Think Florida is all about the Orlando, Mickey Mouse and theme parks? Think again. There are a multitude of fun things to do with kids in Tampa – and a vacation in this rich cultural center is sure to be a winner with the whole family.
Fun Things to Do in Tampa with Kids
Orlando, Florida gets all the love. Sure, it has the House of Mouse and a bevy of other attractions, so I get it. But just an hour away lies the rich cultural center of Tampa. Incorporated in 1855, Tampa has a colorful history and sweet secrets to share. And it can hold its own in the busy tourism belt of Florida. Whether you are a fan of amusement parks, quiet paths through the city, animal life, night life, or a culinary adventure (or, if you’re like our family, all of the above), Tampa has a lot to offer. There are so many things to do in Tampa with kids.
From the Bay to the lakes dotting the area, you’ll find everything you want in a family vacation. Here are some of our favorite things to do in Tampa with kids:
1) Weeki Wachee
When I was a kid, my grandmother lived in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Every year for Christmas, we spent two glorious weeks of family fun in the sun, taking a break from the snow-laden streets in Indiana. There was a regularly-aired commercial for a magical place with mermaids – mermaids! – at a park called Weeki Wachee north of Tampa. I tried to get my parents to make the 4-hour drive up that way to see them. No dice.
Believe it or not, Weeki Wachee is still open and thriving about 45 minutes north of downtown Tampa. The oldest roadside attraction in Florida, it is a state park and water park in one. And it’s one of the best things to do in Tampa with kids. This Gulf-Coast stop is a great choice on your way in or out of Tampa. The mermaids still perform three times a day, 365 days a year. Even Elvis Presley made a trip to Weeki Wachee, which should surprise no one.
2) Busch Gardens Tampa Bay
This amusement park houses thrill rides and roller coasters like the swooping and dipping, 200-foot-dropping SheiKra. Tigris, Florida’s tallest launch coaster, just opened and it’s designed for excitement, too. But wait, there’s more…Iron Gwazi, North America’s tallest hybrid coaster and the fastest and steepest wooden and steel hybrid coaster in the world, will open in the spring of 2020.
If thrill rides aren’t your thing, you’ll be happy to know that Busch Gardens is also home to more than 200 species of animals, family-friendly shows, and a Sesame Street-themed kids’ area. It’s a great choice for the whole family.
3) Tampa Riverwalk
The Tampa Riverwalk is 2.6 miles of wide open spaces, developed along the Hillsborough River. And it’s one of the best things to do in Tampa with kids! Jump in the Pirate Water Taxi for scenic views of the waterways, or take a ride to ZooTampa (formerly Lowry Park Zoo) on a longer route. At Christmas time, the Riverwalk features light shows and the Winter Village, with an ice skating rink and holiday sand sculptures. Want to get a little exercise? Rent one of the bike shares at a rental kiosk on the Riverwalk or downtown Tampa. You could also opt to hop in a canoe or kayak to admire the skyline, or stop by the Tampa Bay Waterbike Company to pedal down the river in style. Tampa Bay SUP offers paddle boards for a relaxing cruise for a fee.
4) Gasparilla Pirate Ship
Channel your best Captain Jack Sparrow during your visit to this popular annual event. Since 1904, nearly every year has been punctuated by a colorful, sometimes raucous pirate-themed parade in the name of Gasparilla, the alter ego of Jose Gaspar, a mythical Spanish Pirate. The children’s portion of the Gasparilla Parade started in 1947, and kicks off at Bayshore Boulevard, following part of the Gasparilla Parade of the Pirates route. The party is on the last Saturday in January each year. And it’s one of my favorite things to do in Tampa with kids.
Hundreds of boats join the Jose Gasparilla, a 165-foot-long pirate ship built in 1954, in the parade of watercraft across Tampa Bay. The boats dock downtown, and the pirate captain theatrically demands the key to the city from the mayor. The Jose Gasparilla is reportedly the world’s only fully-rigged pirate ship, and when it appears at the south end of Hillsborough Bay, the crowd goes wild.
5) Museum of Science and Industry
Tampa Bay’s Museum of Science and Industry (or MOSI for short) calls itself a “scientific playground” with fascinating hands-on activities for kids and parents alike. I call it a fun thing to do in Tampa with kids! Focused on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math), MOSI’s goal is to make science real for people of all ages and backgrounds. If you and your kids are into the study of physics of space and planets, the Saunders Planetarium gives you a chance to experience the Mission: Moonbase lunar colony, funded by NASA, and gaze up at the stars.
6) Adventure Island
Just across from Busch Gardens, this 3-acre water theme park is part of a partnership with SeaWorld Orlando, Aquatica Orlando, and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. You can enjoy two, three, or all four parks for bundled ticket pricing and you’ll find a whole lot of kid-friendly fun at any of them. Adventure Island is focused on water features, including slides, lazy rivers, wave pools, and more. In the spring of 2020, you can be the first to spin and splash on Solar Vortex, which is America’s first dual-tailspin water slide.
ZooTampa at Lowry Park (formerly known as Lowry Park Zoo) is a 63-acre nonprofit zoo once voted the #1 family-friendly zoo in the US by Parents magazine. Recognized by the State of Florida as the center for Florida wildlife conservation and biodiversity, this incredible zoo receives almost a million visitors annually. It houses more than 1,300 animals, including just about any you can think of off the top of your head.
The Lowry Park Zoological Society operates ZooTampa, which also exists as a center for conservation of endangered wildlife locally and around the world. One of the zoos oldest sections, the Asian Gardens, hosts Indian rhinoceros, Malayan tigers, Komodo dragon, clouded leopards, sloth bears, and an Indonesian-themed aviary. The newest section, Safari Africa, provides acacia tree-shaded areas for meerkats, giraffes, zebras, elephants, African penguins and southern white rhinoceroses.
TravelingMom Tip: At ZooTampa during the holidays? Get your family photo taken with Santa at the holiday village.
8) The Florida Aquarium
Sharks, alligators, penguins, fish, dolphins… the Florida Aquarium has them all. If sea creatures are your thing, the Florida Aquarium in Tampa is an all-day adventure in a giant 220,000 square-foot facility. It makes sense that a world-class aquarium is in Florida, but this one blew me away. No pedestrian attraction, this place offers a chance to dive with sharks, get close to a penguin, or take a wild dolphin tour on a catamaran. Once you’ve seen all the sea life you can handle, grab the kids and take a break at the new water play area.
9) Paleo Discoveries
Florida is one of the richest sources of fossil material available in terms of both quantity and quality. Whether you’re a new fossil collector or an expert, you’ll find something to love at Paleo Discoveries. We loved that we could choose to sift sand and fossils through a screen or snorkel in one of Florida’s shallow rivers or streams to find remains of prehistoric sharks, whales, dolphins, saber-tooth cats, jaguars, mammoths, mastodons, camels, tapirs, sloths, giant armadillos, and more. Your little dinosaur hunter is going to go crazy for this place.
10) Baseball Spring Training Camps
Want to catch a Yankees game in a smaller, cozier ballpark? Tampa’s George M. Steinbrenner Field hosts the striped uniforms for spring training in February and March. Spring training games are tons of fun for families and much less pricey than games in their home parks. You might even walk away with a souvenir ball! If you’re a Philadelphia Phillies or Toronto Blue Jays fan, Clearwater and Dunedin host their parks, less than an hour away.
11) Professional Sports
Tampa Bay offers a wealth of professional sports, including Tampa Bay Buccaneers football, Tampa Bay Lightning hockey, and Tampa Bay Devil Rays baseball. Depending on the time of year you’re visiting the area, a game awaits. Never been to a professional sports event? There are always family-friendly features, food, and fun.
12) Free TECO Streetcar Trolleys
The Tampa Electric Company received a $2.7 million grant from FDOT in 2018, which allowed the organization that runs the TECO streetcars to operate fare-free. In its heyday in the late 1800s, the streetcars took passengers all over town. Today, the historic cars run from Hyde Park to the Florida Aquarium or the historic part of town in Ybor City. I’ve never met someone who doesn’t smile on a streetcar ride, so be sure to hop on board and take a ride.
13) Manatee Viewing Center
When Tampa Bay reaches 68 degrees or colder, manatees flock to the Big Bay Power Station. The Manatee Viewing Center was created to give visitors a chance to see this gentle giants up close. Big Bend’s discharge canal is now a state- and federally-designated manatee sanctuary that provides critical protection from the cold. The center welcomes nearly 300,000 visitors a year, including a butterfly garden and tidal walk. Are you in Tampa in the off-manatee season when the mammals head back to the Bay? The Florida Aquarium lends cownose rays and horseshoe crabs for a giggle-inducing touch tank. If you’ve never pet a stingray, you will find they are velvety, sweet creatures. And don’t miss the chance to go to the top of the 50-foot observation tower. From there, you can see all the way across Tampa bay on clear days.
14) Glazer Children’s Museum
The Glazer Children’s Museum is in downtown Tampa, Florida, next to the Tampa Museum of Art and near the Tampa Riverwalk. Everything at this museum is Tampa-themed. KidsPort includes a giant water table where kids navigate cargo through a shipping channel just as real captains do in Tampa Bay. My personal favorite is the Firehouse, where kids can don safety gear, slide down a fireman’s pole, and pretend to save the day in a kid-sized Firehouse. They even get to drive a simulated firetruck through the streets of Tampa Bay, sounding the siren and lighting the lights.
15) Beautiful Beaches
St. Petersburg beach and Clearwater beach are less than an hour away from Tampa proper. These are two of my favorite beaches in the country. This whole area offers family-friendly white sand and gorgeous blue water; Clearwater even boasts a Skyline Chili, which makes my Cincinnati-loving heart salivate. Nearby Treasure Island has a selection of Greek restaurants and heritage that my family found delightful. And Indian Shores beach offers up terrific fishing!
16) Columbia Restaurant
My friend Justin used to live in Tampa with his family, and he introduced me to this culinary gem in the Ybor City neighborhood. The original Columbia Restaurant has the distinction of being the oldest continuously operated restaurant in Florida, the oldest Spanish restaurant in the U.S., and one of the largest Spanish restaurants in the world. Even though it’s huge – 1,700 seats, 15 dining rooms, and 52,000 square feet over an entire city block – this place is always hopping, and for good reason.
Trust me when I tell you that you should not miss out on the 1905 salad. It’s tossed tableside with crisp iceberg lettuce, baked ham, Swiss cheese, tomato, olives, grated Romano cheese, Worcestershire sauce, and their famous garlic dressing. Get the half and half with a Cuban sandwich and you’ll be so glad you did. And desserts. Don’t forget about the bread pudding, the flan, the key lime pie… oh my.
17) Jose Marti Park
This tiny park in Tampa is about as close as you can get to Cuba without leaving the U.S. As soon as you enter Parque Amigos de Jose Marti (Friends of Jose Marti Park), you’re crossing into Cuban property. Not only does the Cuban government own this little slice of Tampa, the park actually contains soil from each of Cuba’s provinces. Because of that, the park literally is part Cuban soil. It enjoys the same protections and laws as would be true for embassies or consulates.