Filled to the brim with beaches, amusement parks and long sunny days, Florida is one of America’s most fabulous playgrounds — and the Tampa Bay area is no exception. Kids will be having too much fun to realize how much they’re learning at the Florida Aquarium or the Museum of Science and Industry (and their parents just might enjoy themselves too).
But if the gang has had enough education (this is a vacation, after all!), Tampa has no shortage of places to just plain play — from the inviting beaches of the Gulf Coast to the roller coasters of Busch Gardens.
A note on transportation: You’ll need a car for days two and three of this itinerary — and depending on where you stay, you may need a car to get to and from downtown Tampa on day one as well.
Home Away From Home
The Hampton Inn & Suites is a relatively new addition to Tampa’s historic Ybor City district, and is a good mid-budget option for those looking to stay within the city limits. The rooms are pleasant and spacious, and suites come with small kitchenettes — a convenient touch. Hot breakfast is complimentary, and cribs and high chairs are available from the front desk. If you need a day off from sightseeing, the family can hang out by the outdoor pool in the courtyard.
One of the most elegant hotels in the city, the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay welcomes families in style. It’s a bit of a splurge, but it’s worth it — for the luxurious rooms (and Spanish-style casitas), for its wildlife estuary full of birds and marine life, and for its gorgeous views of both Tampa Bay and the downtown skyline. Baby-sitting services are available, as are cribs and rollaway beds.
A good option for families on a budget is the clean, friendly Baymont Inn & Suites, located near Busch Gardens. Parking, continental breakfast and high-speed Internet access are complimentary, and kids can blow off steam in the outdoor swimming pool or in the game room. Suites with microwaves and refrigerators are available.
Start the day in downtown Tampa at the Florida Aquarium, located next to the cruise terminal. Kids will be entranced by sea creatures of all kinds, from baby alligators and playful otters to scary sharks. There are several touch tanks for children who love to get up close and personal — but if anyone really wants to get their feet wet, check out the “Swim with the Fishes” program. Kids 6 and older can go scuba diving in the aquarium’s coral reef exhibit, getting a fish’s-eye view of more than 1,600 angelfish, parrotfish, moray eels and other sea life. (Note: No experience or SCUBA certification is required.)
After you’ve explored the aquarium’s indoor exhibits, head outside to the Explore a Shore area, where kids can let off steam in an aquatic playground that features a water slide, a pirate ship, model animals and a special corner just for toddlers. Parents can take a quick rest with a drink from the nearby Caribbean Cantina.
When the gang gets hungry, walk over to Precinct Pizza, located in the the Channelside Bay Plazacomplex next to the aquarium. This fun, casual eatery serves up New York-style pizza (plus calzones, burgers, salads and sandwiches). A kids’ menu is available for kids 8 and under.
After lunch, get ready to take a trip back in time. Hop aboard one of Tampa’s historic streetcars and head uptown to one of the city’s first neighborhoods: Ybor City. Here you’ll get a taste of Tampa’s Latin origins, complete with wrought-iron balconies and little houses known as casitas, where workers in the neighborhood’s cigar factories used to live. Ybor City was founded by a Spanish immigrant and populated by Cubans, Italians and other immigrants. Older kids may be interested in learning some of the city’s history at the Ybor City Museum, where you can watch a professional hand-rolling cigars.
Nearby is Centro Ybor, one of the neighborhood’s newer attractions. Here you can grab a casual dinner and explore an interactive world of games at GameTime.
Today is fun, Florida-style — and that means a theme park! Busch Gardens is Tampa’s biggest family magnet, brimming with adventure and activity for all ages. The 300-acre park is a colorful re-creation of colonial Africa, complete with a Serengeti Safari, a Congo River Rapids ride and King Tut’s tomb. There are plenty of roller coasters, too, of course; the headliner is SheiKra, which features two stomach-churning, 90-degree drops of over 100 feet. But the rides are only part of the story; the park’s large collection of African animals includes hippos, lions, zebras, elephants, giraffes and more. If anyone needs a break, take in a show at one of the park’s several theaters.
There are some 20 places to enjoy lunch or dinner within the park. Go (relatively) upscale at the Crown Colony Restaurant, a full-service eatery offering everything from filet mignon to fried chicken, or grab some down-home-style barbecue at the Zambia Smokehouse.
You’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of family-friendly attractions in the Tampa area, so we’ll make a few different suggestions for your last day. One possible first stop is the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in north Tampa. It’s educational, but don’t tell the kids — they’ll be too busy pedaling a high-wire bike 30 feet off the ground, gaping at 40-ton dinosaur skeletons and discovering what it feels like to be buffeted by hurricane-force winds. You can also take in a show in the IMAX theater or the planetarium; recent IMAX offerings included films about Arabia, the Hubble telescope and prehistoric undersea creatures. Children 12 and under have their own special area called Kids in Charge!, with fun interactive science exhibits designed by a team of both adults and kids.
Plan to spend at least half your day at MOSI, including lunch in the museum cafe. Then drive about 20 minutes to Dinosaur World in Plant City, Florida. At this outdoor museum kids can go on a fossil dig, assemble a giant “dino-puzzle” and check out life-size dinosaur skeletons.
There are a number of crowd-pleasing chain restaurants in Plant City, like Papa John’s Pizza and the Outback Steakhouse, where you can grab dinner.
Rather have a more laid-back day? Don’t feel like you’ve “done” Florida without seeing some sun and sand? If so, head for Clearwater Beach, about a 40-minute drive from Tampa on the Gulf Coast. This wide, white beach boasts some of the softest sand in the country, but there’s way more to do than just build sandcastles (though that’s fun too!). During the day, set sail from Clearwater Marina with a rowdy crew of buccaneers and wenches aboard Captain Memo’s pirate ship. Kids can practice their “aarrrrr!” and “ahoy matey!” to their hearts’ content as they keep an eye out for dolphins. Tip: Book online and save $2 off the cruise price.
For lunch, check out one of four Frenchy’s seafood restaurants, located in various spots along Clearwater Beach’s waterfront. These casual, funky eateries draw visitors and locals alike with signature dishes like the grouper sandwich (available fried, grilled or cooked Cajun-style).
The center of Clearwater’s on-land action is Pier 60, a recreational park and fishing pier with restaurants, concession stands, shops — and fishing, of course. Don’t miss Sunsets at Pier 60, a festival that celebrates the Gulf Coast’s gorgeous sunsets every night with live music, street performers and other family fun. Admission is free. Eat dinner at one of the Pier’s restaurants and enjoy the view!