Like many families with young children, we seem to find ourselves vacationing a lot in Florida. With so many theme parks and beautiful resorts, it's easy for families to have a great vacation without too much effort.
And let's face it, Florida is fun.
But it's also easy to just focus on Orlando and forget that there's so much more in Florida for families to do. This is why we partnered with Visit Tampa Bay to showcase why Tampa is a great destination for families. If you're looking for some inspiration for a Florida vacation, we think Tampa is a great place to visit and one that your family will love.
For this visit to Tampa, we were hosted by Visit Tampa Bay. Two nights' lodging, meals, and attraction tickets were provided. Opinions are our own as always. Also, this post contains affiliate links which help support this site and allows us to bring you the best family travel content we can. We appreciate you reading!
Here's why Tampa should be on your short list.
Tampa has amazing theme parks, too!
If your family loves theme parks, Orlando can certainly scratch that itch, but for teens and tweens who love roller coasters, and for whom Disney just won't cut it anymore, Tampa's Busch Gardens is a better choice. Except for a few minor things, we liked it better than Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort because of the great roller coasters combined with their well-manicured zoo.
We still love those other parks and will continue to visit (hello, Harry Potter), but Busch Gardens is the way to go for getting your adrenaline pumping. Take a ride on the legendary Kumba or Montu, test your mettle on Falcon's Fury, take a 90-degree dive on the SheiKra, or chase down your prey on Cheetah Hunt. These rides are some of the best anywhere, not just in Florida, and you can't find rides like this at Walt Disney World.
Falcon's Fury is America's tallest drop tower at 300 feet. It offers up incredible views of Tampa and the surrounding area.
Then things get real.
It flips you 90 degrees so you're looking straight down at the ground and drops you at you at 60 miles per hour! Crazy!
Another favorite of ours was Cheetah Hunt. This coaster is unique because it launches you 3 different times - just like a cheetah chasing down it's prey. With 4,400 of track, it's the longest ride in the park and a ton of fun.
Our family loves animals, and Busch Gardens Tampa really surprised us in this regard. They have beautiful exhibits and enclosures for all kinds of animals, split in to different sections of the park. Our favorites were the primates (with baby gorillas - squeee!), the playful baby hippo, and the savanna with giraffes and zebras. It's very well done, and if you really want to get personal with the animals, be sure to book an animal experience or tour to get up close
If things get too hot in the afternoon, head across the street to Adventure Island. Water slides, pools, and lazy rivers will help keep you cool.
Tampa offers even more fun spots for animal lovers.
ZooTampa at Lowry Park
ZooTampa at Lowry Park is a great zoo, and despite some afternoon showers (because...Florida), we had a lovely afternoon visiting. We were really excited to see how many new babies there were at the zoo, and the kids loved gushing over them. Nothing makes a zoo more fun than new little fur babies.
ZooTampa had so many cute ones, including a Bornean Orangutan that stole our hearts. Mama Dee Dee seemed to know that we wanted to see her and little Dira, so she posed front and center letting us take photos - all the while giving her kisses and snuggles. It was the cutest ever.
Other little ones are a pygmy hippo, red wolf pups, and a pygmy goat that is trained to do tricks! Of course, there are lots of other great exhibits around the zoo that families of all ages will enjoy also.
New this year is a water ride called Roaring Springs. It's a nice way to beat the afternoon heat when the little ones get crabby and hot.
Related: For other cool animal adventures in Florida, read about planning a trip to Everglades National Park here.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium
Not technically in Tampa, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium is just across the bay in Clearwater (about a half-hour drive) and is also included in the CityPASS booklet, so we decided to visit. We didn't really know much about it beforehand, but were surprised to find that it's much less a traditional aquarium, and more of a marine animal hospital.
Here you'll find dolphins, sea turtles, otters, and sting rays that are being rehabilitated to be released or are kept here because they can no longer survive in the wild on their own. The Aquarium is also home to Atlantic bottlenose dolphins Winter and Hope, who you may know from the 'Dolphin Tale' movies.
Winter lost her tail, and with the help of the Aquarium was fitted with a prosthetic tail that she uses to get around. It's pretty amazing to see her swim around her tank, and the kids enjoyed learning about her story. If your family is interested in learning about marine animals and seeing how these animals are cared for up close, then you'll want to put this on your list. You never know what you may find during your visit!
Related: For more fun in the ocean, click here to read about taking the kids to Key West!
Tampa has a bustling downtown with lots to do (and eat!).
Downtown activities for families
We didn't really know what to expect from Tampa, but it turned out to be a lot like our home city of Tulsa. It has a nice, developing downtown with hip places to eat, arts, culture, and friendly people. The most prominent feature of Tampa's downtown is the river that goes right through it.
The Hillsborough River provides a nice setting for unique shops and restaurants, and offers up some fun family activities. We took a ride with Tampa Bay Water Bike Company and loved the new perspective of downtown from the river. A word of warning though, it's pretty hot in the afternoon, so wait to go until evening. It will be cooler and will be a nice place to watch the sun set.
Tampa has fun and unique dining
Datz and Dough
We were spoiled with the food in Tampa - no doubt about it. Head to local favorite Datz where their crazy and delicious food is matched only by their sense of humor. Even though our kids are too old for the kids menu, we wanted to order from it just so we could get the "Leave Me Alone" or the "Stop It", or maybe even the "That Looks Gross". What parent can't appreciate a menu like that? Of course, it's really just tasty gastropub fare with a new and funny name.
For sheer gluttony, order the Cheesy Todd. That's what we did, and it was Uh-May-Zing. It's a normal burger except that the buns are actually fried bacon-jalepeno mac-n-cheese.
In case you didn't get that, it's fried bacon-jalepeno mac-n-cheese. Have mercy, Datz.
It was so good, that for breakfast the next day, we went next door to their bakery named, simply, Dough. It was just as sinful and delicious.
Oxford Exchange is a nice spot for a meal or to just hang out and enjoy an afternoon. Our meal was delicious (Andrew loved the flatbread, and my Cuban sandwich was on point), but what makes it unique are the little shops and public spaces. We enjoyed doing some book shopping, but you could also enjoy some tea or locally roasted coffee, get a new pair of shades, or pamper yourself at the Aesop shop. It's a chic little spot that charmed us and put a smile on our faces, and was a great start to our visit to Tampa.
For something a little more upscale, give ū·lë·lē (pronounced You-lay-lee) a try. They specialize in Native-inspired Florida cuisine including fresh seafood, meats, grains, and vegetables that are indigenous and locally sourced. Dinner was amazing and we all found something on the menu to enjoy.
Be sure to save a little room for dessert. We shared the candied maple bacon ice cream, and it was bonkers. If we weren't in public, we would've fought just to lick the bowl clean.
Children under 12 can choose from $6 entrees, which is a bargain. Our daughter had the steak and mashed potatoes, and devoured it all.
Tampa has several kid-friendly museums to beat the heat
We spent a morning at the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI for short) and really enjoyed it. Before you even get to the front door, there are things for kids to do. Once inside, there are science stations, hands-on exhibits, and fun spaces all around to explore.
Our kids particularly liked exploring the Moonbase. Consoles scattered throughout the base engage kids in a fun way and encourage them to think about how we might exist away from our home planet. Science stations allow the kids to virtually explore the moon and see what it would be like to live and work there.
The MOSI was a nice (and cool) way to spend a few hours of our day. There is plenty to do, and in addition to science, they have stations with robotics, mechanics, and art. Overall, it's a fun museum, and we're glad we went.
The MOSI is part of the CityPASS Tampa Bay booklet.
Make plans to visit Tampa
Overall, we loved our visit. Busch Gardens is certainly a big draw for families, and it was one of our favorite things to do. Dinner at ū·lë·lē was a highlight, but definately a splurge for families. We did love the $6 children's menu which we felt was a bargain. For something a little more casual, Datz was fantastic, and we recommend it as well.
While we realize that families may not build an entire vacation around Tampa with Orlando being so close, it's worth a look because it IS so close to Orlando. Tampa offers up a nice break from the Orlando attractions with beautiful (and exciting) theme parks of its own, great museums, and delicious food.
We stayed at the Courtyard by Marriott Downtown which runs ~$215 during the week as of this writing. If you are looking for some other less expensive options, consider staying out of downtown closer to Busch Gardens if that's what you plan on doing.
Getting to Tampa
Getting to Tampa is easy - just fly direct to TPA from many cities around the US. We actually flew on Southwest to Orlando, but flew back home out of Tampa, and honestly, we may fly to Tampa from now on. The airport is clean and fresh, has good food options (including a ū·lë·lē), and best of all, it's not overrun with families with grouchy kids coming and going from Disney World.
If you are visiting Orlando, it's only an hour or so away, so consider flying in and out of TPA for your next Florida vacation. If you are renting a car (like we did), take a drive across the bay to visit St. Petersburg and Clearwater, as well. There are some great museums and beaches to explore.
Tampa is a great city for families. Have you been? What was your favorite thing to do?
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