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ENDLESS SUMMER

The school year is coming, just not fast enough for some. We've found a few ways to make time fly.

The kids go back to school soon, so make the most of the time that's left. Here's how.

talk about dog days of summer. This one's the wiener dog of summers, stretching out an extra three weeks for most Florida kids this year, thanks to the Legislature's new law that public schools can't start until close to Labor Day.

For parents running out of ideas and patience, we poked around for free, cheap or offbeat ideas to entertain the kiddies until that school bell finally - oh please, finally - rings Aug. 20 in public schools in Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties and Aug. 21 in Pinellas County.

Learn to fish

There's a free Family Fun Fish Day on Saturday at Largo's Walsingham Park, 12615 112th Ave. N. It runs from 8 to 11 a.m., and poles and bait are provided, though you might want to bring your own to learn with.

A free Family Fishathon also will begin at 9 a.m. Saturday at the lake behind the St. Petersburg Main Library on Ninth Avenue N at 38th Street for ages 3 to 12. Poles and bait provided; no personal fishing equipment allowed.

If you like fly-fishing, get expert help at Bill Jackson's sporting goods shop in Pinellas Park, 9501 U.S. 19 N, where they have fly-tying clinics and fly-fishing classes at 10 a.m. Saturday mornings. The classes are free, but you have to make a reservation at (727) 576-4169. It's recommended for kids who are about 12, or big enough to handle a large fly-fishing rod.

Make a splash

Largo's Highland Family Aquatic Center, 400 Highland Ave., is quite the gem, with a 214-foot circular tower slide and water-play features suitable for toddlers to teens. And it's a value. Two-hour sessions range from $4 to $7 per person, depending on whether you have a recreation card. The center is open seven days a week, with two-hour sessions Monday through Saturday starting at 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. and Sundays at 1:30 and 4 p.m. Kids under 2 are free.

The park also has specials:

- Family Nights: Mondays and Wednesdays until Aug. 20 from 7:30 to 9 p.m. Cost is $10 to $20 for a family of 12, depending on whether you have a Largo recreation card.

-Tidal Wave Tuesdays: They end Aug. 14, but there are still two Tuesdays left to take advantage of the 'tween-to-high schooler night from 7 to 9 p.m. Only $3 each. Call (727) 518-3019.

Float on a tube

Since August is the absolute best time to hit the chilly waters of the natural springs in west-central Florida, sink your bottom into an inner tube and float the Ichetucknee, Ginnie Springs, Rainbow River or any of the 17 natural springs in Florida. Get details at www.floridastateparks.org. Most have low admissions and trams to bring you back to your car.

Feed a gator

The kitschy Gatorland attraction between Kissimmee and Orlando off Interstate 4 is a nice change of pace from the theme parks. For $19.95 for adults and $11.95 for kids 3 to 12 at gatorland.com, you get a close look at 125 gators lounging around their swamp condo. The highlight is Jumparoo, where trainers dangle meat over the pit to get the huge gators to leap out of the water. It's an awesome sight. (The park also offers a Trainer for a Day program that gives parents the most killer stories to tell at the next dinner party. The $100, two-hour experience puts you next to the trainers before the park opens and includes a chance to feed the alligators in the breeding marsh, get a lesson in gator wrestling, and make them jump in the Jumparoo.)

There also are snakes, birds, tarantulas and a petting zoo. Don't pass up the chance to pay $2.50 for five turkey dogs you can feed the gators yourself, because they are quite willing to chomp on cue. Wear a bathing suit to cool off in the new splash area. (Don't worry, no gators allowed.)

Hop on a trolley

The Downtown Looper Trolley in St. Petersburg only costs a quarter and shuttles visitors all over downtown and the Pier as a tour guide points out sites of interest.

Tampa's streetcar connects downtown to the port Channelside district and Ybor City for $2 per ride or $4 for an all-day ride ticket.

The Dade City Trolley Tours take visitors on an old-fashioned trolley in a quaint Pasco County city where Old Florida stubbornly clings to life. Tours show off the historic courthouse, homes on Church Avenue, the old jail, one of the last citrus packing houses in the region and many more historic sites. Prices are $4 to $15, depending on discounts and tour deals. Call (352) 518-0060 or see www.dadecitytrolleytour.com.

See a tiny big top

The miniature circus at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota finally arrived last year after years in the making and some $16-million in spending. Of the tiny towns, it's the world's largest, with fully equipped train cars, historic wagons, a 4-foot-high big top, 500 circus animals and even 7,000 tiny folding chairs set up in the main tent.

The circus museum has a Handz-On program from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays where kids can learn and create their own art, included in the price of admission, which is $15 for adults, $5 for students and free for kids under 6. Admission includes the art museum, Ca d'Zan mansion, the circus museum and the rose garden.

The art museum, which has an amazing collection of Renaissance paintings and sculptures, is free on Mondays thanks to a stipulation in Ringling's will. Call (941) 358-3180.

Swim with a manatee

Dive shops in Crystal River and Homosassa offer snorkeling tours for as little as $15 if you have your own equipment and up to about $50 for a tour with gear included. The springs are as clear as bottled water, allowing a full view of fish, manatees and even scuba divers down below. The Crystal Lodge Dive Center behind the Best Western in Crystal River will rent you a john boat for $15 an hour, or you can take their 8:30 a.m. tour for $32, including equipment; call (352) 795-6798. American Pro Dive in Homosassa offers three-hour tours of King's Bay for $29.50 per person, equipment not included. Call (352) 563-0041.

Learn to cook

Take Cooking 101 with the Apron's Cooking School at Publix (www.publix.com/aprons) or check out the schedule at any of the many make-and-take meal preparation shops in the bay area, such as Let's Eat and Dinner Done. Most are happy to let you bring the kids along, and many have special kids sessions with family friendly courses offered.

Watch the Bucs practice

Nothing gets fans ready for fall like watching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at their training camp, which is free and open to the public through Aug. 16 at Walt Disney World's Wide World of Sports Complex, Interstate 4, Exit 64, Lake Buena Vista (west of Orlando). Most morning practices start at 8:30 a.m. and most afternoon practices at 2:45 p.m. The schedule varies, so call or check the Web site before heading out; (813) 870-2700; www.buccaneers.com.

Pick up a hammer

Home Depot and Lowe's have free craft clinics where kids can build a birdhouse, make a picture frame, craft a toolbox or any number of kits that are free to take home when finished. Home Depot's clinics are the first weekend of every month, but call your local store to find out if it holds sessions on Saturday or Sunday. Lowe's clinics are on the second and fourth Saturday of the month. Go to Lowes.com and click on Project Center for the Build and Grow Clinic schedule and registration.

Look at the stars

The annual Perseid meteor shower is expected to put on a great show this year, peaking in mid August with a display of dozens of shooting stars each hour. Aug. 12, the day of the new moon, may be the best time to see it, astronomers say.

The planetarium at MOSI will have telescopes set up to look at Jupiter on Aug. 25 from 6 to 10 p.m. The Skywatch area is free and open to the public.

St. Petersburg Astronomy Club members help amateurs take a peek at the night sky at the Gulfport Sidewalk Astronomy events beginning at dusk this Friday and Aug. 18 at the northeast corner of 3038 Beach Blvd. and Delett Avenue in Gulfport. Check out the club's Web site at www.telescopelab.com/spacindex.php.

Baseball and swag

Time your trips to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays games by the free giveaways or on Family Fun Days (Sunday, Aug. 19 and Aug. 25), when $15 gets you an outfield ticket, a hot dog, a soft drink and a snack.

Some of the giveaways in August include a lunch box this Sunday, a Rocco Baldelli figurine Aug. 18 and an alarm clock Aug. 19. You can see all the promotions at the Devil Rays Web site (devilrays.mlb.com). Click on Schedule, then look at Promotional Schedule on the left side of the page.

Trying to be more fan friendly, the team in recent years added nearly a dozen areas at Tropicana Field where kids can paint banners, play video games, make baseball cards, pet a stingray or find out what pine tar feels like, all for free. Kids also can run the bases after Sunday games.

Free and cheap museum days

- Kid City, the Children's Museum of Tampa, is a hands-on miniature town for younger children. Every third Wednesday is Wee Wonder Wednesday, with story time and activities for kids 4 and under at 10 and 11:15 a.m. Regular admission of $5 applies. Every first Friday is free admission family night.

- The University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum, 4202 E Fowler Ave., Tampa, is always free. It maintains the university's art collection of more than 3,600 art works, some by internationally acclaimed artists. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and 1 to 4 p.m. Saturdays.

- Tampa Museum of Art, 600 N Ashley Drive, Tampa, has free admission on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. (813) 274-8130.

- The Salvador Dali Museum, 1000 Third St. S, St. Petersburg, costs $5 after 5 p.m. on Thursdays. Also, until September, the museum is offering a family special: two adults and two children for $25, a big savings since regular admission is $15 for adults and $4 to $10 for kids. (727) 823-3767, salvadordali museum.org.

Take a tour

Most fire stations are happy to take your kids on a tour. Call the firehouse and ask when would be a good time.

Log on to www.factorytoursusa.com for a list of companies and operations that offer tours. They range from Raymond James Stadium to citrus groves to chocolate factories.

Times staff writer Elizabeth Joyce contributed to this report. Sharon Kennedy Wynne can be reached at wynne@tampabay.com.

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