Since moving to Sarasota, Florida two years ago, we’ve found it to be one of the most family friendly vacation destinations in Florida. Not only are the beaches consistently ranked among the most beautiful in the world, you’ll find attractions that both the adults and the pickiest of children will love. Are you looking for adventure? Culture? Beauty? You’ll find all of that and more in Sarasota.
When we found out in the summer of 2014 that my husband’s company was opening a location in Sarasota, Florida, we jumped at the chance to move. Now that we’re here, we wonder why we didn’t do it sooner. Even my daughters, Keira, 4 and Ashling 8, never want to leave.
Sarasota is an amazing city. The beaches are absolutely breathtaking and are the main reason that this is such a popular tourist destination.
But beaches aren’t all Sarasota has to offer. It’s a family friendly destination with a little something to make everyone happy. When you’re ready to take a day off from the beach, you’ll find culture, beauty and adventure all around you. There are a million different places to explore. These are a few of my favorites.
Ringling Museum & Ca’ d’Zan Mansion
Ever since we moved here, people have been telling us that “The Ringling” was a must-see destination. It’s perfect for the entire family because it has a little bit of everything. Learn about John Ringling’s circus at The Circus Museum, admire old masters and contemporary art at The Museum of Art or see how the other half lived in the Ringling’s Ca’ d’Zan Mansion.
We chose to start with The Circus Museum. Not only did we learn about the history of the Ringling Brothers/Barnum and Bailey Circus, we saw original train cars, clown cars, show props and circus costumes. You can even see the actual cannon that shot circus performers through the air.
However, we all agreed that our favorite part of the attraction was the 3,800 square foot Circus Model. With over 44,000 pieces, this model is so huge that you have to see it to believe it. I’m pretty sure you could visit every day for a year and discover something new each time. I must have taken 15-20 photos and I still didn’t capture the entire thing.
Next, we wandered over to the The Ca’d’Zan Mansion. This is the 36,000 square foot mansion overlooking Sarasota Bay that John Ringling and his wife Mable modeled after a Venetian palazzo. The house is opulent inside and out and it gives you a good look at how the other half lived, even if it was quite some time ago. My girls loved the fancy chandeliers and decor. They would have packed their bags and moved right in if they could have. I highly recommend the guided tour to learn more about John and Mable’s story and the history of the mansion.
Because John and Mable were so passionate about fine art, they built a museum on their property just to house their collection. It’s a beautiful Renaissance style building showcasing art from masters such as Rubens, Van Dyke and Velazquez. Take a stroll outside to visit the courtyard. You’ll find a collection of bronze and stone statues, the most impressive of which is a recreation of Michelangelo’s David.
While children may not be as enamored with the fine art gallery, they will love everything else The Ringling has to offer. It’s easy to see why so many people put it on their must-see list.
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
I’d been wanting to visit Selby Gardens for awhile and after two years of living in Sarasota, we finally made it. My girls and I were pleasantly surprised by the number of kid-friendly areas in the Gardens. Our tour started with a walk through the tropical greenhouse, complete with beautiful orchids, water features and bonsai trees. The girls were excited to be able to feed the fish in the Koi pond.
Next, we wandered over to the Children’s Rainforest Garden. This was definitely one of the highlights of the day. My girls had a blast walking over rope bridges, swinging in hammocks, and discovering a field research station where they could learn more about their surroundings.
The Kid’s Corner was also a great little retreat. As expected, there were fun activities for kids, including dress up clothes they could use to disguise themselves as adventurers and butterflies.
The girls also had a great time in the thatched huts that were named for the three layers of the rainforest: the forest floor, understory and canopy. It was no surprise that the girls’ favorite was the Understory Theater where they dressed up once again and gave an impromptu performance. After wandering through the gardens a little further, we followed the path to the children’s play area. It’s small but my girls didn’t seem to mind at all.
Adults will love the gorgeous surroundings and it doesn’t hurt that it’s located right on the water. The flowers were beautiful. The lily pond reminded me of a Monet painting and I found all the unusual trees fascinating. These gardens did not disappoint and made a great family friendly destination.
TreeUmph can best be described as adventure in the trees. It’s a treetop obstacle course that children (7 years and up) and adults will find equally challenging and exhilarating. Though it’s almost 40 minutes from Siesta Beach and off the beaten track, this place is definitely worth the trip.
Ashling and I made a mommy/daughter date out of it and I’m not sure which one of us had more fun! While I knew it was going to be an adventure, I had no idea how extreme this place would really be. Ashling had a blast on the children’s course. There were swinging logs to cross, tunnels to crawl through and ziplines to navigate. Though there were a few sections that tested her nerves, she ultimately loved it and couldn’t wait to go back to the start to complete the course a second time.
I also can’t say enough about the guides. When one little girls was too frightened to move on, the guide climbed up and talked her through it. My daughter had trouble with the clips at first but the guides patiently helped her until she finally got it.
After watching Ashling finish the child’s course, I couldn’t wait to climb into the trees and take my turn. I bought Ashling some lunch from the food truck and she hung out below. The giant Jenga game and tree ring toss keeps kids entertained, but you shouldn’t plan to do all five courses if you’ve brought the kids.
I’m not afraid of heights but there were definitely a few scary moments. Though safely harnessed and in no danger of falling, there were moments when I had flashbacks from the movie Cliffhanger. That’s part of the fun though and it certainly adds to the excitement! TreeUmph can best be compared to a roller coaster. At some point I was wondering what I’d gotten myself into, but as soon as I finished, I wanted to go back and do it again.
The most challenging moment came when I had to swing through the air on a rope, Tarzan style. The rope wall that I had to latch onto looked so far away that I almost chickened out. Luckily (or unluckily) for me, too many people were watching and I just had to go for it. It was frightening and exhilarating and I would do it again in a heartbeat!
The grand finale was a 650 foot long zip line which was every bit as awesome as you’d imagine.
There are five courses for the adults, each one increasing in difficulty. You can go as far as you want, completing them all or skipping some and going straight for the zipline. Only a small percentage of people actually complete all five courses and while I didn’t have time to attempt it on this visit, we already plan to go back in the near future. Ashling wasn’t old enough for the big zipline so we’ll be returning for her 9th birthday. She’ll be able to advance to the Junior course and I can attempt to complete all five adult courses. Can I actually do it? I’m not sure but I intend to have fun trying!
To do Sarasota right, grab the family and split your days between the beaches and these three destinations. Since TreeUmph is physically challenging, it’s best to do that early in the day before the sun starts beating down. You can go either way with The Ringling or Selby Gardens. Visit early in the day and spend the afternoon relaxing at the beach or save them for the afternoon when the Florida sun gets too hot. No matter what you choose to do, you really can’t go wrong and your family will go home with great memories.