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Celebrate the Season in Tampa Bay's Warmth
While TV ads might have us believe that freezing temps and snow are prerequisites for Christmas festivities – and this year’s early winter blast reinforced that message – there are plenty of places where Christmas arrives amidst balmy days and sunny skies.
On the Gulf Coast of Florida, the Tampa Bay area boasts average December temperatures ranging from 54-72 degrees. Visitors at this time of year have a bevy of options, including seasonal activities and year-round attractions that truly are available year-round.
Busch Gardens Tampa might have the best of both worlds: classic amusement park fun and special "Christmas Town" festivities. The park’s new Falcon’s Fury attraction is the tallest freestanding drop tower in North America. Riders start at a height of 335 feet, pivot to a 90-degree angle – so they can look straight down – then plummet at 60 mph in a 5-second free-fall.
For a different kind of excitement, Christmas Town features a new penguin habitat, "Penguin Point," with frolicking African penguins, and the chance to visit Santa in his private study – where he’s working on that all-important list, no doubt. After making sure everyone’s in the “Nice” column, jump aboard the Christmas Town Express, a vintage-style steam locomotive that winds around the park’s Serengeti area while riders enjoy a holiday sing-a-long.
Other attractions in Christmas Town include the Jingle Bell Express, a train ride just for smaller visitors, and holiday cabins chock-full of gifts for giving. Be sure to check Busch Gardens’ calendar of events before you visit. Christmas Town is open select days through Dec. 31 and is included with general admission.
Not far from Busch Gardens is a wonderful opportunity to experience Florida’s unique ecosystem in a close and personal way. Canoe Escape helps visitors explore the Hillsborough River and Wilderness Park by offering rental canoes and kayaks for downstream river journeys. For a fee, the company provides basic instruction, if needed, along with paddles, life vests, maps and a shuttle service to return paddlers to their point of origin. Whether a 2-, 4- or 6-hour tour, the observant can expect to see alligators, herons, turtles, wild hogs and even migratory vultures during the winter months.
At the Florida Aquarium, in downtown Tampa, visitors who plan ahead can enjoy Breakfast with Santa on Dec. 20. Because the elves will be busy with last-minute preparations, aquarium trainers and education staff will mingle with special animal guests. For the last week of December (Dec. 26-30), the aquarium hosts a "Holiday FantaSea," complete with light shows, holiday-themed activities, extended hours and – wait for it – snow. But because that snow is manufactured, guests can still take advantage of the aquarium’s Explore A Shore area, a 2-acre outdoor water adventure zone with water cannons, geysers and a pirate ship ready for capture.
Another great outdoor destination is Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo, hailed in 2009 by Parents magazine as the nation’s top zoo for kids. The natural outdoor exhibits encourage visitors to interact with inhabitants, whether by feeding giraffes or stingrays, or petting a goat, or walking with a wallaby. On Dec. 12, the primates will open their holiday gifts, selected by zoo staff and docents, and they are happy to have an audience. Throughout December, Lowry Park Zoo offers "Wild Wonderland," where visitors can meet Santa and his real reindeer, experience “Florida Flurries,” and marvel at more than 1 million twinkling lights.
A special holiday treat could be a visit to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, just north of the Bay area. The motion picture “Dolphin Tale” originated at Clearwater, thanks to the rescue of a juvenile dolphin – named Winter – that had been caught in a crab trap. Because Winter’s tail was severely damaged, staff at the rescue and rehabilitation facility fashioned a prosthetic tail that would allow Winter to continue to swim – and Winter became a worldwide sensation, starring in both “Dolphin Tale” movies.
Winter Zone is home to the Atlantic bottlenose dolphins Winter and Hope as well as a featured location in the movies. Winter and Hope can be visited anytime during operating hours. More sets and movie props are on display in Winter’s Dolphin Tale Adventure, a location separate from the aquarium but accessible via free shuttle and included in the admission price.
A great way for younger family members to get in the spirit of the season is to visit "Santa’s Workshop" at the Museum of Science and Industry. The museum has transformed its Idea Zone – a do-it-yourself laboratory for kids – into a place where wishes and designs become stocking-stuffers and gifts for loved ones. Once that mission is accomplished, head to the third floor and experience the laws of physics which keep the longest high-wire bicycle in the United States – 30 feet above ground – atop its 98-foot-long cable. Then, find your zen place with fluttery butterflies in Flight Encounter, a butterfly enclosure where still guests may be rewarded with a visit from a colorful new friend.
Last, but far from least, the Tampa Bay area is chock full of glistening beaches. Time your visit at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium to end in the late afternoon, then head to Clearwater Beach at Pier 60 for nightly sunset festivities. Or visit Fort De Soto Park’s historic fort and learn about Tampa’s involvement in the Spanish-American War. Or find your way to secluded and often-overlooked Picnic Island Park, where children and dogs alike have designated play spaces.
Whatever you choose, you can’t go wrong! Tampa Bay CityPASS includes Busch Gardens Tampa, the Florida Aquarium, Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo, Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Chihuly Collection or the Museum of Science and Industry. The adult pass (ages 10+) is currently $99, and the child’s pass (ages 3-9) is now $84. You save almost 50%.