You’re probably thinking, “Why the heck would I go to Tampa, when I can go to Disney?” Perhaps you’re visiting family or just looking for new places to travel with the little ones in toe. Tampa loves surprising its visitors with a more varied agenda than just Disney World. Tampa offers some award-winning parks that rival those found in our sister city and much, much more. As a bonus, you don’t even get the crowds, lines, or headaches going to Disney brings with it. Here are some of our favorite things to do in Tampa with kids.
Best Places to Stay in Tampa
The hotel choices, even with kids, is practically endless in Tampa. If you’re looking to add to your hotel reward points (free hotel room for another trip w out the kiddos?), the century old Historic Federal Courthouse is a modern, sleek hotel while the Riverwalk Hotel is right on the walking path headed straight to Tampa’s best eateries.
If no hotel is kid-friendly enough for you, and you need your own house or apartment (mini kitchen? kids get their own bedroom?), Airbnb has some of our all-time favorite Tampa spots — from a luxury townhouse to a Tampa Heights Bungalow to a beach bunkie tiny-home.
How to Get Around Tampa
You can certainly walk around the waterfront, especially if you’re staying in the downtown area, but unless you’ve got your own vehicle, you’ll be needing a car. Hertz has pickup locations at the airport and also throughout town.
Best Experiences in Tampa for Kids
We know you used to enjoy exploring town at your leisure, but let’s be realistic and accept that you’re with kids and kids need a plan. Put down their tech devices (and yours) and plan a few special experiences that are unique to Tampa. Everything from a kayak tour of Shell Key (isn’t the beach why you’re here!?!) to a sunset eco-cruise to a city bike tour can be booked beforehand.
Attractions in Tampa for Kids
The Museum of Science and Industry has over 450 hands-on activities and is the largest science center in the southeast. Kids can learn about their bodies, visit butterfly gardens, ride a bike while dangling over 30 feet in the air, create a tornado with a touch of a finger or simply lay back and view the stars in the planetarium. If that doesn’t keep them busy enough, drop them off at the NASA sponsored lunar colony and let them see how good alien kids have it. Come early as parking can be a hot mess and make sure to eat before as the café is a bit pricey.
Busch Gardens Tampa Bay has roller coasters, animal adventures and amazing theatre shows. Plan on spending a full day here to take it all in. This park is by far my favorite and if you’re traveling with extended families, grandparents will find plenty of places to escape for a break. Be sure to visit King Tut’s tomb when it gets hot outside; lots of cold a/c. Let your kids navigate the jeep at the Rhino Rally and get drenched on the Congo River Rapids. Take the SkyRide for a bird’s eye view of your teens sneaking off to yet another coaster. The park is open 365 days of the year and prices range $77-$88 per person. Tip: Purchase the All Day Dining ticket for $33 and pay the extra for VIP parking. Remember to bring sippy cups as parks are lid and straw free for animal safety.
Adventure Island sits next door to Busch Gardens and is the place to go if your children are “fish.” This is a full-on water park complete with sandy beach so plop your butt down while your kids terrorize the natives. Prices range $37-$41 per person. The park is full of beautiful palm trees so plenty of shade for Dad. Food/drink are allowed so bring your own coolers and provide older kids with the park wristband for purchases.
Lowry Park Zoo won the Parents Magazine award as the #1 zoo in the US. It’s perfect for those with little ones since you can manage to do everything in a few hours and the rides are smaller scale. It’s one of the few places on Earth to still see manatees, those strange cow-like creatures that are so ugly they’re cute, and once you do you won’t forget them. Watch them eat heads of lettuce and watermelons while holding the food with their flippers. The main attractions right now are the baby Pygmy Hippo born 11/15 and the baby African Elephant born 12/23. Inside the park, DinoQuest 2 has dinosaurs that move, blink and roar. Kids can dig for fossils and speed down the Velocity-Raptor slide. Come back at nighttime for an eerie experience.
Tampa Bay is home to some of the most dedicated fans in the world. Come on, who else in the NFL has a working cannon? You can pick up souvenirs in every store for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Football, Tampa Bay Lightning Hockey and Tampa Bay Rays Baseball.
Florida Aquarium is home to sharks, otters and penguins. Prices range $16-$20 per person. There is a petting pool with Stingrays and Starfish and if your kids are driving you crazy, have them Swim with the Sharks; it might end up a peaceful afternoon! Stop by the water fun zone for an added bonus: a tiki bar where you can sip your Mohito’s while the kids spray those annoying people in front of you in line.
Make sure you make time to visit the beaches! Hey it’s Florida; we’ve got lots of water. Your visit isn’t complete without sticking your toes in the silky sand of our coasts. While not technically in Tampa, just 30 minutes outside, you can spend the whole day looking for sand dollars, pirate treasure (yes we really have that), and your children. Wear tons of sunscreen, bring a cooler and your own beach toys; the family next to you won’t share theirs. If you want to splurge, rent a cabana for shade. Bring a camera for dolphin sightings. Bring cash for beachside activities.
Gasparilla Pirate Invasion is another great thing to do in Tampa with kids. “Land, ho!” The world’s only fully-rigged pirate ship, the Jose Gasparilla, will enter the Bay dead set on invasion. Grab your beads and enjoy Tampa’s rich heritage of the legendary pirate Jose Gaspar, “last of the Buccaneers,” who terrorized the coastal waters during the 18th century. Pirates don’t know how to behave once the sun goes down and you risk joining the largest drunken brawl on Earth by staying. Mardi Gras ain’t got nothing on this party.
National and State Parks are found throughout Florida and Tampa have much diversity: beaches, forests and wetlands complete with panthers, bears and alligators. I mean bears that will come right up to your camp site begging for food. Park rangers share their passion for the environment by teaching about local critters, wildflowers and outdoor survival. Most have arts/crafts, kayaking, snorkeling and scary ghost stories over a pit fire. During the holidays, you often find Santa roaming the area too. FYI: there’s limited cell phone service here.
If you need an indoor activity, the Tampa Bay Grand Prix is sure to keep both kids and adults entertained. They have a variety of karts and tracks suitable for different age groups. If you’ve ever dreamed of being a Formula 1 racer, this is the place to indulge in that fantasy.
Tampa Theatre is also a great place to visit with kids. Besides its showings of indie, foreign and documentary movies, the theatre itself is something to be marveled at. A city landmark, it opened in 1926. This historic setting has been the backdrop to many a movie or music video, so why not make it the backdrop to your next family photo?
Finally, MacDill Air Force Base offers an up close and personal view of some of our finest aircraft. Not only does this breathtakingly beautiful base sit on the water, it’s an Air Mobility Command (AMC) base capable of rapidly projecting air-refueling power anywhere in the world. Go USA!
Best Things to Pack For a Trip to Tampa
So you planned your Tampa trip—now you just have to pack. If you’re anything like my family, a lot of your time is going to be spent at the beach (or the pool) so a flattering swimsuit—like this wildly popular one-piece swimsuit from Summersalt—and a pair of stylish sunnies—like these chic Quay sunglasses—are a must. I’d also 10/10 recommend bringing a fashionable yet functional beach bag to tote around everything you’ll need for a day of fun in the sun. And by everything, I mean a tube of sunscreen (my kids love this glittery sunblock!), a well-insulated reusable water bottle to stay hydrated (because no, margaritas don’t count), and a portable charger to keep your phone from dying while you’re out exploring all day. Psst: Your kids aren’t the only ones who should be having fun on this Florida vaca, either. Bring along something to keep yourself entertained while you’re lounging on the beach, too—like the waterproof Kindle Paperwhite for finally starting on your must-read list. If the kids need something to read, give them an educational and inspirational book set. Time to kick back and relax.
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