Sunny Day Explorations
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Sunny Day Explorations

3 Tampa Bay itineraries for family fun

By Terry Ward

With so many sunny days in Tampa Bay, you always have a reason to get out and about. Let us show you and your family how to make the most of this glorious place with an itinerary for every type of traveler.

Itinerary 1: Nature Lovers

Diving into the real Florida is easy in Tampa Bay thanks to the area’s eco-tourism opportunities, wildlife and pristine beaches.

Marvel at manatees

Florida’s iconic marine mammal congregates in Tampa Bay during the cooler months. It’s easy to see these peaceful creatures up close and in person at the TECO Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach. Warm water from the power station creates a designated sanctuary where manatees gather by the hundreds. An observation deck and boardwalk give visitors access Nov. 1 through mid-April. Be sure to visit the award-winning on-site butterfly gardens, too.

Go Wild on the Hillsborough River

A few miles from downtown’s modern towers, ancient cypress forests teem with diverse wildlife along the upper reaches of the Hillsborough River. Explore the river and wildlife on a family paddling adventure with Canoe Escape. The outfitter offers two-hour or full-day tours through a 16,000-acre preserve. You can also rent kayaks and set out on your own from Hillsborough River State Park. There’s a special sight for every season—white ibis during the autumn months, wild hogs and turkey in the winter, spring songbirds, turtles and those famous Florida alligators basking in the sun.

Roam the Riverwalk Downtown

Where the Hillsborough River meets the bay, the waterfront sparkles with possibilities. Take a self-guided, self-powered tour of downtown via stand-up paddleboard or Tampa Bay Water Bike. Hop an e-boat and captain your own voyage of discovery. Or sit back and let a skilled hand take the wheel aboard the Pirate Water Taxi. Landlubbers will find the Tampa Riverwalk and Bayshore Boulevard to be the perfect places for a morning jog, afternoon bike ride, or sunset stroll. The Riverwalk connects hotels, restaurants, parks and cultural sites like gems on a string.

See Eye-to-Eye With a Giraffe

Meet some of Africa’s most amazing animals face-to-face at ZooTampa at Lowry Park, where you can feed giraffes and a rhinoceros by hand. The zoo’s manatee hospital rehabilitates injured or sick manatees before returning them to the wild. Splash down on Roaring Springs, the zoo’s family-friendly water ride.

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Itinerary 2: Adrenaline Enthusiasts

For families in search of an adrenaline rush, there are countless ways to set pulses pounding around Tampa Bay.

Close encounters of the reptilian kind

It’s one thing to see an alligator lazily sunning itself on a riverbank. It’s a different thrill entirely when you witness their sheer power and jaw-snapping prowess during alligator wrestling shows and feedings at the Croc Encounters attraction, home to rescued alligators and crocodiles. You’ll also find snake, lizard and amphibian displays. You and your family even have the rare opportunity to hold baby gators.

World-class rollercoasters

Busch Gardens® Tampa Bay ranks among the best theme parks in the world—and for good reason. Test your courage on North America’s tallest freestanding drop tower, Falcon’s Fury. Get inverted on the super steel coaster called Montu, or get twisted on the Kumba’s famous corkscrew. There are tamer rides here for the youngest in your crew, including a visit to a Sesame Street-themed kids’ area.

Swim with sharks

For a truly unparalleled experience, slip beneath the surface to snorkel or dive with sand tiger sharks, sea turtles and other residents of The Florida Aquarium’s Coral Reef exhibit. The aquarium duplicates Florida’s aquatic environment, showing how springs, streams and the Gulf of Mexico are connected in Tampa Bay. In the mood for a milder experience? Get behind the scenes with penguins or hop aboard a catamaran for a dolphin tour.

Learn the ropes at MOSI

Tampa Bay’s Museum of Science and Industry provides plenty of opportunities for hands-on learning about science, technology, math and engineering. Kids can build their own robots, operate a moon base, or learn what makes their own bodies tick. Then they can challenge themselves physically by navigating the network of narrow pathways on the Sky Trails® Ropes Course.

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Itinerary 3: Culture-Seeking Families

Families looking to immerse themselves in culture, can stroll through history in Tampa’s Latin quarter and visit the area’s top-quality museums.

12,000 years of Florida history

Tampa Bay’s history encompasses Native Americans, Spanish conquistadors, Cuban cigar rollers and countess others. Experience their stories with immersive experiences at the Tampa Bay History Center. This Smithsonian Affiliate Museum sits on the Tampa Riverwalk in downtown. Opening in 2018, the new gallery Treasure Seekers: Conquistadors, Pirates and Shipwrecks celebrates Tampa Bay’s love of pirates and exploring. After your visit, stop for lunch at the museum’s Columbia Cafe for an authentic Cuban sandwich in the community that created it.

Visit a children’s museum like no other

Situated on the Tampa Riverwalk in downtown’s cultural corridor, The Glazer Children’s Museum has loads of interactive exhibits geared toward kids—from toddlers to pre-teens. Among the fun exhibits to explore are a kid-size firehouse, an African drum hut, a play hospital, indoor playground and even a kiddie cruise ship. Budding engineers can try their hand at building paper airplanes or learn how their home plumbing works.

After your visit, step outside to Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park to let the kids splash in the interactive fountains, run around the playground or spot water taxis cruising the river.

Tour Ybor City, Tampa Bay’s Latin quarter

The brick streets and old cigar factories in Ybor City exude the historic Latin roots of Tampa Bay. The former Cigar Capital of the World has been home to Cuban, Spanish, Italian, German and Jewish residents since the 1880s. Grab an ice cream with the kids at Centro Ybor, an indoor/outdoor entertainment zone with a movie theater, shops and restaurants. Learn about the area’s cultural heritage, many immigrant groups and cigar industry with a visit to the Ybor City Museum State Park.

Eating in Ybor is the best way to get a taste of Tampa Bay’s culture, so pick up an iconic Cuban sandwich at La Tropicana Cafe or go for Cuban-Spanish fare at Florida’s oldest restaurant, Columbia Restaurant, which has been in business here since 1905.

Whether nature, adrenaline or culture calls to you, answer back in Tampa Bay.