This summer the Tampa Bay Area has lots of activities to keep families from singing the summer blues
By Laura Reiley
Alright, you know your summer trip to Tampa has to begin by trying out the rides at Busch Gardens. Then, hmm, a day of splashing around at Adventure Island, maybe a visit to Museum of Science and Industry or Lowry Park Zoo—but once you’ve exhausted the kids’ tried-and-true faves, there’s nothing to do but head to Disney, right? Not so fast, Mom and Dad. The greater Tampa Bay area has a host of family-friendly daytrips.
The world’s largest accredited sanctuary for big cats, Big Cat Rescue (12802 Easy St., across from Citrus Park Town Center down a dirt road next to McDonald’s, 813/920-4130) provides a permanent retirement home to over 200 animals. For the visitor, the center offers tours, outreach presentations, animal interaction, and the opportunity to spend the night in the heart of the sanctuary. On the last Friday of each month, register for the Wild Eyes at Night tour (sadly, for people ten and over) in which guests roam the grounds equipped with flashlights that illuminate the hundreds of shining eyes in the cat enclosures. The Saturday morning tour is for kids of all ages–you’ll get an education in animal husbandry, care, and feeding.
It’s more of a splurge, but equally breathtaking is Big Red Balloon Sightseeing Adventures (mailing address 7223 Creekwood Court, Tampa Florida 33615; meeting place First Watch, 11610 Dale Mabry, 813/969-1518, 6-10 a.m. daily, year round by reservation only, weather permitting, $185 adults, $160 children) Up, up and away in beautiful hot-air balloon, and all you have to bring is a camera and your loved ones. Meet before dawn at a restaurant on the commerce strip of Dale Mabry, whereupon you are whisked into the Red Balloon van and taken to your agreed-upon launch site (there are more than 30 in the greater Tampa area from which to choose). Once inflated, the solid red balloon, the largest in the southeastern U.S., is 8 ½ stories tall and contains 210,000 cubic feet of air. The balloon, which comfortably accommodates 8 passengers, takes a 1-hour sunrise flight at up to 1,000 feet, drifting over New Tampa, southeast Pasco County, Lutz, and Land o’ Lakes. A champagne toast followed by a hearty breakfast.
You want to see big gators? Great blue herons the size of the Wright brothers’ first plane? River otters, turtles, families of wild pigs? Paddle down the gently flowing Hillsborough River in a 16,000-acre wildlife preserve called Wilderness Park with a rental from Canoe Escape (9335 E. Fowler Ave., ½ mile east of I-75, 813/986-2067, self-guided tandem canoe or kayak rentals $22.50-$32.50 per paddler, a child under 12 can usually fit as a center passenger). You can rent canoes or kayaks and head out on your own, choosing from a variety of trails: Sargeant Park to Morris Bridge Park (4 ½ miles); Morris Bridge Park to Trout Creek Park (4 miles); the sunny Trout Creek Park to Rotary Park (5 miles); and others—a trip can be as short as two hours and as long as all day. Or, better for younger kids, you can take a 3 ½-hour interpreted guided tour. Whether you go on a guided tour or on your own, call ahead, then drive to their building. They will equip you, give you maps and paddling pointers, then take you over to your debarkation point and establish a pick-up time.
In Plant City
If your progeny are dinosaur-obsessed, it is your duty to get in the car and drive about a half hour east of Tampa to Plant City. It is the strawberry capital of the state, but among the strawberry fields lurks Dinosaur World (5145 Harvey Tew Road, Plant City, 813/717-9865, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, $12.95 adults, $10.95 seniors, $9.75 children 3-12, children 2 and under free). There are 160 huge models of prehistoric beasts arrayed in a huge subtropical garden. Not exactly the Museum of Natural History in New York, I have a sneaking suspicion that Dinosaur World isn’t preoccupied with strict accuracy (for instance, we don’t really know about dinosaur coloring, but these ones are all the mottled greeny-brown made popular in movies). In addition to the dinos, there are spooky fake caves to explore and an archeological dig/sandbox area. This is best for kids under seven.
After the adults spend a little time at St. Petersburg’s historic Sunken Gardens, give the kids their due next door at Great Explorations (1925 4th St. N., St. Petersburg, 727/821-8992, 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mon.-Sat., noon-4:30 p.m. Sun., $9 general admission, $8 seniors, children 1 and under free). The hands-on science center had a much-needed cash infusion in 2003, with lots of slick educational exhibits on things like the hydrologic cycle, ecosystem of the estuary. Many of the exhibits are best appreciated by elementary-aged kids (let’s say kids up to about 11), but exhibits such as “Gears” and the “Laser Harp” have appeal even to toddlers. This makes a fun afternoon, especially when capped by an ice cream at Coldstone Creamery, located craftily on the premises.
The Florida Aquarium usually gets the bulk of the kudos. Clearwater Marine Aquarium (249 Windward Passage, Clearwater, 727/441-1790, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat., 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sun., $11 adults, $9 seniors, $7.50 children 3-12) is a smaller, more modest facility with, in some ways, loftier aims. It’s a working research facility and home to rescued and recuperating marine mammals (dolphins, whales, otters, etc.). For the visitor, the thrust is on education, with hourly animal care and training presentations and exhibits on animal rescue, rehabilitation, and release—and how the public can help to protect and conserve endangered marine life. It’s like the ACLU for fish. The aquarium offers onsite feeding and care programs for interested guests, and operates a daily two-hour-long Sea Life Safari (25 Causeway Blvd., Slip #58, Clearwater Beach, 727/462-2628) that takes visitors around the Clearwater estuary and Intracoastal Waterway, with commentary by a marine biologist.
Then Money-Up-Front Michele, Plundering Pete, Gangplank Gary, and the other pirates will greet you with an “argh, me matey” on the deck of Captain Memo’s Original Pirate Cruise (25 Causeway Blvd. Dock 3, Clearwater Beach, 727/446-2587, 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., $35 adults, $30 seniors, $25 children), a two-hour pirate cruise on a fancy bright red pirate ship. In a similar vein, at John’s Pass Village & Boardwalk (12901 Gulf Blvd. E., located on Gulf Blvd. just between Madeira Beach and Treasure Island, 727/423-7824, 11 a.m., 2 p.m., and sunset daily, $30 adults, $20 for children 2-20, children under 2 free) offers a Pirates At The Pass cruise on a fully kitted out pirate ship. You’ll engage in water pistol battles and treasure hunts and listen to pirate stories.
And after a couple hours of pillaging and making people walk the plan, the kids are ready for Celebration Station (24546 US 19 N., Clearwater, 727/791-1799, noon-9 p.m. Sun.-Thurs., noon-midnight Fri., 10 a.m.-midnight Sat., tokens $10/roll, different prices for activities). Choose from go-karts, bumper boats, games, miniature golf, batting cages, laser tag, and pizza.
Laura Reiley is the food critic for the St. Petersburg Times and the author of Moon Florida Gulf Coast, Moon Orlando, and Moon Tampa and St. Petersburg.