Families seeking a weekend trip somewhere in Florida other than Orlando should consider the Tampa Bay area, which has quite a few enticements for kindergarteners through teenagers, as well as moms and dads.
A theme park, aquarium, zoo, a fascinating hands-on museum, a thriving Latin quarter and soft white beaches are among the places to enjoy a family visit.
If Tampa itself doesn't have enough to satisfy you, several tourist-savvy cities are around Tampa Bay: St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Tarpon Springs and a string of beach communities.
Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, with some 2,700 animals, is a theme park that doubles as a zoo, active in breeding programs among zoos nationwide. Visitors ride Land Rovers to tour the grounds where animals roam without cages on the "Serengeti" plain. Up-close encounters are available in the petting zoo, and big windows allow viewing at a hospital for injured or abandoned animals, most of them cute babies.
Busch Gardens also has scary roller coasters: the Gwazi, a double wooden coaster; the Kumba, all loops and spirals; and Montu, an inverted steel coaster. Animal shows, a big aviary and a Broadway-style show are also popular. There are several restaurants and food stands. This is an all-day kind of place. Contact the Gardens for hours and specifics: 888-800-5447, www.buschgardens.com.
I also recommend the Lowry Park Zoo, where more than 1,500 animals are displayed in a lush tropical setting. There is a stingray touch tank, kangaroos, wallabies and kookaburra, emus and other strange critters.
Next door to the zoo is Kid City, the Children's Museum of Tampa, a hands-on miniature town for younger children.
Tampa's entry in the wave of big aquariums opening around the nation is the Florida Aquarium, focusing on Florida ecosystems and the creatures that live in them. I was less than thrilled when I visited it about a year after it opened, but I'm told it has improved and I'd try it again.
From the aquarium, visitors can take a bay tour on a catamaran. These DolphinQuest ecotours run daily (check for times) to look for some of the 400 bottlenose dolphins said to live in Tampa Bay. The aquarium is near the docks where cruise ships offer trips to Mexico and the Caribbean. Contact the attraction at 813-273-4000.
The Museum of Science and Industry, largest science center in the southeast, has Florida's first IMAX theater and a good planetarium. This fascinating place includes many hands-on displays and all sorts of demonstrations. The whole family should enjoy it.
Dinosaur World, www.dinoworld.net, offers 150 scientifically accurate models of T-Rex and other dinos; children are invited to help excavate a "stegosaurus skeleton."
Ybor City, Tampa's Latin Quarter, is a good evening place for older kids and parents. Wander through old cigar-making factories, now full of shops and restaurants, where the tobacco smell still lingers. Ybor City is the Gulf Coast's equivalent of South Beach. This is the place to buy hand-rolled cigars and watch them being made, and to have a Cuban meal.
Another place that appeals more to grown-ups is the University of Tampa's centerpiece, the Victorian-era Tampa Bay Hotel, with its Moorish minarets, cupolas and domes. It was build in 1891 by Henry Plant, railroad magnate of the Florida Gulf Coast, as a hotel for the tourists who rode his trains to Tampa. Theodore Roosevelt used it as his headquarters during the Spanish-American War, where the Rough Riders plotted their action in Cuba. One wing now houses the Henry B. Plant museum.
If you admire art deco, check out the Tampa Theater, the elaborate 1926 movie house with a ceiling of stars and clouds, and where an old organ is still played before every show. Take a backstage tour or see what's playing, probably an old classic.
If you run out of things to do in Tampa, drive over to St. Petersburg, where the long list of museums includes the Salvador Dali museum and the Florida Holocaust Museum, fourth largest in country, depicting a journey from prewar life in eastern Europe to the concentration camps. Included are an original boxcar used to transport prisoners to Auschwitz. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays play major league baseball at St. Petersburg's Tropicana Field.
Tampa Bay Convention and Visitors' Bureau, 800-448-2672, www.visittampabay.com, offers five getaway packages for the area, one tailored for families. You can buy a package or build your own by choosing your own hotels and sightseeing.
Also in the Tampa Bay area is Tarpon Springs, the place to see what remains of the sponge boat fleet and have a Greek meal.
If you want to stay at the shore, check out Clearwater, Indian Rocks Beach, Indian Shores and other shoreline towns that offer nearly 35 miles of white beaches. Clearwater's municipal beach is called "the best city beach in the Gulf region" by "Dr. Beach," Dr. Stephen R. Lethherman.
Great Florida Getaways is a big new magazine-format guide full of travel ideas for Floridians, from the best beaches to small towns, outdoors and nature, luxury travel, arts and culture. For a free copy order on the Web site, www.FLAUSA.com, click on tools.
These are some contacts:
>St. Petersburg/Clearwater Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau, 877-352-3224.
>Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce, 800-944-1847.
>St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, 800-874-9007, www.stpete.org.
Jean Allen welcomes questions about travel. Send them to Advice & Dissent, Sun-Sentinel, 200 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301-2293. Sorry, no personal replies.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun