ZooTampa at Lowry Park
Our animal-filled Tampa day started at the 9:30am opening of the Tampa Zoo in Lowry Park. We had watched season one of The Secrets of the Zoo Tampa, so we were familiar with many of the animals. The zoo has a strong breeding program (much about the “birds and the bees” of the animal world is explained in detail on the show), so most of the habitats are home to a young member of the pack/group/herd/flock/etc. The zoo staff hosted sessions around the park to show the animal enrichment programs to ensure that the animals are physically and mentally engaged. By walking through the Primate trails at park opening we arrived at feeding time for the orangutans (they can carry lettuce with their feet!) and the keepers were tossing them additional food as enrichment.
We concluded by 1pm with Manatee Circle and the Florida Wilds. If we didn’t have another destination on our agenda we could have easily filled an entire day at ZooTampa by spending more time with our favorite animals and watching the many keeper talks.
Families with young children will want to spend more time in the Wallaroo area, with rides, a splash fountain area, and a petting farm. The Africa section branches off to see the large enclosures without too much walking, and the Expedition Wild Africa ride gets closer looks at both the animals and their enclosures behind the scenes; we would have had a much better view if we sat on the left side of the Land Rover.
We grabbed a quick bite at the Safari Pizza Co.; on a really hot Florida day the large indoor “oasis” seating section must be a huge draw. They show highlights from the Secrets of the Zoo series on the big screen.
Busch Gardens Tampa
From ZooTampa at Lowry Park we requested a Lyft to Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. The drop off area for rideshares was convenient to the ticketing area and we were able to use our CityPass right at the gate.
Busch Gardens Tampa was nearly identical to our “home” theme park Busch Gardens Williamsburg in its layout (one central loop with “pockets” of themed lands). While in Williamsburg the park takes you through European countries, Tampa has a mashup of imagined lands and recreated spaces that represent the regions of the world corresponding to the animals in that section.
We arrived mid-afternoon and focused the beginning of the trip on the animals, starting with the gorillas and chimpanzees. From there, it took us about an hour to walk the trails through the Edge of Africa and Animal Encounters sections.
A train also runs the loop of the park with three stops. After looping through the animal exhibits and riding the Cobra’s Curse, Montu, and Cheetah Hunt roller coasters we rode the train from the Nairobi stop to the Congo stop, mainly to experience the Savannah exhibits by rail. Similar to other parks, the animals roam freely around the route of the vehicle. An add-on Safari experience is available for up close encounters from an open-air truck also (from the train we could see people hand-feeding giraffes.)
From the train stop in Nairobi, we made our way into the Pantopia section (it was once Timbuktu themed, but they are moving to more “imagined” worlds instead of replicating a real place.) In Pantopia we both hopped on Bumper Cars and ate pretzels at Twisted Tails (pretzels in Germany at BG Williamsburg is a family tradition), and I rode the Falcon’s Fury and Scorpion coasters.
I hadn’t expected to ride roller coasters because I was visiting alone with my drop-fearing daughter, but for the most part the single parent rider swap was easy and almost all of the coasters had little to no wait. With just five hours I was able to ride all of the roller coasters, see all of the animal exhibits, and stop for drinks and snacks along the way. In return for waiting for me, Alice was able to play games that I would normally scoff at as “throwing her money away.” To spite me, she actually won the large prize in one of the games of luck.
After PANTO-PIA? PAN-TOPIA? we walked in circles for awhile trying to find the Congo River Rapids and Kunga coaster. It was near closing and we made our way back toward the entrance. With more time we would have walked through Sesame Street Safari of Fun to reminisce about how much Alice once loved the nearly identical Sesame Street section of BG Williamsburg. The Lorikeets were closed off temporarily due to avian flu precautions, and we skipped the kangaroos.
At an hour before closing time for the newest attraction, the Iron Gwazi coaster had dropped to just 30 minutes from the 2-hour wait earlier when we arrived at 2pm. I was glad I waited; I honestly don’t know what a “steel hybrid” style coaster is, but I think it was one of the smoothest and longest rides that I’ve experienced.
Florida Aquarium & Sparkman Wharf
After the visiting both the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in less than a month, I thought I might suffer from being “overfished” at the Florida Aquarium. However, there were quite a few new experiences, including the first time to ever (intentionally) touch a jellyfish. After two hours visiting the indoor habitats we ended our visit in the outdoor penguin exhibit. If we had younger children in tow we likely would have spent more time in the Splash Pad area and Corona Cove dining area.
Food options are also plentiful at the nearby Sparkman Wharf in shipping containers turned mini-kitchens. A large waterfront outdoor seating area provides plenty of seating for families.
Ybor Historic District
Historic Ybor City was founded by Spanish cigar-manufacturer Vicente Martinez-Ybor. This Latin Quarter is now primarily an entertainment district. We could have spent the entire evening in La France, a funky vintage clothing and accessory shop. They also just happened to have the Easter bonnets we needed for our next spring break destination. We tried (unsuccessfully) to secure last-minute dining at Colombia, the oldest restaurant in Florida.
We didn’t go hungry; the nearby 7th and Grove’s menu was full of vegetarian options (and a bonus two-for-the-price of one wine happy hour). The later hours of Ybor city had a feel of NOLA French Quarter or Austin Sixth Street, with live music and hookah filled bars.