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Earth-Friendly Green Side of Tampa Bay with Manatees, Big Cats, and an Occasional Rhino.BuschGardens Tampa Florida Rhino FeedingVacationing in tropical destinations in the summer as a family may seem odd and counter-intuitive to some northerners, and a place like Florida is feared to be hot and dreary - but for nature appreciation, I am known to march to a different drummer. 

A myriad of reasons for tropical destinations in the summer abound, and while it can be sticky, so are many northern cities in the summer. For easily bored kids that might appreciate an amusement and theme park, as well as some nature and outdoor appreciation on the side, some things are just better during the summer – like warm blue water with critters and plants everywhere.

Summer is actually my favorite time to visit Florida and the best part is the killer travel bargains combined with no crowds. With the trend toward more eco-friendly and family-friendly vacations, Florida is one of the best dual destinations of fun and education, especially if providing an alternative to those wanting a nature-oriented experience without roughing it.

Centrally located on the Gulf of Mexico, the Tampa Bay area has become a leading eco-friendly, green, well managed growth center. This diverse and eco-friendly hub of civilization has achieved the perfect balance of business friendly urban culture, community centered neighborhoods, and myriad natural areas, while embracing its resource appreciation into its development goals as a showpiece of balanced growth.

When exploring the Tampa region’s unsung natural splendors, get the kids occupied right away with one of the three nationally renowned time-efficient must-sees of urban nature and fun: the under-appreciated Lowry Park Zoo; the world famous Florida Aquarium; and of course the original and first legendary Busch Gardens. More than customary tourist attractions, they literally bring the wilderness and terrestrial and aquatic worlds right to you. Many of the tours reveal that the park’s most substantial contribution is to educate and to facilitate actual scientific research dedicated to the preservation of species and habitats.

Busch Gardens Safari ExperienceThe world famous Busch Gardens is not just a premier amusement park with delightfully sick rides (check out the nationally advertised floorless roller coaster Shiekra which this author bravely experienced), but also funds lesser advertised gorilla and species research throughout the world emphasizing habitat protection, animal rescue, and conservation education, while not overlooking local conservation efforts in its home Tampa Bay community.

Busch Gardens’ keystone showpiece is the interactive Africa animal park, including the Jungala exhibit, allowing close-in feeding and viewing opportunities of unique species and the best way to visit Africa without going there. The 335-acre Busch Gardens Africa began in 1959 as an admission-free beer garden and bird-show hospitality facility for the Anheuser-Busch brewery on the grounds of the manufacturing plant. Wildlife-lover August A. Busch Jr. added the Serengeti Plains in 1965 followed by further expansion and is now the largest, free-roaming habitat outside of Africa. The rest is beer, amusement park, nature preserve, and animal research history.

Families can spend untold hours enjoying 2000 animals, live shows, activities for kids, and for the adrenaline challenged, the most diverse and sadistic combination of roller coasters and gravity defying rides ever.  Make the water rides a priority on the hottest days.  After Shiekra, my favorite ride was actually the open bed truck safari through a Serengeti Plain allowing for up-close viewing and feeding opportunities with critters from giraffes to rhinos. ( park Zoo Manatee Hospital

For a local alternative deep inside Tampa, try the 56-acre Lowry Park Zoo lying in wait to entertain, engage and educate as one of the most kid-friendly zoos in the country, including learning centers, 2000 animals, primate and aquatic centers, a free flight aviary, and a flume ride to cool off at Gator Falls (check out the albino gator). This is not just another city zoo – rather, interaction is the theme with animals to suit any interest. My favorite was the Florida Manatee and Aquatic Center featuring the region’s only manatee hospital. Next, head over to Stingray Bay and hand feed and pet cuddly rays followed by feeding seeds to the flying birds, and then hold the African penguins. (

If it were up to me, visiting the Florida Aquarium would be a legal requirement for all out-of-town visitors as it is a truly spectacular showpiece of Florida’s many subtropical underwater habitats. Located perfectly right on downtown Tampa’s waterfront, this ecological microcosm shows how streams at its freshwater source make their way to the open salty sea via snapshot galleries of various Florida ecosystems showcasing more than 20,000 aquatic plants and animals. Start with the Wetlands Gallery at the top and move on to the Bays & Beaches where sharks and other big critters reside, followed by the Coral Reefs - home to more than 2,300 fish and a premium opportunity to see what scuba divers see without getting wet. (

Sneak in some education and check out the Behind-the-Scenes Tours to learn what it takes to make the Aquarium work and include the No Bone Zone to touch the invertebrates. For a perfect segue to appreciating Tampa as an eco-friendly urban community, sign up for the downtown Aquarium water boat tour on the catamaran The Bay Spirit, allowing guests to encounter dolphins in the wilds of Tampa Bay – yes, no need to leave the big city as dolphins are everywhere in the “wild” of the city-front.

Next, get local and get the kids outdoors to explore the real Tampa eco-community of its resident county of Hillsborough and aptly named Hillsborough River – a spectacularly preserved snapshot of ancient everglade-like wilderness surreally snaking toward downtown from family friendly suburbs – and best enjoyed by a leisurely canoe or kayak nature appreciation tour. This is one of the easiest and most fun ways of doing a true wilderness eco-adventure without leaving the city, as it takes only a couple of hours of drift-canoeing down-river by guides who will either pick you up or put you in once you get there by car. I like Canoe Escapes as an excellent one-stop-shop outfitter – especially if a first timer or need a guide. (

Surprisingly pristine for being near an urban center, the massive Hillsborough River and Tampa park corridor allows authentic glimpses of areas only accessible by water and is virtually what Native Americans and De Soto first saw. This of course includes gobs of birds, turtles, snakes, frogs, and basking gators sliding in out around you.  Helicopter parents need not worry as they are harmless and do not feed in the day as attested by the throngs of daily paddlers who somehow make it out alive. (

To experience the area’s great nature preserves, try Balm-Boyette and Cock Roach Bay Nature Preserve (over 1000 acres of rare wetlands), Camp Bayou Outdoor Learning Center (don’t miss the fossil museum), Alafia Banks Bird Sanctuary, or Trout Creek Wilderness Park.  Don’t miss Tampa Electric Company’s Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach. Back in Tampa, an extra surreal trip to the wild is hidden away behind a suburban shopping mall of all places. The Big Cat Rescue nature preserve for abandoned and abused big cats offers a close-up tour of bobcats to tigers. ( 

As a parent and past marine biology teacher, my favorite experience has to be Gus’s Crabby Adventures. Gus, a commercial and environmental savvy fisherman, takes you on a three hour tour (do not sing Gilligan’s Island), eco-tour of the Bay on a crab boat.  Amid observations of nature and lore, Gus will help you bait and pull crab traps, and bring home your very own blue and stone crab critters to cook up at his waterside home and eatery. (

Accommodation opportunities abound, but try one of the few Florida Department of Environmental Protection Green Certified hotels in the state. I like the Quorum hotel-Tampa for exhibiting outstanding and extraordinary voluntary accomplishments in eliminating waste and pollution. An oasis in the middle of town and next to centralized accessibility to all attractions, guests immediately lose themselves in the lobby’s quiet greenery, smells of coffee, and complimentary fresh fruit, bottled water and seated massages. Included are pool, fitness center and three-mile radius van transportation. Quorum Hotel

Family Vacation Green SpotsFamily Vacation Planning Details For the best source of all things Tampa go to and for more green family vacaiton ideas checkout Green Spots - earth-friendly vacations.

Content and images by Andrew T. Der. Father of two and frequent contributor to FTF. Updated copyright 2014.

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