There’s a sweet spot in toddlerdom, when 1-year-olds become 2-year-olds and the world opens up. They can walk! They can talk! They are actually fun to hang out with!
This also happens to be the time when your toddlers can still get in free to lots of local attractions, providing parents with plenty of ways to let their rambunctious ones blow off steam. Many places don’t start charging for admission until kids turn 3. Yes, the person bringing the child will still have to buy a ticket, but you need to get out of the house anyway, right?
And here’s another tip: Memberships or even single-day tickets to these attractions make great gifts for kid birthdays. Who needs one more toy when you can have an all-expenses-paid trip to the aquarium?
Here are seven of our favorite local spots where kids under 3 get in free.
Tampa Bay’s big theme park does not require a ticket or park reservation for kids under the age of 3. Also, set a reminder to check at the beginning of each year for the park’s Preschool Pass deal, a Florida resident offer that gives free admission to kids 5 and younger, if you register by a certain date usually early in the year. 10165 McKinley Drive, Tampa. 813-884-4386. buschgardens.com.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium
Aquariums are the ideal toddler activity, and luckily there a couple in the greater Tampa Bay area that provide free admission for those under 3. (Mote Marine Aquarium in Sarasota is also worth checking out.) This Clearwater attraction made popular by Winter the Dolphin (who died in 2021) and the “Dolphin Tale” movies has a new dolphin habitat that allows the facility to care for more rescued dolphins like Winter. At the main facility, you’ll be able to interact with other dolphins, plus nurse sharks, otters, turtles and stingrays. 249 Windward Passage, Clearwater. 727-441-1790. cmaquarium.org.
This kitschy attraction off Interstate 4 near Plant City is perfect for little ones who are curious about dinosaurs but won’t be too scared to walk among giant replicas of the prehistoric creatures. Adult admission is $19.95, but kids under 3 get in free. 5145 Harvey Tew Road, Plant City. 813-717-9865. dinosaurworld.com.
Dunedin Fine Art Center
You can explore the front atrium part of this arts center, which is where its current exhibits are located, for free. And kids will certainly be enthralled with the bright space and colorful artwork that often adorns the walls. But the hands-on Children’s Museum is the best spot for little ones. It’s just $4 per person to enter, but children 2 and under are free. 1143 Michigan Blvd., Dunedin. 727-298-3322. dfac.org.
One of the area’s larger attractions, the Florida Aquarium near downtown Tampa has a wide array of aquatic habitats and exhibits for kids to explore. And don’t skip the aquarium’s outdoor splash pad, which features water dump buckets and spray zones for kids under 11. There’s even a separate area designated for toddlers. Admission to the aquarium is free for kids under 3. 701 Channelside Drive, Tampa. 813-273-4000. flaquarium.org.
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Selby Botanical Gardens
This one is a little farther south, but worth the drive. This vibrant botanical garden nestled in downtown Sarasota offers free admission for kids 4 and under. And there is plenty to do and see, from revolving outdoor exhibits that showcase plant life to koi ponds to an awesome kids play area that features musical instruments, animal statues and a tree house for older kids. Grab lunch at the cafe by the large banyan tree when everyone starts to get tired. One note: Parking is currently valet-only, unless you park down the street and walk. 1534 Mound St., Sarasota. 941-366-5731. selby.org.
ZooTampa at Lowry Park
The best zoo in Central Florida (and one of the only!), ZooTampa at Lowry Park has a couple of good ticket deals for families. There’s the Pay for a Day pass, which allows a guest who buys a one-day ticket ($45.95) to come back for the rest of the calendar year. It’s a great deal no matter when you buy it. There are also memberships (they make for a nice gift!) that start at $115 for 12 months of admission for one person and a guest — which is just a little bit more than the price of two one-day tickets, and comes with discounts on food, drink and more. Whichever ticket option you choose, kids under 3 get in free for daily admission and also for the park’s Halloween- and Christmas-themed events. 1101 W Sligh Ave., Tampa. 813-935-8552. zootampa.org.