While visitors spend thousands of dollars to vacation in Tampa Bay, many locals haven't taken the time out of their busy schedules to see some of the best sights in the area.
We can help.
Here are six suggestions to help Tampa Bay residents get out of a regular routine and plan a staycation with visits to our attractions. It will help with choices next time your family and friends hit town, plus you just might begin to feel a little smug about having the good sense to live close to some of the most popular down-time draws in the country.
People who live in Orlando have long taken advantage of living in the same city as a major theme park. If you buy an annual pass for Busch Gardens in Tampa, it only takes two visits before it pays for itself. Since 3 and younger are free, you can take a toddler to get worn out in the morning and be home after lunch for a nice long nap. There's the $99 Fun Card that's good through Dec. 31, so most savvy shoppers get theirs in January. But if you do the math, the $168 annual pass can be a better deal. You get 12 months from the date of purchase, free parking worth $18 per visit, plus discounts on shopping, dining and special event tickets like Howl-O-Scream. And in July, the park is giving pass holders the perk of riding the new Cobra's Curse spinning coaster one hour before the park opens every Saturday and Sunday. Find details at buschgardens.com.
Motor through the waves
You can rent Jet Skis, WaveRunners and other water scooters that allow you to feel like you're riding a motorcycle on top of the waves. They are tons of fun, and despite the many news stories of drunken mishaps, it's easy to ride them safely and out of the way of big boats. The best part is when you can get speeding along in the open water. Just get a half-hour rental your first time out because your bottom will be mighty sore from all the bouncing after just 30 minutes. There are numerous rental places along the beaches, but the best deals can be found where there is competition, such as John's Pass. You can find a list of merchants at johnspass.com. Or head to Ben T. Davis Beach along the Courtney Campbell Causeway between Clearwater and Tampa.
Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks
There is a Mad Men-era tourist trap feel to the many storefronts selling mass-produced trinkets — and, of course, sponges. But the kitsch is as much a part of the fun of visiting Tarpon Springs as the authentic Greek restaurants. The Spongeorama museum of all things sponge is our favorite retro haunt. There are boating and fishing excursions, shops, an aquarium and sponge diving exhibitions. Sponge Docks stalwarts turn out classic dishes and Greek salads with a scoop of potato salad lurking in their midst — a quirk that originated in the Tampa Bay area. And you'll kick yourself later if you don't stop in at one of the bakeries to take home a fresh pastry in a little white box.
Sure, the mermaid shows may be corny, with their costumes and primitive breathing hoses, but you could also call this Florida's only spring-fed water park. Besides the live mermaid show, there's a sandy beach, flume rides, beach volleyball, river rides, kiddie pool area and Buccaneer Bay. The water slides, kiddie pool and lazy river are open daily in the summer. It's found at 6131 Commercial Way, Weeki Wachee. $13, $8 ages 6-12, 5 and younger free. (352) 592-5656. weekiwachee.com.
See a movie at the Tampa Theatre
A passionately protected landmark built in 1926, the historic movie house is one of America's best-preserved examples of a grand movie palace. All summer long, Tampa Theatre shows classic Hollywood movies, and what better setting to see Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone's vision of American fables of the Wild West in 1966's The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (July 24), or the 1936 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical Swing Time (July 31). The series runs on Sundays at 3 p.m. through September at the theater, 711 Franklin St., Tampa. $10, $8 members. (813) 274-8982. See the schedule at tampatheatre.org.
You'll find the largest collection outside of Spain of art by the Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí. From the building itself, with its surreal glass bulge and spiral staircase, to its "avant garden" with a labyrinth, this gem on the downtown St. Petersburg waterfront captivates all ages. They even have a special audio tour just for kids. A visiting exhibit of fashion photographer Horst P. Horst's 60-year career is on display through Sept. 6, exploring the influence that surreal art had on his photography — which graced the pages of Vogue and House & Garden — and the wider world of fashion and design. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. with extended hours to 8 p.m. Thursdays. 1 Dalí Blvd. (Bayshore Drive at Fifth Avenue SE), St. Petersburg. Admission: $24, $22 seniors, $17 students and children ages 13-17, $10 children ages 6-12. $10 after 5 p.m. Thursdays. (727) 823-3767. thedali.org.
Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at [email protected] Follow @SharonKWn.