Continued from Region 3 West Central Florida:
Along St. Pete Beach, kids can enjoy an amusement center full of video games and parents might stroll through shopping villages set in tropical surroundings.
Just a few minutes inland, the city of St. Petersburg is home to art galleries, antique shops and museums.
Museums include the Museum of Fine Arts, home to masterpieces by Monet, Cezanne and Renoir; a Steuben glass gallery; and sculpture garden. The Florida International Museum, affiliated with the Smithsonian, is now home to a permanent John F. Kennedy exhibit. The Salvador Dali Museum holds the world’s largest collection of the famed surrealist’s paintings.
Cultural activities in St. Petersburg are connected by the city’s downtown trolley service called The Looper. Board the bright red and yellow motorized trolleys for just 50 cents. Visit the St. Petersburg Museum of History, located on the approach to the Pier in downtown, where exhibits include Schrader’s Little Cooperstown, connecting America’s national pastime with historical events from the region and around the world. The Great Explorations Children’s Museum is a hands-on exploratory experience where kids can play inventor-for-a-day, help Einstein with his latest project, reconstruct a 40-foot-long roller coaster or create their own symphony.
Overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, Pier 60 in Clearwater Beach offers a sunset celebration modeled after Key West’s popular Mallory Square festival but with a decidedly family friendly atmosphere. Craftsmen, artists and entertainers perform nightly, before and after sunset.
At the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, vacationers can meet Winter and Hope, two rescued bottle-nosed dolphins who have inspired many children and adults who have suffered life-changing injuries and illness and had to struggle like the dolphins to adapt. Visitors can also get a fish-eye view of mangroves and sea grass, critical nursery habitat for juvenile fish. The nonprofit aquarium’s mission is to Rescue, Rehab and Release. Numerous injured turtles are in treatment.
Nearby, Celebration Station offers a variety of rides, including go-karts and bumper boats, along with miniature golf and batting cages. Parents will have a difficult time prying kids away from the park’s two-story arcade. Simply cross the bay to Tampa and you’ll encounter a glittering city that’s home to notable museums, a huge sports scene and a full performing arts calendar, as well as several major shopping malls. The area’s top attractions include the ever-expanding Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, the Florida Aquarium and the Museum of Science and Industry.
Riverwalk is a wonderful way to discover a revitalized downtown Tampa waterfront. A continuous pedestrian walkway from the Channelside district to Tampa Heights along the east side of the Hillsborough River. It connects Tampa’s dynamic cultural venues and incorporates interpretive elements, parks, retail and restaurants. Busts of prominent Tampa citizens continue to be added along the route of this phased project.
Soho, short for “South Howard Avenue,” is an entertainment district within the Hyde Park neighborhood that offers unique restaurants, shopping, dessert cafes and nightlife, including famous Bern’s Steak House. The area is within walking distance of Bayshore Boulevard and its historic homes with water views.
Ybor City, Tampa’s historic Latin Quarter, is rich in Spanish, Italian, Greek and Cuban tradition. Founded as a cigar-manufacturing center, Ybor City is one of only two National Historic Landmark Districts in Florida. Today it offers lively nightlife, hand-rolled cigars and some of the best food around.
Busch Gardens features a unique blend of thrilling rides, one of the country’s premier zoos with more than 12,000 animals – belonging to 250 species, 30 of which are listed as threatened or endangered – plus nine African-themed areas, live shows, restaurants, shops and games, providing excitement for guests of every age. Five top-rated roller coasters include the new Falcon’s Fury, which plummets 300 feet at 60 miles per hour, the floorless dive coaster SheiKra, and the triple launch coaster Cheetah Hunt.
Across the street from Busch Gardens is Adventure Island, Tampa’s premier water park, which features 30 acres of slides, rides, a huge ocean wave pool, paradise lagoon and the Splash Attack, a maze of six different twisting and plunging slides, four of which are enclosed. New this year is Colossal Curl, a colorful slide that combines funnel and wave elements. Rounding out the park’s offerings are a championship volleyball complex, game arcade and outdoor cafes.
If you are looking for more theme park adventure, continue driving inland to Winter Haven for one of the state’s newest attractions, Legoland Florida. Built on the grounds of Cypress Gardens, Legoland preserved the beautiful gardens in its 145-acre layout and re-themed four roller coasters and a water slide to fit its amazing collection of giant figures made from Legos.
Back along the Gulf driving north, a string of resort communities along the coast from St. Petersburg Beach to Tarpon Springs treats visitors to a variety of water sports, cultural events and excellent restaurants. In Tarpon Springs, a seaside village settled by Greek sponge divers at the turn of the century, visitors will enjoy delicious Greek pastries and shoppers will find treasures in markets with a Mediterranean flair.
The region’s two northernmost counties, Hernando and Pasco, are part of Florida’s Nature Coast. Much of this area is rural with thousands of acres having been set aside as national, state and county parks and preserves.
Tongue-twisting and beautiful, the Withlacoochee, Homosassa, Pithlachascotee, Weeki Wachee and Chassahowitzka rivers traverse this region, offering scenic byways for boating, canoeing and fishing. Crystal-clear springs attract visitors to swim, snorkel and scuba. At nearby Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, descend into the amazing underwater observatory to see Florida’s treasured West Indian manatees every day of the year.
Straddling parts of two counties, the Withlacoochee State Forest features ravines and abandoned rock mines in Hernando and pine forests and cypress ponds in Pasco. More than 100 miles of trails wind their way through the forest for hiking, biking, horse riding, off-highway vehicles and birding. Camping, fishing, a boat ramp and canoe rentals are also featured.
The talented mermaids of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park have captivated crowds for more than 50 years. The park also features a wilderness river cruise, exotic bird show and petting zoo.
For aerial adventures, RVers can visit Zephyrhills to watch daring skydivers practice their thrilling craft at Skydive City, a destination for enthusiasts from around the world.
The charming antique district of Dade City features unique shops in early 20th-century cottages and houses. Travel back in time at the Pioneer Florida Museum and Village where you can inspect horsedrawn buggies and a steam-powered locomotive. The museum also features a replica office of a pioneer doctor and a miniature doll collection of Florida’s first ladies in their inaugural gowns. The grounds include a one-room school house, church and restored home.