I have been to every theme park in Florida and every attraction in the Tampa Bay area because of my work as an entertainment and events reporter, and their gift shops always catch my eye.
Busch Gardens is especially noteworthy, I think, for the number of home goods found in its stores. Who goes to a theme park to buy a planter of prettily arranged succulents? But there it is, on a special display at the Xcursions store, located near the Iron Gwazi coaster that is poised to set records for the steepest coaster drop when it opens in the spring.
You need an entry ticket to shop at the Tampa theme park, though they do have an online store. Luckily, other Tampa Bay attractions, such as MOSI, the Clearwater Aquarium and the Florida Aquarium, invite you to shop without having to pay admission. And their wares are often very cool toys, plush dolls, clothes and hats that you can’t find anywhere else.
Another gift option to consider: admission tickets. Almost every attraction is offering some kind of Florida resident deal right now. For most, it only takes two visits before the ticket pays for itself in unlimited admission. Just be sure to factor the cost of parking into the purchase. If one member of the household has the higher level membership, that gives you free parking and discounts on food and merchandise all year long.
As for the gift shop finds, here are some of my favorites:
Busch Gardens: You can shop online for their merchandise at buschgardensshop.com/collections/busch-gardens, but if you are in the park, make a point of browsing the gift shops and you will find things are surprisingly affordable. Almost everything I looked at in the Sahara Trading Company was under $25, from cute flamingo spoon rests to a footed bathtub that holds soap, made by the Gainesville company Finchberry, which also had a beautiful lineup of handmade soaps. You could also find 10 scented incense sticks for $3.98 and succulent plants in pretty containers for $20. Several of the theme park’s stores have a wide variety of fun face masks that could be great stocking stuffers for $10 to $15, including ones that look like the nose and mouth of a gorilla, cheetah and giraffe.
Museum of Science and Industry: MOSI’s gift shop is fun to see even if you aren’t shopping. There’s a collection of polished stones that you can stuff in a bag for one set price depending on the bag size. There also are puzzles and my favorite, rock candy lollipops, which make great stocking stuffers. Because it’s a science museum, this is a great place to find educational toys. 4801 E Fowler Ave., Tampa.
Great Explorations: The Great Explorations gift shop also has lots of toys and games that sneak some education into the fun. They added a digital store to shop online at explorations-station.myshopify.com. You can find $5 flip cars that use friction to move forward and have big knobby tires to drive over obstacles. There’s also Botley, the 77-piece coding robot, which introduces the fundamentals of coding without the need for a screen. It’s $60 for ages 5 and up. 1925 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg.
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Florida Aquarium: The aquarium adjacent to Sparkman Wharf in downtown Tampa has a fun gift shop stocked with children’s books, stuffed animals and even a unique “saving the ocean” bracelet. There also are gifts that support conservation efforts, including Tervis limited edition tumblers, stainless steel reusable straws and clothing made from recycled material. 701 Channelside Drive, Tampa.
ZooTampa at Lowry Park: The zoo’s store, called Nature’s Kingdom Gift Shop, prides itself on offering innovative, environmentally friendly products that also help in their mission to preserve and protect wildlife. You can find a bamboo straw (”One small switch to a reusable bamboo straw can make a huge impact.”) as well as BPA-free shot glasses that can also double as wine stoppers and a line of animal-themed ugly Christmas sweaters. And you can take your favorite zoo animal home with you. They have more than 30 different plush species to choose from that are eco-friendly. All plush toys are made with recycled water bottles. 1101 W Sligh Ave., Tampa.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium: Winter, the titular dolphin from the hit movie Dolphin Tale starring Harry Connick Jr. and Morgan Freeman, is also the star of the CMA gift shop. There are lots of plush toys that include a removable tail and even the stretcher the team used to rescue the dolphin who famously lost her tail in fishing line, only to have doctors create a prosthetic for her. They have an online version of their gift shop at cmastore.seewinter.com, but it’s fun to browse in person to find face masks, like one that looks like a shark’s jaws. They’ve even turned their staff into action figures. You can buy a Marine Life Rescue Boat Playset, including a mini Winter figure, for $19.99. 249 Windward Passage, Clearwater.
Universal Orlando: We can’t talk about gift shops without mentioning the new holiday Tribute Store at Universal Orlando. Located across the street from the park’s giant Christmas tree, it’s not just for shopping. It’s more like an experience. You enter through the Nutcracker’s mouth into Santa’s Workshop and find a toy workbench followed by a wondrous array of nutcrackers, trees and even a Santa Claus Mold-A-Rama machine. It features a snowy German room, an area devoted to the Grinch and a room for Harry Potter fans. The final space is devoted to Earl the Squirrel, a legendary local who caused a power outage in the huge tree one year. There are stuffed toys and ornament versions of Earl, and in true squirrel fashion, the store sells hot sticky buns and roasted nuts.