Skip to main content

Tampa, who knew they had All. The. Things.? Our recent trip to Tampa was epic and made so even more by purchasing the Tampa City Pass and saving us literally hundreds of dollars. For this blog I’ll walk you through getting yourselves one of these awesome passes while highlighting some of our favorite parts of our trip, where we stayed, where we ate and where we relaxed. So come on and join us as we travel a little further south to Tampa, Florida!

First, if you’ve been thinking about going to Busch Gardens, do yourself a favor and book an extra day or two in Tampa and buy yourself this City Pass. You can cram so much more action into your trip with this pass and see a lot more of Tampa while you’re at it. The pass allows you to not only go to Busch Gardens but to choose 2 other main attractions AND 2 other smaller attractions that we thoroughly enjoyed as well. So, you really can do it ALL. The City Pass is super easy to use, you’ll just purchase the pass online, save the tickets to your phone and as you arrive at your attraction, they will scan just that one ticket- that’s it! It’ll tick off your activities as you go, limiting you to those 5 experiences. It couldn’t be easier to use. And you don’t need any advanced reservations, except for the boat tour- if you should choose that as one of your experiences, you will need to call them in advance for a reservation.

Since we were going to spend 4 days in Tampa, we considered an Airbnb but we also really wanted to be in walking distance to most things and have access to their FREE trolley, so we stayed at the Embassy Suites directly downtown by the convention center. We love Embassy Suites because they have a room layout with an actual living room separated from the bedroom with a door, so we can put kids to bed and still stay up for a while. They also have a lovely little complimentary happy hour every evening with snacks, wine & beer. The kiddos loved their free sprites and trail mix each evening after a long day.

This was a great area, there are 2 other hotels (Marriott & Tampa EDITION) that form a little circle so any of these hotels would be fabulous to stay at. My only complaint about Embassy Suites was that their pool was closed and very tiny, with no hot tub. Looking at the other two hotels- their outdoor pool accommodations seemed much nicer. This wasn’t a huge deal for us since it was winter, but if you’re traveling in spring or summer this could change your decision on where you’d like to stay. The trolley is literally right out front, and we used it a ton to get back and forth along downtown and to go to the aquarium. There is also a very nice waterfront plaza that the hotel overlooks, with beautiful views of the water, docks, and harbor. It also has a lovely bar & restaurant and there was even live music playing most nights. It seemed there were boat rentals, water taxis and charters directly at this plaza as well, super convenient! We didn’t partake this time, but perhaps on our next visit- because we’ll definitely be going back!

Since it was the holidays, we also got to experience the Winter Village at Hixon Waterfront Park, which was very cool. From ice skating to shops made from (literal) storage PODS, to yummy hot cocoa and delicious food, we really enjoyed hanging out there in the evenings. You can even take the trolley about halfway there and walk the short distance the rest of the way. If you are in Tampa around the holidays, be sure you check it out.

I’ll break down the rest of this blog by each attraction:

Zoo Tampa

This was our first stop, as soon as we got to Tampa, we just went straight to the zoo with our City Passes before even checking into our hotel. Now I really had zero expectations, and we have a zoo in Jacksonville that we absolutely love so to say I was impressed is an understatement. I was blown away by this zoo! They had way more exhibits than we expected and even had TWO rollercoasters (that our kids rode on repeatedly). You can truly spend the entire day here. They have a new Australia loop they are currently working on, that we will be back for. One thing I appreciated as well is that all attractions are included in your admission. Our local zoo seems to nickel and dime you for “extra” experiences, so this was also a very lovely and welcome surprise.

The highlights for us were the manatee exhibit, you can view these beautiful creatures from below water level to truly enjoy their calming presence. I could have stayed there watching them for hours, also I just really love manatees. They’re my favorite. The kids enjoyed the rollercoasters and the safari ride that took you around the zoo property.

We also really enjoyed the ginormous Rhino exhibit, as well as listening in on some of the zoo expert presentations throughout the day. You can tell the staff all really love their jobs and take animal conservation seriously. We loved being able to chat with them about the animals throughout our visit. There are also a ton of food options, gift shops and treats. You won’t go hungry, and the prices won’t break your bank. Or if you’re trying to save money, there are countless picnic tables outside of the zoo where you can easily enjoy a picnic before or after (or during) your visit. We saw lots of families spread out among the picnic tables enjoying their homemade lunches.  If you’re in Tampa, go. I promise, you’ll love it. Dare I say, I enjoyed it more than Bush Gardens (sorry!).

Busch Gardens

Holy rollercoasters batman! I was not expecting the intensity of these rollercoasters, but that’s what we came for! I rode as many as I could before feeling like I would be sick, then took a break with our youngest kiddo to enjoy some shows and the younger kid area. While my husband and our oldest continued to ride and ride until the lines got too long.

Pro tip – arrive before they open! We arrived 20 minutes before they even opened and were able to be pretty close to the front of the (very long) line. We then ran inside as the gates opened and hit all the biggest, baddest rides as many times as we could. We also hopped on the safari train ride that takes you all around the park to view their animals, before 11:00am. And I can’t tell you how thankful I am that we CRAMMED our morning, because by 1:00pm every single line (including the peaceful train ride) was 2 hours wait time- no thank you. So, we took our time eating, caught some shows and tried to wait out the crowds- only to find there was no waiting them out. The lines continued to grow, and people kept arriving even after dark. So, we called it a day by 7pm to head out. We just didn’t feel like waiting 2 hours for one ride. So again, super thankful we got everything in that morning.

I don’t think we’ll be coming back during the holidays; I’d like to return in an “off” season to see if the lines are just as long. But the rollercoasters really were awesome and made the trip worth it. The smaller kids’ area also got extremely packed by the afternoon- seriously if I had younger kiddos I would have had so much anxiety about losing them. It was too much.

And yes, you can buy fast passes to skip the line, but they are EXPENSIVE (just as much as the tickets themselves) and we just didn’t want to pony up the dough. But that’s always an option. We even ran into friends who had bought the passes just for their two sons, so they could hop on and off rides all day. So again, you do have options if you don’t want to be stubborn about it, like me.

Prop tip– download the app a few days before you arrive so you can start seeing the ride wait times, and time your visit accordingly. Try to time seeing shows and eating during the longest ride wait times and keep the rides that never have too long of a line for the afternoon when the crowd level is its highest.

We were also bummed that the sky ride was closed, and I swear it was closed 10 years ago too when I last visited Bush Gardens, so not sure what that’s about. That used to be my absolute favorite thing when I was a kid! But we still left thoroughly exhausted and a little queasy, just like we like it.

The Florida Aquarium

Again, we arrived with zero expectations and were blown away! We love an aquarium, like really really love an aquarium. We go to one wherever we travel and have been to aquariums from Lisbon, Portugal to Boston, Mass. We enjoy learning about the ocean life in the area we’re visiting and learning about the conservation efforts in those areas as well. The ocean is kinda our thing. Big fans.

The City Pass was super easy to use (again), you just pull out that same pass, saved on your phone and they scan that same ticket! Very easy & super fast.

Pro tip– this place also got very packed as we were leaving, and luckily, we arrived about 15 minutes before doors opened so we got to enjoy some of the larger viewing spaces in peace & quiet. It’s hard when the crowds start to swarm in, and you’re all pressed up against the same glass trying to look at the fish- not a huge fan of that. So likely hitting it at opening or arriving nearer closing will be your best bet for crowd-less viewing. Also, check the policies online before you arrive and pack accordingly- they do bag checks and it did hold up the line, so help by making it as fast as possible!

Back to the fishies…there were lots of them. We were not disappointed and some of the surprise exhibits, like the lemurs, river otters and beautiful jellyfish tanks (with a touch tank!), were an extra nice bonus. The aquarium is also extremely beautiful, with an indoor-outdoor concept, and a yummy restaurant & bar on the outdoor patio. They also had an adorable kids play area and play structures for the younger kiddos that is a very nice touch, to let the young ones play and stretch during your visit.

The aquarium also has numerous activities on any given day, since it was winter when we visited, they had snowball zones and ice play tables for families to enjoy- all included! I would imagine in the summer they have lots of fun summer activities as well to keep you cool and entertained.  The gift shop was large and awesome, and the food was very yummy! We’ll be back, with our City Passes in hand.

Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI)

MOSI was cool. We arrived later in the afternoon, about 2 hours before they closed, and it seemed like everyone was leaving at about that time, so it wasn’t crowded at all. MOSI was absolutely jam packed with fun, interactive displays, and experiences that both kids and adults can enjoy. You could spend anywhere from an hour or all day experiencing their exhibitions- you can make your visit whatever you’d like it to be. It’s designed to be very hands on and a wonderful way for your kids to immerse themselves in science & engineering. There is even a VR ride that looked fun but was malfunctioning when we visited so we didn’t get to ride it (boo!).

There’s also a beautiful outdoor space with mini golf, play structures, corn hole, and more. It was a sunny, cool day so it was lovely to be able to walk in and out and enjoy this green space. There was even a second building outside that hosted a huge interactive superhero exhibit which was very fun, and I imagine the theme changes regularly. There were some food trucks and stands around too, offering some tasty food & treats to visitors. My kids say their favorite was a space exhibit that made you feel like you were landing on the moon, arriving, and exploring the terrain. It was a sweet, fun, and memorable little bonus added to our trip that we never would have known about or experienced if not for the City Pass.

We had the option of one more activity- a dolphin tour, children’s museum or marine aquarium and we honestly just ran out of time! We probably would have chosen the dolphin or sunset boat tour (because we are boat people) but it was cold during our trip. But next time, we’d probably do the same things all over again while adding on that last little experience of a boat tour!

Sparkman Wharf

We enjoyed walking around this area and meant to go back at night, but we were just too exhausted. The locals all told us about the fun activities they have at night, music, special events, etc. hosted in the beautiful green lawn space, engulfed in the wharf, and surrounded by eateries. We walked there after the aquarium, since it was virtually next door and indulged in some yummy snacks for our lunch. All the eateries were casual, walk-up counter/food truck style and everyone was so friendly and chatty. We loved trying new foods while speaking with the owners.

There were also some fun shops, larger restaurants, and cute boutiques. What a great area to hang out in, especially on a beautiful sunny day (our day was cold…and rainy, so we’ll need a re-do).


It wasn’t the season for Gasparilla on our last trip, but I couldn’t write a blog about Tampa and not mention it! We went years ago and had an absolute blast. From pirates, pirate ships, boat parades, concerts, film festivals, live shows/music, and countless other special events- you’ll want to plan a trip to Tampa to partake in Gasparilla at some point- add it to your travel list. The season typically starts near the end of January and runs through the end of March (during Mardi Gras and spring break season).

So, if this [pirates and shenanigans] is something that interests you (and it should) you’ll want to start booking properties or hotel rooms well in advance to be front & center downtown. Check out their website for a complete calendar of events.

That’s a wrap!

I hope you enjoyed this (lengthy-action-packed) blog and I hope that it will help you during your next trip to Tampa, Florida! We had an amazing time and are targeting to go back during the spring or fall season next trip, preferably not during a super peak tourist season so we can try Busch Gardens again and see if the ride wait times are a bit better. Happy travel planning and I’ll see you on the next adventure!

10 things to pack for your Tampa trip:  

  1. Comfortable shoes. This trip will have A LOT of walking!
  2. Changes of clothing. Particularly when riding water rides, etc. you’ll want to put some spare clothing in your backpack and rent a locker for your belongings. Don’t forget to shop Sublime Rides (wink wink).
  3. Pre downloaded apps. Most theme parks, aquariums, etc. have great apps that you can use to plan ahead regarding ride times, show times, hours of operations, parking instructions, etc.
  4. City Pass tickets. Once you purchase your city pass, I recommend saving the tickets to your phone’s wallet but also taking screen shots and save to your photos, just in case you can’t access your wallet. Be sure your partner also has copies (in case one of your phones die).  
  5. Bathing Suits. To enjoy your hotel’s accommodations and also, in case your kids want to splash around in any of the theme park or city splash areas.
  6. A good but light weight backpack. You’ll want a comfortable backpack for your day trips to carry water bottles, a first aid kit, changes of clothes and snacks.
  7. Florida jacket. Which is basically a lightweight jacket. Of course, this depends on the season but during the winter months that temperature will drop at sunset. My kids requested their jackets many times throughout our trip.
  8. Umbrella and/or ponchos/rain jackets. Because it’s Florida.
  9. A good [phone] camera with arm strap. If you want to take any rollercoaster shots, you’re going to want that baby strapped to your arm! Too many phones, sunglasses and wallets have fallen victim to the wrath of the rollercoaster.
  10. Hand sanitizers/hand wipes. Because theme parks are gross. Only one of us ended up with a bug after our trip- which I consider a win! There’s just no escaping those nasty handrails and close quarters with other humans. But you can try to kill some of those germs.

Leave a Reply