Tampa Bay’s Top 10 Family Vacation Highlights

By Traci Suppa

Tampa Bay, which includes the City of Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, and several smaller beach communities, is located on the west coast of Florida, just 90 minutes from Orlando. A fun-filled family travel destination unto itself, Tampa Bay offers theme parks, aquariums, museums, and outdoor recreation on land and water. If that's not enough, there's also shopping, theater, and professional sports.

Although the area has much to offer, it's the beaches that have kept tourists coming back for over 150 years. The soft white sand and sparkling, calm blue waters consistently keep Tampa Bay’s sandy shores on “Dr. Beach’s” annual “Top 10 Beaches in America” list.

As frequent visitors to the area, my family has repeatedly enjoyed many of the area's attractions. My nine-year old son, a roller coaster fan, gets his fill at Busch Gardens. My two-year old daughter has yet to find a better water play park than Explore A Shore at the Florida Aquarium.  Here’s our “top ten” list, designed to help you plan your own memorable family vacation in Tampa Bay.

1a. Busch Gardens Africa (www.buschgardens.com) is a major attraction, and necessitates a full day to cover the park’s eight different sections. With five world-class coasters, it’s a goldmine for thrill-seeking “tweens” and teens. The extensive wild animal habitats, including the Edge of Africa, Myombi Reserve, the Serengeti Plain, Bird Gardens and Clydesdale Hamlet, also make this park stand out.  Our favorite attractions include the comic “Pirates 4-D” movie in the Timbuktu Theater and the Congo River Rapids, a thrilling wet ride along swift-flowing white water. The Land of the Dragons is a shady section with a three-story tree house, tot-sized rides, and a small water play area. 

Tips: Before you go, check the web site for an age-based itinerary suggesting the best rides and entertainment. Go to popular attractions like Jungala when you first arrive to avoid long waits on line. You can purchase “Quick Queue” vouchers to skip lines at major rides. 

1b. Adventure Island (http://www.adventureisland.com) is located adjacent to Busch Gardens, its “sister” park, and offers hours of watery refreshment on a hot day.  Open March through October, this a surefire kid-pleaser attraction with water slides, wave pool, and water play areas. To avoid the largest crowds, be there when it opens, or go later in the day. Your checklist for the day should include towels, sunscreen, and a small cooler with drinks and snacks.

Tip: If you plan to visit both Adventure Island and Busch Gardens, save money by purchasing multi-park discount tickets online.

2. The Florida Aquarium (www.flaquarium.org) can be found in Channelside. This facility provides hours of “edutainment” in the form of indoor activities and exhibits, as well as a two-acre outdoor water park, Explore A Shore, that’s included in the general admission fee.  The interior is separated into themed galleries; wetlands, bays and beaches, coral reefs, and sea hunt. While the Aquarium is home to over 20,000 aquatic plants and animals from around the world, the focus is on native Floridian species. The Coral Reefs Gallery was a favorite; it’s basically a tunnel through an aquarium, with views on all sides, even overhead. As we walked through the other galleries, exhibits were placed at varying levels so children of all ages could press their noses against the glass. The “Penguin Promenade” and the Coral Reef Dive Show are also well worth the time.

Save the water park for last so your children can take their time getting thoroughly soaked. The main event here is a two-story pirate ship with water canons, surrounded by bubbling fountains and misters. 

Tip: If you forget the kids' swim diapers, swim shoes or towels, visit the Aquarium’s gift shop.

3. Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo (www.lowryparkzoo.com) was rated the country’s top kid-friendly zoo, and it's easy to see why.  The animal habitat viewing areas were designed to make it easy for kids to get a good view, including the Lorikeet Landing, Wallaroo Petting Zoo, and Stingray Bay.  There are just enough rides spaced between the animal exhibits, like the “Gator Falls” flume and “Tasmanian Tiger” coaster, Treetop Skyfari, Jungle Carousel and the Safari Ride tram. These require pre-paid tokens or “unlimited ride” wristbands. 

The crown jewel here for kids is the Wallaroo Station Children’s Zoo, which recreates an Australian outback.  Good luck moving them along past the Billabong water play area here, or the Manatee Fountain water play area near the main entrance.

Tips: Bring a change of clothes and swim shoes. Plan your visit for the early morning, when the animals are most active.

4. The Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) (www.mosi.org) offers scores of completely hands-on, interactive exhibits, sneaking science knowledge into unsuspecting children!  In the main building you’ll find an IMAX theater, planetarium and exhibits covering weather, space, and health. Darerdevils can ride a high wire bike from a platform on the third floor onto a 98-foot-long cable suspended 30 feet above ground.

Children 12 and under will enjoy Kids in Charge!, an expansive center in a separate building. There are four exhibit areas; Activate!, Investigate!, Kids Create!, and Fields to Meals. On our last visit, we easily spent two non-stop hours here in air-conditioned comfort.

Tip: Visit Monday through Wednesday to avoid the largest crowds.

5. The Pier (www.stpetepier.com) is an entertainment complex in downtown St. Petersburg which juts out into Tampa Bay. The Pier Aquarium (www.pieraquarium.org) is the main attraction here. Its manageable size, with eight sea life exhibits and a touch tank, makes it well suited for pre-schoolers.

If you want to see aquatic life in its natural habitat instead, take a 90-minute cruise on the Dolphin Queen, which docks right at the Pier. Daily cruises take you through Tampa Bay, passing the coast guard station and bird sanctuary. While you may get a glimpse of sharks, rays, and manatees, they guarantee you will at least see dolphins.

Tip: Leave additional time to check out the shops, galleries and boutiques. There are also several restaurants and a food court.

6. Fort De Soto Park Beach (http://www.pinellascounty.org/park/05_Ft_Desoto.htm) was rated #1 on "Dr. Beach’s" 2005 list of Top 10 U.S. beaches because of its cleanliness, shady patches and clear blue waters.  The North Beach section is ideal for small children, since a sandbar separates the beach from deep water, leaving a shallow pool perfect for wading.  We found an ideal stretch with parking across from the Arrowhead Picnic Area. There’s no admission fee, only tolls on access roads totaling less than a dollar.  The beach is lined by palm and pine trees, providing the picnic tables with much-needed shade. There’s a snack bar offering basics like hot dogs and soda, and clean public restrooms, with showers.

Fort De Soto was originally an outpost during the Spanish-American War, and you can still visit the old fort nearby to see the huge cannons.

Tip: Take a picnic supper and go there in the cooler evening hours. It’s open until dark, which isn’t until around 8:00pm in the summer.

7. St. Pete Beach (www.stpetebeach.org) is a municipal, public beach connecting Pass-a-Grille Beach to Upham Beach, four miles north. If you’re not staying in one of the many hotels or motels sitting on the beachfront, prepare to find a parking space, feed a meter, and carry all your gear via public access points between the buildings to reach the beach. The payoff is sparkling clear water, and soft, white sand. Beach chairs and umbrellas are available for rent, and playgrounds sit directly on the beach.

The historic pink Don CeSar Resort is the crown jewel among the hotels. It’s worth it to enjoy a special meal here even if you’re not an overnight guest. The Hurricane Seafood Restaurant, famous for its grouper sandwiches, is further south.

Tip: Prepare to find the water temperature pretty chilly from November through March. 

8. Pier 60 (www.sunsetatpier60.com)is the center of activity on Clearwater Beach. There’s a huge covered playground with two distinct play areas for younger and older age groups, a visitor center, shopping, and concession stands. The city’s new Beach Walk, a promenade designed for bicyclists, skaters and pedestrians, connects Pier 60 to the beach itself. Clearwater Beach (http://clearwaterbeach.com/) has relatively new bathrooms and changing areas, and activities like parasailing, jet skis, aqua bikes, and paddleboats.

Sunset is celebrated every night (weather permitting) at the Sunset at Pier 60 festivals. Craftsmen, artists and entertainers perform from two hours prior to sunset until two hours after. There’s always some kid-friendly entertainment such as magicians, balloon artists, fire eaters, stilt walkers, living statues, escape artists, break dancers, performing pets, and jugglers.

Tip: Pack for comfort -- bring sunscreen, bottled water, sunglasses and/or hats, insect repellent, and sand toys. 

9. Caladesi Island (http://www.floridastateparks.org/CaladesiIsland/) was named America’s Best Beach in 2008 by “Dr. Beach,” outranking the rest of Florida and Hawaii. This beautiful beach is actually a state park, and more challenging to reach.  It’s only accessible by the “Caladesi Connection” ferry service that runs hourly from nearby Honeymoon Island, so you’re at the mercy of the boat schedule when you want to arrive and depart.

The beach itself is a good place to find shells, and the waters are great for snorkeling. There’s a small café, changing rooms and cabana and kayak rentals. Off the beaten path is a three-mile nature trail running through the island’s interior.

Tip: Since this beach earned the #1 ranking, expect bigger crowds on weekends. 

10. Captain Memo's Original Pirate Cruise (www.pirateflorida.com) will thrill the young buccaneers in your party. The “Pirates Ransom,” which looks like an authentic pirate ship, departs from Clearwater Marina three times a day.

A spirited crew leads passengers on treasure hunts, limbo dances, and water games. There’s face painting, stories and dancing.  Everyone gets a pirate’s hat, water gun and hula-hoop, and is then asked to recite a pirate’s pledge. If that’s not enough, you can watch for dolphins and enjoy the complimentary drinks.

Tip: You can save $2.00 per person if you purchase tickets in advance online.

Traci L. Suppa juggles writing, traveling, parenting, and volunteer work, but only because she sleeps very little. Her work has appeared in TravelSmart, Westchester Family magazine, Hudson Valley Parent, NJ Parent Paper, NewParent.com, Travelforkids.com, TravelSavvyMom.com and others.

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