Staking claim to the land with family and friends
By Leilani Polk
Brace yourself, Tampa: I’m taking over, and I can’t wait!
I’ve got three rounds of guests coming up: first, my college roommate and her kids; then a few cousins; then my parents and nieces. Tampa Bay has been my home for most of my life. I’ve watched the city grow over the past few decades, expanding our entertainment and cultural offerings. But you know what they say: it’s not an experience unless you bring someone along. That’s why I love discovering and rediscovering the attractions here with visiting friends and family. They give me fresh perspective on places I sometimes take for granted. So, now I can’t wait!
Funny…when given the choice between my couch and the luxurious Hilton Tampa Downtown hotel, all of my guests opted to stay at the Hilton Tampa Downtown. The hotel has beautiful rooms, a rooftop pool and fine dining and cocktails on site, and it’s in Tampa’s cultural heart. It’s the perfect spot to take advantage of the attractions within walking distance such as the Tampa Museum of Art, the Straz Center for Performing Arts, historic Tampa Theatre and the third Sunday Morning Market. Actually, now that I think of it, I’d like to make a stop down there to peruse fresh local produce, gourmet spices and original works by area artists and craftspeople, all the while getting serenaded by local singer/songwriters.
While my visitors are here, I don’t want to waste any time on the “What do you want to do?” conversations. So, I’ve worked out a lot of what we’ll be doing in advance with one little decision: CityPASS. CityPASS is a booklet of discount admission tickets to Busch Gardens® Tampa, Clearwater Marine Aquarium and the Tampa Trio: The Florida Aquarium, Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo and the Museum of Science & Industry. It manages to touch on a little of everything my city has to offer and prompts ideas for other outings that deliver an authentic taste of Tampa.
We’ll be diving into both aquariums. The bigger, newer Florida Aquarium houses upwards of 20,000 plants and animals, but I’m more interested in checking out interactive experiences such as Shark Swim, an in-water reef adventure that requires no SCUBA license and lets guests 9 and up swim around with thousands of vibrantly colored fish, sting rays, barracudas, sea turtles and—yes—even sharks.
The Museum of Science & Industry will get the kids’ brains flowing with more than 450 science exhibits. The IMAX dome movie theater will fill their eyes with spectacular images on its massive 82-foot movie screen. They’ll also get some fun exercise on the ropes course.
Busch Gardens® Tampa stacks fun on top of fun. Its expansive grounds deliver awe-inspiring encounters with 250 different species of animal residents! Dozens of thrill rides, including eight top-rated roller coasters, will get the adrenaline pumping. I’m a major fan of Kumba (three seconds of weightlessness, ya’ll), but I’m most looking forward to first-time experiences on two new rides: Falcon’s Fury, a drop tower, and the triple-launch floorless dive coaster, Cheetah Hunt. I can hear my cousins’ piercing screams already.
Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo showcases Florida wildlife and some non-native animals. Wallaroo station has koalas, wallabies, kookaburras and other Australian creatures—along with rides, exhibits and even a water-spouting play area. I’m making a point of bringing the family through for Zoominations, a Chinese lantern festival of lights when the zoo will be festooned with glowing lantern structures. There’ll be meticulously constructed replicas of the Beijing Temple of Heaven along with colossal-size pandas, dragons, elephants, giraffes and flowers all custom built by craftsmen from China’s Sichuan province flown in specially for the occasion.
The Children’s Gasparilla Parade—a younger-audience version of the traditional Gasparilla Parade of the Pirates—will be going on when my nieces and parents are in town, so we’ll kick off that Saturday wandering down scenic Bayshore Boulevard, taking in the sights and noshing on food truck goodies before finding our seats. We’ll be delighted by the area’s adorably ferocious 5-and-younger buccaneers in the Gasparilla Preschooler’s Stroll, and ooh and ahh over the parachute jumps executed by U.S. Special Ops Jump Team, The Para-Commandos, during the Gasparilla Air Invasion. The main-event parade will have us dashing to grab flying clusters of beads and swag thrown from the 100 or so floats riding down Bayshore with the marching bands, dance units and various other groups. We’ll stick around for the grand finale, a big “Piratechnic” extravaganza that re-creates the fictional sea battle between the Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla pirates and the city of Tampa (with plenty of fireworks and explosions).
We’ll be making culinary pit stops on all our outings. Soul Food Sundays at Ella’s Americana Folk Art Café is great for its special menu of down-home comfort food (the Bloody Ella cocktail is garnished with a rib). Then there’s the original Tampa food truck, Taco Bus, with its cheap, authentic Mexican fare served from a bus parked in the rear of a quaint brick cantina. The Refinery balances casual ambiance with the sophisticated flavor palette of Chef Greg Baker (a four-time James Beard award semi-finalist)—its menu of modern American cuisine changing regularly based on availability of seasonal, locally sourced foodstuffs. Bern’s Steak House, a fine dining institution open since 1923 is known for its private dessert room and impressive wine selection. And we can’t miss Columbia Restaurant, an Ybor City dining tradition serving exceptional Cuban-Spanish food amid an upscale dining environment for more than a century.
Tampa is my home. Soon my guests will invade and we’ll make it our own personal playground. Watch out, Tampa Bay—the conquest is coming!
Book your adventure today and take over Tampa with the CityPASS!