Gulf Coast Family's primary purpose is to encourage families along the Gulf Coast by providing worthwhile information that deals with family life right here in the Tampa Bay area.
The Florida Aquarium
The Florida Aquarium is located in downtown Tampa at Channelside. Visitors to the Aquarium can also take advantage of all there is to do in the Channel district. Channelside has a wide variety of entertainment from an IMAX Theatre to unique shops and restaurants. While visiting the Aquarium take time out to take a stroll on the waterfront and watch the Port of Tampa at work, or see a concert, watch a fast paced hockey game, or relax over a quiet dinner. It is great place for the entire family!
Best Times to Visit:
• The Aquarium is most crowded on the weekends, during the holiday season and during the summer.
• If you do decide to visit on a Saturday or Sunday, you can beat the crowds by arriving early (between 9:30 am and 10:30 am).
• During the week, you can beat the crowds by visiting after noon.
The Florida Aquarium
As parent educators, we excitedly embrace the rich variety of educational opportunities we have in Tampa Bay, and the Florida Aquarium is a favorite. We’ve visited from the time our middle schoolers were little, and we’re continually impressed with how the aquarium grows and expands in its facility and programming. It’s always clean and well maintained, and its staff is passionate about what they do. On a recent visit, we took advantage of some “behind-the-scenes” opportunities, and it made our experience that much more exciting!
The Penguin Parade is a several-times-daily happening at the Florida Aquarium, and when our oldest was in grade school, we loved seeing the South African Penguins as part of a school paper he was writing. This visit, we went behind the scenes to the penguin suite (an experience guests can purchase in addition to their museum admission,) and got to see these happy critters in their fishy home below. Their trainer shared their daily schedule, along with showing off the mini obstacle course that’s varied to entertain them, and we were allowed to pet these gorgeous animals. Even getting splashed and handling them gently as they played in their kiddie-pool, we were more in love with them than ever, and felt we had a greater understanding of the work that’s being done to honor the species and care for animals that may be bred to help their kind grow.
The dive show, also, must not be missed—with humor and depth, a diver and dry-land speaker interact with audience and underwater creatures at Shark Bay. When we arrived before the show, we even got to watch volunteers (and the aquarium has a host of volunteers, the group of which our kiddos hope to join as soon as they’re old enough) clean the tank.
As always, the No Bone Zone “hands on” area where our littlest braved cold water to handle sea urchins and starfish was a huge favorite, and we especially enjoyed watching the otters play near the alligators (in different habitats, of course!) in the wetlands. The contrast between the high-energy, playful otters (who may remind us a bit of one of our kiddos, with their inability to slow down!) and the mysterious gators, a bit scary when they’re up-close and personal, is pronounced.
A favorite treat this visit was the near hands-on encounter with our son’s favorite bird of all time, the Roseate Spoonbill. We loved the abundance of sea birds, but he’s always had a fondness for that bird in particular, and literally was speechless when one landed just over his head and almost seemed to settle in for a short visit. It was a cool parenting moment to watch the interaction between our busy boy and this wild animal, as they made eye contact and stood stock-still, seeming to enjoy each other’s company.
After we enjoyed lunch in the cantina (also a first-time happening, and one we’ll repeat - the food and service were great!) overlooking Explore A Shore, the spectacular water play area, we boarded the Bay Spirit II, and were entranced through our ninety minute tour of the Tampa Bay. We were not disapppointed; not only did we see many dolphins on our tour, we learned from our knowledgeable guide all kinds of information about the ecology, the economy, and the human and animal life in Tampa Bay. (When you go, be sure to sit for a while in the “spray zone” at the front of the catamaran - it’s an adventure not to miss!)
Returning to shore, we wrapped up with the Dragons Down Under and Ocean Commotion, where 3-D interaction allow you to walk through a wall of fog and listen to intriguing narration about the animals we saw. Although we didn’t try it on our visit, we were impressed with the addition of Sea Life connection where you can use your smart phone to receive even more information on the sea life!
Whether your family is small or large, with little ones or older kids, you will be educated and entertained each time you visit The Florida Aquarium. The staff is committed to excellence in education, and the facility is beautiful and well-maintained, with frequent additions and improvements. We loved our visit, and we can’t wait for the next one!
by Angela Sackett
by Angela Sackett
Penguin Backstage Pass
The Penguin Backstage Pass is a new 30-minute Behind the Scenes experience where guests get the opportunity to interact with penguins in an up-close and personal setting. Led by an experienced penguin biologist, a typical visit may include a chance to touch the penguins, see them waddle, swim, shake their tails and jump in and out of their interaction pool. While there, the biologist will describe and answer any questions guests might have about these remarkable birds and their specialized care. Guests may also catch a glimpse of penguin feeding habits as the biologists feed them their favorite foods.
Note: these South African Birds live in a temperate environment in the “Penguin Suite” so no coats are needed.
Explore A Shore
Explore A Shore, The Florida Aquarium’s 2-acre outdoor water adventure zone lets the kids cool off while parents relax under the shade of the Tampa Tribune Cantina bar and grill. Watery waves, slippery slides, gushing geysers and an assortment of animal models are just a few of the attractions for the kids. Toddlers will enjoy sand castles, little slides and giant sea creature figures as they play in Shipwreck Shore. While the kids enjoy themselves, you can enjoy the comfort of the Cantina with easy viewing of the play area and table service. Please note: Explore A Shore closes at 4:45 p.m. each day.
Experience the aquarium and see why it’s among the top aquariums in the world. With more than 20,000 aquatic plants and animals from Florida and around the world, the Florida Aquarium features 200,000 square-feet of air-conditioned fun.
Swim with the Fishes
Swim with the Fishes is an in-water reef adventure that gives you the opportunity to encounter one of the Florida Keys’ most beautiful coral reef dive sites without being a certified SCUBA diver. During this introduction to diving, you’ll wear a small SCUBA tank, regulator and floatation device that keeps you on the surface. This allows you to experience the thrill of SCUBA diving from the surface, while enjoying all of the sights 2,300 fish have to offer.
Behind the Scenes Tours
Have you ever wondered how the Aquarium feeds all the fish or where they get the water from or how the Aquarium is able to keep all the fish healthy. Well, you can get the answers to these and other questions by joining the Aquarium for one of their fun Behind the Scenes Tours.
Tampa Bay is home to more than 500 bottlenose dolphins and is one of the best places in Florida to view endangered manatees and numerous species of birds, many of which are threatened or endangered. All of this wildlife thrives in one of the busiest deepwater ports in the Southern United States.
Jacques Cousteau has said, “For most of history, man has had to fight with nature to survive; in this century he is beginning to realize that, in order to survive, he must protect it.” But before you can protect something, you must learn about it. One of the main goals of the Ecotour Program is to help educate our guests about the Bay in an enjoyable and fun setting!
Everywhere around Tampa, the bay plays a critical role in the lives of residents and visitors alike. Everyday activities are connected with the bay. Tampa Electric Company (TECO) uses bay water to cool its turbines which produce the energy used daily around the bay. In turn, this warm water is discharged into the bay creating an important winter habitat for West Indian manatees. The boating industry has a huge impact on this area, too. Whether commercial, industrial or recreational, the impact of these activities can be felt across the region. There are billions of dollars generated by the bay from trade imports and exports, tourism, seafood industry and countless other sources. Aquarium guests can now learn just how important the bay is to the city, county and entire state of Florida.
The 90-minute journey through the bay aboard the Aquariums brand new 72-foot catamaran, the Bay Spirit II, allows guests to encounter the awesome animals that thrive in these local waters. The only requirement is a sense of adventure. A good pair of binoculars is optional!
The Florida Aquarium is proud to offer a variety of programs for school groups, teachers, and homeschool families. Aligned with Sunshine State Standards, the Aquarium programs emphasize inquiry-based instruction and hands-on activities. The Aquarium offers on-site classes, outreach into schools through our Water Wheels program, boat and field programs, Teacher Workshops, sleepovers, and much more. They can even tailor a program to meet your needs. Learning will never be the same once you have experienced the Aquarium’s unique aquatic education!
Gulf Coast Family Publications - Encouraging families along the Gulf Coast in Pinellas County