—and that really makes us old folks feel right at home!” They laughed to themselves as they wandered into one of the theaters.
Ahhh, the theaters. Throughout GulfQuest, there are multiple theaters showing short movies and video clips, and I highly recommend you take the time to watch them all. They’re informational, but in such a unique way. The manner in which the stories are told makes you yearn for more history—you’ll want to run back to your parents and grandparents and flood them with “where were you when…” questions.
“The Gulf Coast: A Place Like No Other” is the perfect way to start your day at GulfQuest. It’s like the appetizer to your informational entrée. Whet your proverbial appetite by learning about impacts of recent events like the BP oil spill. Meanwhile, the Discovery Hull Theater shows “Port of Victory,” which tells the story of the Port of Mobile during World War II. This is sure to be a favorite of both the kids and the adults in your group. This video will really give adults a sense of pride about the role Mobilians played in the war, and kids will love the fog, loud booms, and lighting effects.
Just around the corner of the Discovery Hull Theater, you’ll find another exhibit that combines history with enchanting effects. In a room decorated in 1700s-style stands a “mirror”. When you lift the right items in this exhibit, ghost-like characters with thick French accents tell the story of the Pelican Girls. I won’t spoil it, but it’s a unique piece of Mobile’s history told in a spellbinding way!
Ocean Planet Theater would have to get the award for the most mesmerizing exhibit. This giant globe shows real satellite data of cloud coverage on our planet. When I started to inquire about the different things the globe can do, the kind staffer asked if I wanted to check out some infrared images of a hurricane. (Being from the South, we know that we never speak of that word … it’s like saying Voldermort, so from here on, we’ll just call it a weather event which shall not be named.) Four different projectors give a complete worldview of the images from when Weather Event Ivan came through and devastated parts of the South in 2004. As I looked into this amazing imagery, I couldn’t help but sneak a look around at the other guests’ faces to see if they were as intrigued as I. You would expect to see smiling kids excitedly darting from one area to another, (and you do, to be sure), but at GulfQuest, the adults have a look of wonderment on their faces, as well. I was starting to realize, there’s just something different about this museum.
Making your way to the 5th floor is completely worth it. The interactivity continues with quizzes, bells, and more. The Take the Helm Theater allows guests to play captain navigating vessels through the waterways that surround Mobile. Here, you get options. Do you want to take the helm at day or during the night? Calm or stormy? What kind of ship? The kids in the room with me exclaimed, “NIGHT! STORMY! A FAST BOAT!” Of course, they wanted the challenge. Calm in the day for me, thank you very much. This seems like it’s all about navigating the waters, but the real gem in this activity is the GulfQuest exhibit educator who sets up the simulation for you. He’s incredibly knowledgeable, and as you steer, he sneaks in facts about the surrounding areas, the history, and describes what you’re doing in a relatable way. Both adults and kids will actually retain the information he shares (teaching without letting kids on to the fact that you’re teaching is a serious skill).
Speaking of the 5th floor, the view of the Mobile River is absolutely captivating. From here, be sure to take a moment to really think about the reality of where you are. You’ve spent four floors immersing yourself in the past. Through war, diseases, depressions, and all kinds of ups-and-downs, the Gulf of Mexico and the Port of Mobile have contributed to society in an unmatchable way. And standing here, at the top of GulfQuest, you can look to people at work—you’re standing amongst history and literally looking at the future of the shipping industry. Being at GulfQuest is truly a unique, wondrous experience.
I’m woman enough to be able to admit when I’m wrong, and let me tell you, when it comes to locals having nothing to learn about the Gulf of Mexico and Mobile’s history, I was 100% wrong. If you’re looking for something to do to kill an hour in Mobile, this is not what you want. With five floors, mesmerizing exhibits, captivating movies, games, spectacular waterfront views, and a waterfront restaurant The Galley, GulfQuest is an ideal way to spend an entire day! Leave your skepticism at the door because you could indeed spend hour after hour here and never get bored.
Oh—and as for the question of it being for all ages? I’m bringing my daughter back to play dress up like a sailor and play the games, and I bought tickets for my grandparents to come relive some of the history they were a part of making here in Mobile. So yes, it’s definitely multi-generational. Happy museum-ing!
Head to GulfQuest.com for hours and admission information, and for more (and tasty!) things to do in Mobile, check out the VisitSouth guide to Mobile’s popular LoDa district.
Observation deck, navigation map, and all theater photos courtesy of Gulfquest