Tampa hosts Super Bowl XLIII (that’s Super Bowl 43 for those of us who don’t read ancient Roman) this year, which means it will draw families and football lovers from around the world.

But you don’t have to be a Super Bowl fan to find plenty of fun in Tampa. It’s a great family vacation destination alternative to Orlando. And you don’t even have to forego a trip to an amusement park.

That’s because Tampa is home to the famed Busch Gardens zoo and amusement park. It’s got great thrill rides and cool animal encounter options, including the tiger tug in Jungala, the newest Busch Gardens attraction. The Bengal tigers, including the female who tugged on the rope in return for a treat from her handlers, are inside a large glass habitat that allows visitors to get up close while remaining safely behind glass.

The centerpiece of the new four-acre exhibit, designed to appeal to 7- to 14-year-olds, but clearly a big draw for kids of all ages, is Tree Top Trails, a three-story climbing apparatus that could keep a kid busy for hours.

The Other Tampa Zoo

But Busch Gardens is no longer the only place in Tampa that combines the education of a zoo with the fun of theme park rides. There’s also Lowry Park Zoo, a great option, especially for families with younger children. It’s small enough to be manageable for little ones and offers rides that tend to be tamer and more youngster-appropriate, including the new Gator Falls flume ride, which isn’t as tall or as scary as most flume rides. Nevertheless, we got plenty wet.

Like Busch Gardens, Lowry Park also takes its zoo mission seriously. It claims to be the only nonprofit organization is the world that offers care to critically injured manatees, the gentle mammals that are endangered after years of falling victim to the encroachment of humans and their boat propellers.

More Animal Encounters

Big Cat Rescue is one of those places where you can’t go without a tour guide and no one under 10 is allowed. It’s understandable, really, since there are places on the walking tour where you can get within arm’s reach of lions, tigers and other carnivores should you be silly enough to stick out your arm.

This is a non-profit educational sanctuary that takes in abused, sick or elderly exotic cats, such as Sasha, a lioness that was declawed and defanged by her former owner, who kept her and other big cats chained up in her Gambier, Ohio, backyard and charged people to pet the animals or pose for photos. Without teeth, she has trouble eating, but gets a special soft diet from her new keepers.
Not all of the cats have been so seriously abused, but all have lived a life in captivity, as circus performers or the stars of sideshows, or as pets of owners who bought them as cubs only to abandon them once they grew too big or too aggressive.

You can touch the crabs that are featured on Gus’ Crabby Adventure. Led by Captain Gus Muench, who has spent 31 years catching crabs on Tampa Bay, this is an expensive but unique experience that demonstrates a fading way of life and ends up with a dinner of the freshest crab you’ll ever eat.

Muench looks a little crabby and a little scary with his rubber waders, wide-brimmed sun hat and lined face. By the end of the four-hour tour, when he’s serving up the crab in his cozy riverfront home, he feels like a favorite crotchety old uncle.

The eco-tour includes lessons on pulling crab traps—and Gus’ commentary on the sorry state of crabbing in Tampa Bay these days. Once the traps are pulled, it’s time for the real highlight of the trip: Gus’ tour of the Bay. As we motored toward his house where we would clean, cook and eat the crab, he pointed out the natural features of the bay area, the rare birds and flowers and, at one point, shut down the engines so we could watch a family of dolphins frolic in the water just off the bow. It was a much closer, more satisfying look at the sea mammals than we had gotten a day earlier aboard a dolphin-watching tour offered by the Florida Aquarium.

Cindy Richards is the mom of two teens and editor of TravelingMom.com. She writes the MomWithTeens blog.

For more Florida stories on TMOM, check out a romantic vacation to Amelia Island, take a family vacation in space at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center or find  free stuff to do in Fort Lauderdale.

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