Instagram traps — they’re everywhere in NYC lately, from relatively awesome ones like Color Factory and Nightmare/Dream Machine to lackluster ones like Room for Tea. It’s pretty easy to spot one and know what you’re getting into. There are telltale signs like timed ticket entry, ubiquitous key photo ops all over the ‘gram, a prevalent hashtag — National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey has all of these, and is located in the heart of Times Square to boot. Yet when my college-aged cousin, a science nerd and down-for-whatever kind of houseguest, showed up in NYC the weekend after New Years, I somehow thought this experience might be different.
After all, it was National Geographic we were dealing with: a reliable educational company with access to great journalism and all kinds of technology. I was expecting Disney-meets-Blue Planet 2. What I got was something more like LaCroix Aquarium, watered-down and nothing like the real thing.
The first moments were promising. There was an escalator with some mist, and a giant Nat Geo yellow border that you could pose inside of for a photo op (we did not). After that, our tour guide lead us into a room where we viewed an introductory video and were told that we could ask any question. But as the experience lingered on, we became increasingly certain that our tour guides would be unable to give us any information beyond the location of restrooms and gift shops.
To put it plainly, the technology used in the exhibit just isn’t that cool. There are some “interactive” elements scattered throughout. In the first room, when you walk on the floor, there are projections that make it look like water is rippling under your feet. Later on in the exhibit, you can wave your arms at a CGI harbor seal that does sporadic flips. There’s a very weak 3D section where you watch a school of anchovies try to negotiate a shark. For anyone who’s ever been to a major theme park like Disney or Universal, or seen an IMAX film, it’s a disappointment.
Perhaps the most upsetting thing about Ocean Odyssey is not the lame technology, awkward pacing, or uninspired tour guides, but the complete lack of substance. There’s no actual footage of the ocean or its inhabitants until you’re already 90% of the way through the exhibit. There’s no overarching storyline or message either; there are some vague mentions of conservation and a few factoids (Humboldt squid have between 100-200 suckers on each tentacle…cool, but not, you know, educational). Just before you exit through the gift shop, there is a giant touch-screen game where you answer multiple choice questions to help clean up your own personal ocean. That was definitely the most engaging portion of the experience for our group, but it was mostly due to our attempts to sabotage one another’s cleanup attempts.
If you have very young kids and you are being forced to do something in Times Square, National Geographic Encounter might be the right thing for you. To the five-and-under set, CGI fish can still be a source of wonder. However, there are some dark rooms and the Humboldt Squid battle could be downright scary for a toddler, so take this recommendation with caution. If you don’t have very small, brave children in your party, skip it. You’re better off spending $35 on…just about anything else. You could spend it on a Happy Hour meal at reliable Japanese BBQ spot Gyu-Kaku and have a legitimately impressive and fun interactive experience, which is what we did after our ocean adventure. It was infinitely more satisfying, and possibly more educational.
Castles & Lattes Rating: ☕️ (one slightly burnt bodega latte).