Old-Florida Family Fun on the Gulf of Mexico

By Wendy K. Leigh

Florida vacations run the gamut from bohemian-style parties in the Florida Keys to kid-crazy family-fun zones in Orlando. But there’s a semi-secret part of the Sunshine State that hides in plain sight along the Gulf Coast and Tampa Bay. It’s the stomping grounds of “Old Florida” with sun-drenched pastel beach shacks, moss-draped oak trees, bone-white sand dunes, coastal mangroves, sea turtle hatchlings, bonfires on the beach, and windswept crystal coves far from the party crowds.

 This is the old-fashioned family vacation of years gone by, meaning that traveling with kids can still be the stuff that memories are made of. Here’s a short itinerary for exploring the Gulf shores from Tampa to St. Pete’s Beach and Clearwater Beach


 Tampa is a natural starting point for a West Florida family vacation, chockfull of things to do with kids before hitting the smaller beach towns.

  • Busch Gardens may be a theme park, but it’s a much earthier version than its Orlando counterparts. This African-themed amusement park swings and sways with jungle safaris, awe-inspiring roller coasters, and live animals galore. Just next door lies its counterpart, the Adventure Island water park, where kids and adults alike go dipping, curling, curving, and whooshing on aqua-magic rides, slides, loops and spray gardens.
  • Manatee Viewing Center at Apollo Beach is a haven for the whiskered, cartoonish manatees cuddling up in the warm saltwater of Tampa Bay. These gentle giants are protected species that play in natural habitats near the Big Bend Power Station. The entire experience of viewing the manatees is free, including a butterfly garden and mangrove attraction on the grounds.
  • Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo routinely makes its way on the list of best zoos in America, partially because of its emphasis on endangered and vulnerable species. The kids can meet and feed Australian parrots, rhinos, and giraffes, and take behind-the-scenes tours. Separate areas embrace regions of the world, giving a home to everything from African penguins to Florida panthers, Queensland koalas, Indian gharials, and Bornean orangutans.

Clearwater Beach

About a 30-minute drive from Tampa, family-friendly Clearwater Beach is jam-packed simple pleasures, from beach walks to eco-tours, blue crabbing and a renowned amusement pier.

  • At Pier 60 in Clearwater Beach, the real magic happens at sunset as the entire town gathers for a traditional sunset celebration. Jugglers, fire dancers, performance artists and musicians synchronize as the sun slips behind the water line.

During the day, the 1,080-foot fishing pier bustles with anglers pulling in silver trout, Spanish mackerel, flounder, and redfish. Child-sized fishing gear is available to rent, with cleaning stations and beach grills nearby. In nearby coves and tidal pools, it’s possible to catch blue crabs with basic nets and a bit of bait; blue crab season runs all year in Florida.

  • Check out the nearby Beach Walk as it winds along the windswept waterfront in Clearwater. You can rent rollerblades and bicycles along the way, and stop for ice cream, snacks and beach toys. Older kids may want to join an impromptu game of beach volleyball or go boogie boarding in the waves.
  • Clearwater Marine Aquarium is home to Winter the dolphin, famous for his role in the Dolphin Tale movie, as well Hope, a bottlenose dolphin rescued in the nearby Indian River Lagoon. The kids will learn all about marine animal rescues and can watch the aquarium’s dolphin shows. On the Sea Life Safari Eco-Tour, the whole family will enjoy combing for shells, spotting dolphins in the wild, and holding sea life reeled into the boat by nets.

More things to do with kids in or near Clearwater include snorkeling at Indian Rocks Beach, swimming with manatees at Crystal River, and taking a speedboat dolphin adventure on the SeaScreamer.

Tip: You can easily get around Clearwater at no charge by using Florida Free Rides.


St. Pete Beach

Just south of Clearwater, St. Petersburg shares the same barrier island and is known for its sugar-white sandy beaches, nature trails, playgrounds and kid-friendly museums. It’s also a gateway to Fort de Soto Park.

  • Fort de Soto Park spans five islands criss-crossing the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay. Spend the day cycling, tidepooling, gathering shells and sand dollars, and kayaking on the 2.5-mile aquatic nature trail where you’ll spot white ibis, heron, eagles, gulls and migratory songbirds. Let the kids loose on the enormous pirate ship, which is actually an elaborate playground, and then explore an old fort from the Spanish American War era.
  • The art of Salvador Dali is eccentric enough to keep most anybody entertained, but the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg goes all out for the little ones. Kids scamper to find hidden symbols and images in Dali paintings on treasure hunts, and join in games, art activities, puzzles and storytelling. At the Great Explorations Children’s Museum, play is the name of the game, featuring an interactive building center and secret Touch Tunnel.
  • Pass-a-Grille Beach perches on the south end of the island with a classic Old Florida ambiance of lazy beach days, souvenir shops and outdoor cafes. Have breakfast on Merry Pier, and then book a boat ride or drop a line for a fresh-fish lunch on the beach. Drive back toward Clearwater for a wild and swarthy sunset aboard the Captain Memo’s Pirate Cruise, filled with hidden treasure, pirate songs, dancing, face painting and water gun fights.
  • Before leaving the area, spend a few hours exploring nature at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve on the shores of Lake Maggiore, about 8 miles from St. Petersburg. There’s an aviary for injured birds such as hawks, owls, vultures and eagles, as well as hiking trails and picnic areas.

Fun Sleepovers: Splurge on an overnight stay in the enormous “pink palace” of Loews Don CeSar Hotel, with an oceanfront swimming pool, splash pad, and loaner gear for babies and kids. For a retro beach motel experience, save some money by staying at the surf-style Postcard Inn with a kiddie pool, free sand buckets and onsite Boathouse Kitchen.

Getting Around: A daily GO card pass provides inexpensive access to buses and the Suncoast Beach Trolley, which covers all the main spots in St. Petersburg and Clearwater, including Pier 60 and Boyd Hill Nature Park.

CityPass: With a CityPass Tampa Bay, you get greatly reduced entrance to area attractions such as Busch Gardens, Lowry Park Zoo and Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

These old-fashioned Florida attractions will help you and your little ones create genuine family memories.  Please share your questions and personal experiences in the comments below. 

Wendy K. Leigh

Freelance Writer

Wendy is a travel journalist and photographer from Seattle. She’s also the owner of Delta Media Seattle and the Islands America travel blog.