You can't go to Phillip Island and NOT do the Cowes penguin Parade. That said, you need to prepare yourself for bus loads of foreign tourists. We went in early November (shoulder season) and the island seemed pretty quiet. I was amazed when I turned up in the carpark to find probably 20 huge buses and 2 full car parks.
It's clear that the tour buses just come here for the Penguin parade and then whisk the mounds of tourists away for their next stop.
So, whilst there was no problem getting a ticket in November, I can see why you must buy your penguin parade tickets as soon as get on the island if you are coming in the peak of summer. (There are signs telling you where you can buy your tickets as soon as you arrive. If not go to the parade itself and buy for that evening)
You get a choice of tickets for the Cowes Penguin Parade.
The cheapest ticket buys you a seat on the main viewing platform. These are benches right on the beach. There are plenty of benches and I actually found it easier to see, further back where it was less crowded. Plus, the foreign tourists all stand up to see the penguins better (even though they are told not to), which means unless you are at the back, you can't see anything!
The second type of ticket is for a private viewing platform. We didn't pay the extra and i just don't see why you would need to. The platform is off to one side and perhaps there are slightly more penguins coming out of the water at this side than in the main area. There are also only 150 people allowed into this area so it probably feels a little less crowded.
Don't Bother Paying the Extra!
But once the penguins have waddled out of the water, they all waddle to their burrows. At this point you can get very close to the penguins, whether you have the more expensive viewing platform ticket or general admission ticket - so I just don't see the point in paying the extra.
There are some exclusive VIP passes that get you inside the hut (would be good on a cold night! but still not worth the money!)
The penguins come at sunset, so you will need to check what time that is depending on what time of year you are attending the Cowes Penguin Parade.
We arrived at 7.30pm to buy our tickets in November and the penguins arrived at 8.15pm. The foreign tourists get bored pretty quickly and left, which meant there were less people by about 8.40pm.
So I would advise buying your ticket before hand and then turning up as close to sunset as possible (it was a cold night when we were there and it felt a long time to sit and wait for them!), then you can sit for half an hour before watching them waddle back to their burrows as you walk back to the visitors centre.
The penguins come every night at the parade is open every night of the year too, come rain or shine.
This is the bit that felt very touristy to me - it was teaming with people and there is a large shop selling EVERYTHING penguin.
There was however a good video playing in one of the rooms which was quite interesting.
I was so relieved when the staff member speaking at the parade told us that every cent goes back into the conservation of the penguins. As otherwise, you would feel that the tourist circus is not worth it.
The other disappointing thing is that you are not allowed to take any pictures - no camcorders, no iphones, no ipads - with or without a flash.
They don't want to scare the penguins. It is totally understandable and it is very strictly enforced. You will get asked to leave if you are caught taking any sort of picture. Leave your camera at home.
Top of Cowes Penguin Parade
Sydney to Melbourne Road Trip