Florida is filled with great beaches and wonderful coastal towns for families to explore. With so many compelling destinations, it’s nearly impossible to visit all of them on individual family vacations. One good option is to stay in a central location and take various day trips throughout the region.
One of my favorite central destinations in Florida is Tampa Florida. It’s easy to access, has some fun attractions right within the metro area, and is also central to many other beautiful cities and towns. Here are some of the best day trips from Tampa, for your next central Florida family vacation.
Disclosure: I’ve visited some of these destinations and popular attractions as part of complimentary and discounted press trips. All opinions are my own. This post contains affiliate links and a purchase/click through one of these links may result in a commission paid to us at no cost to you.
The Best Day Trips From Tampa
Getting To Tampa, Florida
You’ll find that flying into Tampa Florida is relatively easy. There’s an international airport right in Tampa, and it’s served by several large airlines. These include JetBlue, United, Spirit, Southwest, Norwegian, Frontier, Delta, American, and Air Canada. From my home airport of Boston Logan Airport, there are multiple direct flights per day.
If you plan on doing day trips and are flying into Tampa, you’ll definitely want to rent a car, even if you are staying in Downtown Tampa. Renting a car is pretty easy at the Tampa International Airport. You’ll need to take the SkyConnect train from the main terminal to the rental car area.
Most of the major car rental companies, like Alamo, Hertz, Thrifty, National, Enterprise, Avis, Budget, and Payless, are on-site. There are also other rental companies that are off-site, but with courtesy vehicles going to and from the airport. I always recommend reserving your rental car in advance, so you can be sure there will be a car available for you.
Day Trips Within the Tampa Bay Area
Within the Tampa Bay area, there are multiple attractions and activities where you can spend most of the day. The most popular of these is Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.
This world-class theme park is home to multiple amazing thrill rides and roller coasters, as well as animal encounters, and more. My kids always love visiting Busch Gardens, and it’s definitely a place where you can spend the entire day. Arrive early for the shortest attraction lines, and go on the most popular rides first.
Across the street from Busch Gardens (and owned by the same company), is Adventure Island Water Park. It’s open seasonally from around March to October and offers a wave pool, lazy river, 10 water slides, and more.
There’s also the Florida Aquarium, which one of the top-rated aquariums in the US. This aquarium offers live animal exhibits, a splash pad, and a 4D theater. The Tampa Riverwalk, near the downtown area, is also a popular place to visit.
You can also save money on the best Tampa-area attractions for families by purchasing CityPASS Tampa Bay. If you plan to visit the attractions included in the pass, it can definitely be worth the purchase.
The Tampa Bay CityPASS includes admission to the following:
- Busch Gardens Tampa Bay
- The Clearwater Marine Aquarium
- The Florida Aquarium
- ZooTampa at Lowry Park
- And either the Museum of Science and Industry or the Tropics Boat Tours Dolphin or Sunset Cruise (boat tours leave out of Clearwater)
The first time we visited Tampa on vacation, my kids and I headed out to the famous Clearwater Beach. We had heard so many wonderful things about the area and wanted to explore it ourselves. We loved Clearwater so much that we later returned there for a full family vacation.
Clearwater is most known for its world-class beach which is frequently ranked among the best in the United States. The sugar sand is beautiful and unique, making it one of my favorite beaches. The Gulf of Mexico water is also great for swimming and other water sports.
The beach is open year-round and gets busy during the spring break months. While you are there, you’ll want to try some of the delicious restaurants that Clearwater is known for. There’s so much good food in Clearwater – especially if you are a seafood lover!
You also won’t want to miss a visit to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, home of Winter and Hope from the Dolphin Tale movies. The aquarium focuses on rehabilitating animals and has lots of great programs and shows for families.
You may also consider taking one of the many dolphin cruises offered by the marina. If you purchase a CityPASS, the Tropics Boat Tours Dolphin Tour is one of the options you can choose.
Known as the Manatee Capital of the World, Crystal River is located about an hour and fifteen minutes from Tampa. This quiet, natural destination is great for exploring the Florida environment, with outdoor ctivities like swimming with the manatees and scallop diving.
The Crystal River area includes four towns: Crystal River, Homosassa, Inverness, and Floral City. If you want to see manatees, they are best seen in the cooler winter months in the springs of Crystal River. There are various tour providers offering manatee swims, and it’s best to do your research before heading out on your Tampa vacation.
St. Petersburg/St. Pete Beach
The city of St. Petersburg and the town of St. Pete Beach are popular Gulf Coast destinations. St. Pete Beach is one of the best beaches in the United States, and St. Petersburg is home to many family attractions. They are about a 45-minute drive from Tampa, making it one of the best Tampa day trips.
St. Petersburg is home to the Salvador Dali Museum, Sawgrass Lake Park, downtown St. Petersburg, the Chihuly Collection, and Sunken Gardens, so there is plenty to do. If you also plan to take the short drive to visit St. Pete Beach, you may consider visiting over two separate days. The area also offers plenty of opportunities for water sports and activities, like kayaking and boat tours.
Orlando, the theme park capital of the world, is the type of place that is difficult to visit as part of a day trip. There are hundreds of things for families to do in Orlando, from the four theme parks of Walt Disney World Resort to the three parks at Universal Studios. If you want to spend most of your time at the theme parks, I’d definitely recommend staying in Orlando instead.
However, if you’d rather stay a bit further away from Orlando and just visit for the day, it’s definitely possible. Orlando is located a little less than two hours away from Tampa. You could also choose to start or end your trip in Tampa, with a road trip to Orlando as part of your vacation.
Things to do in Orlando include:
- The Magic Kingdom
- Disney’s Hollywood Studios
- Disney’s Animal Kingdom
- Disney Springs
- Universal Studios
- Discovery Cove (an all-inclusive day resort owned by SeaWorld)
- Legoland (located in Winter Haven, between Tampa and Orlando)
- Orlando ICON Park (home of the ICON wheel)
If you do choose to stay overnight in Orlando, there are so many different hotel options. Walt Disney World, Legoland, and Universal Studios have resort hotels right on property. There are also many hotels along International Drive, including many chain hotels with family suites.
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
If your kids are mermaid lovers, you absolutely have to take a day trip from Tampa to the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, located a little over an hour north of Tampa. Weeki Wachee Springs State Park is known for its live mermaid shows, but there’s a lot more for families to enjoy as well. There’s something for the whole family to enjoy.
Activities include kayaking, canoeing, boat tours, and an interpretive exhibit. There’s also the Buccaneer Bay area which includes water slides, a kiddie pool, and a lazy river. As a state park, admission is very reasonable.
If you are planning to visit specifically for the mermaid show, it’s recommended that you arrive early to get a seat. Check out the hours and schedule on the website before you go.
Bok Tower Gardens
Bok Tower Gardens is located in Lake Wales, Florida, between Orlando and Tampa. This national landmark is known for the Singing Tower, a structure with 60 carillon bells. Although guests aren’t allowed in the Singing Tower (except for members of the gardens), you are able to hear various live performances on a set schedule published on their website.
Within the gardens, you’ll find flowers, foliage, and wildlife (including birds). It’s a nice change of pace from the theme parks, so this would be a good place to stop if you are taking a road trip between Tampa and Orlando.
One of my favorite places in Florida is Sarasota. While it’s definitely an area that you can visit on a full family vacation, it’s also a good option for a day trip from Tampa.
Sarasota is located about an hour south of Tampa along the Gulf Coast. While it does have its own airport, you can also combine a trip to Tampa with a visit to Sarasota.
The most popular family attraction in the area is the Ringling complex, which includes the Ringling Museum of Art, the Circus Museum, Ca’d’Zan (the family mansion), and Bayfront Gardens. The basic admission includes everything but Ca’d’Zan, and I think that’s a great option for families.
While most kids are likely to want to spend the most amount of time in the Circus Museum (and with good reason!), the art museum is definitely worth visiting as well. Because you don’t have to spend any extra money to get admission to the art museum, you can check it out and leave whenever the kids are ready to go.
The Circus Museum includes lots of fun exhibits including circus props, a sideshow exhibit, interactive galleries, and a 44,000+ piece miniature circus model. Unless you plan to spend lots of time at both the Circus Museum and the art museum, you probably won’t spend the whole day at the Ringling.
Other activities in Sarasota include the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, and the Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary. Sarasota is also located right near a collection of popular barrier islands including Anna Maria Island, Siesta Key, Longboat Key, and Lido Key. These beautiful barrier islands offer kayaking, watersports, beaches, and more.