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Free and cheap things to do with kids this week

manatees.jpgIf ever there was a time to find cheap diversions, 'tis the season. Luckily there's free holiday action rolling as well local fun like manatee watching, left, or penguin appreciation. Read on for this week's picks for things to do with the kids:

Got relatives in town for the holidays? Nothing impresses Northerners more than a herd of manatees lolling about (yes, the sea cows are collectively called a herd). TECO's Manatee Viewing Center is once again open to the public to see the gentle lugs congregate in the warmer waters near the Big Bend power station. The center is closed Thanksgiving Day but otherwise open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Best of all, it's free at 6990 Dickman Road in Apollo Beach. See for live web cams.

Though some places are closed for the weekend, the Tampa Museum of Art continues its free Friday perk, Art on the House. You can check out their current exhibition of the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the leading photographers of the 20th century, or its visiting exhibit of artifacts of the ancient Mediterranean world. The museum's permanent collection includes 20th-century fine art, as well as Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities. It's normally $10 admission, but it's free each Friday from 4 to 8 p.m. at the museum in Curtis Hixon Park, 120 Gasparilla Plaza, Tampa.

This weekend will be Penguin Appreciation Days at the Florida Aquarium. The aquarium is throwing a party and their black-footed penguins are the guests of honor. The weekend includes penguin-themed activities, talks and tuxedo shirt-wearing scuba divers. Included with daily admission. $21.95, $18.95 seniors, $16.95 ages 3-12. Florida Aquarium, 701 Channelside Drive, Tampa. (813) 273-4000. 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday-Sunday.

Even in Florida, you can ice skate outside, just like Rockefeller Center. Thanks to high-tech chillers it doesn't matter how balmy our temperature is for Tampa's Downtown on Ice. Each 90-minute session includes skate rental. The rink is open through Jan. 5. $10. Curtis Hixon Park, 600 N Ashley Drive, Tampa. (813) 966-5505. 4-10 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday, noon-9 p.m. Sunday, 4-9 p.m. Monday-Wednesday.

Who doesn't love to be bedazzled? At the Gem, Jewelry and Bead Show you can shop a variety of gems, jewelry, crystals, minerals and beads for sale Friday through Sunday in the Coliseum in St. Petersburg from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. Exhibits will feature a variety of jewelry, handcrafted bead work, raw crystals and dichroic, or two-color, glass. Admission is $4 (good all three days) and under 16 is free at the Coliseum, 535 Fourth Ave. N, St. Petersburg.

Gulfport has a special "green Saturday" lineup to salute the produce of our planet. It features a fruit and nut tree sale, expert advice on tree stewardship, community food table and a screening of Anthony Masterson's film Grow!, a documentary about the new generation of sustainable farmers. It starts at 4 p.m. Saturday on the grounds of the Catherine Hickman Theatre, 5501 27th Ave. S, Gulfport. $5.

For parents of older kids, try an Extended Guided Hike: Take a brisk 2.8- to 4-mile walk on the longer trails of the Brooker Creek Preserve in Tarpon Springs. Water, hat and closed-toe shoes recommended. This may be challenging for children under 12. It runs 9 to 11:30 a.m. Saturday and it's free, but registration required at (727) 453-6800. The preserve is at 3940 Keystone Road, Tarpon Springs.

Look to the sky and dream as you join the St. Pete Astronomy Club for Astronomy Night, a night of star gazing. $3, $1.50 children. Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, 1101 Country Club Way S, St. Petersburg. (727) 893-7326. 6 p.m. Friday.

At Book Time at Brooker Creek, the program includes story related crafts, games and other hands-on activities. Best for ages 3-5. Free (registration required). Brooker Creek Preserve, 3940 Keystone Road, Tarpon Springs. (727) 453-6800. 10:30-11:15 a.m. today.

Grab a blanket for Sunset Cinema at Pier 60 Plop down on low lawn chairs or towels on Clearwater Beach and watch free movies. Friday features Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole and Saturday features The Amazing Spider-Man. Free. Pier 60, 10 Pier 60 Drive, Clearwater Beach. (727) 434-6060. Shows start at dusk which is approximately 6 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

Other family events

Jungle Boogie
Children ages 3 to 4 can join in the fun with a nature story, crafts and outdoor exploration. $3. Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, 1101 Country Club Way S, St. Petersburg. (727) 893-7326. 11 a.m.-noon Wednesday.
Lego Mania
The library brings out boxes of Legos for kids to use their imaginations and explore creativity while developing social skills through interaction with other kids. Free. James Weldon Johnson Branch Library, 1059 18th Ave. S, St. Petersburg. (727) 893-7113. 3:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Park Ranger Nature Educational Programs
Rangers guide children ages 9 to 15, and children at heart, through a variety of fun and informative activities. This week's topic is "Making Holiday Gifts For Those You Love — Weaving." $5 per child, adults with children free, adult only $5 (cash payment only). Lettuce Lake Park, 6920 E Fletcher Ave., Tampa. (813) 987-6204. 10 a.m. and noon Saturday-Sunday.
Sunshine Sunday
This special day for children with special needs includes reduced lighting and sound, special programing and resources for children and families with special needs. $5, members free. Glazer Children's Museum, 110 W Gasparilla Plaza, Tampa. (813) 443-3861. 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Sunday.
Train Robbery
Board a train carrying a valuable shipment of gold bullion. U.S. Marshall's will guard your trip, but find out if the Hole in the Head Gang can figure out an ambush for a great train robbery. $16, $12 ages 3-11. Florida Railroad Museum, 12210 83rd St. E, Parrish. Toll-free 1-877-869-0800. 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.

Christmas events are rolling in fast and flurry-ous:

Corey Lights Up!
More than 17 merchants are decked out for the holidays and will hold a Black Friday sale with live music by Kevin Wilder Jazz, a kids craft area and a gathering of food trucks including Dude and His Food, Mikes Off the Hook, Gringos Burrito Box, O'Macalicious, Americanwiener, Maggie on the Move, Killer Samich, Mobile Munchies, Gone Bananas and Nates Q4U. Free. Corey Avenue Area, 155 Corey Ave., St. Pete Beach. (727) 498-8778. 5-9 p.m. Friday.

Holiday Lights in the Garden
Stroll through a garden of tropical plants glowing with more than 500,000 twinkling lights. Dancers, musicians and choral groups make each night special. This year, visitors will be treated to a new laser light show and an expansion of lights into the vinery garden and fountains at McKay Creek. $2, 11 and younger free. Florida Botanical Gardens, 12520 Ulmerton Road, Largo. (727) 582-2100. 5:30-9:30 p.m. Friday-Wednesday.

Symphony in Lights
A holiday light show with more than 250,000 LED lights choreographed to the music of the Trans Siberian Orchestra. Events are planned throughout the holiday shopping season, including photos with Santa and snow 6 to 9 p.m. through Dec. 24 and Dec. 25-31 (no Santa). Free. The Shops at Wiregrass, 28211 Paseo Drive, Wesley Chapel. (813) 994-2242. 6-9 p.m. daily

Nights of Shimmering Lights
Drive your vehicle through a light and sound show using more than a half million twinkling lights. Includes more than 600 larger-than-life lighted scenes, tunnels and dancing lights. Open at dusk Thursday through Sunday through Dec. 17 and daily Dec. 18-30. $20 per car; tour buses/limos extra. Hillsborough County Fairgrounds, Corner of Sydney Washer Road and Hwy 60, Brandon. (813) 389-6858. 6-10 p.m. Saturday, 6-9 p.m. Sunday.

St. Petersburg Holiday Tree Lighting
Mayor Bill Foster flips the switch to light the waterfront tree at this ceremony with music by Radio Disney, the Vesper Bells Choir and the St. Petersburg Community Band. Free. North Straub Park, Fifth Avenue NE and Bayshore Drive, St. Petersburg. (727) 893-7441. 5-7 p.m. Friday.

Ybor Tree Lighting
Mayor Bob Buckhorn and other community leaders light the 34-foot tree. Free. Centro Ybor, 1600 E Eighth Ave., Ybor City. (813) 242-4660. 6-7 p.m. Wednesday.