On a stone outcropping, a bengal tiger suns itself with its head resting on its foreleg.

A bengal tiger suns itself at Busch Gardens in Tampa. Photo © Jeremy Thompson, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

A family vacation on the Gulf Coast should start in Tampa—first, because it boasts a big, easy airport with lots of flights; second, because it’s only an hour away from Walt Disney World and all the other excitement in Orlando; and third, it’s where Busch Gardens is!

Day 1

Tampa really has family fun dialed. First stop, as I said, must be a day at Busch Gardens for a ride on the Montu, the SheiKra, the Kumba, the Python, and the tooth-rattling Gwazi, in descending order of priority. It’s a park for all ages, with a mix of big, scary coasters and cool animal attractions.

Day 2

Right across the street from Busch Gardens is Tampa’s Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI), probably the best science museum on the Gulf Coast. It’s nearly impossible to see this the same day as Busch Gardens, so visit MOSI on your second day, and spend the other half of the day wandering at either the Florida Aquarium (with a stop-off for lunch across the street at the portside dining/entertainment complex of Channelside Bay Plaza) or the Lowry Park Zoo. Both of these attractions are midsize, thus very walkable and requiring less than four hours to fully explore. Before you get out of Tampa, take one of the aquarium’s Wild Dolphin Ecotours out into the bay to eagle-eye dolphins, manatees, and migratory birds.

Day 3

Start heading north along the coast on U.S. 19. Get excited about seeing the manatees (submerged mammalian cows with flippers), but before that, stop off and visit the mermaids (about an hour north of Tampa on U.S. 19). Some people insist that Weeki Wachee Springs is pure camp and nostalgia, but I think those mermaids put on a good show. The show is brief, and afterward the family can cool off at the attached Buccaneer Bay water park, fed by a natural spring. This is a warm-up for the manatees, about another 30 miles north on U.S. 19.

Day 4

You may need to stay overnight in Homosassa or Crystal River to get a jump on the day. You’re going to hang out with the West Indian manatee, still listed as an endangered species. From October 15 to March 31 you’ll find hundreds of these gentle giants swimming in the warm waters of Kings Bay in Crystal River and the Blue Waters area of the Homosassa River. They are herbivores, huge and playful. Manatee Tour & Dive or Bird’s Underwater will take whole families out for snorkel trips with the manatees. If you find yourself and your family along the Nature Coast when manatees aren’t in season, there are still good reasons to get wet. From July 1 to September 10, scalloping in Steinhatchee is lots of fun.

Day 5 and Beyond

So far this family vacation has been action-packed. You’ll need a couple of extra days to cool down—keep driving north up and around the Big Bend for 300 miles on U.S. 19/98. Apalachicola is a historic town filled with more adult attractions (antebellum homes, fine dining), so head instead over the St. George Island Bridge for a few days of fishing, beachcombing, and relaxing on St. George Island. It’s very family-focused, with comfortable beach houses (many with bunkbed rooms and private pools), biking paths the length of the island, and a tremendous 1,900- acre state park that encompasses the whole eastern end of the island.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Florida Gulf Coast.

Travel map of Tampa, Florida