For many families, this will be the first time in a few years to get the whole gang back together for the holidays.
If you have relatives in town or restless kids at home on break this week, you may be in need of some diversions. Here are some of our favorite ways to entertain out-of-towners in the Tampa Bay area.
Play in the snow or ice: While the relatives up North are freezing, you can show them how we ice skate in T-shirts here in Florida when seasonal ice rinks pop up. We even have a snow playground called Snowcat Ridge in Dade City with an ice rink, snowball play area and tube slides. Tickets start at $26.95 at snowcatridge.com. 27839 Saint Joe Road, Dade City. 813-576-1450. Over in downtown Tampa, where Curtis Hixon Park has been transformed into a holiday shopping village, there is an outdoor ice skating rink under a giant tent. The $17 skating fee includes skate rental. Get tickets at wintervillagetampa.com. 600 N Ashley Drive, Tampa.
Visit the manatees: One sure way to show visitors something they can see nowhere else is the gathering of manatees at their favorite warmer-water havens. The gentle lugs love the tepid water coming out of TECO’s Big Bend power station in Apollo Beach. The company’s Manatee Viewing Center is free to visit with its boardwalk and picnic areas and educational displays. It is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas, at 6990 Dickman Road, Apollo Beach. And in Crystal River, the town is known as the “manatee capital of the world” because of its year-round 72-degree spring-fed bayous. Three Sisters Springs and the large Kings Bay has more than 70 springs. The Visitor Center has information at 865 N Suncoast Blvd., Crystal River, and at tws.gov.
TANKS-giving at Mote Marine: The Sarasota marine aquarium is offering a cornucopia of family-friendly programs for Thanksgiving week. From guided tours to dip netting in the bay and kayak trips, they have special activities to make memories with the family. The aquarium itself is worth a trip to see manatees, sharks, sea turtles and otters located just minutes from downtown Sarasota and Lido Beach. Visitors can explore touch pools, hands-on exhibits and windows into the real research being done by scientists in the Mote Marine Laboratory, many of whom you may recognize from appearances on Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. The special TANKS-giving week programs are $15 to $45 and do not include aquarium admission. See mote.org/education/tanksgiving to sign up. Regular admission is $26, $19 for ages 3-12. Timed tickets are available at mote.org. Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota. 941-388-4441.
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Sanding Ovations: The competition was last week, when world champion sculptors showed off their skills at the annual beach-front festival in Treasure Island. But those sculptures will still be standing for the next few weeks and are worth a trip to the beach to see the creations near the town’s linear beach walk. 10400 Gulf Blvd., Treasure Island.
Dino Rescue: The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is famous for its marine animal rescues and rehabilitations. It was the center of the “Dolphin Tale” movies. A new display has some fun with that idea with a series of realistic-looking dinosaurs spread throughout the aquarium grounds who have been “rescued.” The dinosaurs, which move and roar, each have a backstory as they “rehabilitate” from various ailments today’s animals face — like habitat loss and entanglement. Included with admission. $35.95, $26.95 ages 3-12. 249 Windward Passage, Clearwater. 727-441-1790. cmaquarium.org.
Tarpon Springs and its Sponge Docks: The city’s charming historic downtown invites a stroll along brick streets while browsing in art galleries, antiques stores and specialty shops housed in Victorian buildings dating from the late 1800s. Greek immigrants built Tarpon Springs’ signature sponge industry, with divers in full suits retrieving sponges from the depths of the Gulf of Mexico. You can learn about that history at the kitschy Spongeorama Sponge Factory and Museum, 510 Dodecanese Blvd. They have displays that explain where the sponges come from and a free movie about the town’s history. Afterward, you can shop for some sponges in the gift shop. There are numerous boating and fishing excursions to be found. And when it comes time to eat, the spot is famous for classic Greek 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. exploretarponsprings.com.
USF Botanical Gardens: The University of South Florida’s Botanical Gardens is an affordable excursion for out-of-town visitors who want to learn about the area and its environment — and you can even get some shopping done. The garden showcases the area’s flora and fauna in a variety of strollable gardens. You’ll find fruit trees and palms from around the world, as well as carnivorous plants and tropical trees and flowers. The plant shop is open year-round, offering local honey and beautiful and unusual plants propagated from its collections, including orchids, cactus, succulents, ferns and butterfly plants. Even better, Nov. 26 is Small Business Saturday and they are inviting a group of local businesses to sell local, homemade and environmentally friendly products. Open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Admission is $5, $3 ages 6-12, $1 students and staff. 2210 USF Pine Drive, Tampa, on the edge of the Tampa campus at USF Pine and Alumni Drive. usf.edu/arts-sciences/botanical-gardens.