Weird Science

Educational and family-friendly science outings in the Tampa area.

Some pretty strange stuff goes on in Tampa. For kids, it boggles the mind and tickles the imagination: Underwater cows, a shrunken city, sinkholes that eat Porsches. Since my 14-year-old son, Aaron, was a toddler, we've found challenges that fascinate, mystify, and engage the mind. Check out these scientific phenomena in the Tampa area.

Dragons disguised as plants. You'd need a hedge trimmer to slay these dragons. But who would want to? The mythical-looking marine creatures at Florida Aquarium's latest Dragons Down Under exhibit are as endearing as their seahorse cousins. The unusual Leafy and Weedy Sea Dragons, self-camouflaged to blend with Australia's underwater kelp forests, draw the limelight among the aquarium's sea full of estuary, reef and beach creatures.

Cows that swim. Sea cows, commonly known as manatees, look more like their cousin the elephant than cows. They bob around the warm discharge waters at Tampa Electric Manatee Viewing Center during the cold months. For a below-water vision of rehabilitating injured manatees, visit Lowry Park Zoo's gigantic aquarium where the sight of the docile, endangered mammals has a calming effect over all who watch. Aaron and I prefer the zoo's Florida section to its exotic spaces. Kids gravitate toward the Discovery Zone, Children's Zoo and interactive Manatee Fountain.

Tigers wearing white. Most families first associate Tampa with Busch Gardens, particularly its screaming roller coasters. But Busch Gardens, like Tampa itself, has its nature side, its scientific rarities. The three white tigers, for instance: Just like some kids have blonde hair and some have brown, these Bengals differ from their more common striped cousins with pure white coats. One of Aaron's fondest memories of the park is our Serengeti Safari where an ostrich tried to eat the diamond off my hand when I was distracted by another feeding on the opposite side of our flatbed truck.

Theatrical ghosts. Do the Wednesday or Saturday tour (two tours are offered each month) of the spooky castle-like Tampa Theatre and ask about Mr. Fink, the resident ghost.

Water in a rush. "Wow, wild water!" exclaims a five-year-old girl excitedly from the banks of the Hillsborough River, which hold a playground and oak-shaded picnic tables. Here, the river frolics around limestone upcroppings, providing rare rapids for Florida canoeists. History buffs can tour reconstructed Seminole War Fort Foster, plus there are campgrounds, a swimming pool, canoe rentals and nature trails.

Dinosaurs in Florida! Dinosaur World hadn't yet opened when Aaron went through his "dinosaur phase," which spanned pre-school to middle school. Too bad: he would've gone crazy over the cypress forest filled with more than 150 life-sized sculptures of his favorite dinosaurs at every turn. Stegosaurus, T-Rex, Triceratops: they're all there in this land before time, along with educational exhibits, a playground, a Fossil Dig and a cool gift shop.

An indoor hurricane. Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) focuses on Florida phenomena, so it's not a huge surprise that you find a hurricane exhibit. But a hurricane you can sit through? This one lets you experience winds up to 75 mph. Hang on to your hats! And your shirt, which tends to flap around. Other Florida marvels to explore: a sinkhole that swallowed a Porsche dealership; lightning; and a recipe for Key Largo Limestone Pie. (Make sure you have plenty of time; you're supposed to "bake briefly at low temperatures for about 100,000 years.")

Alligators YOU bite. At Skipper's Smokehouse, there's more to astound than the fact that you're biting back at alligators when you eat the 'gator chili. We're constantly amazed that the place remains standing, this ramshackle of old Florida cottages and outdoor spaces. Sometimes I think it's the sheer will of its faithful following that bears it up. That, and the music posters stapled to the clapboard walls advertising artists who have performed.

For more information on Tampa attractions that will fascinate your family, log on to or call the Tampa Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-44-TAMPA.

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