By Jodi Mailander Farrell
Award-winning beaches, theme parks, a bustling downtown, professional sports teams and educational museums make the region an ideal vacation spot for families seeking thrills and places to chill.
Tampa’s Busch Gardens, 10165 McKinley Dr., is a top attraction, with a wide variety of roller coasters for all ages, from Air Grover, the Sesame Street coaster for tykes, to the 200-foot-tall floorless dive coaster, Sheikra, for older thrill-seekers. The 335-acre, Africa-inspired theme park also has more than 2,000 animals, with hand-feeding stations for giraffes, kangaroos and wallabies.
Across the street, the 30-acre Adventure Island, 10001 McKinley Dr., features 10 adrenaline-pumping water slides, a wave pool, lazy river, treehouse and toddler-friendly splash fountains.
Grand Prix Tampa, 14320 N. Nebraska Ave., is packed with kid-friendly favorites, such as go-karts, arcades, bungee jumping, batting cages and mini-golf.
There are 35 miles of soft-sand beaches in the Gulf Coast communities of Clearwater Beach and St. Pete Beach. One of the best is Fort De Soto Park, 3500 Pinellas Bayway South, in St. Petersburg, named a top family beach in the country by Parents magazine for its calm waters, playgrounds, historic fort and nature trails.
Pier 60, at 7 Causeway Blvd. in Clearwater Beach, is a fun place to head to at the end of the day for the “Sunsets at Pier 60 Festival” nightly celebration featuring street performers, live music and crafters.
On Captain Memo’s Original Pirate Cruise, 25 Causeway Blvd., in Clearwater Beach, kids take to the seas on a 70-foot, three-tiered ship for two hours to search for treasure and dolphins, play water gun games, and have fun with stories, dancing and face painting.
In nearby Madeira Beach, the Royal Conquest Pirate Ship, 140 Boardwalk Place West, offers a similar swashbuckling adventure.
The Dolphin Queen, which runs out of the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina at 400 Second Ave., offers 90-minute, dolphin-spotting cruises.
With Coast Bike Sharing, visitors pay an hourly rate to pedal around Tampa and St. Pete on two wheels.
For something different, try Riverwalk Boating to experience downtown Tampa on the water. Children ages 8 and up can pedal their own water bikes; ages 4 and up can ride as passengers on tandem bikes.
In Clearwater, the yellow-and-red Jolley Trolley is an old-fashioned tram that travels throughout Clearwater Beach for a few dollars. (Children 5 and under ride free.)
The Florida Aquarium, 701 Channelside Dr., in Tampa is considered one of the best in the nation, featuring more than 20,000 plants and animals in fresh and saltwater environments, including river otters, alligators, deep sea fish and touch tanks with stingrays, starfish and urchins. Bring swimsuits for small children, who will enjoy the splash pad.
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium's mission is to inspire others through the rescue and rehabilitation of marine animals -- a cause that exploded in popularity with Winter, the movie star dolphin with the prosthetic tail. Winter died in November 2021, but the aquarium's mission remains the same.
Just north of downtown, Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park, 1101 W. Sligh Ave., has been voted the #1 Family Friendly Zoo in the country by Parents Magazine. Its giraffe-feeding station, behind-the-scenes Expedition Africa Safari, and Gator Falls Flume ride are family favorites.
Big Cat Rescue, 12802 Easy St., in Tampa is the largest big cat sanctuary in the world, offering guided tours through advance online booking.
Since 1986, manatees have been flocking to the warm water discharged by Big Bend Power Station, where Tampa Electric has created a Manatee Viewing Center, 6990 Dickman Rd., in Apollo Beach so people can watch the sea cows from November to April for free.
Art & Culture
The Tampa Museum of Art, downtown at 120 Gasparilla Plaza, offers free, drop-in art making for kids on Saturday afternoons in the museum’s studio classroom. A new beginner-level art project inspired by artwork on view in the galleries is introduced every week.
Every Saturday is Dali Family Fun Day at the Salvador Dali Museum, 1 Dali Blvd., in St. Petersburg, home to the world’s most comprehensive collection of works by the surrealist painter outside his native Spain.
Every weekend brings free art activities for families at the Morean Arts Center, 719 Central Ave., in St. Petersburg, where the Glass Studio & Hot Shop stages glass blowing sessions to watch.
Fun & Games
Climb ancient oak trees in St. Petersburg with Pathfinder Outdoor Education, 1310 22nd Ave. South, a nonprofit that hosts an Open Tree Climb with ropes and harnesses the first Saturday of every month for ages 6 and up.
Topgolf Tampa, 10690 Palm River Rd., offers a three-level golf range and target-oriented games with micro-chipped golf balls for up to six players of all ages.
At Largo Central Railroad, 225 Central Park Dr., in nearby Largo, ages 1 and up can ride miniature locomotives on a mile-long railroad loop through a tunnel and waterfall.
The Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI), 4801 E. Fowler Ave., in Tampa is packed with interactive learning experiences, such as stargazing in the planetarium or climbing on the outdoor ropes and zip line course.
At Glazer Children’s Museum, 110 W. Gasparilla Plaza, in Tampa, there’s a kid-sized grocery store, airplane and cruise ship for imaginative play that is ideal for ages 11 and under.
For car buffs, the Tampa Bay Automobile Museum, 3301 Gateway Centre Blvd., in Pinellas Park features a unique collection of vintage cars and vehicles from as far back as the 1700s.
Ghost Tour of St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay offers candlelight walking tours of both downtowns for ages 4 and up, with ghost stories and visits to haunted houses led by costumed tour guides.
At eBoats Tampa, 333 S. Franklin St., 12-passenger electric boats are available for rental and tours of downtown Tampa’s waterways.
For a unique twist, go hunting for prehistoric fossils with Paleo Discoveries Fossil Hunting Tours, which guides walk-in or canoe trips on the Peace River in search of the remains of ancient sharks, whales, saber-tooth cats and other animals.
Take in panoramic views of the area 1,000 feet up with Big Red Balloon Sightseeing Adventures, which takes off from 30 different launch areas before dawn.
Tampa Bay Aviation, operating out of two different airports, offers aerial tours by plane or helicopter.
Old-Fashioned Movie Night
The Tampa Bay area has three drive-in movie theaters. For an affordable throwback evening with the kids, check out Ruskin Family Drive-In, 5011 U.S. Highway North in Ruskin; Joy-Lan Drive-In, 16414 U.S. 301 in Dade City, or Silvermoon Drive-In, 4100 New Tampa Hwy., in Lakeland.
Tampa Theatre, 711 N. Franklin St., is a 1926 iconic movie palace that offers backstage tours, along with a film series.
Help your kids appreciate modern conveniences at Heritage Village, 11909 125th St., in Largo, a 21-acre, indoor-outdoor living history museum with historic homes, a general store, railroad depot, schools and a church.
Tour the American Victory Ship, a 455-foot marine vessel docked at 705 Channelside Dr. in Tampa that was used in the Vietnam and Korean wars.
Spend an important, educational day at the Florida Holocaust Museum, 55 Fifth St. South, in St. Petersburg, where artifacts include one of the few remaining railroad boxcars used by the Nazis to transport Jews and other prisoners to Auschwitz and Treblinka.
Tampa Bay is a big sports town. Baseball fans can take in a New York Yankees Spring Training game in February and March at George M. Steinbrenner Field, 1 Steinbrenner Dr., in Tampa, or a home game with the Tampa Bay Rays in February through September at Tropicana Field, 1 Tropicana Dr., in St. Petersburg.
Football fans can watch the Tampa Bay Buccaneers play at Raymond James Stadium, 4201 N. Dale Mabry Hwy., in Tampa.
For hockey, the Tampa Bay Lightning plays at Amalie Arena, 401 Channelside Dr., in Tampa.
Bring the family for paella and Spanish flamenco dancing at Florida’s oldest restaurant, The Columbia Restaurant, 2025 E. 7th Ave., in Tampa’s historic Ybor City.
The Melting Pot, 13164 N. Dale Mabry Hwy., is a Tampa family favorite for eating fondue-dipped bread, meat and sweet treats off of sticks.
The ice cream cone-shaped Twistee Treat, with four locations around Tampa, is a fun place for walk-up or drive-through ice cream.
An hour’s drive north of Tampa, Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, 6131 Commercial Way, in Spring Hill is a one-of-a-kind Old Florida roadside attraction, where the underwater mermaid show that started in 1947 can still be viewed from the partially-submerged theater. The park also has wildlife shows and river cruises, and the adjacent Buccaneer Bay Waterpark has water slides that share the same 72-degree natural spring.
A one-hour drive from Tampa into Central Florida, LEGOLAND Florida Resort, One LEGOLAND Way, in Winter Haven is a 150-acre theme park designed for young builders, ages 2-12, with more than 50 rides, shows and a waterpark.
A 25-minute drive from Tampa, the old-fashioned roadside attraction of Dinosaur World, 5145 Harvey Tew Rd., in Plant City has over 150 life-size dinosaurs set among lush vegetation, including an animatronic scene featuring a Brachiosaurus, Triceratops and Pterodactyl, among others. Little dino enthusiasts will enjoy sifting through a dig in search of fossils or playing in the prehistoric playground.
More Family Fun
Traveling to other Florida destinations with your gang? Here are more ideas for family fun around the Sunshine State.
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