Tampa has attractions such as Busch Gardens theme park, Lowry Park Zoo, Florida Aquarium, and Cuban-flavored Ybor City, but don't look for a beach in the City of Tampa, because you won't find one. Head west to St. Petersburg or Clearwater for sand and surf, an hour or less across the Courtney Campbell Causeway or the Gandy and Howard Frankland bridges.
Bayshore Greenway Trail (Bayshore Boulevard) - Take a scenic drive or walk alongside Hillsborough Bay. The Bayshore Boulevard Linear Park is 4.5 miles long, perfect for scootering or biking. Two blocks away is Old Hyde Park Village, a shopping and dining district. Pick up sandwiches at the shop next to Kate Jackson Park, have a picnic, then get wet playing in the lion fountains bubbling up from the ground.
Florida Aquarium - It takes several hours to enjoy the indoor exhibits and the outdoor water park, Explore A Shore. In the Wetlands, Bays and Beaches, Coral Reefs and Sea Hunt exhibits, check out marine life native to Florida - southern sting rays, nurse and bonnethead sharks, snook, sea horses found right in Tampa Bay, and of course, gators. Even kids in strollers will enjoy exploring the Coral Reefs Gallery, with views on all sides, even overhead. Three times a day the Penguin Promenade brings the irresistible birds out for a "meet-and-greet." Save a seat early to catch the Coral Reef Dive Show, when you'll be able to interact with a scuba diver from behind the huge panoramic tank window.
Save the water park for the end so your kids can get soaked on the two-story pirate ship with water cannons, surrounded by bubbling fountains and misters. Towels, swim shoes, and swim diapers are for sale at the gift shop.
The Aquarium is located in the bustling Channelside area, with shopping, casual restaurants, and an IMAX theater.
Ybor City - Ybor City is the "Latin Quarter" built up by Cuban immigrants. Start your explorations at the Visitor's Center and watch a short film. Tours of the Ybor City Museum include the "casita," giving kids a look at real life in the early 1900's. The street car barn is worth the short walk if your kids like anything vehicular.
Make advance reservations for dinner and a 40 min. classical Spanish flamenco show at the famous Columbia Restaurant. Despite the lavish decor, families are welcome here, and kids are a common sight at the 7pm show. The children's menu offers the basics, plus the traditional grilled Cuban sandwich (roasted pork, ham, swiss, pickle and mustard on a loaf of Cuban bread). Girls will love the colorful, flowing dresses and veils. Boys will appreciate the loud percussion of the clicking castanets and tap shoes on the hardwood stage.
Lowry Park Zoo - This is an easily walkable zoo with plenty of shade, and the animals are easy to see. Kids get hands-on experiences feeding birds at Lorikeet Landing, touching rays at Stingray Bay, and chasing goats at Wallaroo Petting Zoo.
Pre-schoolers will enjoy the Wallaroo Station section the most, especially the Woolshed Playground and the Billabong water play area. (Bring a change of clothes and water shoes.) The Manatee Fountain "splashground" offers refreshing water play near the main entrance.
There are several rides, the Gator Falls flume and Tasmanian Tiger coaster, Treetop Skyfari, Jungle Carousel and the Safari Ride tram, which includes a behind-the-scenes tour.
Big Cat Rescue is the world's largest big cat sanctuary, and home to more than 100 lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, and cheetahs. A 45-minute guided tour gives you close-up views of the habitats, then you're free to roam around some of the areas yourself. Animals such as Hercules, a snow leopard, can be "adopted" for a fee, you get a certificate.
Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) - Educational and fun, this complex offers completely hands-on, interactive exhibits. An IMAX theater is located in the main building, as are the planetarium and exhibits on weather, space, and health. Daredevils can ride a high wire bike from a platform on the third floor onto a 98-foot-long cable suspended 30 feet above ground. Younger kids can easily spend two hours exploring Kids in Charge!, located in a separate building. The Crawlers' Club area provides infants an oasis of soft building blocks. Visit Monday through Wednesday to avoid crowds.
Tip: The HART line is an inexpensive system of public streetcars, trolleys and buses connecting many of Tampa's key tourist areas. Take the In-Town Trolley's purple or green lines to get from the downtown hotels to Channelside and the Florida Aquarium, the St. Pete Times Forum, and other attractions.