An enriching family vacation


For the past few years, all my two elementary school-age kids wanted to do on vacation was go to the beach. Now that they’re getting older, they want more. MUCH more. They want fun, rides, and animals. My son, Jason, specifically requested: “Adventure!”

Amanda, my daughter, came home from school saying she had learned about José Gaspar, the legendary pirate who sailed west Florida waters during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Her excitement over the topic led to an Internet search about Tampa Bay, and she found tons of exciting activities and attractions. The destination seemed to have everything on our vacation bucket list. I booked five days. We were taking over Tampa!

Ybor City
After getting settled into our hotel room at the Hilton Garden Inn, we headed into the historic neighborhood in which it is situated, Ybor City. It is one of only two in Florida to be designated a National Historic Landmark District. The heart of Ybor City is on 7th Avenue (La Séptima), northeast of downtown Tampa. Ybor City is known as Tampa's Latin Quarter, and is home to businesses, restaurants, shops, arts, and entertainment. Immigrants first created the unique cultural blend, with people coming from Spain, Cuba, Germany and Italy.

To get the taste of the town, we went straight to Florida’s oldest restaurant, The Columbia. We ordered traditional Cuban sandwiches with fresh meat, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard, brushed with butter and pressed to a delicious crisp. For dessert, we split the creamy, caramel flan (from a recipe dating back to 1935) and a slice of cool, tart-sweet key lime pie. Not a crumb remained.

After lunch, we took in the sights and sounds of Ybor. We found quaint cigar shops with torcedores rolling cigars in the windows, eclectic cafés serving different varieties of authentic Cuban sandwiches, and a saxophone player on the sidewalk belting out some seriously smooth jazz. This previously undiscovered treasure blew us away.

The Florida Aquarium
We spent our second morning at The Florida Aquarium. All of the exhibits were magnificent, but I especially loved the coral reef display. With coral formations modeled after the Dry Tortugas off the Florida Keys, this stunning 500,000-gallon tank provides incredible views of a vast community of reef residents representing 100 different species.

My kids were obsessed with Stingray Beach, the touch exhibit featuring many different species of stingrays and sharks, including: Southern Rays, Blue Spotted Rays, Coral Catsharks and White Spotted Bamboo Sharks. The first time Jason touched a soft, slippery stingray, his eyes opened wide and his grin was ear to ear!

Later that afternoon, we headed to the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI). In a word, MOSI is SPECTACULAR. Amanda went bananas over the Planetarium. She couldn’t believe the 360-degree view of the starry night sky, complete with constellations and shooting stars. Jason still hasn’t stopped talking about speeding down the zip line. It was something he had always wanted to do, but we never expected to find a zip line at a science museum! MOSI was the perfect combination of fun, adventure and excitement that my kids crave.

Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo
We spent the third day at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo. This place is so much more than a zoo. With 1,000 animals on 56 acres, we had a lot to cover.

At the giraffe habitat, I bought a bundle of lettuce to participate in the hand-feeding—the kids couldn’t believe the size of the giraffe’s tongues! They were experts at wrapping their tongues around the handfuls of lettuce and gently tugging away their snack.

It wasn’t long before the kids were ready for the Tasmanian Tiger Family Coaster. This roller coaster had my young adventurers screaming with delight and laughing hysterically while zooming through the air. The jubilant yells only stopped at the end—for a moment, at least: “Let’s do it again!” they shouted.

Busch Gardens Kinetix show
The fourth day was all about Busch Gardens® Tampa. We began this part of the adventure on Skyride to get a good overview of the park. In addition to enjoying the great view of the animals, the ride fueled Jason and Amanda’s excitement about the other attractions. Cheetah Hunt, the newest roller coaster at the park, was a little intimidating for them, but Jason assured me that he’d be ready in one—or maybe two—years.

We got our thrills from rides like the family coaster, SandSerpent, loaded with ‘S’ curves, corkscrews and ups and wild downs. We also braved the rapids of Stanley Falls. Concluding with a grand and refreshing soaking, the ride had the kids squealing with unbridled joy.

We dried off with the help of a couple of more rides, then went animal scouting. Cheetah Run inspired Amanda. Watching them up close had her wanting to both cuddle with them and run as fast as they did.

The Edge of Africa introduced the kids to a whole new continent right here in Florida. With nothing but glass separating them, the kids were face-to-face with lions, hippos and hyenas. Needless to say, they were amazed! Of course, these incredible creatures had me in awe as well.

In between attractions, we’d been talking about the evening show all day. So, when the time came, we were all excited for the incredible event called the Kinetix show (part of Busch Gardens’ annual Summer Nights festivities). From pyrotechnics and acrobats to musicians and singers, this energizing performance had all of us on our feet and in total awe!

A three man juggling performance captivated Jason.

“Mom, I can’t even count how many pins they’re throwing around!” he said.

Other performers took jumping rope to a whole new level. In one case, a person on another’s shoulder jumped two ropes at a time. Next, someone was jumping over an acrobat serving as the rope itself. A moment later we were gawking at a three-person tower performing the feat. There were more than enough “oohs” and “ahhs” to go around.

Florida Museum of Photographic Arts
With just one day left in Tampa, I wanted to check out the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts (FMoPA). FMoPA is located in the Waterfront Arts District in Rivergate Plaza. The building itself, called The Cube, is a piece of art that reflects its name appropriately in shape and in checkered window design. Once inside, we explored the permanent collections, exhibitions and contributions from community photographers. The kids surprised me—they were totally engaged, studying each image as closely as they would an episode of their favorite cartoon. They were hooked!

I learned two lessons on this fabulous vacation. Number one, my kids are incredible little explorers. Number two, Tampa is one sensational city.

Unlock the cultural treasures of Tampa Bay!