Tampa Bay’s wet n’ wild side

By Leilani Polk


Looking for bold family adventure, my husband and I had organized a series of wet and wild activities. Luckily, planning excursions around Tampa Bay requires nothing more than the decision to explore what’s right outside our front door. One summer morning just before sunrise, we woke the kids up with a surprise command: “Pack your sun block and swimsuits; we’re taking over the splash zone.”

Diving in
Today’s double-punch of theme park fun includes at Busch Gardens and Adventure Island. Our family arrives at Busch Gardens right as the gates open ready for action! We make a beeline for three rides that have just enough scare to get us all screaming without turning anyone upside down. At each drop and twist, we trade jerky howls of laughter along our soaking adventure down the Congo River Rapids waterway. Stanley Falls and the Tanganyika Tidal Wave drench us even more during their respective final plummets. Dad gets the biggest dousing, and the brim of his hat hangs down in a water-logged flop at the Wave’s end.

We sip lemonades while eagerly scanning the video monitors for the snapshot taken of us right before the final drop. The image appears. My generally rough and tough teenage son has a wide-eyed expression of unadulterated terror.

When it pops up on the screen, my son laughs. “That should be my new profile picture!”

Can’t argue with that.

Next up on our journey for ultimate fun: Adventure Island. And our first stop has tube rides that curl and spiral down the maze of slides at the Key West Rapids. Afterwards, my girls brave the Everglides, barreling down the 72-foot slope with piercing squeals, until they skid to a stop in a surge of spray. We nosh on foot-long hot dogs, funnel cakes and fries at the Surfside Café, eventually end up kicking back on rafts while drifting serenely on the Ramblin’ Bayou as the day turns to dusk, and abandon the park before its Island Nights party gets underway. Everyone in this crew is beat but satisfied.

Getting our feet wet
Our next jaunt gives us a stimulating new pastime to learn together: a private group lesson from Urban Kai Stand-Up Paddleboarding, located right on the Hillsborough River in downtown Tampa. Urban Kai’s experienced instructor explains the fundamentals of stand-up paddling; from safety tips to turning techniques. She assures us that we’ll all be upright and paddling by the lesson’s end, and though my dainty middle daughter appears rather dubious, she and the rest of us get the hang of it rather quickly. After graduating from the school of Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP), we test our newly earned skills on a short trip down the river and drink in the area’s natural beauty from atop our boards.

Morning paddle complete, we buzz over to The Tampa RiverWalk for some afternoon pursuits. The youngest can’t stop chattering about the water fountains edging Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, so we stop in for a post-paddle splash. The shifting pattern of sprays delights the girls into tag-teamed giggles and forces our son from his regularly furrowed countenance into a bright toothy grin. We notice several families on the river pumping pedals on banana yellow water bikes, and Dad points them out, voicing what we’re all thinking: “We’ll have to rent a few of those next time.”

Taking it all in
After trading our damp clothes for dry ones, we hit a riverfront restaurant completely unique to the area, Ulele, known for serving authentic “Tampa native” cuisine. We gorge on Ulele house burgers (made with short rib, brisket and chuck meat) and delectable White Cheddar Popcorn Mashed Potatoes, and share a few slices of Fortune Taylor’s Guava Pie.

As the evening closes in, we venture back to the car in a weary but contented hush. As the flickering multi-hued lights along the Riverwalk’s byways glow against the darkening sky, I come to a surprising realization: This was not some far away destination—Tampa Bay was here the whole time, just waiting to be boldly explored and enjoyed.