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Your guide to a busy spring break week in Tampa Bay

Six of the area’s public school systems, as well as two Florida colleges, have the same week off. Here’s how to navigate the crowds.
 
College student Nico Brown plays a round of catch with friends during his last day of spring break at Ben T. Davis Beach in Tampa in 2022. Six of the area’s public school systems, as well as the University of Florida and the University of South Florida, have the same week off this year, so expect big crowds.
College student Nico Brown plays a round of catch with friends during his last day of spring break at Ben T. Davis Beach in Tampa in 2022. Six of the area’s public school systems, as well as the University of Florida and the University of South Florida, have the same week off this year, so expect big crowds. [ ARIELLE BADER | Special to the Times ]
Published March 7, 2023|Updated March 11, 2023

For one week in mid-March, more than half a million Tampa Bay area students and staff will be off at the same time for spring break. And that’s on top of a recent surge in tourism.

With long lines and impossible-to-get reservations, the old Yogi Berra line “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded” comes to mind. But tourism promoters point out that while the beaches and the Tampa Riverwalk and downtown restaurants will undoubtedly be busy, the area offers nature walks, wineries and out-of-the-way places to zig while others zag.

March 13-17 is time off for public school students in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando, Manatee and Sarasota counties — plus the University of South Florida and the University of Florida in Gainesville. That means more than 600,000 students have the same week off, not to mention all the teachers and staff who will also have time on their hands. Expect those days plus the surrounding weekends to be busiest.

Beachgoers crowd Clearwater Beach during spring break in 2021. Florida and its beaches are expected to be a top destination this year.
Beachgoers crowd Clearwater Beach during spring break in 2021. Florida and its beaches are expected to be a top destination this year. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

It’s already predicted to be one of the busiest spring break seasons in the U.S. in years, and Florida is rated as the No. 1 destination for spring break, according to a 2023 travel outlook report by financial services company IPX. One out of five Americans plan to take a spring break trip, according to the survey, and Florida is the nation’s top destination.

Easter isn’t until April 9, so expect the spring travelers to keep on coming, said Santiago Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay.

“I feel another record-setting year coming on,” Corrada said, noting that the latest reports show a hotel occupancy rate in February of 82%, which in tourism terms is full to the brim.

Tampa Bay tourism ended 2022 with a record-setting collection of more than $1 billion in taxable hotel revenue, according to Visit Tampa Bay. And Tampa International Airport estimates a record spring break, with an average of 76,000 passengers per day (a “normal” day is closer to 60,000) between now and mid-April. The Saturdays and Sundays bookending that spring break week will be the busiest, a spokesperson said, with some 90,000 passengers streaming through on those days.

With those numbers in mind, here are some ideas for ways to spend spring break at both the busy spots and some quieter, out-of-the-way destinations.

The Serengeti Flyer recently opened at Busch Gardens in Tampa. The new “screaming swing”-style ride sways back and forth, reaching speeds of 68 miles per hour and a 135-foot height.
The Serengeti Flyer recently opened at Busch Gardens in Tampa. The new “screaming swing”-style ride sways back and forth, reaching speeds of 68 miles per hour and a 135-foot height. [ Jennifer Glenfield ]

Busch Gardens

The Tampa theme park always sees a spike in attendance when local kids are out of school, and even more so during spring break. It is second only to Christmas and Thanksgiving in attendance, said spokesperson Eddie Delgado. The park recently opened a new attraction, the Serengeti Flyer, a record-setting “screaming swing” ride that flings riders 135 feet in the air on a giant pendulum swing. The park is also beginning its annual Food and Wine Festival, which runs weekends March 10-May 21.

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Now in its eighth year, the festival returns with appetizer-sized dishes, drinks and a concert series that includes Kansas, Flo Rida, Walk the Moon and Dustin Lynch. Though the food and drink options cost extra (from $6 to $12), the concerts are included with admission.

The park has followed the trend of plant-based desires from its customers and upped its vegetarian options to include a vegetable samosa with peppadew-tomato chutney, which is a flaky pastry filled with spiced potatoes, onions and peas. There’s also a vegetarian African vegetable curry and naan among the new food items this year. Other offerings at the festival include a twist on egg rolls with Buffalo chicken and Philly cheese steak options and an Asian-inspired spicy pork belly with mandarin orange soy glaze. A 10-item sampler lanyard is $70 and a 15-item pass is $85.

The concert series is included with admission, though you can buy premium seating for $49.99. Find the lineup at buschgardens.com.

As with other Florida theme parks, which also will be busy that week, arriving when the park opens or staying late is your best way to avoid the crush of midday crowds. You also might consider ponying up for a Quick Queue ($39-$159) that gives you front-of-the-line access to popular rides. Find information at buschgardens.com.

The beaches

The Suncoast beaches with their famous powder-soft sand are a big draw, and spots like Clearwater Beach are notorious for their spring break party scene. Parking can be a nightmare, so arriving before 10 a.m. or waiting until sunset can make hunting a bit easier. You can also consider using Uber or public transportation.

The SunRunner shuttles people between downtown St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach. It still remains fare-free.
The SunRunner shuttles people between downtown St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach. It still remains fare-free. [ Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority ]

A new option this year is the SunRunner, which shuttles people between downtown St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach. And because it is new, it still remains fare-free. Each bus has three bike racks aboard, there’s free WiFi and there are USB ports in the back of the bus to charge up phones and devices. It comes every 15 minutes from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. and every 30 minutes from 8 p.m. until midnight. Find more information and the route at psta.net/about-psta/projects/sunrunner.

The PSTA bus system also has a Beach Trolley that runs daily from St. Pete Beach to downtown Clearwater for $2.25 per trip. Find schedules and fares at psta.net.

And a spring break service just started on Clearwater Beach, running through April 30 to hitch a free ride to Clearwater Beach on a trolley. Any day of the week, drivers can park at the Clearwater City Hall without charge and hop on the Jolley Trolley or Suncoast Beach Trolley to Clearwater Beach.

From city hall, at 112 S Osceola Ave., riders can hop aboard at the Clearwater Beach Transit Center or the Clearwater Beach Marina. Return service to the parking lot boards at the Clearwater Beach Marina, at 25 Causeway Bvld.

The Cross-Bay Ferry will run through May 1 between downtown Tampa and downtown St. Petersburg.
The Cross-Bay Ferry will run through May 1 between downtown Tampa and downtown St. Petersburg. [ Times (2018) ]

Day trips

Cross-Bay Ferry: The seasonal boat ride between downtown Tampa and downtown St. Petersburg runs through May 1. It offers four trips daily on Wednesdays and Thursdays, eight trips daily on Fridays and Saturdays and six trips on Sundays. Tickets are $12 each way, $8 for seniors, free for children 4 and younger. Get tickets and schedules at thecrossbayferry.com.

Pirate Water Taxi: If you are out on the downtown Tampa Riverwalk, check out the Pirate Water Taxi and its fleet of pirate-themed boats that make 14 stops from Tampa’s Riverwalk to the Channel District and Davis Islands. On board you’ll also get historical narration and be able to purchase concessions. 603 Channelside Drive, Tampa. piratewatertaxi.com.

Attractions: ZooTampa at Lowry Park has 60 acres of junglelike settings to observe manatees, koalas, tigers, penguins, chimpanzees, orangutans, leopards and more. Bring water shoes to let the kids cool off in the water play area. 1101 W Sligh Ave., Tampa. zootampa.org. The Florida Aquarium also has a water play area for kids to splash around in after taking in Florida’s largest aquarium, located in downtown Tampa, and there are interactive touch pools, a 4D Theater and over 7,000 aquatic plants and animals. 701 Channelside Drive, Tampa. flaquarium.org. You can meet some of the movie stars of “Dolphin Tale” and “Dolphin Tale 2″ at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, a working animal rescue hospital that also has resident turtles, birds and dolphins on display at 249 Windward Passage, Clearwater. cmaquarium.org.

Kids can race through the strawberry and blueberry fields at Keel and Curley Winery at Keel Farms in Plant City.
Kids can race through the strawberry and blueberry fields at Keel and Curley Winery at Keel Farms in Plant City. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times (2022) ]

Off the beaten path

Keel and Curley Winery: The Plant City blueberry farm and nursery offers behind-the-scenes tours daily from noon to 4 p.m. that take about 45 minutes to complete. Tours are $25 per person, and you can book at keelfarms.com/plan-your-visit. It has a winery, brewery and restaurant. There’s a small playground, kids can meet the farm animals, and you can also walk through the farm grounds. It is open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday. 5202 Thonotosassa Road, Plant City. 813-752-9100. keelfarms.com/brewery.

Visitors who wish to walk around the Lettuce Lake Regional Park Loop in Tampa can follow the path for 1.2 miles. The loop has multiple entrances and amenities along the way.
Visitors who wish to walk around the Lettuce Lake Regional Park Loop in Tampa can follow the path for 1.2 miles. The loop has multiple entrances and amenities along the way. [ Mari Faiello ]

Nature hikes: One way to truly get off the beaten path is to take a hike. Some of our favorites are Boyd Hill Nature Preserve ($3 for adults and $1.50 for children ages 3-16), which has a nature center and a main trail in the heart of St. Petersburg that spans 3.1 miles on the edge of Lake Maggiore (1101 Country Club Way). The Lettuce Lake Park trail is full of shade along a paved 1.2-mile loop. Bring $2 (in cash) to park (6920 E Fletcher Ave., Tampa). Over in Odessa, the Lake Rogers Park trail has a swinging bench that overlooks the lake for a perfect place to relax with a book. There are trails with a view of the water, and a canoe launch at the start of the loop adds an extra way to explore (9010 N Mobley Road, Odessa).