If you have toddlers, you know the best way to entertain their very active minds and bodies is to take them outside and let them run around. There are a handful of holiday activities happening now around the Tampa Bay area and beyond that embrace this spirit with a festive twist.
All of these events are also stroller-friendly, which is key for when it’s 7 p.m. and things are starting to get a little Grinch-y. And best of all: They all offer free admission for kids under 3.
Christmas in the Wild
This annual event at ZooTampa at Lowry Park is the second holiday event of the year after their Creatures of the Night event that conjures spooky vibes for Halloween. For Christmas in the Wild, thousands of twinkling lights and holiday-themed areas will fill the zoo for 16 select nights Nov. 25-Dec. 30 after 4 p.m. Some new events this year include the Lantern Lullaby, a calming walk through the Asia section of the zoo filled with Asian paper lanterns and holiday lullabies (a good way to end the evening with little ones), and the Gingerbread Jubilee show. General admission is $29.95; ZooTampa members and those with Pay for a Day tickets get in free. Kids under 3 are free. Event capacity is limited, so online reservations are encouraged. The event runs 4-10 p.m. on certain nights Nov. 25-Dec. 30. 1101 W Sligh Ave., Tampa. zootampa.org.
Pro tip: Note this for next year: If it continues in 2023, the zoo’s Pay for a Day ticket gets you essentially free admission to the two holiday events. You pay $5 to register for the event but then get a $5 food voucher to use at the zoo. If you buy early in the year, and if you have children under 3 who get in for free regardless, it’s quite the deal.
Lights in Bloom
Selby Gardens’ annual holiday tradition returns to its downtown Sarasota campus. Tickets are on sale now for the Dec. 11-Jan. 5 event that brings more than 2 million lights to the gardens and walkways of the peaceful gardens. There’s food for purchase from Sarasota spot Michael’s on East, and a cash bar. The serene outdoor setting and spacious walkways make for a perfect stroller activity. Eat dinner at a nearby downtown Sarasota spot (Boca, 19 S Lemon Ave., has a great happy hour and an impressive kids’ menu) and plan to arrive right at 6:30 p.m. before the kiddos get too tired. The holiday event runs 6:30-9 p.m. after normal business hours. (Shout-out also to the Children’s Rainforest Garden, an awesome play area for kids offered during daily garden hours.) $30 for nonmembers, $25 for members, $15 for children 5-17, free for children 4 and under. 1534 Mound St., Sarasota. selby.org.
Pro tip: Selby Gardens’ Historic Spanish Point location hosted its first-ever Halloween event in 2022. My husband and I took our two tots to Lights at Spooky Point and found it to be a delightful toddler activity: It was just long enough to entertain us, but not so long that the kids started to get antsy. (They even handed out free bug spray to help ward off bites!) Keep an eye out for its return next October, and if you’re a Selby Gardens fan but haven’t checked out the woodsy Spanish Point location, its gorgeous view of the sunset alone is worth the extra 10-minute drive.
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Holiday Lights at the Florida Botanical Gardens
This event put on by the Florida Botanical Gardens Foundation starts Nov. 25 and runs through Jan. 1. It’s free with a suggested $10 donation at the gardens in Largo, which will be decorated with 1 million LED lights. There are some cute lighted figurines throughout the gardens, too, which are a hit with the tots who are about their height. It’s a nice low-key evening event that boasts large walkways perfect for even double strollers, and leashed pets are welcome. There’s free parking at the gardens and at 12211 Walsingham Road. It runs 5:30-9:30 p.m. nightly at 12520 Ulmerton Road, Largo. flbgfoundation.org.
Pro tip: Get to the area a little early to visit one of our favorite places for toddlers in mid-Pinellas County: Largo Central Park. With its own lighted Christmas tree and lights throughout the park, it’s a delightful place to let the kids roam free. Their holiday tree-lighting event takes place Dec. 3. And right next door is the Largo Public Library, which boasts a great kids’ section.