Staring eye to eye with wild dolphins, alligators, and manatees the same week as riding a roller coaster in the big city reminded me not to take this sustainable subtropical urban destination for granted. Families will appreciate Tampa’s low-maintenance outdoor appreciation mixed with world famous amusement and theme parks – with blue water, exotic critters, and plants everywhere.
Centrally located on the Gulf of Mexico, the Tampa Bay area has become a leading eco-friendly and affordable growth center with lots to see and do. When exploring its unsung natural splendors with limited time, I recommend my favorite nationally renowned must-sees: the under-appreciated Lowry Park Zoo; better known Florida Aquarium; and, of course, the legendary Busch Gardens, which started it all. Fill in any gaps with a fishing boat excursion, the Big Cat Rescue center, wetland parks, or kayaking on the Hillsborough River.
The Tampa Busch Gardens is not just the familiar premier amusement park with delightfully sick rides (this author bravely experienced Shiekra, the nationally advertised floor-less roller coaster), but also funds lesser advertised rare species research throughout the world, emphasizing habitat protection, animal rescue, and conservation education.
Its showpiece is the interactive Africa animal park allowing close-in feeding and viewing opportunities of unique species, and the best way to visit Africa without going there. The 335-acre Busch Gardens began in 1959 by wildlife-lover August A. Busch Jr. as an admission-free beer garden and bird-show hospitality facility for the Anheuser-Busch brewery on the grounds of the manufacturing plant. The rest is beer, amusement park, and animal research history.
Visitors can spend untold hours enjoying endless animals, live shows and, for the adrenaline challenged, the most diverse and sadistic combination of roller coasters and gravity-defying rides ever. After Shiekra, my favorite “ride” was actually the open-bed truck safari through the Serengeti Plain, allowing for up-close viewing and feeding opportunities of critters from giraffes to rhinos.
For an alternative deep inside Tampa, try the 56-acre Lowry Park Zoo, lying in wait to entertain, engage, and educate as one of the most kid-friendly zoos in the country. It includes 2,000 animals, primate and aquatic centers, a free-flight aviary, and a flume ride to cool off at Gator Falls (check out the albino gator). My favorite was the Florida Manatee and Aquatic Center featuring the region’s only manatee hospital. Follow up with Stingray Bay and hand feed and pet cuddly rays while feeding seeds to the flying birds.
If it were up to me, visiting the Florida Aquarium would be a legal requirement for all out-of-town visitors, as it is a truly spectacular showpiece of Florida’s many subtropical underwater habitats. Similar to the National Aquarium in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and located right on downtown Tampa’s waterfront, this ecological microcosm shows how streams at their freshwater source make their way to the open salty sea via galleries of various Florida ecosystems, showcasing more than 20,000 aquatic plants and animals.
Start with the Wetlands Gallery at the top and move on to the Bays & Beaches where sharks and other big critters reside, followed by the Coral Reefs – a premium opportunity to see what scuba divers see without getting wet. For a perfect segue to Tampa as an eco-friendly urban community, sign up for the Aquarium’s downtown water boat tour on the catamaran, The Bay Spirit, which allows guests to encounter dolphins in the wilds of Tampa Bay without leaving the big city.
Get local and explore the real outdoor eco-community of Tampa’s resident county of Hillsborough and its aptly named Hillsborough River – a spectacularly preserved snapshot of ancient everglade-like wilderness surreally snaking toward downtown from friendly suburbs. The river is leisurely enjoyed by canoe or kayak and takes only a couple of hours of drift-canoeing by guides who will either pick you up or put you in once you get there by car.
Surprisingly pristine for being near an urban center, the massive Hillsborough River park corridor allows authentic glimpses of areas only accessible by water and is virtually what Native Americans and De Soto first saw. This of course includes gobs of birds, turtles, snakes, frogs, and basking gators sliding around you. Helicopter parents need not worry as they are harmless and do not feed in the day, as attested by the throngs of daily paddlers who somehow make it out alive.
For more, experience the area’s great wetland preserves, like Balm-Boyette and Cock Roach Bay Nature Preserve (over 1,000 acres of rare wetlands), Camp Bayou Outdoor Learning Center (don’t miss the fossil museum), Alafia Banks Bird Sanctuary, and Trout Creek Wilderness Park. When in season, don’t miss Tampa Electric Company’s power plant warm water discharge Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach. Back in the city, the Big Cat Rescue for abandoned and abused felines from tigers to bobcats is an extra surreal trip to the wild, hidden away behind a suburban shopping mall of all places.
As a parent and marine biology teacher in a past life, my favorite all around off-the-beaten-path experience has to be Gus’s Crabby Adventures in Ruskin. Gus, a commercial and environmental-savvy fisherman, takes you on a three-hour tour (no Gilligan’s Island please) of the Bay on a crab boat. Amid observations of nature and lore, Gus will help you bait and pull crab traps, and bring home your very own blue and stone crab critters to cook up at his waterside home and eatery.
Finish off the Tampa experience with a well-deserved dinner cruise on Tampa Bay aboard the Yacht Starship. The first dining yacht in the U.S. to earn a AAA three-diamond rating, the Starship departs near the Florida Aquarium in downtown for spectacular evening views. Enjoy menus rivaling the best restaurants, as well as entertainment and rooftop promenade. You deserve it.