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We are already fighting traffic as tourists flee the snowy north for balmy Tampa Bay. And next week brings another crush: Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando county schools are all on spring break when school lets out on Friday. So is the University of South Florida.
That’s more than 464,000 students with free time on their hands. Add to that the teachers, staff and students at other colleges such as Florida State University, also on break that week, and it could be the busiest time of the year at Tampa Bay’s beaches and attractions.
Maggie Caruso, owner of the Coconut Inn on Pass-a-Grille and visitpassagrille.com, advises using Uber or public transportation to get to the beach since parking is at a premium. A new perk is the Freebee shuttle service, a free, app-based convoy of electric cars that provide door-to-door transportation on St. Pete Beach.
“Those of us who live on the beach won’t leave the house that week. But we can’t get mad because of the crowds. It means that our local businesses are doing well,” Caruso said. “All I ask is that people be respectful of the environment. Bring a garbage bag and leave it the way you found it.”
Your best bet finding a parking spot on the beach is before 9 a.m. or closer to sunset.
“After sunset, the sky turns into all kinds of beautiful colors,” Caruso said. “But everybody jumps in their car after sunset and traffic is backed up. You are better off watching longer and getting dinner on the beach.”
Clearwater Beach has a nightly Sunset at Pier 60 Festival that starts two hours before sunset (about 5:30 p.m.) and runs two hours after sunset with artisans, crafters, street performers and buskers. And on Fridays and Saturdays, a jumbo screen plays movies on the beach. It’s all free at Pier 60, 10 Pier 60 Drive, Clearwater. sunsetsatpier60.com.
The spring holiday happens to fall during some big events, including Grand Prix weekend in downtown St. Petersburg from Friday through Sunday and St. Patrick’s Day on Tuesday. There are loads of parties, including a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Ybor City and a River of Green Festival in downtown Tampa on Saturday. The Reggae Rise Up Festival brings a lineup of bands to Vinoy Park on March 20.
Spring break tends to be one of the busiest times at Florida’s theme parks, though the crowd levels have been spread out a little more this year since Easter falls on April 12. Busch Gardens will likely be crushed with crowds, so consider arriving when the park opens at 10 a.m. or staying late when little ones have left for the day. The park closes at 8 p.m. weekdays, 10 p.m. on Saturdays and 9 p.m. on Sundays.
With the park packed, you could consider a Quick Queue ticket at Busch Gardens that gets you unlimited front-of-the-line access to a dozen of its most popular rides, including Tigris, Falcon’s Fury, Cheetah Hunt and SheiKra. The passes are $39 to $59 depending on the day.
Over at Walt Disney World and Universal, spring break crowds have gotten bigger every year, according to Steve Bloom of the Touring Plans crowd calendar, a site that uses statistical analysis to make crowd level predictions.
“Spring break has become a very popular time at Walt Disney World, even more popular than the summer,” Bloom said. “Peak spring break season for 2020 is between March 7 and April 13. The week before Easter will have the highest crowds of spring break.”
If you don’t want to fight the crowds at the beaches or theme parks, here are some other options:
Spring Break Skate Camp: The SkatePark of Tampa is holding a camp for skateboarders of all skill levels that includes skateboarding history lessons, safety tips, contests, games and park tours. Camp runs Monday-March 20 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. $180-$200. 4215 E Columbus Drive, Tampa. (813) 621-6793.
Valspar Golf Championship: Kids 15 and younger are free with an adult ticket to this PGA championship tournament taking place March 19-22, with Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and Paul Casey among the competitors. There will also be a free concert by Chris Young with Big and Rich March 21 for ticket holders and daily entertainment such as a free rock-climbing wall and a block party behind the 18th green with tiny homes, lawn games and free ice pops. $10-$39. Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club, 36750 U.S. 19 N, Palm Harbor. (727) 942-2000. valsparchampionship.com.
2020 NCAA Men’s Basketball: After a nine-year hiatus, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament returns to Tampa for the first- and second-round games March 19 and 21. $87 and up. Amalie Arena, 401 Channelside Drive, Tampa. (813) 301-6500. amaliearena.com.
Spring training baseball: Florida is host to 15 Major League Baseball teams holding annual spring training. You can find the New York Yankees at the George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, the Philadelphia Phillies at Spectrum Field in Clearwater and the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin Stadium, and you can take a road trip to Port Charlotte to see the Rays in their spring training home. For a daily schedule of games and tickets, see floridagrapefruitleague.com.
Dinos Alive: In addition to more than 1,300 animals on its lush 56-acre property, ZooTampa at Lowry Park has some prehistoric visitors on display through May 31. Guests can come face-to-face with more than 30 animated, larger-than-life dinosaurs at this display with a dino dig, educational adventures and dino-related merchandise. Included with admission, which is good for the rest of the year if purchased in advance online. $36.95, $26.95 for ages 3-11. 1101 W Sligh Ave., Tampa. (813) 935-8552. zootampa.org.
Sunshine State Showdown: With WrestleMania coming to Tampa in April, you can bone up on the area’s wrestling history at this new exhibit at the Tampa Bay History Center. See one-of-a-kind artifacts from the archives of the WWE and hear the stories of popular area wrestling personalities. $14.95, $12.95 seniors, $10.95 age 7-17. It’s open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. 801 Old Water St., Tampa. (813) 228-0097.