Winter the DolphinVisit St Petersburg/ClearwaterBy Andy Schrader

From two to twenty, it doesn’t matter what age children you’re toting. The St Petersburg/Clearwater area offers affordable attractions your kids will write (or blog) home about. For generations of vacationers, family bonding has meant fishing piers, miles of beaches and shore-side ice cream shops. And now the offerings have expanded to include saltwater-sliding waterparks, surfer-inspired paddleboarding, and a brand-new pedestrian park on the water where teenagers can see and be seen.

Young kids love to play “treasure hunt” on the beach using a hand-scrawled map and some trinket buried under the sand. (The Dalí Museum also has its own “treasure hunt” available for kids where they find hidden objects in the paintings.) For prime playgrounds, try Constitution Park in Redington Shores. It’s located just south of 183rd Avenue on Gulf Boulevard. Or look for Hurley Park in Pass-A-Grille Beach. It’s got swings, jungle gyms, basketball courts and pavilions and showers to cool off. On the hottest of hot days, trek to the free Cypress Forest Park “sprayground” in Oldsmar, a half-hour northeast of Clearwater next to Brooker Creek Nature Preserve. The park features a huge play area on a rubberized non-skid surface. It’s filled with kid-friendly fountains and misters, plus burbling “springs” that may actually keep your toddler still for 10 minutes.

Animal Friends
Clearwater’s most famous resident, Winter the Dolphin, is even more famous thanks to the recent Hollywood hit, Dolphin Tale, starring Morgan Freeman, Harry Connick Jr and Ashley Judd. It chronicles how Winter was rescued and rehabilitated when her tail had to be amputated after she became entangled in a discarded crab trap. Today she swims with the help of a prosthetic tail, hand-crafted by a team of scientists. See the movie then visit Winter and her dolphin friends at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Besides dolphins, the aquarium also features sea turtles, sharks, sting rays and otters.

Another must-see is the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Shores to get an up-close look at seabirds, shorebirds and predators like hawks and ospreys. This avian hospital and rehabilitation centre cares for more than 10,000 birds every year. The Boyd Hill Nature Preserve in St Petersburg also has an aviary as well as a butterfly garden, lakeside trails, boardwalks and an education centre.

Travelling with a four-legged friend? There are two beaches that allow pets in the area – Fort De Soto Park’s Paw’s Playground and Honeymoon Island State Park. Both doggie beaches are teeming with tons of fun for everyone.

Beach Attractions
Visible from far down the beach, the three-storey “High Tide Slide” at the TradeWinds Island Grand Resort in St Pete Beach acts like a beacon for thrill-seeking kids. They slip for more than 60 metres down the slide and come out right next to the adjacent wave-tossed water park called Splash Island. It features oversized trampolines and rafts, plus a giant see-saw for up to 10 people. Make reservations ahead of time if you know you’ll be visiting.

Pier 60 is the connections hotspot, the place to wear your coolest pair of sunglasses, chill in the sand. The Beach Walk Promenade sits directly behind the sand: a wide, open sidewalk for biking, walking and skateboarding that runs the length of the beach. Check out the “Sunset Celebration at Pier 60”. Patterned after the highly successful festival at Mallory Square in Key West, it features unique craftsmen, artists and entertainers performing two hours before sunset and two hours after sunset.

Fort De Soto Park was recently named “Best Family Beach” by Parents Magazine. It’s got great amenities like showers, changing rooms, barbecue grills and picnic tables. Eleven kilometres of wide bike paths and several nature trails – including a special-needs barrier-free trail – offer endless opportunities for fun. Bring your binoculars to watch for osprey and pelicans in the air and plodding gopher tortoises on the ground. There’s a cool fort leftover from the Spanish-American War that was just renovated. Kids love to run and yell inside, their shouts echoing off the walls of the century-old fortification. Fort tours are offered Saturdays and nature tours on Saturdays and Sundays.

If you’ve got older, athletic kids, they might enjoy seeing Fort De Soto from a different perspective – by walking on the water. SUP (Stand Up Paddleboards) combine paddling’s tranquility with surfing’s adrenaline thrill to create a brand new sport that’s simple to learn.

A stone’s throw across the sparkling blue/green waters from Fort De Soto Park, you’ll find an undiscovered gem – Egmont Key. Accessible only by boat or ferry service, this rustic island is distinguished by its 150-year-old lighthouse. What most people don’t know is it has some of the most amazing snorkeling excursions you’ll ever find.

Captain Memo’s Original Pirate CruiseVisit St Petersburg/ClearwaterAnother unique offering on the water is Captain Memo’s Original Pirate Cruise, departing from the Clearwater Municipal Marina. This two-hour ”kid-friendly” piratefest is packed with plenty of fun. Dolphin Tours are also available throughout St Pete/Clearwater. Many times the boats can entice the dolphins to surf in their wakes, affording a great photo opportunity.

Culture For Kids
For custom-designed kid spaces try some of our specialized children’s museums. Great Explorations: The Hands-On Museum in St Petersburg is an inexpensive way to spend an afternoon. The climbing wall, tennis ball launchers, robot lab, play kitchens and even a veterinary clinic with stuffed animals to treat ensure they’ll be pooped by day’s end. Next door is Sunken Gardens, St Petersburg’s oldest living museum with lush gardens, endless waterfalls and a butterfly garden.

St Petersburg’s Science Center of Pinellas County makes a great rainy day escape. Learn about Florida fish and shells at the marine touch tank. Also check out the planetarium, the live alligator exhibit and the small observatory, which offers planet-watching events on selected nights.

Finish your day with a different kind of heritage, in the old Greek fishermen’s village of Tarpon Springs. Kids love the boat tour, which leaves from the historic sponge fishing docks. The cruise includes a narration of the history of sponge diving and a diving exhibition – complete with a real sponge diver wearing an ancient brass helmet. You’ll be back just in time for a sugar-fueled walk through the shopping district, courtesy of authentic Greek pastries like baklava and diples: rolled fried dough dipped in honey and topped with cinnamon and sugar.

For more information, go to www.VisitStPeteClearwater.com

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