If you’re going to Florida, check out these ideas for fun, family-friendly things to do with kids in the Tampa area!
I just got back from a nine-day cross-country trip that involved four flights and more than 12 hours in the car…with my kids (ages 4 and 1). Am I crazy? Probably, but it was actually (mostly) a ton of fun!
My husband had to travel to Tampa, Florida for work, and there was a conference he wanted to attend in Key West around the same time, so we decided to make an epic family vacation of it and hope we weren’t totally getting in over our heads. I figured, he had to go anyway, and I’d rather spend the days exploring with the kids in a fun, new city than going crazy at home without him. So, we packed our bags and headed off on our adventure (Do you like how I made it sound like packing for a family of four is super easy? It’s not, FYI).
In case any of you ever have an opportunity to visit the Tampa area, I thought I’d give a little review and recap of some of our favorite things we did on our trip. We have quite a bit of travel planned this year, so don’t be surprised if you see more posts in this little series.
First of all, I have to say that Tampa has never been on my list of places to visit. Not because I had any negative impression of it, I just never thought about it at all. It turns out, it’s actually a great family-friendly city!
Things to do with kids in Tampa, Florida
Riverwalk & Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park
Our first evening in Tampa (after checking in at the hotel and getting a quick dinner), we decided to drive downtown and walk along the Riverwalk. It’s a 2.4 mile path along the river that gives great views of the city skyline, the university, and–my boys’ favorite–a working drawbridge. We didn’t walk far (the boys were tired after the long day of traveling), but even in our short jaunt, I was impressed. It was clean, enjoyable, and not crowded.
We parked right by the children’s museum (see below) and walked to the great little playground they have by the water. It’s part of the Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, which is actually quite large and has a splash pad and seating around a grassy amphitheater. My boys made friends with some local kids who all loved that my husband was willing to push them all on the merry-go-round! Note: Floridians were super friendly!
Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo
The Tampa Zoo was the best zoo I’ve ever been to, at least from the perspective of taking toddlers. It’s not cheap ($29.95 for adults and $22.95 for kids, but you essentially get a season pass for the price of one day, so you can go more than once while you’re in town, which we did!), but there are lots of animals to see (all the kids’ favorites) and a lot of them could be seen pretty close up, like these rhinos that were less than 10 feet from us!
My boys especially loved all the rides there, and I loved that they were included in the price of admission. Most of the rides are geared toward younger kids–probably the 6 and under set, although they have a couple bigger rides that were closed for maintenance when we were there. My boys could both ride the train (tiny, but fun), flying bananas (like the Dumbo ride at Disneyland), carousel, and they could even captain their own bumper boats, which was hilarious. The “pool” was only 18 inches deep so they just had a worker slog through the water and pull the kids out of corners when their completely inept steering got them stuck. Watching my 22 month old laugh as his brother delightedly bumped into him was one of the highlights of the trip for me.
The splash pad was also a welcome addition since it was so hot.
The zoo has a few other cool features, too. In the African safari section, they have an 18-minute tram ride that goes around that whole section of the zoo and also shows some extras. It was the last thing we did, and it was awesome because we were hot and tired so we got to see all the animals while sitting in the shade.
The only thing I wouldn’t recommend at the zoo with toddlers is the bird show. I thought it was interesting, but it was slower paced and the boys both got restless.
All in all, we spent five hours at the zoo the first day, and almost three more hours there on our last morning in Tampa, and we were never bored.
Little Toot Dolphin Cruise (Clearwater, FL)
The highlight of the entire trip (everyone agreed) was the sunset dolphin cruise we took aboard The Little Toot. I had read good things online, but the experience totally exceeded my expectations. It was a really small boat, only 12 or so people on-board and it was really low to the water, so the viewing was awesome. It was a no-frills cruise, but I liked that. On our way out of the harbor we saw some dolphins at a distance and got a pretty good view of them. Then we got it into the Gulf and saw a beautiful sunset on the water. On our way back in though, the real fun occurred. We found some dolphins who wanted to play in the wake of the boat, and we spent several minutes watching them race along the side of the boat, jumping through the wake as we went. What made me laugh was that they would jump and kind of land on their sides, almost belly flopping into the water. It was incredible to see them so close in the wild.
We had considered doing a different cruise that was pirate-themed, but it was twice the price and the boat was much bigger and higher off the water, so the dolphin viewing wouldn’t have been as good. I’m glad we chose the one we did.
I wish we had been able to spend more time around Clearwater Beach. It looked like a great (albeit super touristy) area with great restaurants and a playground for kids. Apparently, a lot of people play at the beach and walk out in the long pier to watch the sunset. Next time…
Glazer Children’s Museum
The next day the boys and I went to the Glazer Children’s museum, which was also really fun. Kind of pricey ($15 for adults, $10 for kids over 1), but we enjoyed a good 3 hours there. My boys especially loved the indoor beach, theater, and fire station. It didn’t have anything particularly notable to me, but it was a high quality children’s museum at least comparable to the ones I’ve been to in Utah near where I live.
St. Pete Beach
Our last evening in Tampa, we wanted to go to the beach. We had thought about going to a closer beach (like the Ben T. Davis beach), but several locals my husband worked with told us it really wasn’t worth visiting. So, we drove out to St. Pete beach instead. The traffic to get there was not fun, but it ended up being my favorite beach the whole trip, so I’m glad we went. It was clean, and there was plenty of parking (you had to pay, but it was only a dollar or two per hour). We found lots of little shells, which Little Man loved collecting, and Little Brother loved chasing the birds. He was determined to pet them, but was disappointed over and over. The water there was warm and shallow, so we had fun wading out quite a ways. Having grown up close to the Pacific Ocean, I always forget how truly comfortable the water of the Atlantic (especially the Gulf of Mexico) is. You can seriously walk straight into it.
Manatee Viewing Center
We didn’t actually do this one because it’s not open in the summer, but if you go to Tampa between November and April, you can see manatees for FREE at the Tampa Electric Company. Apparently, they discharge (clean) warm water into the ocean as part of their production process, and the manatees congregate around it when the ocean temperature is cooler in the winter. If I ever go back during the cooler months, I SO want to do this.
Overall, we had a great time in Tampa. It was really hot and humid (more so than is normal this time of year, according to the locals), so it was hard to spend a lot of time outside unless we were in the water, but we found lots of fun things to do.
Stay tuned for my next post in the “travel with kids” series for highlights of our trip to the Florida Keys and the Everglades.
Have you been to Florida? What are your must-see attractions in the sunshine state?
Note: All opinions in this post are my own, and I was not compensated in any way for endorsing the companies/attractions mentioned herein.
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You definitely need to come back to Tampa! You visited some great places, but there is so much more to see and do. Top of the list is the Florida Aquarium, then head down south for some great beaches. Your boys will love looking for shark’s teeth in the Venice Beach area. The teeth are numerous and they will not be disappointed. In Clearwater, you missed our other aquarium, The Clearwater Marine Aquarium, home of Winter the Dolphin and her pal Hope. Their stories are inspirational and kids around the globe just love them. The best place for a picnic with kids? Dinosaur World! They don’t sell food and encourage picnic baskets. Yep, Tampa Bay is a great place to vacation with kids, even if you don’t hit Disney, Universal or Busch Gardens.
I would love to come back, Rhonda! My husband will likely be going there for work once or twice a year, so hopefully we’ll be able to tag along on occasion. I thought about going to Dinosaur World and the aquarium, but cost considerations led me to do other things. I’d love to check out those on a future trip. And my boys would go crazy for all the shark teeth. I can picture their wide eyes now! Thanks for the ideas!