We kicked off our summer this year with a four-week road trip south through sunny Florida and back through Georgia. Our first destination was the beautiful bay-front city of Tampa. With white sand beaches that consistently rank as some of the best in the country bordering the blue-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico you really can’t go wrong spending some time by the sea here. No matter what season it is elsewhere. But there’s so much beyond the beach that beckoned us to Tampa. From thrilling theme parks to top-notch animal attractions, amazing museums and fun places to eat we sure filled out our itinerary. Here’s what we did in Tampa with kids and how you can save some money enjoying top attractions too!
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First up was the “Coaster Capital” of Florida, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. Our kids love a good theme park and this this place is the ultimate in family adventure! You’ll find a unique blend of thrill rides, live shows, family attractions and one of the nation’s largest zoos.
Busch Gardens boasts seven word-class coasters including the newest addition, Cobra’s Curse, Florida’s first triple launch coaster Cheetah Hunt, the ferocious floorless dive coaster, Shiekra and classics like Kumba, Montu and the Scorpion.
The thrills don’t stop with the coasters. Check out Falcon’s Fury if you like drop rides like my kids and husband.
There are also tamer, but no less fun, classics like the Ubanga Banga bumper cars and the carousel.
And it wouldn’t be a Florida theme park without water rides! Cool down by getting soaked on the old-fashioned log flume at Stanley Falls or take on the Congo River Rapids.
While our kids are older they would have gone giddy for the Sesame Street Safari area when they were in preschool. With half-pint sized rides such as the Air Grover junior coaster, Elmo’s Tree House and Bert and Ernie’s water play area there’s so much to offer for the younger tykes too.
Jungala is another awesome area for kids who aren’t quite tall enough for the big coasters. Here you can climb a three-story maze of rope bridges and nets. Soar above the treetops on Jungle Flyers, and burst into the sky on Wild Surge.
More than 300 species of animals call Busch Gardens home including giraffes, meerkats, lions, and a hippo. We loved taking little detours between our ride adventures to check out all the animals in their state-of-the-art habitats. Their presence in the park adds so much to the atmosphere.
Taking the old-fashioned steam train ride through the Serengeti Plain or hopping onto the Sky Ride that crosses the park are great ways to rest tired feet while taking in prime viewing of all the incredible animals.
If you want to get up close and personal with the animals visit the Kangaloom where you can feed kangaroos from the palm of your hand. Or head over to Lory Landing where you can feed the colorful Lorikeets. You can also book an Edge of Africa Safaris ride for even more in-depth animal encounters for an additional cost.
When you really need a break (or some AC) check out one of the spectacular shows. The ice-skating show “Turn It Up” is our favorite! We were blown away by the choreography and catchy tunes!
Be sure to take in the surroundings too. It’s not called Busch GARDENS for nothing. The foliage and greenery all throughout the park are amazing and provide ample shade.
You can save big by buying your tickets ahead of time on-line.
If you’re going to do Busch Gardens plus other activities in the Tampa area consider getting a City Pass for an even bigger discount on bundled attractions. More on that in a minute!
Look for my complete guide to Busch Gardens Tampa with kids soon!
The Florida Aquarium
Located on the Tampa waterfront, The Florida Aquarium is unmistakable with with it’s blue shell-shaped dome. This modern aquarium serves as a family friendly home to 200,000 breathtaking sea creatures, ranging from massive Sand Tiger Sharks to cute African Black-Footed Penguins.
The purpose of the Florida Aquarium is to enable visitors to follow a drop of water from its first appearance in an underground spring to its arrival in the sea passing through various habitats along the way. The conditions of each habitat are recreated in various tanks throughout the aquarium.
The impressive Coral Reefs for instance, takes visitors underwater for a panoramic view of a coral colony teeming with tropical fish.
Each window represents a different ocean microhabitat and reflects the changes in sea-life as the depth increases or topography changes. This is remarkable for visitors to experience because it is something that is usually only seen by scuba divers.
Speaking of scuba divers, real life divers interact with guests by playing a trivia style game game. Our kids really enjoyed being a part of the action.
Ocean Commotion is the newest exhibit in this area and the name is spot on. Kids will love the jelly fish and and predators like the lion fish and giant octopus.
The aquarium also features several exhibits where you can get hands-on with the sea-life. The Touch Tank is home to animals with no backbone, such as sea stars, sea cucumbers and anemones. Kids can also feel real rays and sharks at the interactive Stingray Beach and even touch a Horseshoe Crab.
The Wetlands Trail is home to free flying birds, turtles, alligators, and huge snakes. The Roseate Spoonbills were incredibly beautiful, but our favorite was the fun-loving and feisty river otters. They moved too quickly to get great photos, but kids will love watching them play.
Possibly the coolest, and most unique exhibit at the Florida Aquarium is the Journey to Madagascar. Here, you’ll find the cutest ring-tailed lemurs you’ve ever seen along with colorful chameleons, and other animals from the Indian River Reef. Considering that that 80% of Madagascar’s plants and animals are exclusive to that country only it’s really a rare and wonderful opportunity to get to see them this close. Be sure to step into the tree shaped alcove for a look and listen to the hissing cockroaches.
After exploring the exhibits inside, venture outside to see Explore-A-Shore a two-acre rain-forest themed zero-depth wet and dry play area complete with dump buckets, spray zones, flowing fountains and slippery slides. Relax and enjoy a drink at the nearby cantina bar or a snack at Café Ray while kids play next to you in the splash pad.
If you are looking to take your adventure further sign up for one of the behind the scenes programs or take the family on a 90-minute Wild Dolphin Cruise through Tampa Bay. Aboard the Aquarium’s Bay Spirit II you’ll experience the incredible animals that thrive in these local waters, including over 500 wild bottlenose dolphins
Just a short drive from Tampa is the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Now you might be asking, “Why visit another aquarium when we already went to the Florida Aquarium in down-town Tampa?”
The Clearwater Aquarium is quite different from the Florida Aquarium in Tampa and truly pairs perfectly with the former excursion. This facility is actually a working animal hospital focused on the important ongoing work of rescue, rehabilitation and release of marine life such as dolphins, sea turtles, sharks and otters.
The Clearwater Aquarium also happens to be home to the star and inspiration of the Dolphin Tales movies, Winter, and her pals and fellow movie stars, Hope and Nicholas.
When you arrive, be sure to find out when the Daily Presentations are taking place. The schedule here is filled with fun, educational presentations about the animals and rehabilitation efforts.
The presentations were extremely educational. The kids learned a ton about the animals, in particular the dolphin’s and Winter’s remarkable story. They even got to hold her special prosthetic tail.
We were able to watch a presentation with Hope the dolphin during our visit.
Helpful employees and volunteers are happy to talk about the various animals. They were so friendly to my kids, and we were able to ask lots of questions.
Of course, Winter the dolphin is the highlight of the aquarium, and she lives with her friend Hope in a large tank that is the showcase of the aquarium. You can also meet Winter in “character” form.
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is also home to several rescue turtles pelicans, otters, sharks, and stingrays. There are various shows and educational talks offered throughout the day featuring each animal.
In addition to the Winter and Hope dolphin interactions, we also watched a dolphin show starring Nicholas. Nicholas was found with his mom stranded on a beach. He now lives in the enclosure outside so make sure you head outdoors to see him.
You’ll also find some fun play-scapes for the kids and set pieces from the Dolphin Tale movies, like the boat house used in the films.
We also took advantage of adding the boat tour to our tickets at this aquarium.
This was amazing! We chose the last cruise of the evening, so we could see the sunset, but we also had the treat of seeing several dolphin pods in the bay feeding.
There was a fun trivia game as part of the cruise which really encouraged my kids to pay attention.
The real star of the evening though was getting to watch the sun set over the Bay.
The aquarium itself isn’t very big but it can feel crowded. I recommend planning your visit for the late afternoon or early evening. This was ideal as we felt like we had the aquarium almost to ourselves and the helpful staff both at the aquarium and on the boat took so much time to talk to us. We’ll definitely be back to check out the new additions coming soon to the Clearwater Aquarium.
ZooTampa at Lowry Park
Six miles north of downtown, ZooTampa brings visitors together with animals from all seven continents to create unforgettable natural connections.
Over 2,000 animals call ZooTampa home, so everyone is sure to find their favorite.
Ours was most definitely the new baby orangutan. Just look at that sweet face!
Animal Experts were on hand to educate and provide all kinds of great insight about the animals including their diet and behaviors.
It’s easy to see why Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo earns top ratings for families. There are ample opportunities for kids to have up-close animal encounters throughout the zoo with amazing species like Aldabra tortoises, greater one-horned Indian rhinos, stingrays, lorikeets and more. We got to feed a giraffe from a feeding plateau overlooking the savanna.
We also really enjoyed the Expedition Africa safari ride that is included with your admission. This behind the scenes adventure takes your right into the heart of the animal exhibits. Just be sure to que up early in the day as the wait times can get long.
Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo is known for having one of the most beautiful, tropical, wildlife zoological settings in the world. The landscape what really set this zoo apart for me. I loved all the beautiful big oaks with hanging Spanish moss offering shade everywhere.
Little ones will love Wallaby Station where you can find the Tasmanian Tiger family coaster, bumper boats, a petting zoo, splash pad and the ever-popular Jungle carousel!
Museum of Science and Industry
The Museum of Science and Industry, nicknamed “MOSI”, was another huge hit with our curious kids! What’s not to love? With three full floors of more than 450 hands-on exhibits it’s an imaginative scientific playground of epic proportions.
Here kids learn about physics, optics, geology and math through doing fun things like playing a game of tug-o-war or operating a robot.
They even get to try things that seem kind of crazy like lying on a bed of nails or touching lighting.
Our family’s favorite was getting to experience what hurricane force winds feel like inside a simulation chamber.
They also also got a kick out a trying on a pair of drunk driving goggles to see how alcohol consumption affects your vision and coordination. Challenging each other to a game of Mind Ball where they moved a ball with their brain waves and learning about plate tectonics by trying to build with blocks on a shaking table were also big fun!
Connectus, the all new permanent exhibit brings you face-to-face with the future, giving access to new technologies before they are released to the public like a self-driving car.
You can let your creativity run wild in Idea Zone, where anyone can design and engineer hands-on-projects.
The MOSI also features the Saunder’s Planetarium where you can Discover the night sky. Outside a new 36-foot-high multilevel Sky Trail ropes course, complete with a zip line will get your adrenaline pumping! You can enjoy both these these add-on experiences for an additional fee.
All that exploring builds up quite an appetite! We headed to “Ybor City” for some exceptional eats. Not actually another city but part of Tampa itself Ybor (pronounced EE-bor) was once Tampa’s hand rolling cigar center and is now known as its Latin Quarter. This National Historical Landmark District is home to the oldest and largest Spanish restaurant in the United States.
In operation since 1905 The Columbia Restaurant takes up an entire city block and is able to seat 1700 people! We ate in the gorgeous El Patio room but each of the 15 dining rooms are absolutely incredible!
Being Cuban myself it was a little slice of heaven for me. Everything we ordered was phenomenal from the roasted pork, to the sweet plantains, and authentic black beans and rice. And of course the warm Cuban bread that comes with every meal was perfection.
If there’s one thing you’ve got to try in Tampa it’s a Cuban Sandwich! Did you know that Tampa is actually the birthplace of the Cuban sandwich? There’s no better place to experience this deli delight than the historic Columbia restaurant.
It was our great pleasure to get a private tour of the restaurant from one of the owners after our meal. He happened to be on hand as were were on our way out and giving our compliments. He happily spent over an hour taking us through the 15 ornate dining rooms replete with artifacts. Everything from the floor tiles to the chandeliers has a fascinating story that only added to our experience. We even toured the kitchen to see how the delicious food is made.
I’d love to come back for dinner and catch one of the Flamenco floor shows but we made one more stop on our Cuban food adventure.
La Segunda Bakery
The soft mouth-watering Cuban bread that has been served at the Columbia Restaurant for over 100 years comes from La Segunda Bakery. We simply had to make the short drive over to check it out for ourselves and sample their desserts.
The welcoming staff were happy to chat with my kids about the sweets and the history of the bakery. Try a slice of flan pudding, a senorita or my favorite, the guava pastries.
Saving with CityPASS
The Tampa Bay area CityPASS can be a great option for saving money on attractions. With the CityPASS, you can get admission to Busch Gardens, The Florida Aquarium, Tampa´s Lowry Park Zoo, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and a choice of either the Museum of Science & Industry or the Chihuily Collection.
The CityPASS booklet not only includes entrance tickets for the attractions, but also provides special discounts on the merchandising stores, or discounts on upgrades. Another added bonus is that the booklet lets you save time waiting in admission lines.
When you add up the admission price of everything you can do with your Tampa Bay CityPASS you save over 50% by bundling the attractions together. Basically, you pay half of what you would if you purchased tickets separately. Especially if you are traveling to Tampa with kids those savings add up quick!
How to schedule using of the Tampa Bay CityPASS
- Give Busch Gardens a full day. You will need it and won´t regret it.
- The aquariums and the Museum of Science and Industry can each be done in about half a day. You can easily do one in attraction in the morning, grab some lunch (at The Columbia!) then check out another in the afternoon or evening.
- It takes about half a day to visit Zoo Tampa. However, it involves more walking than either aquarium so you might want to allot an entire day.
Have you visited Tampa with the kids before? Did I miss any must-see spots? Share your favorite family things to do in Tampa with kids in the comments!
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