Now that we are mired in the sweaty sag of midsummer, you may notice that every game room and theme park is trying to pick your pocket as you try to entertain the kids. Gather around weary parents, we have sand buckets full of free and cheap things to do with the kids. The list is the best of the newspaper's "5 under $5" feature that runs in the Times' Weekend section every Thursday and the "Free and cheap things to do with your kids this week" column that runs Thursdays on the Whoa, Momma! parenting blog.
You'll notice a pattern in that the best values come from using the amenities at city parks and libraries or road trip-worthy natural settings. The trick is to watch for things that sound like a bargain, but in the end nickel and dime you to death.
Under our noses
From the nation's best beaches to city or county facilities that have long served as gathering spots, some of our best bets for passing the time are right under our noses.
• Friday Night Shuffle at the Mirror Lake Park Shuffleboard Complex in downtown St. Petersburg is an all-time favorite recommendation. The huge complex is owned by the city, so the clubhouse, its board games and pool tables, its shuffleboard courts and space for bocce ball, lawn bowling, horseshoes and croquet are all free to use every Friday from 7 to 11 p.m., weather permitting. Friendly volunteers can guide newcomers. Pack a cooler with snacks and drinks and make it family game night at 559 Mirror Lake Drive N.
• Hit the library, they're not just for checking out books anymore. The libraries in the bay area have stepped up their game by providing kid-friendly shows, classes and special events. Safety Harbor Public Library is offering puppet-making classes throughout July, the New Tampa Regional Library is hosting a visit Wednesday from Taiko Japanese drummers to explain the art — and give attendees a chance to try it (these are clearly librarians who don't shush people). Most libraries have regular movie nights, preschool story times and summer activities for teens. Check your local library's online calendar and be surprised at the riches of cheap fun.
• Think like a tourist. People pay thousands to vacation here, so 'nuff said, right? In addition to award-winning beaches, also check out the cool natural springs of Weeki Wachee Springs, Crystal River and Homosassa Springs — all within an hour or two of the bay area and all incredibly cheap to enter the park and rent a canoe or inner tube. See floridastateparks.org to explore options.
Look for deal days
Some normally expensive attractions offer a price break once in a while.
• The next $5 Day at the Lowry Park Zoo is July 24, but be warned that deal days draw big crowds. We made the mistake of going midday and had to park a good half-mile away. And once inside, expect your kids to ask for a $3 train ride or $2 to feed biscuits to a giraffe. Our advice: Go early and set a budget.
• Once a month the new Salvador Dalí Museum offers Breakfast With Dalí for Families on a Saturday from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Explore the museum in a tour expressly designed for children ages 5-12, followed by a breakfast buffet and hands-on activities. Cost: $21 per adult, $10 per child (6-12). Member admission: $10 per adult, $5 per child. Advanced purchase required. Order tickets online at thedali.org. The next one is Aug. 14.
• The Tampa Museum of Art is free on Fridays after 4 p.m. At the Dalí, after 5 p.m. on Thursdays, admission is $10, down from the normal $21. The Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg has half-off admission for all ages 10 a.m.-noon weekdays through Sept. 4. Admission is normally $17 for adults, $15 seniors, $10 for students 7 and older. Children younger than 7 are free.
• The first Tuesday of the month is $2 Target Tuesdays at the Glazer Children's Museum, and it's a good way to get a look at this new fun house where admission is normally $15 for adults, $9.50 for kids. The crowds were huge before they changed the time offered to 2-7 p.m., but it's still wise to arrive early. The next one is Aug. 2 at 100 W Gasparilla Plaza in Tampa's Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.
• The minor-league baseball teams offer loads of deal days, and even without the deals, tickets are usually $5-$10. The Clearwater Threshers have $1 Tuesdays where admission, hotdogs, sodas, beer, peanuts, and popcorn all sell for just a buck. Kids eat free at the Tampa Yankees game Wednesday, and the Dunedin Blue Jays have $1 hot dogs on Wednesdays and $1 drinks on Thirsty Thursdays. Find each team's home page on web.minorleaguebaseball.com and click on Promotions for a complete list of deals.
The only way to endure a Florida summer is to get wet, and the Tampa Bay area has an abundance of ways to do this cheaply.
Splash parks and spraygrounds dot the landscape. Among our favorites, all of them free, are:
• Dell Holmes Park, 2741 22nd St. S in St. Petersburg, sits along the shores of Lake Maggiore and is impeccably maintained with shady picnic areas and a splash pad loaded with nifty features like motion sensors so that kids set off the water features. There are also floor jets and misters and half rings that shoot jets into the center of the splash pad.
• Cypress Forest Park in Oldsmar has a 1,500-square-foot sprayground with all manner of shooting and cascading water.
• Kiwanis Sprayground near Highlander Pool, 1937 Ed Eckert Drive in Dunedin, has water cannons, floor jets, a slide and a big yellow bucket that fills up, tips over, and drenches those who stand under it from 9 a.m. to sunset every day.
• Kate Jackson Park, 821 S Rome Ave. in Tampa, is a beautiful park nestled in the heart of historic Hyde Park, with lots of playground equipment, picnic benches and shade trees. Kids especially enjoy running through the fountain, which shoots up water from the ground.
• Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park has two interactive fountains, one on the east side of the park along Ashley Drive and the Mist Fountain on the west side the park along the Riverwalk.
• WaterPlay at Zephyr Park, 38116 Fifth Ave. in Zephyrhills, has cool fountain jets, soaker cannons, falling buckets of water and arches shooting water. The 34-acre sprayground is in downtown Zephyrhills and is the site of the Alice Hall Community Center.
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