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Fun Date Ideas for Your Valentine

Looking for something fun to do for Valentine’s Day that doesn’t involve candy or expensive restaurants?

If your honey and you are the type who like to be on the go, you could rent a bike downtown, take a walk along the Riverwalk or tour the river area by water in a kayak, electric boat or water bike.

Animal lovers are definitely in luck. Gatorland and Myakka River State Park both offer up close and personal views of the state official reptile. Located outside of Orlando, Gatorland is home to thousands of alligators, including four rare white ones. It also hosts giant tortoises, pythons, parrots, peacocks, turkeys, panthers and deer. You can feed many of the animals, see an animal show, or even zip-line over the alligator enclosures or “wrestle” one for a photo op. Book a boat tour of Myakka River State Park and your special someone is sure to snuggle up a bit closer to you when a massive alligator swims towards your boat.

If you prefer animals with fur, Big Cat Rescue and Odessa Wildlife Rescue and Sanctuary (OWRS) are both worth a visit. Tucked away on Easy Street, Big Cat Rescue is home to 100 exotic and wild cats. OWRS is home to almost 60 different animals, including potbelly pigs, goats, rabbits, foxes, raccoons, alpacas and wallabies, peacocks and iguanas.

Valentine bouquets are beautiful but fleeting. Why spend money on something that will be tossed out in a few weeks? Instead you could buy a membership to St Pete’s Sunken Gardens and see more than 50,000 plants from beautiful flowers to cacti and tropical fruits all year long. Along the meandering garden paths, you’ll find numerous waterfalls, a lily pond, a tropical fruit garden and an arbor with delicate, beautiful orchids of all colors and sizes.

Is there anyone in Florida who does not love manatees? Now’s the time to see those sweet looking sea cows since they’ll be swimming closer to shore and inland to spring water with consistent temperatures. At Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park they have an underwater viewing area and it is home to a wide variety of animals indigenous to Florida and one hippopotamus, which is not. There are three resident manatees, cougars, black bears, flamingos, owls and osprey. During the winter months, hundreds of manatees flock to Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach. The viewing center offers a walkway that extends over the water, an observation tower and an environmental education museum. They also have a snack bar and museum shop. We’ve spotted sharks, stingrays and dolphins on our visits.

So avoid the tired and traditional this Valentine’s Day and opt for sweet time instead!

By Marcy Sanfordd


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Hello, Dali!

I had the unfortunate experience of having an art appreciation class in middle school.

It consisted solely of looking at slides of pictures and memorizing the name of the artist who painted (or drew) them. Is it any wonder that I had stayed away from art appreciation classes after that?

I know Van Gogh painted Sunflowers, Degas ballerinas and Monet lilies, Dali—he was the weird one with the watches, right? But as you get older, you begin to appreciate things in a whole new way. While visiting the Dali Museum recently, I found myself continually saying, “Wow, how did he do that?”

Fortunately for me, while at the museum my friend and I were lucky enough to find ourselves standing next to a docent lead tour. The lady leading the tour was a wealth of information about Dali and his paintings. She explained where he was in his life when he was painting them and how he mastered some of his techniques. She identified the many different elements of the painting, even pointing out images we might not have noticed otherwise. The tours are free and run throughout the day. You can also choose to take an audio tour if that works better for you.

Holly Lanier, public relations coordinator for the museum, stated, “The Dalí currently showcases 92 of Salvador Dalí's works, including eight of his epically scaled masterworks—the most of any museum in the world—with a focus on oil paintings. To highlight Dalí's diverse artistic abilities, The Dalí Museum periodically rotates in some of his works in other mediums, such as watercolors, drawings, photos, studies and writing.”

The special exhibit on view at the Dali Museum now through Nov. 25, Clyde Butcher: Visions of Dali’s Spain, explores a bit of the why in Dali’s paintings. Florida resident Clyde Butcher, a renowned nature photographer visited Spain at the request of the museum and took 41 photos of the landscapes that inspired Dali. Ranging from two to eight feet wide, the large photos are paired with small reprints of the Dali painting that features the landscape in its backdrop.

Another interesting addition to the museum is the virtual reality experience Dreams of Dali. Slip on the virtual reality goggles and you enter the world of Dali’s painting, Archaeological Reminiscence of Millet’s “Angelus,” which is also on view as part of the permanent collection at the museum. If you figure out why Alice Cooper is there, let me know.

A new exhibit will be on display starting Dec. 15—Margritte and Dali. The first-of-its-kind, special exhibition is dedicated to Rene Margritte and Salavador Dali, considered two of the world’s most celebrated surrealists. The exhibit examines the common threads and creative divergences in their bodies of work from the late 1920s to the 1940s. It will be on display through May 19.
And it may give me a whole new artist to appreciate.

Image courtesy of The Dali Museum.

The Dali Museum
1 Dali Blvd.
St. Petersburg, FL 33701

By Marcy Sanford


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Tampa’s Haunted Places

Dive into any city’s history and you’re sure to find a few good ghost stories and downtown Tampa is no exception.

Chrissy Coplen, founder of Ghost Party Haunted Tours and Ghost Party Paranormal Group, has been exploring some of Tampa’s most haunted places for 10 years. Many are located in Ybor City. “I’ve been ‘accidently’ locked inside the Cuban Club twice. They were the scariest moments of my life,” she said.

Founded in 1902, The Cuban Club was a place for immigrants to gather. The original building, which burned down in 1916 and was rebuilt the next year, once contained a gymnasium, indoor swimming pool, theatre, ball room and cantina. Today it is rented out for special events. People have reported seeing the ghost of a young actor and playwright who committed suicide on stage after he forgot the words to his play, the ghost of a young boy who drowned while swimming in the indoor pool and a lady dressed all in white.

Coplen said another place in Ybor City where her group has had unexplainable encounters is the Carne Chop House. “Many people have reported seeing a shadow man there. One night one of the bartenders walked over to the wine cabinet to get a bottle of wine. When he turned around, he saw a tall man who was missing one side of his face.”

One of the newest haunts on Coplen’s tour is Snobachi, where the chills aren’t just due to the ice cream. “They asked us to come investigate their building a few weeks ago after they experienced items flying off the shelves” said Coplen. “They hear footsteps upstairs even though no one lives there.”

It’s not just Ybor City that is teeming with ghosts. Downtown Tampa has all sorts of spirits lingering behind. The Fort Brooke Parking Garage was built in 1980 over a cemetery and even though the remains of soldiers and Native Americans were removed and reburied, people report hearing the sounds of drumming and chanting in the garage and have seen strange, shadowy figures.

Tampa Theatre is such a great place to work that apparently some employees never want to leave. Rosa Rio played the Mighty Wurlitzer organ there until she was 107 years old and many guests and current staff say they can still hear her playing the organ throughout the day. The theatre’s original projectionist enjoyed smoking cigarettes and to this day, people report seeing clouds of smoke coming from the projection room and a lingering smell of cigarette smoke, although smoking has been banned in the theatre for many years.

The Plant Museum on the University of Tampa campus has quite a few ghost stories connected to it. “Given the age of the building—the Tampa Bay Hotel opened in 1891—it seems almost impossible for there not to be a couple spirits hanging around today,” said Museum Relations manager Lindsay Huban. “Victorians had lots of superstitions regarding death and mirrors, and I’ve definitely caught myself looking twice when walking the museum hallways after dark.” 

Huban added, “Ghostly visitors could include some of the famous guests like John Philip Sousa, Sarah Bernhardt (who claimed to sleep regularly in a coffin) or Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders.  There also is documentation about a double suicide that took place inside the hotel.  With our connection to the death and disease of the Spanish-American War, it is easy to imagine that there are spirits of soldiers roaming the hallways.  We love visitors coming to the museum and sharing any stories of what they sense as well.”

Curious to do a little ghost hunting of your own?

Ghost Party Haunted Tours offers ghost tours of Ybor City throughout the week as well as specially planned trips to other cities to see who’s haunting them. The Tampa Theatre will be offering ghost tours throughout the month of October and the Plant Museum is hosting an Eerie Evening at the Tampa Bay Hotel on Oct. 27.

By Marcy Sanford


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Thrilling Your Inner Lumberjack

My daughter was reluctant to come with me to throw axes.

Sure, she’d love to spend hours plotting ways to kill opponents on Fortnite. But suggest that we go throw an axe and you’d think I’d admitted to having serial killer tendencies.

But by Sunday afternoon, with no other plans offered to her, she agreed to accompany me.

Axe Throwing Tampa, which I learned about thanks to Groupon, is located in a non-descript office building on Memorial Highway. In fact, when we pulled into the parking lot, I was not sure we in the right place. Could you really throw axes inside? The answer is, yes, you can, and since the AC is cranked up high, it is a great way to escape from the hot, muggy Tampa weather.

Axe Throwing Tampa owner Kristi Collins said her family came across the idea while travelling in Canada and decided they wanted to open something similar. “We love to try out different activities when we travel,” she said. “Axe throwing has been popular in Canada for about 10 years.”

You can make a solo reservation or get a group of friends together. Axe Throwing Tampa can accommodate groups of up to 24 people and children as young as 8 years old are allowed to participate.

During the 90-minute session, an axe throwing expert will teach you how to throw the one-pound axes. “There is a two-handed technique and a one-handed technique,” said Axe Throwing Tampa manager Lee Sterling. “We start off with the basics and everyone gets to take turns throwing practice shots, then we play team games and end with a tournament. On the weekends we have a lot of couples and parents with their children. During the week it is mostly corporate groups coming in for a team building activity.”

Sterling helped us learn how to throw an axe. We were timid at first, maybe even a little scared that we’d drop it on our heads or somehow cause irreparable damage to the target board. After a few throws, however, we grew bolder and more confident and the activity became a lot of fun. You definitely get a feeling of accomplishment when you hear that axe whack the board – even my reluctant companion had a big grin on her face.

If you really get a handle on how to throw, they can even teach you trick shots like throwing two axes at one time or throwing one backwards. We’re not quite there yet but we did manage to hit the bull’s eye.

Axe Throwing Tampa
5811 Memorial Highway, Suite 204
(813) 333-2935

By Marcy Sanford


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Imagine Museum Brings Studio Glass Movement to St. Pete

St. Petersburg is home to museums showcasing fine art, photography and Salvador Dali.

The newest member of the museum family, The Imagine Museum, is dedicated to The American Studio Glass Movement. Opened earlier this year, the museum’s mission is to educate its visitors about the movement while showcasing more than 500 pieces of American Studio Glass created by more than 55 artists who were, and continue to be, integral to the development of glass as a fine art form.

“We are the only museum in the U.S. devoted entirely to the American Studio Glass Movement,” said Imagine Museum Deputy Director Jane Buckman. “Other museums have collections along with their other areas of art, but we are the only one with this distinct focus. The founder, Trish Duggan, was determined to bring this museum to St. Pete because of the vibrancy of the cultural arts in St. Pete and her interest in studio glass and the number of people and venues displaying or working in the glass medium in the region.”

The Imagine Museum’s regular collection tells the story of the studio glass movement from its beginning in 1962, when a University of Wisconsin professor began experimenting with hot glass in his studio, to the present. The collection includes pieces and artists that best represent the history of the movement. It was awesome to see the variety of pieces and ways they were designed. From glass houses to a glass chair, small pieces to large statues, the museum will put you in awe of the beauty of glass and how something so delicate can be manipulated in so many ways.

I have loved Dale Chihuly’s work since I first saw it at a museum in Memphis but until visiting The Imagine Museum did not realize that there was an actual glass movement or just how many other American artists have chosen glass as their medium.  

In addition to the regular collection, the museum hosts special exhibits throughout the year, such as the one currently on display: Paul Stankard’s Unseen Worlds featuring 100 glass paperweights in a garden-like installation. According to Buckman, “Paul Stankard is considered a pioneer in the studio glass movement and an internationally acclaimed glass paperweight master.”

Buckman added that the museum will host several special events in connection with the exhibit. “Throughout the fall we will be hosting artist Skype lectures on Sundays, a weekend with Paul Stankard and educational program collaborations with various groups in the region.”

Additionally, the museum hosts After Hours events on Friday evenings as well as story times and family days.

Imagine Museum
1901 Central Avenue
St. Petersburg
(727) 300-1700

By Marcy Sanford


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Scalloping Season in Crystal Springs

If you’re looking for a weekend (or weekday) getaway this summer, the town of Crystal River is a fun place to explore.

Located a little more than an hour drive from Westchase along Central Florida’s “Nature Coast,” the area is home to the Crystal River, several natural springs, many parks and preserves and a cute downtown area with several shops and restaurants. Be warned, however! If you’re going for the shopping, they all seemed to shut down at 5 p.m. Fortunately for us, we did not go to Crystal River for shopping but for more nature-loving pursuits.

You can explore the river and springs by kayak, paddle board or boat. I have read about and wanted to see Three Sisters Springs for a few years. The pictures of it look gorgeous and I’m happy to report the area is just as beautiful in person. The water is crystal clear and the springs are surrounded by towering trees, making you feel like you’re miles away from civilization.

During the winter hundreds of manatees migrate to the area for protection from the cold Gulf water, but during the summer, you probably won’t see any manatees there. You might, however, find a few in the surrounding river. The water is 72 degrees year-round. In June it felt actually a little cold to us—a welcome relief to the summer’s heat.

During the summer most visitors head to the area for scalloping season, which begins in July and runs through September. If you choose a guided tour, they will take you to the shallow waters of the Gulf to search for the miniature mollusks. Scallops like to hide in the shallow, grassy areas, where you might also see starfish, seahorses or turtles. The scallops are easy to spot because they have 30 to 40 blue eyes that glow underwater. One of the residents we talked to likened scalloping to an underwater Easter egg hunt.

Once you’ve caught your limit of scallops, you can take them home and clean them yourself (we were told they would keep in the refrigerator for a few days). Several places in town will clean them and some will even cook them for you. The Plantation on Crystal River is one. During scalloping season, they offer a package that includes accommodations, a guided scalloping tour, souvenir bag, and a dinner of your just caught scallops prepared by their chef.

When you’ve had your fill of scalloping, the hotel also has plenty of other activities to keep your family and you entertained, including a river-side pool, a 27-hole golf course, a volleyball court, croquet lawn and a full-service spa for those who would rather relax before dinner then dive for it.

Crystal River also has several state parks and preserves. They include miles of paved trails and hiking paths in the Withlacoochee State Forest and a seven-mile loop and eco-walk in the Crystal River Preserve State Park.

Crystal River, Florida

Plantation on Crystal River

By Marcy Sanford


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Have You Heard an Alpaca Hum?

No, we’re not pulling the wool over your eyes! (Get it?)

Homosassa, Florida, is home to many delightful places—state parks where you can hike and kayak, crystal clear springs and rivers where you can see native Florida wildlife like manatees and alligators.

And it’s home to Alpaca Magic USA, where you’ll find about 20 alpacas, numerous chickens and various other wonders. And while you could drive to Odessa if you just wanted to see alpacas from your car, Alpaca Magic USA is your chance to get up close and personal with these cute animals.

Located about an hour away from the Westchase area, the farm is also home to lots of recycled art work, a nursery with unusual perennials, butterfly plants and trees and a gift shop. While you take a self-guided tour of the farm and gardens, if you really want the full Alpaca Magic experience, call ahead to schedule a tour so that you’ll have a guide who will give you all sorts of interesting alpaca information—like the fact that they hum and that they all use the same spot when they need to go to the bathroom. If you’re really lucky, you might get the chance to feed the alpacas out of your hand. 

Our tour also included a fiber felting class, which I had never heard of before, but it turned out to be a lot of fun. When the class starts, you get a piece of cloth about the size of a piece of notebook paper and you pick out pieces of colored alpaca wool to make a design or picture. After layering the pieces of wool on top of each other, you spray it with water and then apply pressure. Repeat several times and, voila, you own an original work of fiber-felting alpaca wool art.

The gift shop itself is a testament to the versatility of alpaca wool—sweater, scarves, socks, stuffed animals. You name it, you can find it at Alpaca Magic USA or you can buy yarn and make something yourself.

The drive there is fairly easy although the driveway to the farm comes up quickly, so pay attention as you get closer to the farm. If you start to see open land with alpacas roaming around, that‘s a good sign you’ve gone too far.

Alpaca Magic USA is open daily from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. However, it is recommended that you call ahead.

Alpaca Magic USA
4920 Grover Cleveland
Homosassa, FL
(352) 628-0156

By Marcy Sanford


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Spa Spoiling Mom on Mother’s Day

Looking for a different treat for mom this year?

All sorts of interesting spa treatments are popping up around the Tampa Bay area.

From salt rooms in Wesley Chapel and Valrico to Fish Spas in Clearwater and flotation therapy in Carrollwood, if your mom has an adventurous spirit and you’re tired of giving the same manicure/pedicure gift certificate each year, a visit to one of these new spas might be the present you’re looking for this year.

With the benefit of a Groupon and the excuse of celebrating a birthday, my friend Nikki and I tried out the Garra Fish Spa in Clearwater earlier this year. According to the spa technician who helped us there, the Garra Rufa fish kiss your feet with a micro massage that leaves them clean and soft with the added bonus of improved blood circulation throughout the whole body. He said the treatment has been popular in many Asian, European and South American countries for quite a while but is relatively new to the U.S.

The water in the aquarium is room temperature, not at all cold like we thought it would be, but it is startling to have fish swarm your feet as soon as you dip them in the water. We screamed a bit, we laughed a lot. Maybe my feet were softer – not sure about my circulation – but it was a fun time together.

Fish not her thing?

She can still get the benefits of the ocean air by visiting a salt room – according to one website, 30 minutes in the room is like three days at the beach. According to the same site, the mineral salts found in salt rooms have strong rejuvenating properties and are reported to do everything from improving skin issues and supporting your immune, nervous and lymphatic systems to reducing stress and headaches and increasing energy. I have not actually been to a salt room since the thought of driving to Wesley Chapel or Valrico causes more stress than could be cured by any spa treatment. But when one opens closer to Westchase, I’ll be there.

I did, however, make the drive to Carrollwood to float in a dark pod for an hour. It was much better than it sounds. I didn’t know what to expect when I visited Tampa Floats Wellness Center in Carrollwood. But my guide Alex talked me through the float. “You’ll be in a large pod filled with 10 inches of water and 1,000 pounds of salt. It is buoyant like the Dead Sea and you’ll float effortlessly.” Alex said that the pressure of gravity is removed while you’re floating, which allows your body to relax, improves your circulation and can help relieve depression. He said that it would be completely dark in the pod and that because of the sensory deprivation, my brain would run at a more efficient level.

I had my doubts as to whether I could float in the pod for an hour but amazingly the time went be very quickly. Did my brain operated more efficiently? That night at dinner, my family asked, “What did you think about for an hour?”

The answer?

“What are we going to have for dinner?”

Since I had to go to Publix on the way home, I thought maybe if I concentrated on that, I’d come up with something really original and yummy for the evening. That didn’t happen – we had our standby grilled chicken dinner. But I was more relaxed, happier and energized while making it.

By Marcy Sanford


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Lakeland Has the Wright Stuff

Up until a few weeks ago I had only thought of Lakeland as a place we drove past on our way to Orlando or Legoland.

Yet a neighbor’s son is a freshman at Florida Southern College (FSC) and she recently mentioned how beautiful the campus is, adding that it is home to the largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture in the world. Having visited Chicago a few years ago, I thought I’d had that experience while walking around Oak Park and so I was intrigued.

John Santosuosso, a retired professor from the college and current docent volunteer at the Frank Lloyd Wright Sharp Family Tourism and Education Center, confirmed the status of the collection. “We have the largest collection of buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in one location designed for one client. Visitors from all over the U.S and world come to tour the collection.”

Santosuosso said that at the end of the depression FSC’s then president Dr. Ludd Spivey was desperately trying to come up with ideas to keep the small, struggling college open. “He felt he needed to do something spectacular so he sent a telegram to Wright asking him to help build an educational temple. By then Wright was pretty well known but he was always in need of money and never turned down any commission,” he said.

Santosuosso said the two met in person and became good friends, which probably was another reason that Wright took on the project.

The original plans for all the buildings and structures were drawn up in 1938 and most were finished by 1958. One, the Water Dome, has never fully functioned, however. Wright’s imagination called for fountains to shoot water 80 feet in the air but that was not possible because of water pressure at the time. In 2007 the college’s current president, Dr. Anne Kerr, led a campaign to restore the Water Dome so that Wright’s vision could be realized. “The Water Dome was the largest water feature Wright ever designed,” said Santosuosso.

However, he added that even with the renovations, the fountains do not shoot water 80 feet into the air. They max out at 45 feet instead. They still make a perfect dome of water, but unfortunately soak anyone near the fountain when the wind blows. So usually the fountains only run at about 30 percent of their capacity.

The college sells self-guided walking tour maps for those who want to visit the collection on their own but they also offer several different docent led tours for those who want to learn more.

Santosuosso said lots of people say their favorite building on the tour is the Danforth chapel, which includes the last specialty colored glass window that Wright ever designed. His favorite, however, is the Polk Science Building because there are “lots of good stories about Russian spies and ghosts” connected to the building. He also recommends that while you are in the area you visit the nearby Hollis Garden, a 1.2-acre garden that is home to more than 10,000 flowers, ornamental shrubs and native trees.

Frank Lloyd Wright Sharp Family Tourism and Education Center
(863) 680-4597

By Marcy Sanford

Photos courtesy of the Frank Lloyd Wright Sharp Family Tourism and Education Center.


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Safe and Unscary Skydiving Fun

Have you always wanted to skydive but have held back due to a few nagging thoughts?

Like: can I really launch my body out of a plane? Will my legs break when I hit the ground? What do I do if the chute doesn’t open?

At iFly you can experience skydiving without having to worry about all those pesky safety issues and hang-ups. One short training session and you’re ready to go. Or, if you’re like me, one short training session and you’re ready to let the instructor do most of the work to keep you afloat.

Truly all you have to do is step into the wind chamber and lean forward. The 100-mile-an-hour winds do the rest and you can either float around or try out some spins and other airborne activities. Typically you’re about five to six feet off the ground, but during the high flight, you may soar up to 16 feet above the main base. iFly provides everything you need from a flight suit to earplugs and a helmet. Everyone was very helpful throughout the whole experience.

Operations Manager Jon Dixon says that iFly was originally started as a training facility in Orlando in 1998 but that they soon realized there was a lot of interest from people who had never skydived. “The technology was developed in the 1970s for civilian and military skydiving practice,” he said. ”Once we built the training facility in Orlando, people started asking about it.”

Now 20 years later, iFly has more than 60 locations across the U.S. “We have many non-skydivers who come in two to three times a week and treat this as a hobby. We have a variety of programs for kids and adults who want to pursue skydiving as a sport.”

In addition to individual fun flights and training sessions, iFly offers birthday parties, Scout and school field trips and sessions for people with special needs.

iFly opened in the Brandon area in 2016, joining Topgolf and Bass Pro Shops to make it a big-box entertainment destination. Now with the addition of Dave & Buster’s arcade and sports bar, you should be prepared to spend a good portion of your day exploring the area – especially if you’ve got kids with you. 

If you’re staying in Tampa this spring break and are looking for something out of the ordinary to do, consider making the drive to Brandon for daycare that everyone in the family will enjoy.

10654 Palm River Rd.
(813) 773-4359

By Marcy Sanford

Images courtesy of iFly.


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In Search of Manatees

One of the benefits of living in Florida is having access to the many interesting animals that call our state home.

Now through the end of March is a great time to go in search of manatees. When the temperature in the ocean drops below 68 degrees, the herbivorous marine mammals also known as sea cows go in search of warmer water, which they often find closer to shore or in clear springs that maintain constant temperatures. We have spotted manatees swimming around the piers at the marinas in Safety Harbor and Dunedin, and they can often be spotted in Spring Bayou near historic Tarpon Springs. But if you want to see a cluster of manatees, make the drive to one of the hot spots below.

Hundreds of manatees flock to Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach during the winter months thanks to warm water that is discharged into the Bay from the power station. The viewing center offers a walkway that extends over the water, an observation tower and an environmental education museum. They also have a snack bar and museum shop. We’ve spotted sharks, stingrays and dolphins on our visits. It is a very easy place for manatee lovers of all ages to visit.

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is the year-round home to four manatees that are unable to survive in the wild. During the winter months, the park opens a gate and allows wild manatees to swim into the warm spring water. The park has an observatory that allows you to get an underwater view of the manatees and fish while staying dry. Homosassa Springs is also home to black bears, bobcats, alligators and a hippopotamus. As a bonus, they offer educational manatee programs three times a day.

Three Sisters Springs is the largest winter refuge for manatees on the Florida Gulf Coast. As many as 500 manatees have been counted taking refuge in the springs during the coldest months. During manatee season, Nov. 15 through March 31, you can only access the springs by swimming in or by walking along the quarter-mile boardwalk that runs around one section of the springs. From April 1 through Nov. 14 you can access the springs by kayak, canoe or stand-up paddleboard.

It’s important to remember that manatees visit warmer water during the winter months in order to reserve energy needed for survival. As with all wildlife, you should be on your best behavior and treat the manatees with respect – look, but don’t touch – no matter where you are.

Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center

Homossasa Springs Wildlife State Park

Three Sisters Springs

Photos appear courtesy of Visit Florida.

By Marcy Sanford


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Past Meets Present at Egmont Key

You’ll find a little something for everyone on this hidden gem.

Located off the shore of Fort De Soto Park, Egmont Key features a lighthouse and remains of a military fort for history lovers, shells galore for shell collectors and crystal clear waters for snorkelers. We took a half-day tour with Calypso Cat out of the Tierra Verde Marina for our visit to this secluded island that is only accessible by boat.

The first stop on our tour was just to the west of the island where you can snorkel around remains of Fort Dade, a former military community of 300 people that remained active until 1923 and is now submerged by water and erosion. Neat corals and sponges have grown along the walls, attracting fish. Our tour included noodles, masks, snorkels and fins. The average depth of the water is 12 feet and it was easy for everyone in our group, from the 8 year old and up, to snorkel around the area. 

When we reached the island, we had plenty of time for hiking. We followed a trail to the lighthouse built in 1858 that still guides boats in and out of Tampa Bay, and walked along 100-year-old brick roads past more remains of Fort Dade.

Designated as a National Wildlife Refuge in 1974, Egmont Key is home to protected populations of gopher tortoises and box turtles, as well as several species of nesting birds. The water surrounding the island is very shallow making it easy to find and collect different types of shells. We even spotted a manatee swimming.

Another highlight of our trip was the boat ride home, as we were joined by many different pods of dolphins and our boat driver was willing to stop the boat to let us admire them.

There aren’t any stores on the key so whether you travel by private or tour boat, you want to be sure you have plenty of drinking water and sunscreen on hand. There are picnic tables on the island if you want to bring lunch or snacks.

If you’ve never visited Egmont Key and are interested, you might want to add it to your list of things to do this spring or summer. During the boat ride, our guide mentioned that the key is eroding and in 2017 the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation listed it as a threatened historic property. About 60 percent of the island has eroded since the 1850s. Once 400 acres, the island is now about 160 acres and is only two miles long and a half-mile wide.

Egmont Key

By Marcy Sanford


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Picture Perfect Rainbow River

The photos I took when we visited Rainbow River State Park look like something from a postcard.

They’re real and unedited – no filter needed at all.

While the beaches around us offer pristine views of beautiful water, if you travel north to the middle of the state, you’ll find crystal clear springs and rivers surrounded by towering trees dripping with Spanish moss. Rainbow River State Park is about an hour and a half drive northeast from the Westchase area. Located in Dunnellon, the Rainbow River gets its spring water from the Rainbow Springs, ranked fourth in the state for volume of discharge. The gently winding river is 5.7 miles long and merges with the Withlacoochee River.

The area was developed as a tourist attraction in the 1930s and was very popular in the 1960s when they began to offer glass-bottomed boat rides, riverboat rides, log raft rides, a gondola/monorail system, a horse rodeo and submarine boat tours. Once Disney World opened and Florida visitors began using the interstate instead of the smaller highways for their travels, however, crowds lessened and the attraction eventually closed in 1974. The state purchased the area in 1990 and opened the state park in 1995.

By Marcy Sanford

You won’t find horse rodeos or log raft rides anymore but the park and the surrounding area does exude old Florida charm. It has a quaint historic downtown and plenty of diners offer country cooking and fresh made pies.

At the state park, you can rent canoes or kayaks, swim in the headsprings or hike along nature trails to see the original man-made waterfalls and the newly added butterfly garden. There are also picnic areas with grills and pavilions.

If canoeing or kayaking sounds like more energy than you want to expend on a day off, you can opt to tube down the river. While it is not allowed in the headsprings area of the park, you can rent tubes and use a shuttle service to drive you nine miles up river and then float back down.

We found the drive there and back to be easy to do in the same day, but if you do want to spend the night, you can camp at the park. We also saw lots of nice houses along the river while we were canoeing. A quick Google search of Rainbow River Vacation Rentals brought up quite a few that seemed to be near the park and relatively inexpensive during the winter months.

If you want to stay closer to home but enjoy the great outdoors this time of year, join in Hillsborough County’s Hiking Spree 2018. This is the second year the county has sponsored the program. Hike at least eight of 20 designated trails from now until March 31, 2018, and you’ll receive a medallion commemorating your accomplishments.


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Star Wars in Nearby St. Pete

Coming to a galaxy not so far, far away this fall is the Smithsonian traveling exhibition, Star Wars and the Power of Costume.

The exhibit will open Nov. 11 at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg.

Culled from the collection of the Lucas Museum, the exhibit features more than 60 of the costumes from the first seven films in the Star Wars series. Some of the most notable costumes include Obi-Wan Kenobi’s and Luke Skywalker’s monk-like robes, Darth Vadar’s suit and breathing apparatus, stormtrooper and fighter pilot uniforms, Queen Amidala and Queen Jamilia’s gowns and Chewbacca’s yak and mohair costume.

The exhibit aims to examine the process of costume design and the impact costumes can have on storytelling in film. Visitors to the museum will be able to watch short films about the creative process of designing the costumes and can learn more through interactive flip books that feature sketches, photographs and notes that delve more deeply into the creative team’s inspiration and vision.

“Star Wars is an important cultural touchstone across generations, and we are thrilled to have the opportunity to present the artistry of these costume designs at the MFA,” said Executive Director Kristen A. Shepherd. “Design is a critical element in narrative art forms, including film, and these are some of the most significant costumes in film history,” Shepherd added.

The other exhibit currently on view at the museum fits in nicely with Star Wars. Mickett-Stackhouse: Confluence will be on display through Feb. 4. A collaboration between two artists who have been working together for 19 years, the exhibit features large-scale sculpture, paintings and prints of the moon.

Don’t get so wowed by the sight of Han Solo’s outfit that you forget to browse through the museum’s gallery featuring works from their permanent collection. With more than 20,000 objects spanning 5,000 years of human history you never know what you might see.

Star Wars and the Power of Costume will be on display through April 1, 2018.

Museum of Fine Arts
255 Beach Dr. NE
St. Petersburg, FL
(727) 896-2667

By Marcy Sanford


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Chasing Fall’s Colors

One of the things that I miss most in the fall is seeing the leaves change color.

One of my favorite places to do so is the Smoky Mountains. During the peak season the mountains are bathed in golden sunlight and the trees are flooded with different hues of red, orange and yellow.

A great way to experience the beauty is on one of the many hiking trails throughout the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee. Whether you want to climb to great heights or stay down in the valley, there are trails suitable for every level. You can combine your hike with a history lesson and visit old mills, barns and cabins or follow streams to find waterfalls and touch some of the coldest water around.

One of our favorite hikes is the Grotto Falls trail. Although it is a constant incline, the hike itself is moderately easy (my 4-year-old cousin did it with minimal whining). It is only about a mile and a half to get to the waterfall. The mostly paved hike at the Sugarlands Visitor Center follows a stream through the mountains and is easily accessible for wheelchairs and strollers. But if you want a panoramic view of the mountains, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in Tennessee at 6,654 feet. The view is pretty spectacular from the parking lot or you can take the steep half-mile hike to an observation tower where you can see for hundreds of miles.

If hiking is not your thing, you can see plenty by driving through the park in your car. Cades Cove is one of the most popular destinations and you might even see a bear. For $2 you can take a one and half-hour ride on the National Park Trolley with stops at some of the most popular spots in the mountains.

When you’re done with the great outdoors for the day, you’ll need a place to rest your weary head and there are two very distinct options – having lots of people and activities around you or quiet and solitude. If you enjoy a bit more hustle and bustle and lots of touristy options of things to do (putt putt golf, mirror mazes, wax museums, candy shops), book something in Gatlinburg. There are lots of options and most are an easy walk from the main drag, which is great for people watching and highly entertaining for children of all ages. Pigeon Forge also has more wacky museums and crazy shows than you could possibly see in one visit, plus lots of outlet malls, but it is not as walkable as downtown Gatlinburg and the traffic can be intense. If you want something quieter, book a cabin or townhouse in Townsend or Wears Valley.

We typically fly on Allegiant Air. Although you are at the mercy of their limited flight schedule, an 80-minute flight beats a 10-hour drive and usually the fares are pretty inexpensive. 

Fall color displays can start in the higher elevations as early as mid-September and usually reach their peak at lower elevations between mid-October and early November. For reports on color changes you can visit

Great Smoky Mountains

By Marcy Sanford


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A Must See Exhibit for Dedicated Blockheads

The next time you think your child has a lot of LEGOs, consider artist Nathan Sawaya.

Sawaya spends over six figures on LEGOs each year and has had more than 6 million on hand in his Los Angeles studio. At age 10, he built himself a life-sized dog out of LEGO bricks when his parents refused to get him a real one.

Sawaya grew up and became a lawyer but never stopped building with LEGOs. He ended his legal career in 2002 to fully dedicate himself to his art and now his work is shown in major art institutions all over the world.

Sawaya may spend a month or more working on one sculpture; his largest one to date, a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, is 20 feet long and he used 80,020 bricks to build it. You can see the dinosaur skeleton and more than 100 other of Sawaya’s pieces at the The Art of the Brick, going on now through Sept. 4.

The first gallery, titled Paint By Bricks, includes classic works of art recreated using LEGOs - among them Edvard Munch’s The Scream, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Grant Wood’s American Gothic. The next gallery, The Sculpture Garden, has recreations of famous sculptures like Edgar Degas’ Little Dancer of Fourteen Years.

Sawaya said that he likes the idea of children being introduced to great works of art through LEGOs. “I first learned adjectives through School House Rocks. I learned how to count to ten through Sesame Street. I learned about gravity through my Slinky. Imagine if a child learns about art history through LEGO,” Sawaya observed.

If the looks of wonder and exclamations of awe heard throughout the galleries are any indication, Sawaya is certainly reaching and inspiring children and adults with his work.

While the kids in our group liked the masterpieces, they were more intrigued by the original works of art, like Sawaya’s recreation of an artist’s studio, a torso holding its head above its body, life-size people made of LEGOs hugging LEGO trees and, of course, – the dinosaur. One particularly intriguing gallery had large photographs of everyday situations with a LEGO sculpture as part of the scenery.

At the end of the exhibit, you’ll find a model of the exhibit (made out of LEGOs, of course) and children and adults have the chance to build their own LEGO structures to be displayed in the gift shop.

Rated by CNN as one of the world’s must-see exhibits, The Art of the Brick has been exhibited in more than 80 cities worldwide. The Tampa exhibit is presented by the Vinik Family Foundation and is free to attend – leaving you more money to buy LEGOs for your budding artist or yourself.

The Art of the Brick
802 E. Whiting Street

By Marcy Sanford


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Home to a Great Aquarium

I love aquariums and botanic gardens.

Whenever we visit a new city, I always lobby my family to visit each. While many places can easily have a botanic garden, aquariums are not as common and so I feel fortunate to live in a city that has a great one.

When we first moved here, we were passholders and visited the fishes all the time but my daughter’s school and other obligations got in the way. The summer, however, is the perfect time to revisit favorite local attractions.

Home to more than 20,000 animals, the Florida Aquarium has always educated visitors about beaches, bays, wetlands and mangrove forests in Florida.

New to us was the exhibit about a habitat far from home – Journey to Madagascar. This exhibit takes you on a journey through the beautiful wildlife and bizarre landscapes of the world’s fourth largest island, Madagascar. Known as a biodiversity hotspot, the country of Madagascar is filled with rainforests, spiny deserts, cool mountain highlands, tropical beaches and coral reefs.

Eighty percent of the plants and animals on the island of Madagascar do not live anywhere else. This exhibit explores the island and its wildlife while addressing some of the challenges that threaten its natural wonders. As you walk through, you might come face to face with an adorable ring-tailed lemur or hissing cockroaches. Those who prefer to not think about huge bugs can skip the pop-up exhibit and head straight to the relaxing Indian Ocean exhibit.

The Wetlands Trail exhibit had been expanded since our last visit. Modeled after a state park trail, the exhibit takes you through the alligator-infested Suwannee River and past river streams with playful otters. There are more than 30 species of free flying birds inside the exhibit, including roseate spoonbills, blue herons and white ibis. The birds glide among the rafters and nest up in the trees that stretch towards the exhibit’s glass dome ceiling. Be sure to check the schedule for the daily animal encounter shows at The Ranger Station.

The Coral Reef Gallery has always been one of our favorites. Where else can you see eels, sharks, and sea turtles without getting wet? The 500,000-gallon tank is modeled after the coral formations of the Dry Tortugas off the Florida Keys. It is home to more than 2,000 coral reef residents, representing 100 species. The gallery simulates a 60-foot dive starting in shallow-water reefs and descending to deeper waters. As you walk through the exhibit, each viewing window presents a micro-habitat at different underwater levels.
Many more of our old favorites like the Goliath Grouper, touch tanks and stingrays can still be found at the aquarium. But their newest adventure is found outside – a new rainforest-themed splash pad. It features water dump buckets, spray zones, dry playgrounds and a special area just for toddlers. Best of all, there is plenty of shade-covered seating for weary parents – which is always a welcome addition anywhere.

The Florida Aquarium
701 Channelside Drive

By Marcy Sanford


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Cool Summer Fun: Exploring Your Library

Tampa’s first library opened 100 years ago in April 1917.

The Tampa Free Public Library is now only used for library services but there are 26 other locations you can visit as well as two mobile libraries. Visit the library’s website and you have access to countless ebooks, digital magazines, movies, music and online classes.

Summer is the perfect time to visit a library or take full advantage of the online offerings. At our local branch, the Upper Tampa Bay (UTB) Library, you can practice sewing, join a knitting group, or learn how to play the ukulele. At the main branch downtown you can research your genealogy or visit The Hive with its recording studio, editing suite, arts center, and 3D printer. “The library’s public makerspace, The Hive, has a physical location in nine libraries,” said Stacey Jurewicz, Library Community Engagement and Partnerships Manager.

Our UTB Library is one of the nine.

Jurewicz said a new program for this year – one that they are proud of – is Playaway Launchpads. “These are safe tablets for kids that contain fun learning apps in the areas of Early Literacy, STEAM, Science, critical thinking, and more. We have tablets for two age groups, 5-7 and 8-10. These devices can be checked out for seven days and have up to two renewals.”

Another relatively new program that will help you explore Tampa is Discovery Pass. Started last year as a pilot program, the program has been expanded statewide this year. Discovery Pass provides one-time admission to a museum, tour, or a performance at participating local museums and attractions. The passes are available on a first-come, first-served basis and can be reserved through the library’s online system or at any branch.

Some of the participating attractions include the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, Glazer Children’s Museum, a Stageworks Theatre Performance, and Tampa Theatre’s Balcony-to-Backstage tour. Jurewicz says there are only 64 total passes available but library members can put the passes on hold. When I checked the list in May, the holds list for the Children’s Museum was long, but the others were either available or had a very short hold list. The summer is a great time to explore a local museum that you have been thinking about visiting or one about which you may have never heard.

Libraries all across the city and county offer special programs and classes throughout the year but they really ramp up the schedule for the summer. Kids can participate in the annual youth baking contest or celebrate National Dance Day at the Jimmie B. Keel Regional Library, celebrate Wonder Woman Day at the downtown branch, attend a painting class in Lutz, or hear a didgeridoo at UTB. (For a list of June’s programs at our UTB library, see Page 82.)

“Now, more than ever, libraries are transforming people’s lives,” said Andrew Breidenbaugh, Library Services director. “The library is that one place in the community that is open to all without barriers. Your local librarian can be a partner in every stage of your lifelong learning; helping get ready for school, preparing for college, or learning new skills to land a better job.”

This summer consider escaping the heat with a visit to a local library. You never know what you’ll discover.

For a full list of events at libraries all across town or to access online resources, visit


By Marcy Sanford


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Flying High

Do you dream of flying with the birds?

A zip-line canopy tour with Empower Adventures in Oldsmar is two hours of high-flying fun over the Mobbly Bayou Wilderness Preserve.

At Empower Adventures you’ll zip over the treetops and bayou along 500- to 650-feet long lines at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour. From the highest point of the tour (65 feet), you can see the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg, the Courtney Campbell Causeway and the Apollo Beach power plant. “We have a 10-mile view all over Tampa Bay,” said Empower Adventures Founder and President Joe DeRing.

Empower Adventures offers several different zipping options. On the canopy tour you’ll zip along five lines and cross a 200-foot suspension bridge. Along the way you’ll see many different types of wildlife, including many birds that make their homes in the preserve. “We’ve partnered with the Florida Audubon Society to help up identify birds and give us information about them. Our guides talk about the habitats and ecosystems that we are zipping through.”

DeRing said that it is very common to see red shoulder hawks, egrets, roseate spoonbills and great blue herons. One time while he was zipping, an osprey flew parallel with him before diving into the water to catch a fish.

If you need more adventure in your day, you can add the extreme aerial obstacle course or a stand-up paddle trip to your tour. Empower Adventures also offers moonlight zip-line tours on the weekends closest to the full moon, birthday parties and team-building adventures. They will work with you to develop a tour unique to your group’s needs.

This is the third Empower Adventures zip line. DeRing developed the first on family land in Connecticut after retiring from the Army in 2009. Several years later he opened another in Virginia. He said the city of Oldsmar approached him about developing a zip-line tour at Mobbly Bayou Preserve. “My favorite part of being in the Army was working together as a team and what I loved the most were the outdoor challenges and adventures. This is a great way to get families, friends and co-workers together to experience nature. We want to help people step out of their comfort zone.”

In addition to the zip-line tours, Mobbly Bayou Wilderness Preserve has a dog park with an agility obstacle course, a fishing dock, two playgrounds, a butterfly garden and hiking trails. It also has a canoe launch and provides a canoe/kayak trail map on its website. The city offers guided kayaking tours throughout the year.

Mobbly Bayou Wilderness Preserve is open seven days a week from dusk to dawn. Empower Adventures offers zip-line tours by reservation when the preserve is open.

Mobbly Bayou Wilderness Preserve
423 Lafayette Blvd.
Oldsmar, FL

Empower Adventures
(813) 448-5635

By Marcy Sanford


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A Stress-Free Beach Trip

Friends and family tell me all the time how lucky I am to live near the beach.

And I agree. I love the beach. It is beautiful and calming and whenever I make it there, I always think to myself, “I should do this more often.”

Problem is, I’m lazy and not at all capable of setting up an umbrella. Whenever I try, it invariably ends up flying across the beach and landing smack in the middle of another family’s setup or worse taking down their expertly set up umbrella.

I also hate lugging coolers full of drinks, sandwiches, and snacks that will either end up lukewarm, uneaten, or taken by seagulls. And then there are the bags of towels, extra clothes, and toys that make it appear that we’re not just going to the beach for a few hours but are planning to camp for the weekend.

Then when we get home, I usually end up leaving towels in the car. I don’t realize it until the next day, when I am hit by that day-after-beach smell. Because of my laziness, beach trips are usually reserved for out-of-town guests.

Fortunately my in-laws recently came to town and expected to see the beach. With a little research I found a new, stress-free way to experience the salt life: spend the day at the Tradewinds. Throughout the year they allow non-staying guests to purchase wristbands that give you access to their parking lot, pools, water slides and other inflatable games, paddleboats, mini golf, and, best of all, beach towels that you leave there for them to clean.

You can use their cabanas and hammocks. And they have restaurants, beach bars, and snack bars so you don’t need to drag a bag of snacks and drinks around with you. We ate at Rum Fish Grill and enjoyed a delicious sand-free lunch while admiring their beautiful 33,500-gallon saltwater aquarium.

On the beach the cousins enjoyed the three-story, 200-feet long High Tide Slide while the adult guests lounged in the sun and we Tampa residents took to the shade.

Those with a more adventurous spirit can also book a ride on the JetLev – a jet pack that allows you to soar 30 feet above the gulf. After a training session you’ll be boated out to open water where you can fly with the birds and check out views of the beach that most people never see.

Once you’ve had your fill of sun and fun, you can drop your dirty towels in the Tradewinds’ laundry baskets and head home – or you could book a room for the night and have a totally stress free day.

Tradewinds Island Resorts on St. Pete Beach
(800) 360-4016

By Marcy Sanford


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Celebrate Februberry in Plant City!

February in Florida means fresh strawberries.

And there’s no better place to celebrate the fruit than in Plant City. There is, of course, the 10-day Strawberry Festival in early March, but there are ways to start the celebration early in Februberry.

On Saturday, Feb. 11, Wish Farms will host its fourth annual Strawberry Picking Challenge to benefit the Redlands Christian Migrant Association. Corporate teams will be competing for the coveted Strawberry Joe Trophy, named after the late Joe Wishnatzki, the father of Wish Farm’s owner Gary Wishnatzki. If you want to pick berries yourself, there will also be a charity u-pick that is open to the public.  Other activities include a balloon sculpture artist, face painter, historic barn and tractor photos, corn hole, a performance by NRG music group, a DJ with various games, a strawberry shortcake eating contest and crafts.

Even if you can’t make it for the Strawberry Picking Challenge, the roads from I-275 into Plant City are lined with farm stands already selling berries. This includes Parkesdale Farm Market, the largest strawberry, citrus, and produce market in Florida. There you can buy not only fresh fruit and produce but can also indulge in strawberry shortcake or a strawberry milkshake and then have your picture taken on the strawberry throne.

With all the berry bragging in Plant City, it would be easy to assume that the strawberry is the plant referred to in the city’s name. The city, however, is actually named after Henry Plant who sparked the growth of modern Tampa Bay by extending his South Florida Railroad to the town in 1884. You can learn more about the history of the railroad at the Robert W. Willaford Railroad Museum, home to railroad memorabilia, a completely restored Seaboard Air Line caboose, and a train-viewing platform next to the tracks that run through the historic downtown.

Plant City’s historic area is worth visiting for its retro diners. You can get Cherry Smash for five cents at the Whistle Stop. There are also antique shops, new boutiques and murals. If it’s open, stop by the Chamber of Commerce on Evers Street to pick up a map of the area. It highlights the town’s historic buildings, like the 1914 Plant City High School.

Then take a historic stroll through town and burn off a few calories so you’ll have room to eat more strawberry delicacies.

Plant City Websites

Wish Farms

Robert W. Willaford Railroad Museum

Other U-Pick Farms:

Spivey Farms

Fancy Farms Produce Stand

Favorite Farms

By Marcy Sanford


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A Walk Along Tampa’s River

There are plenty of ways to enjoy downtown Tampa’s Riverwalk.

Whether you’re walking, biking or boating, its 2.4 miles feature myriad opportunities for playing, relaxing, or enjoying art work. The Riverwalk currently extends from Ulele restaurant and the Water Works park on its north end to Channelside Plaza on its southern tip.

If you want to see downtown by water, start by visiting the Tampa Convention Center Docks behind the Sail Pavilion. From there you can catch a water taxi, charter an e-boat, or hop on a water bike or biyak (a kayak with bike pedals). In addition to the one at the Convention Center, docks are available at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, the Tampa Bay History Center and Water Works Park.

The Riverwalk is wide enough that bikers, rollerbladers and skateboarders have room to easily zoom by walkers. If you don’t want to haul your bike downtown, three Coast Bike Share hubs exist near the Riverwalk. Coast Bike Share allows you to rent bikes by the hour. You can even use the bike for a bit, check it in at a hub station so that your timer is not still going, and then hop back on another one when you’re ready to ride again. You do, however, need to register with the company before you are able to rent a bike. Simply visit   

If you walk, however, you’ll probably stand a better chance of noticing all the different interesting spots along the Riverwalk. Be sure to look out for the bronze busts that make up the Historic Monument Trail. A program sponsored by the Friends of the Riverwalk, the statues commemorate Hillsborough County residents who have made a significant impact on Tampa.

Started in 2012, 24 busts now line the Riverwalk and honor men and women who made a difference by standing up for social justice, bringing arts and medical care to Tampa residents, or building parts of the city. Sidewalk plaques with inspirational quotes are also scattered along the walk. The walk also features a section with beautifully painted tiles offering information about and pictures of Florida marine and plant life.

If you get hungry or thirsty, you can stop for refreshments at may different places, including the Columbia Café, Sail Pavilion or Bay Bistro. Or if you want to make your visit a more cultural one, be sure to visit the Tampa Museum of Art, Florida Museum of Photographic Art or Tampa Bay History Museum. Glazer Children’s Museum is also close to the Riverwalk as well as several playgrounds and splash parks for kids. There’s even a park for the furrier members of the family.  

For more information about the Riverwalk, special events, a map, and parking, visit


By Marcy Sanford


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Go on a Hiking Spree in 2017

Looking for an outdoor fitness opportunity for the new year?

Hillsborough County is blessed with more than 100 recreational parks and hundreds of miles of hiking trails.

To celebrate those trails and encourage people to get out and take a hike, the county has launched a new program – Hiking Spree 2017. From now through March 31, 2017, people who register with the program and hike any eight of 19 designated trails will receive a medallion to put on their hiking stick or an Access Hiker patch.
“This is the first time we’ve done something like this in Hillsborough County,” said Parks and Recreation Senior Event Coordinator Dana McDonald. “Hiking Spree was suggested to us by an employee who used to live in Ohio, where they had a similar program. We are really excited about the program as a way to get people outside exploring.”

The Hiking Spree 2017 website has a list the hikes and information to help residents find the right trail for their skill level – from all-purpose to primitive and easy to strenuous. “The hikes on our list are just a sample of the trails we have in Hillsborough County,” said McDonald. “We tried to pick ones from different sides of the county and these were specifically chosen because they are great hiking trails.”

Some of the trails close to Westchase include Lake Rogers, Upper Tampa Bay, Wilsky Trailhead and Beacon Meadows. But the more adventurous may want to venture further out to explore other areas of the county like the Golden Aster Scrub Preserve in Gibsonton, which is home to endangered plants and birds like Florida golden aster and the Florida scrub jay. There is also a wild-card hike where hikers can choose their own trail, which can be anywhere.

McDonald says that they hope to have a special highlighted hike each month that will be lead by a naturalist who can tell participants about the animals or plants they’ll encounter along the trail. She said Lettuce Lake Park already holds a similar program every Saturday and Sunday.

For more information about Hiking Spree and to register, visit


By Marcy Sanford


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A Local Botanical Beauty

Many people may not realize that the University of South Florida is home to a beautiful botanic garden that is open to the public.

This hidden gem is located on the edge of campus and was established in 1969 as a place where biology students could attend classes and conduct research. Over the decades the gardens have grown. New ones have been planted and a wide variety of research and outreach programs have been added. Today the gardens are a vibrant mix of educational activities and community outreach.

Part of USF’s College of Arts and Sciences, the gardens are a working, living outdoor lab. Students in environmental classes plant and tend vegetable gardens as part of a class project. Chemistry and botany students grow medicinal plants to research and students from various disciplines study and ponder algae, fungus and other botanical mysteries.

More than 3,000 plants grow at the 13-acre garden. Throughout the years volunteers, students, and university employees have added amenities to make the gardens more welcoming to visitors. Visitors can explore greenhouses and potting sheds. You can enjoy garden specific areas, such as a towering bamboo garden, stately palm garden, wetland forest, sand scrub beds and other demonstration gardens.

All year long the garden hosts many events, workshops, and classes. They are starting an introduction to beekeeping class this November. They also have large plant sales in the spring and fall where you can buy new plants for your own garden, talk to experts for advice, or attend a workshop on native plants, bromeliad basics or growing succulents.

University of South Florida Botanical Gardens
12210 USF Pine Dr.
Hours: Mon–Fri, 9 a.m.–5 p.m.; Sat, 9 a.m.–4 p.m.; Sun, noon–4 p.m.

By Marcy Sanford


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Where Primate Rescue Is a Priority

If want a place to go bananas over, try the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary.

Suncoast Primate Sanctuary’s (SPS) small entrance is tucked away on Alt. Highway 19 and easy to miss. Home to more than 100 animals, Suncoast Primate Sanctuary (SPS) is completely volunteer run and their commitment and dedication to the primates, birds, and reptiles that live there is apparent.

On our first visit, I left a little sad wishing the monkeys had more room to roam. On a subsequent visit (this one volunteer led) I realized that in most instances the animals had found a welcome home at the sanctuary – one much better than the circumstances from which they had come.

The animals at SPS are retired from zoo breeding programs, have been used for research, or were once part of the entertainment industry. Some were family pets that could no longer be cared for. The volunteers at the sanctuary seem devoted to and to love each and every one of the creatures for which they are caring. While we were on our tour, many of them took time to pause during their work to tell us about the animal they were taking care of that day and to share anecdotes and personal information about it.

Originally started in 1954 by a couple in the entertainment industry as a resting place for chimpanzees in their show, SPS opened to the public in 2008 and is now home to great apes, small primates, rescued reptiles and colorful tropical birds.

SPS depends on community and corporate donations and has several fundraisers throughout the year. They are planning a Halloween event this month and a Mac ‘n’ Cheese event for November.

Suncoast Primate Sanctuary
4600 Alt Highway 19
Palm Harbor, FL
Hours: Thu-Sun, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

By Marcy Sanford


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Mosey on over to MOSI

Perhaps you’ve seen stories in the news about Tampa’s Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI).

It’s moving from its current location near the University of South Florida to downtown Tampa.

While that move is on the horizon, Communications Director Grayson Kamm wants people to know that MOSI is still open and going strong. “It will be three to five years before we move to a new location downtown,” said Kamm. “We will continue to have new exhibits, movies, special events, and programs until we move. There is a lot to do at MOSI.”

And indeed there is a lot to see at the museum – MOSI has more than 450 interactive exhibits on space and astronomy, technology, robotics, gaming and more. You’ll find something for all ages and interests at the museum: carnivorous and butterfly gardens at the main entrance (fortunately separated by plenty of space and dividers), the impressive IMAX dome, the enlightening planetarium, a ropes course, zip line, and the hands-on Kids Zone and Idea Zone. Throughout the day three different IMAX movies are shown, the planetarium has regular star programs, there are regularly scheduled crafts and experiments in the Idea Zone and S.T.E.A.M punks gather on the front stairs to generate random acts of science.

In addition to the planetarium’s daily programs about space, stars and the sky, they host talks and special events throughout in the year. Beginning in October they will bring back their SkyWatch program – visitors are encouraged to bring a blanket and join MOSI’s astronomers outside to get an up-close look of the universe using one of their high-powered telescopes. Visitors to Mission: Moonbase can channel their inner Matt Damon and become a “Martian” themselves while they learn about NASA’s vision for sustaining life on the moon and play interactive games to see if they can make the right choices to keep their crew alive.

Right now MOSI’s IMAX movies give you unbelievable views of the sea, earth and sky. Through the end of September you can enjoy breathtaking views of planet earth, travel to some of our country’s national parks, or learn about one of the ocean’s top predators in Great White Shark – all from the comfort of a movie theater chair.

Later this fall MOSI will be opening a brand new permanent exhibit. Guests will be able to “touch the future and experience technology years before it’s available to the public.” Some of the technology on display at the exhibit will include new drone technology and driverless cars. Meridian, a builder of autonomous vehicles, already has a driverless car on display that visitors can ride in at MOSI’s entrance. You’ll have to drive yourself to the museum, but it’s a short trip to make to visit the future.

4801 E. Fowler Ave.
(813) 987-6000

By Marcy Sanford


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Explore Your Artistic Side

How long have you passed by Tampa’s museum without taking a peek inside?

The Tampa Museum of Art has been open in its location downtown for about six years. While I’ve seen the impressive glass façade, until recently I’d never been inside. My first visit there won’t be my last. With its stunning lobby, lovely views of the Hillsborough River, swanky Sono Café, and hip museum gift shop, it’s a great escape during Tampa’s hot, humid summer.

And, of course, there is the art.

The current exhibits are fun and interesting for even the most unknowledgeable art appreciator like me.

Remember the psychedelic art of the 60s and 70s?

Chances are it was made or inspired by Peter Max. On display through Sept. 11, Peter Max: 50 Years of Cosmic Dreaming features 90 works by the iconic illustrator and graphic artist. Max’s art is fun to view and easily accessible to even the most neophyte art lover. His colorful, groovy images have graced postage stamps, jumbo jets and stages. The exhibit at the Tampa museum includes slightly psychedelic portraits of the Dalai Lama, Bill Clinton, and Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as a series of Statue of Liberty paintings.

Just as Max influenced the art world, fashion designer Norma Kamali influenced the world of fashion. Credited with creating some of the most famous looks of the 70s and 80s, Kamali has influenced women around the world. The current Kamali exhibit features 25 looks and ensembles from her earliest collections to her most recent ones as well as a selection of her groundbreaking fashion films. Be sure to watch hundreds of New Yorkers running through the streets of the city to be part of a flashmob video celebrating Kamali’s Sleeping bag coat.

The other exhibits at the museum come from its permanent collection. From Dada and Op to Color Field and Pop features selections from the museum’s print collection that highlight major developments in 20th century art with pieces representing Bauhaus, Dada, Color Field, and Optical Art styles.

The Classical World shows off the museum’s ancient art collection, featuring black figure and red figure pottery, stone, metal, and terracotta sculptures, and ancient coins, jewelry, and glass vessels.

The Tampa Museum of Art has special events each month and regularly weekly events including Meditation Mondays, Friday’s pay-what-you-can Art on the House, and Saturday Art Spot for kids.

All provide plenty of opportunities to explore your artistic side.

Tampa Museum of Art
120 W. Gasparilla Plaza
Tampa, FL 33602
(813) 421-8380

By Marcy Sanford


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A Capital Weekend

If America is a melting pot, Washington D.C. is the ultimate mixing bowl – a cornucopia of museums, attractions, monuments and parks.

In our nation’s capital even the pickiest person can find something of interest.

When we decided to pay our nation’s capital a visit, we asked for recommendations, looked at guidebooks and websites, and tried to narrow our list to must see attractions that we could see in three and a half days. We ended up with an excellent list: the National Museums of Natural History, Air and Space, and the American Indian, the Hirshorn Museum, the Smithsonian Castle, and the International Spy Museum. In my mind, I saw us happily crisscrossing the verdant, lush National Mall as we went from museum to museum.

My first mistake was only allotting half a day for the Natural History Museum. With all the exhibits of bugs, animals, oceans, gems and photographs, we spent one hour on the top floor, took a break for lunch at a café near the Sculpture Garden, and then returned to tackle the first and second floors. By the time we were done, our brains were on information overload and needed a break.  Renovations at the National Mall also threw a wrinkle into my plan. Most of the mall is fenced and closed through January 2017. No crisscrossing allowed.

As soon as we decided to visit D.C., my dad put in a request for a White House tour. I would highly recommend it. Not only is it impressive to see this icon of our nation up close, but the joy in having the Secret Service turn people away as you walk in, is a once in a lifetime experience.

While we didn’t make it to all the museums on our list (in fact, we only made it to two) we did find a new favorite - the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, which is home to 2,000 works of art and one of the most beautiful courtyards I’ve even seen. If you need a break from the hustle and bustle of the other museums (or don’t want to go to the spy museum while others in your party do), this is the place to be.

Our last full day in D.C., I was still holding out hope that we’d make it to one more museum. Much like a Senate committee slashing funding for programs, however, we found that we had to be ruthless in our choices. After the Lincoln and Korean War Veterans Memorials, we knew we’d never make the walk to the Martin Luther King, Jr. and FDR memorials. After our visit to the National Zoo to see the pandas, who were reliably cute and somewhat active (one was sort of playing and we got to see the new baby panda climbing a tree), we knew our day of sightseeing had come to an end. 

We have plenty of reasons left to return to D.C. and hope to do so again soon. If you plan far enough in advance, you can find good deals on flights from Tampa to D.C. (Searching two months in advance, I found a $156 round trip flight on both United and American Airlines.) Whatever your interest – history, animals or art – you’ll find it in our capital.

Just be sure to wear some good walking shoes and be flexible with your plans.

By Marcy Sanford


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A Different Side to Sarasota

You could drive to Sarasota this summer to go to the beach.

Or you could take a slight detour, head away from the gulf, and explore one of the oldest and largest state parks in Florida. With 37,000 acres, Myakka River State Park has activities for naturalists of all ages and is home to plenty of wildlife, including hundreds of alligators.

Your first stop should be the Visitors’ Center. Located close to the entrance of the park, the center is inside an 80-year-old horse barn built by the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC). Myakka is one of eight Florida State Parks developed by the CCC during the 1930s. In addition to the Visitors’ Center, there are two picnic pavilions and five log cabins that were built by the CCC and are still in use today.

After you’ve learned more about the park and its history, you will probably want to check out the park’s namesake – the river and the lakes through which it flows. You might be the brave, adventurous type who wants to do this by canoe or kayak. In my opinion, they are best seen from the safety of the boardwalk or – even better – one of the park’s large airboats, the Myakka Maiden or the Gator Gal. From the comfort of “the world’s largest airboats,” you’ll be able to relax as alligators approach your boat and your guide regales you with tales about them and the other creatures that make the park their home. 

After you’ve had your fill of aquatic adventures, you should aim a little higher for your next outdoor escapade at Myakka and take to the trees. The Myakka Canopy Walkway is 25 feet above ground and extends 100 feet through an oak and palm tree hammock.  From the 74-foot tall observation tower, you might just get the chance to look down on some birds.

If you are up for even more exploring, the park has 38 miles of hiking trails and seven miles of paved roads for hiking and biking.

Before you head home, be sure to stop by the Pink Gator Café for the complete Myakka alligator experience. There you can buy some kitschy souvenirs and try their famous alligator stew or hand-breaded gator bites.

For those less adventurous palates, there are veggie burgers, subs and ice cream.

Myakka River State Park
13208 State Rd. 72
Sarasota, FL
(941) 361-6511

By Marcy Sanford


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A Wildlife Sanctuary Close to Westchase

Despite its proximity to Westchase, Odessa can make you feel like you’ve entered a whole new world.

It’s a world before planned communities and deed restrictions, where homes sit on large lots and where farms host grazing horses. In one corner of nearby Odessa, plenty of land exists for dogs and cats. And in the case of one particularly special place, zebras, miniature zebu, and Scottish Highland cattle roam.

Odessa Wildlife Rescue and Sanctuary (OWRS) founders Andy Kilne and his wife Brenda have been rescuing cats and dogs for 30 years. Twelve years ago they had saved so many furry friends that they outgrew their Carrollwood home. They moved to Odessa and discovered they had enough land to begin rescuing animals a bit more exotic than Fluffy and Fido. “Since we don’t have children, our animals are like children to us,” said Andy. “We have five acres here and have been able to provide forever homes for many animals whose owners could no longer take care of them.”

About six months ago, the Kilnes began offering public tours of their sanctuary. If you’ve ever dreamed of petting or hand-feeding a zebra, now’s your chance. During your private two-hour tour, you’ll get the chance to get up-close and personal with almost 60 different animals, including potbelly pigs, goats, rabbits, foxes and raccoons.

Odessa Wildlife Rescue and Sanctuary is also home to alpacas and wallabies, peacocks and iguanas. Andy said that all of the animals have come from either people who purchased the animals as pets and found they could no longer care for them or from breeders who did not want the animal because it was not useful to them. Each day they go through 100 bales of hay and 500 pounds of food, but the sanctuary and the animals are truly a labor of love for the Kilnes. Since opening to the public, Andy continues to make improvements to the property, adding walkways to make tours easier for guests and renovating enclosures for the animals. He said that they will soon have a pond and pad for a family of soon-to-be homeless otters. 

As they grow and get the word out about the sanctuary, the Kilnes hope to host special events and farm days. For now they offer personal tours Monday through Saturday and guarantee that you will leave with a smile on your face – and plenty of great photos to share with your friends and family.

Odessa Wildlife Rescue and Sanctuary
18404 Rustic Woods Trail
Odessa, FL 33556
(813) 792-5454

By Marcy Sanford


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A Trip Through History

History is wasted on young people.

Or at least it was on me.

During one – at the time seemingly very long – trip to Colonial Williamsburg, I declared, “If you’ve seen one old house, you’ve seen them all.”

That ended my history-teaching father’s dreams that we’d ever have discussions about anything that occurred before the 1980s.

But I guess it is true that with age comes wisdom, or at the least the ability to appreciate older buildings and the history associated with them. St. Augustine, Florida, has plenty of both. And if you grow tired of historical musings, plenty of shops, restaurants, and beaches are available to explore.

Located in the northeastern part of the state, about three and a half hours from Westchase, St. Augustine is known as the oldest city in the U.S. It was founded by a Spanish Admiral in 1565 and served as the capital of Spanish Florida for more than 200 years. If you are interested in this chapter of St. Augustine’s history, plan on visiting the Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the U.S. The fort served as a military base for the Spanish, British, and finally the U.S. military for 251 years. It was, according to our guide, the real site of the first Thanksgiving – one between the Spanish and Native Americans.

Three hundred and twenty-three years after the Spanish invaded Florida searching for gold and glory, a different sort of invasion began. This time it was Northern folks searching for sun and warm winter temperatures. You can also learn about this chapter in Florida’s history during your visit to St. Augustine. The Ponce de Leon Hotel, now part of Flagler College, was built by millionaire developer Henry Flagler in 1888. The ultimate luxury hotel at the time, the structure’s domed ceiling with elaborately carved statues, its 79 Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass windows, its hand-painted murals and ceilings, and its Austrian crystal chandeliers will impress during your tour.

St. Augustine is a city proud of its oldest. While there, you can visit the oldest schoolhouse, the oldest jail, the oldest public park in the United States, the “oldest, permanent navigation aid in North America,” also known as the St. Augustine Lighthouse, and Florida’s oldest tourist attraction, Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park.

At the park they have guest books dating back to 1868. They also have white peacocks, historical exhibits, hourly cannon firings, a lookout tower, a river walk, and, best of all, the chance to try some delicious, possibly youth inducing, spring water – which you’ll need after all of your historical tours.

St. Augustine Florida

By Marcy Sanford


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Collecting Pirate Booty

We didn’t have to live in Tampa for very long before we figured out that the city had a thing for pirates.

And Tampa’s love of pirates is celebrated at the Gasparilla Pirate Fest each year. Wanting to be good residents of Tampa, we looked for a way to join in the pirate adoration. The days are long gone when I would have enjoyed the adult parade, so instead I dressed my daughter in pirate garb, tied a handkerchief around my head, and stormed the children’s parade to claim our fair share of Tampa’s pirate booty – plastic beads.

After a few years of fighting for something I could easily buy at the dollar store, I found I just didn’t have the competitive spirit necessary for a pirate parade. I thought I had put my pirate plundering days behind me until friends introduced us to the best way to experience Gasparilla – that is, if you, like me, have a slight aversion to crowds and a definite disdain for port-o-potties. If this describes you, Ballast Point Park the morning of the adult parade is the place to be.

That morning many participating pirates gather near the park for make-up, brunch and perhaps a cocktail or two. After they are all suited up and ready to storm the city, they walk through Ballast Point Park on their way to the ship, the Jose Gasparilla. You can see the scars on their cheeks, smell the cigar smoke in the air, and hear the boom of the Jose Gasparilla’s cannons. This early in the day, the pirates are very generous with beads, gum, hacky sacks, rings – you name it. This is where you’ll find the true pirate booty of the Gasparilla parade.

It’s also really impressive to see the Jose Gasparilla and the surrounding fleet of boats waiting to accompany it on its voyage to downtown. You can even walk down the pier to get a closer look at the ship. The Jose Gasparilla departs around 11:30 a.m. so you need to get there before 11 to get the full experience.

If your child gets tired of collecting beads, baubles, and trinkets, a playground is available that they can play on. And when you all get tired of the pirate scene, it’s easy to leave the area and head back to Westchase – because all the traffic is headed to the parade.

Jose Gasparilla Boarding
Jan. 30, Before 10-11:30 a.m.
Ballast Point Park
5300 Interbay Blvd.

For a full schedule of Gasparilla Events

By Marcy Sanford


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A Visit to Digital Yesteryear

Before Minecraft and Halo…

Before apps and Snapchats. Before video games that look better than real life.

The world’s children had arcades.

You visited arcades – weighed down with a pocket full of quarters – if you wanted to lose yourself in a digital universe.

If spotting a child hunched over a handheld device makes you nostalgic for the arcades of your youth (where you could actually stand up straight), then gather the family for an educational outing to The Replay Amusement Museum.

The Replay Amusement Museum is home to 100 video games and pinball machines. Unlike other museums, you are encouraged to touch the exhibits and to play any game you want as many times as you like at the Replay Amusement Museum. The best part? You don’t have to bring a stack of quarters. One flat entry fee gives you unlimited playtime ($13 for adults and $7 for children under 12).

Located in downtown Tarpon Springs, Replay Museum invokes a digital assault of memories – if, like me, you grew up in the late seventies to mid-eighties, “the golden age of arcade,” according to Wikipedia.

There was my favorite Q*bert with his familiar bloop-bloop sound when he jumps. Nearby the whole Pac-Man family ran from their ghosts and gobbling fruit. When you get tired of standing, there is a tabletop version of Dig Dug that two players can enjoy while lounging on comfy chairs. They have Mortal Combat, Donkey Kong and Street Fighter – games I was never very good at even in my arcade heyday. That was OK, however, because I was able to defend the galaxy against centipedes, asteroids and aliens.

If you like pinball machines, you will truly be dazzled by the variety at Replay Museum. From the Wizard of Oz and Elton John to the Addams Family and Lord of the Rings, you’re sure to find a pinball machine that you will enjoy. It took three children to play Hercules, the world’s biggest pinball machine, which the Reply Museum says is a big as a Mazda Miata and can handle up to four players at one time.

When your thumbs and pointer fingers tire from all the activity, head outside to explore downtown Tarpon Springs. Quieter and cozier than the sponge docks, the downtown area is home to many antique shops and several restaurants. If you head west out of Replay Museum and walk about half a mile, you can clear your head with a walk around promenade of the Spring Bayou, where you can begin plotting your route for Pac-Man to thwart Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde.

With unlimited play for the whole day, you might have to stop back by the Replay Museum on your way to the car.

Replay Amusement Museum
119 Tarpon Ave.
Tarpon Springs, FL

By Marcy Sanford


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Sand Sculpting Your Way to Fun

Art lovers and sand castle aficionados should head to the beach this month.

From Nov. 13-29 some amazing works of art will emerge from the sand at area beaches. Siesta Key, Treasure Island, and Fort Myers beach are all hosting sand sculpture competitions, where you might see a giant monkey taking a selfie, massive kings playing chess, or towering castles big enough to live in. Sculptors come from all over the world to participate in these competitions.

In addition to viewing some awe-inspiring creations, each festival has food, drink, retail vendors, music, a kids’ area, and other special events planned throughout the week or weekend. All three events offer a variety of demonstrations and lessons so you can learn how to take your next sand castle from drip to dynamic.

All of the competitions start with tons of sand. After getting a block of up to 12 tons of sand, the sculptors begin the task of fashioning the sand into their vision. “We don’t give our sculptors a specific theme because we want to see where their creativity will take them,” said Siesta Key Crystal Classic representative Trish Ivy.

American Sand Sculpting Competition representative Bill Knight said that they also avoid themes for their overall competition but one popular event they have, the Master Sculpture Quick Sand, is all about themes. “For the Quick Sand Competition, audience members call out a subject like ‘Pandas hugging,’ and two master sculptors have 10 minutes to create a sculpture. The audience chooses the winner.”

Knight says that they use 1,000 tons of sand from Fort Myers Beach. “If you come on the first day of the festival, you really get to see how these sculptors create their works of art. We only use beach sand. We are one of the few places in the United States that can use beach sand for our sculptures.”

Before the sculptors begin their work, the sand must be pounded into blocks. At the Sanding Ovations Competition in Treasure Island you can witness the “pound-up” where sculptors combine tons of sand with water and mold it into a form that they will then use for their sculpture.

Knight says there are only 100 master sculptors worldwide and that Nov. 13-29 is a great opportunity for you to see what they can create. If you want to see these behemoth creations, you need to go during the festival. Knight says that the sculptures have to be taken down after the festival ends. “We have to put the sand back and leave the beach the way we found it. Some of these sculptures are 12 feet tall. If you left them on the beach and someone tried to climb them, it could be very dangerous.”

All of the competitions have special events throughout their festivals. The Sarasota Film Festival is showing a movie on the beach one night of the Siesta Key Crystal Classic. There will be fireworks at the Sanding Ovations Competition and The American Sand Sculpting Championship is the largest sand sculpting competition in the U.S. You can find a complete schedule of events at their Web sites.

Siesta Key Crystal Classic
Siesta Key
Nov. 13-17

Sanding Ovations Sand Sculpting Competition
Treasure Island
Nov. 18-22

American Sand Sculpting Championship
Fort Myers Beach
Nov. 20-29

By Marcy Sanford

Photos courtesy of fresh.PR & Marketing.


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A Sarasota Fish Story

Our fish tale begins in Naples, when my daughter and I told the beach trolley driver we were going to stop in Sarasota to go see the manatees.

“You’re going to see Snooty?” he asked.

We paused to think about it, confirmed we knew about Snooty, the oldest captive manatee in the United States (probably the world), and enthusiastically replied, “Yes, we’re going to see Snooty.”

Before the mention of Snooty, the MOTE Marine Laboratory & Aquarium was just going to be a stop on the way home. Now it had turned into something much more – a chance to see a 67-year-old manatee named Snooty.

Alas, it was a fish story.

The MOTE Marine Laboratory & Aquarium in Sarasota is indeed home to two manatees. But they are half-brothers named Hugh and Buffet, not Snooty. They are also not 67 years old. But they are still cool, funny looking creatures and we weren’t that disappointed because manatees are groovy to watch whether they are 67 or 7. Also we had noticed on the map that the MOTE Aquarium had a giant squid, so now we were super pumped about visiting it.

The giant squid was an impressive specimen with very long and dangerous looking tentacles, as you would expect from a giant squid. But it was not as lively as we had hoped for. It was, in fact, dead and preserved in a long glass case. When we expressed our minor disappointment that the squid was dead, a helpful volunteer pointed out that there was really no way an aquarium would have enough room for a tank big enough for a live giant squid. We nodded sheepishly and went in search of live sea creatures.

Despite our minor confusion about what we would see, we still had a great time at the MOTE Aquarium. Since it is a research aquarium, we learned much more than the fact that Snooty actually lives in Bradenton at the South Florida Museum and that you cannot keep a giant squid alive in captivity.

Located about midway between Long Boat Key and Siesta Key and about 15 minutes from the stores and restaurants of St. Armand’s Circle, the MOTE Aquarium offers a great break from the beach and shopping while you’re in the Sarasota area. We highly recommend a visit.

In addition to the manatees, Hugh and Buffet, MOTE Aquarium is home to six exhibits, including an impressive 135-gallon, open water shark tank; a beautiful reef tank area with French angelfish, spotfin butterfly fish and hogfish; and a special tank for sea horses. They have an exhibit of Florida fish with my favorite, the puffer, and several tanks with sea turtles. When we were there, they also had an aquarium full of baby sea turtles – which made the whole visit worthwhile to my daughter.

In addition to enjoying the beautiful aquarium exhibits, budding marine scientists can learn about the many different research projects underway at the MOTE Aquarium and get their hands wet in several touch tanks. There’s even a retro 50s-style diner where you can get a decent lunch and enjoy hand-dipped ice cream or a homemade shake.

For more information about the MOTE Aquarium exhibits and special events, visit


By Marcy Sanford

MOTE Marine Laboratory & Aquarium
1600 Ken Thompson Parkway
Sarasota, FL
(941) 388-4441
Open 7 days a week, 10 a.m-5 p.m.


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Natural History Displayed

If you hurry, you can still see Sue.

On display at the Florida Museum of Natural History until Sept. 13, Sue is a life-size cast of a T-rex skeleton found in 1990 in South Dakota. According to The Field Museum, Sue, at 42-feet long and 12-feet high, is the largest, most complete, and best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex ever discovered. In addition to the impressive T-rex skeleton, the exhibit includes family-friendly interactive displays, a dig pit, touchable bone replicas, and other hand-on activities.

If you can’t make it to the Florida Museum of Natural History before Sue stomps off, plenty of fossils and skeletal replicas remain to impress. The museum is home to a permanent exhibit called Florida Fossils: Evolution of Life and Land. Drawing upon the museum’s fossil collection, the exhibit covers the last 65 million years of Earth’s history (since the extinction of dinosaurs), showing visitors what creatures lived here long before we did. Shark Row, with a replica of a Megalodon jaw, may make you think twice about ever entering the ocean again.

Another excellent reason to consider a visit to the Florida Museum of Natural History – and the one that drew us to it originally – is their Butterfly Rainforest exhibit. The 6,400 square foot outdoor exhibit is home to up to 80 different species of butterflies. On a typical day 1,000 butterflies flutter and fly among tropical trees, waterfalls and flowering plants. If you like butterflies, you won’t be disappointed. In addition to the outdoor exhibit, there is “Wall of Wings,” with thousands of species on display and the chance to see scientists working in their research labs. Be careful, however, as butterfly research might not be suitable for the more sensitive members of your group.

The museum is located on the edge of the University of Florida campus in Gainesville and is only a few miles from I-75. And while we were there to stretch our legs on a drive home from the panhandle, we were impressed with all of the exhibits.

The South Florida People and Environments exhibit takes you through a Florida estuary and all the creatures and plants that inhabit it. By far our favorite part was the underwater scene that had been magnified to 12 times its normal size, giving you an excellent view of what it must be like to be one of the smallest creatures in the water.

Another thing that impressed us was the variety of restaurants and stores at this exit. I’m sure former and current Gators are familiar with the exit, but for us it was the first time to stop in Gainesville and Exit 384 has it all: Chuy’s (a favorite Mexican restaurant from Texas), Trader Joe’s (maybe you can find a parking space at this one), and plenty of other dining and shopping options.

The museum is open Monday through Saturday but you probably want to check the Florida football schedule before planning a visit to the museum this fall. They will be hosting Butterfly Fest on Saturday, Sept. 19, which will have butterfly releases, live animals, entertainment, a plant sale, and family activities.

By Marcy Sanford


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The Westchase Deluge

It fell with an ugly, gray persistence for two weeks. And it finished with a biblical deluge on Aug. 3.

The stubborn cold front that stalled over Tampa Bay in late July churned up a stormy two-weeks that saw 15 to 20 inches or rain fall before the 5.5-inches poured from the heavens on Aug. 3.

In a mere two weeks Westchase received one-third of the rain it usually receives in a whole year.

Lakes overflowed, pouring through yards in Sturbridge and Glenfield. Double Branch Creek rolled from its banks, boiling across Glenfield Avenue and Asheville Drive in Keswick Forest, flooding the only access to the neighborhoods.

Montague Street, The Bridges’ only thoroughfare, filled with nearly three feet of water. The flooding destroying two cars that dared to drive through. Meanwhile, a geyser burst out of a manhole cover in Davidsen Middle Schools driveway. It shot shot flopping fish all over the roadway, where staff of the Westchase CDD scrambled to rescue them.

Significant street flooding slammed portions of Radcliffe, where Keating Drive saw water creeping up driveways. Meanwhile, when Stamford’s street flooded, fifth grader Shane Eli grabbed his inner tube, turning Millport Drive into an impromptu pool.

By 11 a.m. more than two feet of water filled the Baybridge pedestrian tunnel under Linebaugh Avenue, turning it into a river that flowed toward West Park Village.

During the storm Westchase retention ponds hit historic highs. And, in a sure sign of the Apocalypse, tadpoles filled the sidewalks in Harbor Links.

While the incessant rain eased late in that morning, roads in Keswick Forest, Glenfield and The Bridges remained impassable for hours more.

With the surrounding wetlands saturated, the flood waters lingered. Filled by an overflowing retention pond, portions of Glenfield Avenue remained submerged the following day. A wetland adjacent to Woodbridge continued pouring water into Montague Street for two more days.

But if you started building your Westchase ark, put down the hammer.

While many portions of Westchase flooded on Monday, Aug. 3, the community’s homes were fortunately spared.

Street flooding is common in many parts of Westchase when the rain falls heavy and fast. “It’s not a one-time thing,” said Stamford resident Shawni Eli of her village’s street flooding. “We’ve actually had much higher flooding than that. It happens once or twice a year,”

Eli paused to confer with her husband, Pat, before adding. “He thinks it happens more than that.”

What was unique about Aug. 3 in Eli’s mind was how quickly the rain fell. Rather than risk driving through the flooded streets, she called in to work and took a “rain day.”

As quickly as the streets flood, they generally recede. The water in Stamford’s street, for example, had largely receded within an hour.

The day after the Aug. 3 deluge, Westchase’s significant neighborhood flooding was nevertheless the major topic of discussion at the monthly meeting of the Westchase Community Development District (CDD). The district is responsible for maintaining Westchase’s ponds, waterways and parts of the stormwater system.

While hidden from sight, Westchase sits above a complex system of massive pipes that interconnect retention ponds and wetlands, all shuttling rainwater southward to the bay. Westchase street sewers flow directly into the ponds and canals, built to hold back and slow the run-off as it heads south, helping to prevent major flooding downstream.

The major message sent by CDD Engineer Tonja Stewart of Stantec at the Aug. 3 CDD meeting was this: With the exception of one area, Westchase’s system functioned as designed.

The problem?

The system wasn’t designed to handle the deluge that Mother Nature relentlessly delivered in late July and early August.

“When Westchase was designed, we were in the midst of a drought,” Stewart explained. Engineers and developers in the early 1990s planned a system to handle the smaller rain totals occurring then. “Now we have above average rainfall,” she observed.

The neighborhoods most commonly impacted by previous planners’ drought planning are Glenfield and Keswick Forest. Double Branch Creek runs through the heart of those neighborhoods. Over the years, that watershed has been the source of regular flooding that shuts down their roads and creeps into residents’ backyards.

Double Branch Creek’s two different branches (likely the origin of its name) start separately in Waterchase and The Eagles before joining and slicing beneath Race Track Road. They then cut through Westchester, pass beneath Countryway Boulevard and enter Westchase. Once under Linebaugh Avenue, the creek, when it’s behaving itself, passes beneath Asheville Drive in Keswick Forest and Glenfield Avenue in Glenfield. Just before hitting Bennington, Double Branch Creek heads due west into the heart of Twin Branch Acres. There it joins another creek branch, the inspiration for Twin Branch Acres’ name.

After regular flooding in 2010, the following year CDD crews cleaned trash and debris from a one-mile Westchase stretch of Double Branch Creek. They also cut back overgrowth that impeded the water’s flow. Since that time, according to Stewart, CDD staff has regularly maintained the area.

Nevertheless, following the Aug. 3 flooding, some homeowners blamed the flooding on the fact that the creek is not being properly maintained and is currently choked with Brazilian pepper, an invasive species. Glenfield resident JoEllen Beers remarked, “This time it was the worst.” She added, “Glenfield Avenue was impassable.”

Beers stated that while she and her husband had bigger, raised vehicles (a Humvee and a Jeep) that could navigate the flooded road, their neighbors had to park at Publix and they ferried them back and forth. “I was kind of scared in my Jeep. It was bad,” she said.

Beers said in the past she has repeatedly asked the CDD to cut back some of the overgrowth that she feels is clogging the pond. “It’s all the Brazilian pepper that’s grown back there,” she said. “The water doesn’t run freely. You can’t see anything now.”

She recalled that, a few years after she moved in in April 1993, the county sent an orange jump-suited crew to clear out the creek. She described the CDD clean out back in 2011 as pretty minimal.

In recent years, she’s simply stopped making the request for better maintenance. “After a while you get tired of hitting your head against the wall,” she said.

When pressed on that matter by WOW’s reporter at the Aug. 3 CDD meeting, Stewart stated that broad cutbacks of the landscaping were not permitted because it passes through a protected wetland. She added that CDD staff, however, does regularly remove dead trees and other overgrowth that might obstruct the water flow.

Stewart added that Double Branch Creek, and the three Westchase ponds it interconnects, functioned as designed in early August. The system, however, was not designed to effectively handle the amount of water that fell. “Mother Nature didn’t follow that [design] plan,” she said.

Stewart also had no easy solutions for improving Double Branch Creek’s capacity. “We can’t widen them,” she said of the waterway and ponds.

That approach would entail the purchase and removal of homes.

CDD Officer Manager Sonny Whyte added that while only neighborhood streets and yards were flooded in Glenfield and Keswick Forest, some Twin Branch Acres homes actually took water. Stewart stated that when Double Creek overflows its banks, rather than flowing into Westchase homes, it regularly overflows first into the lower elevations in Twin Branch Acres.

On Aug. 3 Montague Street in The Bridges also saw two areas of significant flooding. One area was adjacent to Davidsen Middle School and particularly affected Sturbridge. Another area of flooding occurred where a wetland overflowed across the street between Bridgeton Drive and Westchase Drive.

Stewart blamed the flood waters that passed over Sturbridge yards and into Bayboro Bridge Road on storm waters flowing from the new M/I townhomes development, accessed by Sheldon Road. Those new townhomes sit across the large pond from Sturbridge and Stonebridge. That large lake receives the overflow from the M/I’s newly constructed retention ponds.

Stewart, however, said an M/I Homes engineer appears to have made an error in assuming the lake had a working outflow pipe. She recently discovered the one in the lake was inoperable.

So on Aug. 3, when the lake hit capacity, it topped its banks, sending water coursing through Sturbridge’s yards and into its street. In some cases, it creeped into lanais, coming inches of entering homes.

Stewart added another small retention pond between Davidsen Middle School and Sturbridge’s northern homes, also does not have an outflow pipe. That pond sent its waters shooting out of manhole cover in the center of the middle school’s driveway, stranding scores of fish as it coursed into Montague Street.

When the geyser let up the following day, significant damage to the driveway was evident. 

In the short-term, the CDD rented a large pump and lowered the larger lake’s level by pumping excess water into the lake by Westchase Elementary. From there it could flow freely to the bay.

CDD supervisors also authorized further action to ensure a more permanent fix to the flooding triggered by the M/I Homes Development. They instructed CDD Attorney Erin McCormick to inform M/I Homes and Hillsborough County that the development’s permit was issued under incorrect information. The district plans to demand that M/I Homes rectify the drainage problem prior to removing construction equipment from the site.

After the meeting, Stewart said of M/I Homes, “They’re still in the research stage. It’s going to take a little bit of time to sort things out there.”

Closer to its intersection with Bridgeton Drive, Montague Street was also completely inundated when a wetland adjacent to Woodbridge filled the street. A number of years ago, CDD staff addressed similar flooding ther successfully. They went in and cleared obstructions from the wetland’s outflow weirs and had Hillsborough County clean out the storm sewers of debris.

Weirs are the large metal boxes visible in ponds; they drain the ponds when they reach particular levels.

While the historic rains of late August and early September may have flooded Montague regardless of the weirs’ working condition, Whyte stated that CDD staff had found one of the the wetland’s weirs was at least partially obstructed. Staff subsequently worked to lower water levels by removing the obstruction to enhance drainage southward.

Will the steps taken work?

Only the next heavy rain will tell.

If your street regularly floods, however, other solutions are available. Over time storm sewers can become clogged with leaves and other debris. Instead of pulling out your ark-building tools, call your Hillsborough County Commissioners. They’re listed in WOW’s reference section. Their staff will direct your concerns to appropriate county storm sewer cleanout crews. Then e-mail CDD staff at to keep them in the loop and help them monitor storm drainage in Westchase. See the Street Flooding Contacts inset box for further information.

While Westchase’s system isn’t designed to handle all floods, proper maintenance will help keep Westchase homes and yards high and dry.

Street Flooding Contacts

Hillsborough County Public Works

Phone: (813) 307-1868
Request for Service: (813) 635-5400
Report Street Flooding Online:
Note: Also contact your county commissioner’s office. Their aides often successfully expedite solutions. Their phone numbers appear in WOW’s reference section.

Westchase CDD

Phone: (813) 920-4268
Note: Contact the CDD for flooding emanating from ponds and wetlands. Keeping them in the loop on street flooding is also helpful.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher


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Fantastic Fun for Blockheads

Lego Friends’ Heartlake City hooked my daughter on Legos.

For the unfamiliar, the Lego Friends line of Lego building sets consists of five Lego-sized friends who live in a pink and purple town called Heartlake City. There the lake is shaped like a heart and there’s a cute pet waiting on every corner. Each holiday (and sometimes just because she has some money burning a hole in her pocket), the Sanford version of Heartlake City grows a little bit bigger.

So when Legoland announced they were opening a Heartlake City section, we decided it was time for a trip to Winter Haven. One change we noticed on our drive into the park was that the surrounding area had grown quite a bit since we first visited. Before it seemed we had to drive to Lakeland to find something to eat. Now Cypress Gardens Boulevard is lined with plenty of restaurant choices, which can come in handy before you head home at day’s end.

Before we could think about dinner at a chain restaurant, however, we had a park to explore and minifigures to trade.

The minifigure trading was also new to us. It works like Disney pin trading. You bring a minifigure you don’t want. If you see a Legoland employee with one you do want, you can ask them (and they have to say yes) to trade with you. Our score for the day was a disco man minifigure.

Heartlake City was like entering a life-sized version of my daughter’s playroom – if there were lots of strangers hanging out in there and we had turned the AC off for the day. She loved comparing notes on the park’s life-sized and her Lego-sized versions of Stephanie’s newsroom and the ice cream parlor. And the new ride, Mia’s Riding Adventure, was a lot of fun. 

We took a tip from a friend and as soon as we walked into the park, we signed up for a Lego master class. Held inside the Imagination Zone, the “master builders” taught the class how to use basic scratch code to program a Lego robot to perform a series of tasks. Best of all these classes are held inside so parents can sit in the AC and zone out during the 45-minute class.

Another way to cool off is in Legoland’s waterpark. For just a few dollars more, your ticket will get you into both parks. The day we went, the water park was at full capacity but the lines for the slides were not too bad.

After a few hours of hurtling down slides and floating in the lazy river, we were cooled down enough to tackle the rest of the park and to check out the new hotel.

There are 5,000 Lego minifigures lining the wall behind the hotel’s front desk, a huge Lego pit where children can build to their hearts’ content and a castle playhouse surrounded by moats of Legos. And overlooking it all?

The lobby bar, where exhausted parents can sit and relax while there children run amok and work on becoming the next generation of master builders.

By Marcy Sanford


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Where Kids and Adults Climb the Walls

If the thought of one more day stuck inside while outside temperatures soar and the summer storms roar makes you want to start climbing the walls, don’t despair.

At Vertical Ventures climbing the walls is encouraged. 

According to manager Kelly Jackson, Vertical Ventures is the closest real climbing experience you’ll find in the Tampa Bay area. “There are no real rocks to climb in Florida,” Jackson said. “The closest place is probably in north Georgia.”

But Vertical Ventures has two locations where you can ascend to great heights and hang from the ceiling in a climate-controlled environment. Gone are the pesky bugs and humid heat on this climbing adventure. 

Vertical Ventures is Tampa’s only indoor rock climbing wall gym. According to Jackson, people of all ages come from all around the Tampa area to climb the walls. “We have children as young as 4 years old and adults in their 60s who are regular climbers. We have all the equipment you’ll need to climb our walls here. We offer climbing lessons throughout the day to help beginners learn how to use our equipment.”

But if you do fall, no worries. The floor at Vertical Ventures is covered in plenty of squish foam to cushion your drop.

Vertical Ventures also has a tread wall and a slack line for you to walk across. Jackson said that many people come several times a week for exercise or training. They also have people who only visit occasionally to try it out or keep their climbing skills fresh.  “We have many different paths you can climb depending on your level of expertise. You can pick an easy path or a more difficult one. We also have competitive climbing teams and have special events during the week for kids, families, and students. On Friday we have a DJ from 6 p.m. until midnight.

“Our highest point at our Tampa location is 23 feet off the ground,” said Jackson. “There are 100 different routes you can climb inside the gym. You can go bouldering, climbing without ropes or a harness, or you can use the ropes.

“Our new St. Pete location is about four times the size of our Tampa location and double the height.” It features many more rope climbing stations, including ‘the pit’ – an area of the gym that extends underground in order to make the climbing as tall as possible.
“Many people think they need to work out before they come here but this is a full body workout for your core, arms, and legs,” Jackson concluded. “Everyone here is very nice, friendly, and helpful.”

Vertical Ventures
5402 Pioneer Park Blvd.

116 18th Street
St. Petersburg

By Marcy Sanford


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A Purrfect Adventure Nearby

When I’ve seen the signs for Big Cat Rescue, I’ve wondered if it were possible for any living thing to find sanctuary that close to Citrus Park mall and its surrounding retail.

After a visit and tour of the well-kept, secluded-feeling 70-acres my skepticism vanished.

Tucked away on Easy Street, Big Cat Rescue is a beautiful sanctuary with winding tree-shaded paths and large, foliage-filled cat enclosures. Big Cat Rescue’s Director of Public Relations Susan Bass said that even during the hot, summer months towering trees provide cool shade for visitors and cats alike.

One hundred exotic and wild cats have found a safe haven at Big Cat Rescue. “We are home to 10 different breeds of large cats, many of whom are threatened or endangered in the wild,” said Bass. “The most endangered cat we have at Big Cat Rescue is our sand cat, Genie. The most rare cat here is Tonga, a white serval. The oldest cat is a 26-year old serval and the youngest is a bobcat kitten whose mother abandoned it. We will try to release it back to the wild when it can care for itself.

“The bobcats that we rescue are the only cats we are able to release back into the wild,” added Bass. “The other cats that live here have been rescued from dire living conditions. When they come to us, they have medical issues and have been living in tiny carriers.”

Bass cited Zeus, a tiger, who came to Big Cat Rescue and was excited to get out of his carrier and be able to roam around a larger enclosure.

Because Big Cat Rescue gives each of their cats room to roam and places to hide inside their enclosures, every time you take a tour you might see different cats. Big Cat Rescue has several different tour options available every day except for Thursdays and Christmas Day. All of the tours are led by knowledgeable interns and volunteers. “We rely on interns and volunteers to run Big Cat Rescue,” said Bass. “We have room for 21 interns to live here. They usually come for three months and take classes to become qualified to lead tours or work with the bag cats.”

On Father’s Day, Big Cat Rescue will have a special Wildcat Walkabout. Admission is only $10 per person and fathers get in free with a paid admission. From noon to 3 p.m. you can walk around the sanctuary at your own pace, plus food trucks will be on site. Bass added, however, that special events tend to sell out early so it is a good idea to purchase tickets in advance.

Big Cat Rescue
12802 Easy St.
Tampa, FL 33625
(888) 316-5875

By Marcy Sanford


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Missed Your Train? Hit the Preserve!

We found Emerson Point Preserve by accident. (We were supposed to take a train ride at the Florida Railroad Museum.)

I had recruited a friend to come with us. I even talked about how much fun we were going to have on the train ride during the entire hour-long drive.

But we made one wrong turn.

It was two minutes past the scheduled departure time but we all cheered when we pulled into the parking lot and saw that the train had not left. As soon as we jumped out of the car, the train wheels began to turn. It slowly, very slowly, moved on down the track – so slowly that we had plenty of time to stare at it and ponder what might have been.

We tried to make the best of the situation. We checked out the museum, walked on train tracks, and talked to the nice employees who informed us that if we had come on a Saturday we would have more options for lunch but our best bet on a Sunday was to go to the outlet malls where there was a Macdonald’s.

All of this took about 20 minutes.

While another train ride was scheduled in four hours, we really didn’t think we could kill that much time at the museum.

Fortunately, we found a nice restaurant on the Manatee River and began to do a little iPhone research on nearby attractions. Thus, we found Emerson Point Preserve. The girls were all onboard once they heard there was an observation tower.

Emerson Point Preserve is a 365-acre preserve located at the tip of Snead Island in Palmetto. The preserve is located at the mouth of the Manatee River, where it meets Lower Tampa Bay. Plenty of different ways exist to experience the amazing trees and abundant wildlife at the Preserve. You can bike or hike on one of the many trails or you can canoe or kayak through mangrove tunnels. Emerson Point Preserve has several picnic areas and an observation tower that gives you an above-the-treetops view of the surrounding area.

Emerson Point Preserve is also home to one of the oldest archaeological sites in Florida – the 1,200-year-old Portavant Temple Mound. You can also find several historic home sites from the late 1800s to the 1960s along the Pioneer and Restoration hiking trails. The preserve hosts picnic areas, a small pier and several boardwalks. The beach hike along the tip of the preserve even has lovely views of the Skyway Bridge and some crazy, twisted mangrove trees.

I think we were all secretly happy that the train had left the station without us.

Emerson Point Preserve
5801 17th Street West
Palmetto, FL
Open daily, hours vary by season or

By Marcy Sanford


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Share a Bike With a Friend

This past November Coast Bike Share pedaled into downtown Tampa.

While relatively new to American cities, bike sharing programs or companies have been popular in European cities for a long time. With a bike share program, you can rent or borrow a bicycle from a hub station and either ride it around town before returning it to the same hub or ride it from one hub to the next.

With 300 bicycles available for rent throughout downtown Tampa and its environs, Coast Bike Share claims to be a healthy, fun, affordable way to see Tampa. The sky blue bikes can be sized for people between 4-foot, 8-inches and 6-foot, 7-inches. They are a bit heavier than bicycles you might be used to but they are easy to navigate. They feature three speeds and a nicely sized basket for carting your bag, lunch or drinks with you.

Coast Bike Share has 30 hubs throughout downtown Tampa as well as Davis Islands, Ybor City, Hyde Park and Bayshore Boulevard. You can download an app to show you the location of the hubs. With it you can also reserve and pay for your bike rental. From your computer or laptop you can also visit their Web site and set up an account. You cannot, however, just walk up to the bicycles and rent one without the app or Web site account.

My friend, Annette, and I decided to explore Davis Islands. During the 1920s, developer D.P. Davis envisioned Davis Islands as a resort community with hotels, a golf course, an airport and a swimming pool. Unfortunately his dream was derailed by a downturn in the Florida land boom. More unfortunate for him was his subsequent disappearance at sea.

Our hour-long bike ride took us past many of the original 1920s, Mediterranean-style buildings and homes as well as smaller, modest abodes and brand new gargantuan McMansions. When we got close to the airport, we veered off towards the Davis Islands Yacht Club, paused to enjoy the view of downtown Tampa and then cycled back to continue our circular tour de Davis. Along the way we rode past beautiful views of the bay, speculated on which home belonged to Derek Jeter and marveled at the interesting architecture of the homes and the beauty of the flowers and trees.

If you’re hungry or thirsty after your ride, Davis Islands is home to a small commercial area with restaurants and stores so you can quench your thirst and whet your appetite. (Following our route, you’ll log 5.5 miles.)

If you’d rather explore another part of downtown Tampa and its surrounding neighborhoods, plenty of hubs exist where you can begin your tour. With some planning you can even ride one way and then take the trolley or bus back to your car.

If you are interested in historical tours, the Florida History Internet Center has architectural and historical tours on its Web site for Davis Islands, Ybor City, Downtown Tampa, and Hyde Park. Simply visit


Plenty of options exist for a downtown bicycle adventure. All you have to do is start pedaling.

Coast Bike Share
Cost: $5 per hour
Daily and monthly memberships are also available

By Marcy Sanford


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A Festival of Fun in Safety Harbor

I was initially drawn to Safety Harbor because of the trees.

It’s sometimes difficult to find shade in Westchase – especially in my section of West Park Village, where the kids choose whose yard they are going to play in based on the time of day and the position of the sun.

In Safety Harbor towering oak trees curve overhead on your drive into the quaint town and throughout the downtown area. The most impressive oak tree in Safety Harbor is the Baranoff Oak, which is named after a former owner of the Safety Harbor Spa. It has a trunk 20 feet in diameter and weighs 800 tons. Estimated to be between 300- and 500-years-old, the oak has had plenty of time to expand its trunk line and send thick branches curving in every direction. In 2004 Safety Harbor's oak became the centerpiece of a lovely public park.

I still take time to admire the Baranoff Oak whenever we visit Safety Harbor. As impressive as it is, it is not the only reason to visit. The town features plenty of locally owned stores, restaurants and a marina. Instead of shade trees, the harbor offers a great pier, where we’ve spotted manatees while enjoying the view. Best of all, Safety Harbor is home to lots of special events.

The third Friday of every month from 6–10 p.m. Main Street is closed from Bayshore Boulevard to 6th Avenue. Live music at the gazebo features different musical themes every month, from jazz and calypso to everything in between. You’ll find arts and crafts and food vendors. The downtown businesses and restaurants stay open late.

This month Safety Harbor will host a Black History Celebration on Feb. 7 at the Safety Harbor Museum and Cultural Center and the San Gennaro Italian American Festival Feb. 21-22 at the marina.  On Feb. 28 grill masters from around Tampa Bay will compete in the Best of the Bay Burger competition at the Beeruary & Burger Throwdown, which will also feature a microbrewery beer garden and a cornhole tournament.

On March 13-14 seafood will be celebrated at the Safety Harbor Seafood Festival and on March 20-22 chalk artists from around the world will be at the Bloom N Chalk Art Festival. You can watch them create their sidewalk masterpiece and then vote for your favorite. There will also be food and craft vendors and a children’s art area. New and established singer-songwriters will be the highlight of the Second Annual Safety Harbor Song Fest March 28-29.

If you can’t find an event that appeals to you in Safety Harbor, you probably aren’t looking hard enough. A complete list of festivals and events can be found at


Just don’t forget to take a moment to pause and appreciate the Baranoff Oak while you’re celebrating history, burgers, beer, seafood, chalk or music. 

By Marcy Sanford

Photos courtesy of Safety Harbor.


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Go Ahead. Rub It In.

We’re getting close to national Hate Florida Day when people in the rest of the country start posting the state’s weather forecasts on Facebook.

It must be really frustrating to be stuck inside your house for days on end and see a bright yellow sun posted over Florida. If you want to make sure your friends and relatives up north really dislike you, brag about how January is a great time to visit one of the many local parks and commune with nature – no humidity, fewer bugs than normal, and plenty of sunshine.  

Phillipe Park in Safety Harbor will give you a lot to brag about: a beautiful view of Old Tampa Bay, a one-mile paved trail for biking or hiking, and two cool playgrounds for the kids – or adults who really enjoy mini climbing walls and a bouncy, tot-sized T-Rex. In addition to all this, Phillipe Park is also a park with historical interest. 

Phillipe Park is the oldest park in Pinellas County. The 122-acre park is named after Count Odet Phillipe, the first permanent, non-native settler on the Pinellas County peninsula. Count Phillipe was a successful businessman who introduced cigar making and citrus to the region in the 1800s. Phillipe Park is located on land that was part of his original citrus plantation.

Before Count Phillipe, the Tocobaga Indians made the area their home. The Tocobaga Indian mound found inside Phillipe Park is registered as a National Historic Landmark. You’ll find plaques and signs with more information about both Count Phillipe and the Tocobaga Indians inside the park.

Almost as soon as you enter Phillipe Park, you’re greeted with a lovely view of Tampa Bay. There is an embankment next to the water with enough room to sit and enjoy the view. Spread out a blanket and have a picnic, or roll out your yoga mat and do some sun salutations. As you walk around the park, you’ll find lots of lovely views of both the water and huge, curving, twisting oak trees. Not just eye candy, the trees also provide plenty of shade for you to appreciate while you are exercising, playing or just hanging out.

Phillipe Park has other amenities including a boat ramp, fishing areas, eight picnic shelters, and restrooms.

So this January make it your New Year’s Resolution to explore a state or county park you’ve never before visited.

Don’t worry if the rest of the country hates you. Enjoy our winter weather while it lasts.

By Marcy Sanford


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A Seagoing Safari

Wow! What a difference two movies and a lot of P.R. can make.

When we moved here almost seven years ago, we visited the Clearwater Aquarium. After our first visit we thought it was a cute place doing very admirable work but saw no need to return anytime soon.

Cue the moving soundtrack to Dolphin Tale.

We are now proud season pass holders, we could probably guide tours of the aquarium, and at least one of my family members has tried to pet every stingray at the aquarium. We’ve watched Winter and Hope swim around and around and around, touched Winter’s prosthetic tail, departed impressed by how high Nicholas can jump, and examined every anemone in the touch tank. Every time we visit, we find new areas to discover and learn new facts about the amazing aquatic life.

On a recent visit, we climbed aboard Clearwater Aquarium’s Sea Life Safari to explore Clearwater’s intra-coastal waters. During the 90-minute boat ride, expert staff and volunteers tell you about the sea birds and marine life living in our area. I have a newfound respect for the cormorant after learning that it does not just stand around holding up its wings like they are broken. It can, in fact, dive up to 40 feet underwater. Also if you’re not an only child or first born, be glad you are not a snail. Newly born ones eat their siblings.

In addition to being able to entertain their guests with interesting facts, the aquarium staff uses the boat trip to collect data. About half way through, they throw out a net out to see what marine life they will collect. On our trip they were all very excited about the lizardfish they netted. After showing everyone the catch of the day and telling you a little bit about them, the staff returns the fish to the bay.  

The Sea Life Safari also takes you to a tiny shell island where you can get off the boat and search for seashells. On top of all this, if you’re lucky (and we were!), you’ll see dolphins. 

December should have plenty of days that are perfect for a boat ride. If you or someone in your family is interested in marine life, this is a great one. All of the staff and volunteers on board were knowledgeable and interesting. One young lady professed to be a geek about snails; another young man said sharks were his thing. Their enthusiasm was contagious.

The Sea Life Safari is a separate charge from the aquarium admission but you do not have to purchase aquarium admission to go on the boat.

Clearwater Aquarium Sea Life Safari Tour
249 Windward Passage
Clearwater, FL
(727) 441-1790
Hours: 10:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 3 p.m., 5 p.m.

By Marcy Sanford


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Making Memories in Homosassa

Whenever I take my daughter on a trip, I wonder what memories are being created.

I remember a goat eating my raincoat at Wizard of Oz land in North Carolina, getting separated from my group at Disney World while looking at the topiaries, and leaving my suitcase at home the first time I was responsible for packing it.

When I mentioned Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park to my friend Carrie, she said she remembered visiting the park when she moved to Florida as a child. It was one of her favorite places her family visited that summer. That was all the encouragement I needed to plan a visit.

Homosassa is about an hour drive from Westchase. You start your visit to the park at the visitor center, where you can take a boat or tram ride to the main entrance. On the 20-minute boat ride, your guide will tell you about the park’s history and assure you that while you might not spot alligators on the boat ride, you will see wildlife when you get to the park.

Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park is home to a wide variety of animals indigenous to Florida and one hippopotamus, which is not. There are three resident manatees, cougars, black bears, flamingos, owls and osprey. On the mile-long nature walk through the park you’ll get the chance to view them up close. Volunteers also conduct presentations about the manatees, alligators, hippopotamus and other creatures throughout the day.

The park has changed quite a bit since Carrie’s first visit. Park Service Specialist Susan Strawbridge said that in the past year Homosassa Springs Park has added a shore bird aviary and revamped the manatee viewing area. According to Strawbridge, all of the animals at the park are rescue animals and the park participates in species survival programs for red wolves and whooping cranes. In November when the water temperature in the gulf begins to drop, Strawbridge says you can see up to 80 manatees seeking shelter in the spring’s consistent temperatures.

As any good day trip should, our trip to Homosassa Springs gave us plenty of things to talk about on the drive home. It will be interesting to see what ends up sticking around as a fond memory. Will it be Nicklas spotting a snake outside the reptile house and our ensuing panic that one had escaped from its enclosure? (After pointing the snake out to a nearby park ranger, we were assured it was harmless and was in fact a “wild” snake.) Will it be the underwater observatory where you could come face-to-face with manatees? Will it be the owls who wouldn’t stop staring at us? Will it be the fact that we learned that hippos fling their poo as signs of aggression?

Whatever the kids remember is OK with me, because I’ll always remember that we had a beautiful, fun day with great friends in one of Florida’s coolest state parks.

Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs State Park
4150 S. Suncoast Boulevard
Homosassa, FL
(352) 628-5343

By Marcy Sanford


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Popular Haunts in Florida’s Humidity

Frogs and mosquitos aren’t the only creatures that come out when the sun goes down in Tampa Bay.

Ghosts and spirits haunt hotels, bookstores and ships all around town. You just have to know where to look.

On a recent dark and muggy night I recruited a few of Westchase’s bravest residents to journey with me to see what we could find in St. Petersburg. Our ghost tour began outside the Vinoy Hotel. Our guide’s tales were part historical society lesson and part ghost story. Only the most courageous among us will ever stay on the sixth floor or enter the ballroom of the Vinoy after hearing about the ghosts that have never checked out of the hotel.

Along the way we also found out about Haslam’s Book Store, where a famous author continues to promote his books from beyond the grave, and the creepy Hotel Indigo, where one of the ghosts reportedly followed a guest home.

Maybe the ghosts were snubbing our minivan or perhaps they knew that we all have children who can at times be much scarier than any ghost out there. Fortunately we made it back to Westchase without any spirits hitching a ride. 

At our last stop outside one of St. Pete’s many historical homes, we were encouraged to look for signs of the deceased lady of the house who still resides there. Alas, we only saw our reflection. Or maybe we just told ourselves that to stay brave.

Ghost Tour also offers tours of downtown Tampa and St. John’s Pass. Highlights of those tours include the Tampa Theatre, Old Tampa Book Company and the Fort Brooke area. During the St. John’s Pass tour you’ll find out the spooky history of several of the boats docked there as well as learn why the Friendly Fisherman restaurant might not be that friendly.

Ybor City is also apparently a very scary place after dark and not just because of drunk club-goers. “We have collected the 'creme de la creme' ghost stories of Ybor City,” said Joe Howden, creator of the Official Ybor City Ghost Tour. “We enter two haunted sites that are considered haunted not only by us but by the world. Both of these buildings have been on worldwide TV ghost shows because of their hauntedness.”

Which are they?

“One is the Don Vicente Inn, formerly the downtown hospital of Ybor City,” said Howden. “We tell stories and do some investigating down in the basement that was the hospital's morgue and autopsy area.” He added, “We also enter the Cuban Club, The Circulo Cubano, which was the social club for Cuban immigrants in Ybor City. It is listed by The Travel Channel as the fourth most haunted building in America.

Howden concluded, “I believe the extreme level of paranormal activity in this building is because of the level of attachment. As they did in life, I believe they return there at night.” 

Are you brave enough to take a tour this October to see what spirits haunt the Tampa Bay area? 

It may be the only way you’ll feel goose bumps in Florida in October.

Ghost Tour Tampa/St. Pete/St. John’s Pass

Ybor City Ghost Tour

By Marcy Sanford


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Fun at the Flea Market

Burger Queen, an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the Burger King, was the only restaurant in the very small town of Heiskell, Tennessee, where I grew up.

When it came time for outside entertainment on the weekends, we mostly had to entertain ourselves. When we did get to go into “town,” however, one of our favorite things to do on the weekend was to go to the flea market. Anyone was welcome to park in one of the parking spaces of the lot that doubled as the Baptist Church parking lot on Sundays. They’d open up their trunks, pull out their tables and sell whatever they had brought with them.

As a child, I had fun no matter whether I was selling or buying. I also have to think that my parents enjoyed getting out of the house – and the possibility of me selling more toys than I would buy. These days, I see the same joy in my child’s eyes on neighborhood garage sale days. I know I am always hoping less will come into our home than has gone out.

While the Oldsmar Flea Market on Tampa Road is not the place to go if you want to get rid of your wares (unless you pay a booth fee), it does make for an interesting afternoon of people watching and booth browsing. We’ve also found a very fun activity at the edge of the flea market that appeals to all ages.

The Muddy Potter is located on the far west corner of Building A. Here you can learn how to make a pot, mug, bowl, or other creation using the potter’s wheel. Or you can roll out a lump of clay and create your own thing – a duck, fairy or volcano. It’s all up to your imagination. Two weeks later you go back to paint your creation. Then, after the final firing, you have a brand new work of art. Owner Lisa is a very kind and patient teacher and will help you find your inner artist. As an added bonus, she claims the clay is good for your skin and will draw out impurities – where else can you find art activity and facial in one combination?

If you’d rather not make your own design, the Muddy Potter also has premade ceramic pieces that you can paint yourself, everything from tiny Chihuahuas and piggy banks to large plates. Right now, they have a full line of Christmas ornaments and decorations, including ceramic Christmas trees with multi-colored lights. If, like me, one of your grandmothers or great-aunts had one that you could look at but not touch, you are in luck. Now you can paint your very own and tell all the children around you to keep their hands off.

In addition to exploring our creative side at the Muddy Potter, we’ve found a plant nursery where we got a great deal on some herbs. Our dill included six caterpillars – not so great for the dill but it was a lot of fun for us as we watched them morph into butterflies.

Much like the flea market of my youth, we found used, discounted toys, including inexpensive Barbie clothes. But unlike the flea market I used to frequent there are many booths that sell new (if not the best quality) items. According to the flea market’s Web site, they have 450 vendors sprawled out over 20 acres so we couldn’t explore everything the flea market had to offer in just one visit.

Yet just as we were wondering if we had seen enough for one day, we saw a man walking around with a parrot on his shoulder – something that never happened in Heiskell, and a sight that we knew would be hard to top.

By Marcy Sanford


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Surviving the Terrible Tropical Trio

Ah, it’s August – or as I like to think of the next three months, Auguseptoctober.

Because the three truly feel like one long, sweaty month to me. Even though children are about to go back to school and American football is the game we’re talking about again, little relief from the heat is available. The beach water is like a lukewarm bath and I don’t want to don a bathing suit again until March.

Come August, we turn to indoor activities to keep us entertained. If you too are done with summer (but still want to get out of the house and let someone else’s AC keep you cool), here are a few indoor suggestions to get you through this last long stretch. With a little luck and these options, the heat will give up before you’re planning out your Thanksgiving menu.

You can easily escape the sun’s harsh rays inside the bowling alley. In fact, it’s so dark that when you go back outside, you’ll find you yourself blinking like a mole poked awake before nightfall. Pin Chasers sends me so many e-mail coupons and deals that I think they eventually will offer to pay me to come bowl. You can go cyber bowling on Wednesdays from 1 to 3 p.m. – complete with disco lights and dance music – and they’ll give you a pair of free socks if you forget yours at home.

Because, as Floridians, we still arrive at bowling alleys in flip-flops.

We’ve also managed to spend many hours away from the sun while inside Gatti Town in Clearwater. They have better games than other pizza-buffet-and-games places we’ve visited. Gatti Town is cleaner, the pizza is actually good, and they have a floor-to-ceiling indoor play area where kids can climb, slide and swing. If you really wanted to stay out of the house all day and get the most for your money, go on a Tuesday when games are half price. Get there for a late lunch, let the kids play games and play in the playground area, and finally before you go, have them hit the pizza buffet again for an early dinner. Two meals and hours of entertainment will make your hot, summer days a breeze.

The relatively new Glowgolf in Carrollwood is a recent find thanks to Groupon and friends’ word-of-mouth. Much better than attempting to play putt-putt outside among the summer elements, glowgolf is played inside, where they also have a laser maze. There are two courses to play and several seating areas if you want to just sit back and enjoy the neon lights and classic rock they play while your kids putt-putt around.

If you are truly dedicated to a full day inside but out of the house, let me suggest Clearwater Mall. It’s not a cheap option but you can easily kill a hot day in the temperature-controlled confines of the mall if you plan it correctly. Go see a movie, enjoy lunch at the food court, do a bit of shopping, and then let your child go ice-skating. There is a Starbucks and comfortable seating at one end of the ice skating ring where you can enjoy sipping a latte.

Because by the time you’ve spent that much time inside the mall, you will need something to warm you up. But being cold enough that you crave a hot drink in August truly is a Florida summer miracle.

Hopefully we’ll be back outside soon. Until then you’ll find me inside waiting for my tan to fade.

By Marcy Sanford


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Glass to Look At Rather Than Through

I’ll never look at glass the same after my visit to the Morean Art Center’s Hot Shop and Glass Studio.

During a 30-minute presentation, a professional glass artist took a glob of clear, molten glass. He twisted it, shaped it and spun it. Along the way, he added bits of color and more globs of glass, repeatedly thrusting into a roaring furnace. Meanwhile another professional artist explained each step to gawking visitors. We kept trying to guess what the blob of glass was going to become. Its shape changed with each encounter with the heat.  In the end, after the artist’s hard work, the glob had metamorphosed into a beautiful, curvy platter with swirls of orange, red and gold.

At the Morean Art Center you can see a demonstration of artists at work, look at and even buy beautiful works of art or take a class. The center includes a Glass Studio and Hot Shop, the Art Center Galleries, the Center for Clay, and the Chihuly Collection.

The exhibits at the Art Galleries change throughout the year. This summer their 96th Annual Members Show will be opening July 12. You can buy tickets for each of the centers and the collection separately or you can enjoy a full day exploring your artistic side with a package deal that will get you into all three. (Entry to the Center for Clay is free.)

I’ve been a big fan of Dale Chihuly’s work since I first saw an exhibit at a botanical garden in Memphis. His glass creations are amazing to behold. This permanent exhibit in St. Petersburg is only one of five in the world and it includes a nice representation of the different types of glass artworks he creates.

You’ll see giant orange and yellow bowls the shape of seashells, huge Dr. Seussian chandeliers of multicolored glass squiggles, and a boatful of beautiful, incandescent, oversized marbles. An informative video presentation about the exhibition runs continuously in their theater and they offer docent-led tours every hour on the half hour, Monday through Friday.

The Chihuly Collection and the Art Center/Glass Studio are located about a mile apart. The St. Petersburg trolley system links the two. But the surrounding area is home to lots of fun stores and galleries as well as plenty of good places to eat so you might want to park halfway between the two and walk so you can truly soak in the area’s artistic vibe.

On your way back to Westchase, stop by the Morean Center for Clay. Located inside a historic train station, the center is the largest working pottery studio in the Southeast. You might see an artist at work, find the perfect piece of pottery, or take a class to create your own.

For more information about opening hours and classes, visit 

Chihuly Collection
400 Beach Drive, NE

Morean Arts Center Galleries and Glass Studio and Hot Shop
719 Central Avenue

Morean Center for Clay
420 22nd Street, South

By Marcy Sanford


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Embracing the Dog Days of Summer

Your dog may be your best friend. Chances are, however, it does not know hundreds of commands.

A visit to the Southeastern Guide Dogs campus in Palmetto, Florida, is not only fun and uplifting but it will truly make you appreciate the smart, talented dogs that make the cut to be a guide dog. Guide dogs in training need to interact and socialize with people. Southeastern Guide Dogs has several opportunities for just that. You can walk a guide dog, hug puppies or take a campus tour.

If you’re going to drive for an hour, you definitely want to get in some puppy hugging. Even if you are just a mere friend of dogs and not a diehard dog lover, it’s hard not to ooh, awe, and giggle when a litter of 6-10-week old puppies comes busting through their doggie door ready to play. It’s actually hard to catch one long enough to hug it. What you don’t get in cuddle time, however, is certainly made up for by the overwhelming cuteness of these dogs.

According to Stacy Howe, Director of Marketing, the puppies are kept in separate facilities from the older dogs because they have not had all their shots. Because an older dog may be carrying germs that would be harmful to a young puppy, visitors cannot interact with the puppies after petting an older dog. If you want to walk a dog and hug puppies, you need to hug the puppies first and walk a dog later.

About 250 puppies are born at Southeastern Guide Dogs each year. About 100 of them are matched up with visually impaired individuals. When the puppies are 10-weeks-old, they go to live with a host family for a year and then return to campus for the rest of their training. While you’re visiting Southeastern Guide Dogs, you can help these dogs get exercise by walking them around the lovely 35-acre campus. “The campus has different types of walking environments for the dogs,” said Howe. “There are brick and gravel walkways, sidewalks, train tracks, bridges, and winding and straight paths so that the dogs can be accustomed to walking over many different types of surfaces.”

Southeastern Guide Dogs also offers 75-minute walking tours of their campus. You will get to visit the puppy kennels during the tour for another opportunity to hug puppies. And here is where you’ll have to make a choice. Do you want to walk a dog, hug a puppy, or learn about the campus and all the hard work that goes into their training? If you take the tour (which does include puppy hugging), you won’t be finished in time to walk a dog. But if you walk a dog before the tour, you will not get to hug a puppy during the tour. You can manage all three, but it takes planning. Sign up for the 9 a.m. puppy hugging. After that is over, rush over to the training kennel to check out a dog to walk around campus and make it back in time for the 10:15 a.m. tour. Since you’ve already hugged puppies, you can skip the tour hugging time.   

All of these activities are available every day but Thursday and Sunday. Spots fill up months in advance, however, so before your visit, check the Southeastern Guide Dogs’ Web site to see what days are open and make your reservation.

By Marcy Sanford

Southeastern Guide Dog
4210 77th St. East,
Palmetto, FL

Puppy Hugging, $5 per person
Campus Tour, $10 per person


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Hit the Trail!

Did you know you can bike all the way from Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg on the Pinellas Trail?

If you’re not up to 42.5 miles of biking or if you prefer something a bit more leisurely, another option exists. You can pedal a shorter portion of the trail starting in Dunedin. You’ll find that there is a lot you can see in just five miles.

The main parking lot for the Pinellas Trail in Dunedin is on Monroe Street. Parking lots that access the trail also are also available on Scotland Street behind the train station and on Main Street near Pioneer Park.

From these starting points, ride north on the trail. In less than a mile you’ll come across the cool and quirky Weaver Park. The recently built playground at Weaver Park is like none I’ve ever seen. All the equipment was inspired by nature. You’ll find giant butterflies, caterpillars and dragonflies for kids to climb and jump on; a tree that hides a slide they can slip down; and anthills for them to scale and conquer. On the other side of the street, you’ll see a lovely view of the bay and a public fishing pier. Several picnic tables are available if you’re already in need of a rest. You’ll also find restrooms and a water fountain.

Once you’ve had your fill of the playground area, keep heading north under the gorgeous canopy of trees that arch over the trail. You’ll ride past quiet areas where you might see a woodpecker; neighborhoods where you can ogle whimsically decorated patios; and restaurants like the Jolli Mon and Eli’s Bar-B-Que if you find yourself in need of some sustenance.

If you continue north, you’ll come across the 90-acre Hammock Park. Fortunately for bikers, Hammock Park’s newest addition, a butterfly garden, is located right off the trail. The garden features 11 beds with 225 plants in 40 varieties and is home to more than 35 species of butterflies. The butterfly garden is located next to the historic Andrews Memorial chapel, one of the oldest remaining church buildings in the area.

At this point if you go about another mile north, you will run into Curlew Road, where you can take an offshoot from the main trail and bike to Honeymoon Island State Park. At least a section of this ride is alongside Alt. U.S. 19. If you’ve had enough bike riding for one day, turn around and head back to downtown Dunedin to treat yourself to some ice cream from Strachan’s (which only accepts cash but conveniently has an ATM machine inside). After all of our exploring, we felt we were definitely due some Rocky Road. 

If you don’t have a bike or don’t have a way to get your bike to Dunedin, Dunedin Cyclery at 998 Douglas Avenue and the Energy Conservatory Bike Shop at 2606 Bayshore Boulevard rent bikes, helmets and trailers. Both are close to the Pinellas Trail.

Helpful Web Sites

Pinellas Trail

Florida Biking

By Marcy Sanford


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Climb to Your Heart’s Content

I feel sorry for my daughter. In fact, I feel sorry for all the climbing children of Westchase.

Maybe I’m wrong to feel bad for them. Perhaps other parts of Westchase have good climbing trees. In West Park Village, however, there aren’t any. My daughter and her bus mates will shoot off the bus in the afternoon and climb the crepe myrtles meant for decoration along the sidewalk. After finding a branch that seems to support their weight, they’ll hang precariously off it, swinging back and forth while the branch dips closer and closer to the ground. It’s sad to see children who are meant to soar to such great heights only make it a couple of feet off the ground.

There is a good tree at an Oldsmar park. Oher areas of town also seem to have plenty of robust, climb-worthy trees. Unfortunately, they are often in people’s yards, which can get awkward.

Recently, however, we discovered a perfect place where you don’t just climb a tree but you get to participate in recreational tree climbing, which apparently became an organized sport in the early 80s.

On the first Saturday of each month Pathfinder Outdoor Education offers open climbs at Lakeview Presbyterian Church in St. Petersburg. The cost is $10 per climber with a minimum age of 6. You ascend into the heights of a massive 60-foot live oak tree using a rope and pulley system similar to what professional arborists use.

Pathfinder’s guides were extremely helpful and friendly. They give you a quick tutorial on safety and how to use the rope and pulley system and then you’re off. Or in the case of my daughter and me, she was off and about 15 minutes later, I finally figured it out and I was off – or at least slightly off the ground.

I didn’t make it to the very top of the tree because my delicate Westchase hands started developing blisters (You can request gloves. I think I’ll just bring some gardening ones next time), but I did make it up about midway and then had fun enjoying the view from there, swinging, and even hanging upside down.

Twelve different ropes hang from four different areas of the tree. Each climb lasts 30 minutes and once you’ve paid, you can go up as many times as you like. You can experience a different part of the impressive tree, hang out on one of the huge branches, or relax in the treeboat (which is recreational tree climbing language for a hammock).

My daughter is hooked and ready to go back again next month. Hopefully, my hands will either be healed or I’ll have developed some protective calluses so the next time I can make it to the top.

Pathfinder, Inc Open Tree Climb
Lakeview Presbyterian Church
1310 22nd Avenue South, Street
St. Petersburg, FL

By Marcy Sanford


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Spring Fun to Make Your Northern Friends Jealous

It’s the time of year when I enjoy laughing at friends and relatives who don’t live in Florida.

Oh, you’re tired of cold weather? Look! We’re running around in flip-flops!

You’re sick of wearing sweaters? Poor thing! I got a fabulous deal on one; too bad I’ve only had two chances to wear it.

August through November I’ll be lamenting the lack of fall, but February – when much of the U.S. is hiding indoors – is the month to live it up and go outside. And if you really want to make your Facebook friends jealous, post a few pictures of yourself strolling the grounds of Sunken Gardens.

Because one of the many benefits of living in Florida is that we have lovely plants blooming year round.

Back in 1903 a plumber and avid gardener named George Turner, Sr., bought four acres of land in Saint Petersburg. He drained a 15-foot lake on the property, leaving a rich soil perfect for plants. By 1924 visitors were paying 25 cents to take a stroll through the lush gardens and see exotic plants from around the world.

In 1999 the city of Saint Petersburg purchased the property and spent several years restoring the gardens. Many of the original plants are still there to enjoy, including the oldest royal palms in the county, 250-year old oak trees and several 79-year-old ponytail palms. 

Amid the towering oaks and palm trees, you’ll find colorful gardens and beautiful ponds stocked with well-fed koi fish (save your fish food money on busy days because the fish will ignore you). Flamingos pose next to the bromeliad garden and exotic birds like macaws, Amazon parrots and kookaburras might just say hello if you speak to them at the right moment.

Sunken Gardens is home to more than 50,000 plants from cacti to tropical fruits. Along the meandering paths, you’ll find numerous waterfalls, a lily pond, a tropical fruit garden and an arbor with delicate, beautiful orchids of all colors and sizes.

Sunken Gardens gives tours every Friday and hosts horticulture workshops every Saturday to help you hone your gardening skills. Workshops in February include Tips for Easy Gardening, Taking Care of Orchids, and Rare and Unusual Foliage Plants. They also have regular hot hula, hoop dancing, and yoga classes. You can do the lotus pose after you stroll through the gardens.

The 100-year-old attraction is minutes from downtown St. Petersburg. In fact, from the entrance you might not realize that you are about to enter a tropical oasis. Picnic areas are available on the grounds, but if you don’t want to tote food around, several restaurants await across the street.

According to Sunken Gardens Supervisor Bill O’Grady, walls of bougainvillea are in bloom right now as well as colorful camellias, shrimp plants and chalice vines.

So take advantage of our spring-like weather in the middle of February.

Then be sure to let your friends up north know about it.

Sunken Gardens
1825 4th Street N.
Saint Petersburg, FL
Hours: Mon-Sat, 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; Sun, noon-4:30 p.m.

By Marcy Sanford


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What’s Lurking Beneath the Water?

When we first moved to Tampa, I told our Realtor to stop showing me houses with a water view.

My brain kept whispering: “What’s lurking beneath that water?”

At the time our 1-year-old daughter and our dog were both curious and always on the move. I envisioned both rushing towards the water to investigate, only to have a fierce, hungry alligator lunge from the depths and seize them.

That spring I was entranced by news stories of alligators lurking under vehicles at a car dealership and cruising through an elementary school playground. A Westchase resident even called her neighbor to say, “Don’t go out your front door this morning. There is a huge alligator on your front porch.”

Since none of my neighbors knew my name yet, let alone had my phone number, the decision to live away from the water seemed a wise one.

Flash forward six years. We are still cautious of any water that is not chlorinated or choked with salt. My daughter is still always on the move, but she’s found the time to pause long enough to become obsessed with the TV show Gator Boys. When I take a walk around the water in West Park Village and see an alligator, I don’t scream in fear. Instead, I rush home to tell all the kids on our block and then lead them on a viewing expedition. 

All of which inspired us to take a trip to Gatorland. If a family member or you shares a fascination with alligators, this gatorcentric Orlando attraction is for you.

Located on 110 acres, Gatorland is home to thousands of alligators, including four rare white ones. It also hosts giant tortoises, pythons, parrots, peacocks, turkeys, panthers and deer. You can feed many of the animals, see an animal show, or even zip-line over the alligator enclosures. In addition to being an alligator sanctuary, Gatorland claims to be the largest and most accessible wading bird rookery in Florida. You can see over 20 different species of birds nesting at Gatorland, including wood storks, egrets and herons.

The shows at Gatorland are highly entertaining. Watching two grown men in overalls act like county bumpkins while trying to get alligators to jump into the air made me realize there are similarities between Florida and my home state of Tennessee. While we don’t have alligators, country bumpkins in overalls are also a staple in our theme park shows.

While our daughter was more entertained by the Jump-A-Roo Show than were the adults, we all enjoyed the Alligator Wrestling Show. Fortunately the country accents were dropped and it was as good – or maybe even better – than watching Gator Boys.
One thing you can’t get from TV is a face-to-face encounter. The smile on our daughter’s face as she “wrestled” an alligator was truly worth the price of admission.

If wrestlin’ alligators isn’t your thing, plenty of other animal encounters exist at Gatorland. You can feed birds or tortoises, hold snakes, talk to parrots and pet goats. All in all, it promises to be a great encounter. 

14501 S. Orange Blossom Trail
Orlando, FL
(800) 393-JAWS
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily

By Marcy Sanford


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Be Inspired – Explore!

As I sit down to write my last Diversions and Excursions column, I find myself not wanting to share a specific destination.

Instead, I want to share the joy of exploration for traveling and exploring offers us one of the greatest gifts in life: perspective.

Though I appreciate our history teachers, the Travel Channel, and, of course, the all-knowing Internet, nothing can compare to actual travel. You cannot do justice to explaining what it is like to kayak alongside manatees in Crystal River. Though once you do it, you will gain a never ending respect for these gentle giants. You cannot tell how big a space shuttle is by looking at online photos, but you will never forget stepping foot into something that has orbited our planet. Visiting a working farm, you’ll gain an appreciation for the labor behind putting food on your table. With a day trip to a theme park, you’ll be awestruck with human creativity and ingenuity. Treading upon the structure of a historical fort, you will step into a time that shaped our present. The opportunities for perspective are endless.

While there is no limit to what we can learn and discover in the world, there is one thing that is very limited for all of us – time. There is no need to wait. Exploring does not have to involve a big, fancy, expensive trip (though those are certainly fun as well). As you look through your calendar and plan out your days, weeks, months and years, commit to prioritizing adventure. So much sits in our own backyards to discover.

As you explore, the seeds of dreams are planted. As you gain perspective, you realize the limitless potential we all have. Want to build a zip-line attraction in an abandoned limestone quarry? Want to spend your days protecting endangered sea turtles? Want to create the biggest tourist attraction in the world in the middle of Florida’s swamps? Why not? These realities started as others’ dreams.

Ideally one of the stories that you’ve read in the past four years piqued your curiosity enough to get you out of your house and into the world. I hope that along the way you might have discovered a new passion or shown your kids a world they didn’t know existed.

Be inspired by the world, find your dream and make it a reality.

By Marilyn Gyselinck


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Wild, Wild World

Who knew that less than an hour away is place that will make you feel like you are standing on another continent?

Giraffe Ranch is a native wildlife preserve as well as the home away from home for animals from all over the world. Huge live oaks, rolling countryside pastures and Florida’s natural swampland create a habitat like no other, but its creatures come from Asia, Africa, Australia and North and South America.

Do not let the name fool you. Giraffe Ranch has far more than giraffes. It shouldn’t, however, be mistaken for a zoo. It is actually an agrotourism enterprise that is open by reservation only. Giraffe Ranch is a working game preserve and farm first, then a facility that tries to educate people about its animals.

Such a wide variety of animals can be found at Giraffe Ranch. It’s a fabulous place to bird-watch as hundreds of Sandhill Cranes call it their home. You can get up close and feed a giraffe (their tongues are amazing!) or pet a camel. Braver visitors can leave the comfort of their safari vehicles and tour the facility on camelback! You can feed the ring-tailed lemur and come closer than ever before to a hippo and rhino. Have you ever heard of an oryx? Well, you will see one here! Giraffe Ranch even has one of the largest herds of tiny Irish cows. How can you resist that?

All the animals can be enjoyed on one of their two daily safari tours, during which you will enjoy comfortable seating in one of their customized four wheel-drive vehicles. The vehicles are designed to ensure that each rider enjoys stadium seating and shade. The ranch guides also possess a tremendous amount of passion and knowledge that they share with visitors. The tour last between 60-90 minutes and is enjoyable anytime of the year. There are two tours per day, 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. For details on pricing please visit their Web site, as th,ere are many different options from which to choose.

Some days we just need to get away – far away. But some days, plane tickets and passports are really not an option. A visit to Giraffe Ranch will leave you feeling like you escaped your world, even if only for a short time.

Sometimes a little escape is really all we need to recharge and take on our world.

By Marilyn Gyselinck

Photo appears courtesy of Giraffe Ranch.

New Diversions Writer Sought

After years of hunting down interesting places to tell Westchase readers about, Diversion and Excursions writer Marilyn Gyselinck will write her last column in December. If you’re a writer who loves fun and adventure, contact Publisher Chris Barrett at to explore how you can become WOW’s next Diversions & Excursions columnist.


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Riding The Disney Wave

A water park is usually just a water park.

It’s often hard to distinguish one from the other. Yet, with the limited amount of water coasters in the world, Typhoon Lagoon immediately sticks out as unique.

Typhoon Lagoon is one of two Disney water parks in Orlando. The advantage of a Disney water park is all the Disney magic that goes along with a visit. It’s clear that no expense is spared in terms of customer service, safety, cleanliness and general visitor comfort and convenience. Of course, because it’s a Disney property, have no doubt that you will also have the option to pay for the parking, the lockers, the towels, the meals, the ice cream, the beverages and countless photos they will take for you on the Disney Photo Pass.

Typhoon Lagoon has all of the water park standards that you would expect. They have plenty of traditional water slides racing through the deserted mountain island landscape that they have tried to create. They have the big raft rides that the whole family can enjoy together. Of course, you cannot have a water park without a lazy river and Typhoon Lagoon’s lazy river comes complete with employees regularly stationed throughout the river filtering debris out to keep it clean.

What sets Typhoon Lagoon apart from most other water parks is two very special attractions. Crush & Gusher is a 400-foot long water coaster. The distinction of a water coaster is that you are actually propelled uphill in your raft throughout portions of your ride. It is a sensation that most visitors are not used to when it comes to water slides and it is loads of fun!

The other unique attraction at Typhoon Lagoon is their wave pool. Every water park has a wave pool – right? Well, they do not really call this a wave pool; they call it a surf pool. With six-foot waves, how could you call it anything else?

That’s right – this pool produces a huge six-foot wave every couple of minutes. It comes out of nowhere with very little warning other than a deep booming sound. The technology that allows this type of wave to be produced is quite fascinating and only exists in a few pools around the world. It’s a safe place, under the watchful eyes of the lifeguards, to practice catching some waves without the fear of looking like a sea lion. The wave is big enough that the park even hosts surfing competitions at times.

Of course, water parks are extremely busy in the summer, but September is the “sweet spot” for visiting attractions like this. It’s still warm enough to spend the day in your wet bathing suit all day, but most of the crowds are back to school and work. Living close enough to Orlando allows us the advantage to sneak over on a weekend or even an early-release day.

Don’t let the summer fun end yet – grab the family and take one more plunge!

Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon

By Marilyn Gyselinck

Marilyn Gyselinck is a resident of Westchase and can be reached at


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Where Everything Gets Hotter When the Sun Goes Down

A nearby beach is consistently recognized as one of the most beautiful in the world.

Sometimes, however, we need a little motivation to get out of our comfortable, air conditioned homes and enjoy some of the world-class destinations within minutes of Westchase.

If you haven’t visited Clearwater Beach yet this summer, here is your prompt.

Every evening the City of Clearwater hosts Sunsets at Pier 60, a nightly celebration with local artists, crafters, performers and music. You will see everything from street dancers to magicians on any given night. The event is free, family friendly and happens seven days a week, 365 days a year (weather permitting). The goal of Sunsets at Pier 60 is to provide an enjoyable experience to residents and tourists while encouraging everyone to appreciate and enjoy the city’s pride and joy.

Officially Sunsets at Pier 60 run from 6:30-10:30 p.m. Plenty of activities will keep you busy before the festivities begin, however,. In fact, USA Today just named Clearwater Beach Florida’s Best Beach Town for 2013. Find a place to set up on the beach and spend some time with the sand between your toes. Nearby restaurants will allow you to grab a meal or drink. A beach volleyball game is always going on and sometimes they’re quite entertaining. Local businesses offer everything from dolphin sightseeing tours and fishing charters to Jet Ski rentals. You can even buy a seat on a pirate ship and head out to sea to face the plank or take a ride in the famed banana boat. Pier 60 is even home to a small amusement park with rides and bounce houses for the kids.

The best part of Sunsets at Pier 60 in the summer is their weekend Sunset Cinema, held every Friday and Saturday night at 8:30 p.m. It’s the perfect way to end a long day at the beach. Check out the movie schedule below.

We all have different reasons for living here in Florida. But most of us will tell people that one of the things they most love is being so close to the water. Don’t let another summer slip away without enjoying all the fun that people travel from all over the world to experience!

Pier 60 Sunset Cinema Schedule

Aug. 2 Dolphin Tale
Aug. 3 The Hunger Games
Aug. 9 Madagascar
Aug. 10 Battleship
Aug. 16 Who Framed Rodger Rabbit?
Aug. 17 The Blind Side
Aug. 23 The Karate Kid
Aug. 24 Skyfall
Aug. 30 Babe: The Gallant Pig
Aug. 31 Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone

Sunsets at Pier 60

By Marilyn Gyselinck

Marilyn Gyselinck is a resident of Westchase and can be reached at


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Top of the Water

Chances are you have overheard people talking about a water ski show in the area.

You might not have known exactly what they were talking about or where the water skiing takes place. Yet the home of the Tampa Bay Water Ski Show is only minutes away from Westchase – almost within walking distance!

The Tampa Bay Water Ski Show Team is a group of amateur skiers that have a passion for performing. The group dates to the 1950s, when a group of skiing enthusiasts formed a loose club. Through the years the club has relocated several times and merged with some other local clubs to become the Tampa Bay Water Ski Show Team. They now call Tower Lake their home. Tower Lake is hidden very close to Westchase – just behind the Oldsmar Flea Market.

Every Saturday evening the Tampa Bay Water Ski Show Team puts on a show! The shows are family friendly with bleachers and a field to watch the show comfortably. They feature a large number of different acts on the water. Skiers jump, create pyramids and perform stunts in doubles or trios. They also have a variety of novelty acts that you have to see to believe. Their goal is to entertain! The shows are completely free and there are concessions available.

Currently the team is stronger than ever with over 100 members. Skiers in the Tampa Bay Water Ski Show Team have performed at places like Cypress Gardens and Sea World. They have competed in many regional and even national competitions through the years. They even have the opportunity to perform around the nation and world.

While water skiing is certainly a sport that everyone loves to watch, it is not always easily available to those who might be interested in learning the sport. The Tampa Bay Water Ski Show Team tries to remove that barrier. They offer clinics and have all the equipment you will need to get started.

Water skiing has come a long way since 1922, when an avid skier in Minnesota nailed a pair of old boots onto a pair of skis and became the first person to ski across water. If you are looking at something different to do during the summer, be sure to go check out the show. The shows change weekly so you can go back again and again!

Tampa Bay Water Ski Show Team

By Marilyn Gyselinck

Marilyn Gyselinck is a resident of Westchase and can be reached at


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Tracking Through History

All aboard to learn how important the railroad was in shaping the early history of our state and nation!

Trains started running through Florida in the 1860s. Connecting our east coast to our west coast, Key West to Jacksonville and Florida to the rest of the country, trains served as a lifeline for prior generations. Though many of these lines still exist today, society now has many options for transporting goods and people across our nation and the world. Although trains are no longer the nation’s biggest transport player, they still fascinate the hearts and minds of people everywhere.

Located in rural Manatee County, the Florida Railroad Museum is a unique museum that strives to preserve Florida’s railroad history. Restored trains and equipment bring the heyday of railroads back to life. Museum exhibits transport visitors back in time. Yet this museum is not just about seeing, it is also about doing.

On the weekends the museum operates train rides year-round. The railroad journey is a 13-mile round trip, lasting approximately 90 minutes and passing through a variety of Florida’s landscapes. The museum also periodically hosts special events, including Thomas the Train rides and Polar Express holiday rides. You can even experience a train robbery or a hobo cookout! Check for current events.

But that’s not all. Have you ever wanted to drive a train yourself? Florida Railroad Museum offers locomotive rentals. After receiving hands-on training, prospective engineers are able to take the controls for an hour! It is a rare experience for true train lovers.

Everything in the Manatee County museum is operated by dedicated volunteers who share a piece of their heart with the railroad. The museum is open and operates train rides year-round every Saturday and Sunday at 11a.m. and 2 p.m.

A picnic area and gift shop are available to allow guests to make a day out of their visit. As the museum grows, they are expanding their restoration and repair facilities so that they can continue to bring historical pieces back to their original conditions.

Florida Railroad Museum

By Marilyn Gyselinck

Marilyn Gyselinck is a resident of Westchase and can be reached at


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Zippity Do Dah

When you first see the billboards along I-75 for The Canyons Zip Line, you might question the validity of the attraction’s name.

After all, canyons in the middle of Florida? Believe it or not, it’s true! Owners Dave and Traci Walker searched the entire state for the perfect property and found it among the abandoned limestone quarries in Ocala, Florida. Mines that haven’t been used since the 1920 have left behind cliffs, lakes and an absolutely unexpected landscape.

The Canyons Zip Line boasts Florida’s longest, fasted and highest zip-line course. Upon your arrival the guides will get you harnessed in and take you to a practice zip. Here you will learn the rules of the course and practice on a run that is only about seven feet off the ground. Once you have mastered the practice zip, your adventure begins.

Full of witty comments and jokes, the guides are there to make sure you have a good time. In fact, the only thing they take more seriously than fun is safety. “They do the clipping – you do the zipping!”

Those that have zipped outside of the United States might be surprised by Canyons Zip Line’s extensive safety measures and practices. They use exaggerated weight capacities and policies that retire equipment early. They keep you clipped to a wire even when you are not in the air – all to ensure that their participants stay safe.

On the course, zippers soar past cliffs and over lakes. The scenery is as surprising as it is beautiful. As you zip from platform to platform, the runs grow longer and more stunning. The guides will tell you about the history of the area as well as its plants and wildlife. They are full of stories and maybe a few tall tales.

The Canyons also offers some other activities. During their Night Tours you are less aware of your surroundings and more aware of your speed. With glow sticks lighting your way, zipping through the dark is a completely different experience than zipping in the day. They also have a stable where you can take a horseback riding tour through the beautiful landscape. Last is their newest addition – the Super Zip! Fly over the lake and past the cliffs at speeds up to 50 miles per hour in a Superman position. You won’t find this experience anywhere else!

Reservations for all of their activities can be made on their Web site,  The Zip Line Canopy tour costs $89 for the nine-zip, two-and-a-half hour tour. There are age and weight restrictions, however. Details can be found on their Web site.

The Canyons Zip Line & Canopy Tours

By Marilyn Gyselinck

Marilyn Gyselinck is a resident of Westchase and can be reached at


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A Zorse is a Zorse, of Course

Just four miles from Westchase, tucked along the Old Tampa Bay, lies a unique facility with more to offer than one would ever imagine.

Horse Power for Kids is a farm with a purpose. They are a non-profit organization whose mission is to “provide a farm environment for people who would benefit from interaction with horses and animals that reside on [the] farm.” And while they do offer some amazing programs and support for those with special needs, these programs are not their only attempts at impacting visitors.

Horse Power for Kids believes that every person that comes to their facility can potentially benefit from what they have to offer. Using exciting programs for kids and adults, they educate, inspire and build their guests’ self-confidence. In an environment where every turn uncovers something new, excitement comes naturally.

There is a hands-on petting area that has more animals than you might see at a small zoo. They have llamas, goats and sheep waiting for a bite to eat. Chickens and ducks roam the grounds freely. A pig family even calls a comfy, muddy, pen home. They have prairie dogs that play in chicken-wire “tunnels” above your head! Raccoons, cats, peacocks, and a couple of capybaras also roam the grounds. The latter, which look like golden-retriever-sized guinea pigs, are the largest rodents in the world!

For those who fancy feathered creatures, Horse Power for Kids has an aviary with macaws, doves, parakeets and more. They even have a zorse: yes – a creature that is half zebra, half horse! You are pretty much guaranteed to discover something you have never seen before at Horse Power for Kids.

Horse Power also offers trail rides for those who want to escape into the natural hammock of Florida and slow down their day. Hour-long rides are offered three times daily. Rides are available for all levels and they can provide all the safety equipment you’ll need. In addition to trail rides, horseback riding lessons are also offered. Eastern, western or jumper-style lessons are accommodated.

Horse Power for Kids also hosts field trips and birthday parties along with special seasonal community events. Anytime kids can ride ponies, pet animals, take a train ride and run around exploring all the animals, you know they are going to have a blast. So if you’ve never been, take the very short drive down Race Track Road, just past Tampa Road. There you’ll discover an old-fashioned farm, with a genuine heart and a true purpose behind what they do.

By Marilyn Gyselinck

Marilyn Gyselinck is a resident of Westchase and can be reached at


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Unlock Your Inner Artist

Brush off your fear and add a dash of color to your world!

While most people like to paint, many feel they are not good at it. That hesitation prompts many of us to avoid picking up another paintbrush after completing our mandatory art class in high school. Yet, at our childhood core, who doesn’t like to paint?

For those looking for a fun and different adventure, I recommend a trip to Painting with a Twist art studio.

This is not your average art studio. At South Tampa’s Painting with a Twist you’ll be greeted by dozens of works of art covering the walls. The variety is endless: from whimsical holiday pieces and serene landscapes to vibrant flowers and animals that appear ready to come to life. The unique thing about this art studio, however, is that you can pick one of these works of art and their talented artists will help you recreate it!

Painting with a Twist allows those of us who may not think we’re artistically inclined pick up a brush and create something to be treasured. In a classroom setting, participants settle in to their art space with their canvas and paint. The instructor starts at the very beginning, with a canvas at the front of the class, walking the group through each step. Everyone is given time to complete each step and the instructor is there to provide help when wanted and needed. Participants are able to get creative with their paintings and make them unique works of art. For example, if the fish in the sample is blue and you want it to be red, no problem! This is your piece.

Painting with a Twist brings people into a social setting to create their art. They host private parties, where you can bring a few bottles of wine, order some food and make a night out of it. The wine certainly helps tentative artists loosen up and enjoy the experience. They also host date nights where couples create a two-canvas piece together. They host Family Fun Days where the families can come and create a work of art together. Birthday parties are also very popular, and getting to take a painting home with you is certainly an awesome alternative to a goodie bag! They also host fundraiser nights called Painting with a Purpose, where a portion of the funds goes back to a charity in the local community.

Painting with A Twist is celebrating their second year in South Tampa although they are part of a national franchise that was started in 2009. Their address is 2821 S. MacDill Ave, Tampa, FL 33629. Check out their Web site for current calendars or give them a call to schedule a party. Those with creative inclinations will certainly enjoy the experience. More surprisingly, those who thought they didn’t have an artistic bone in their body may discover something new about themselves − that art lies in the spirit and not the skeleton.

Painting with a Twist

By Marilyn Gyselinck

Marilyn Gyselinck is a resident of Westchase and can be reached at


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A Powerful Experience of Industry and Nature

Our world is full of contradictions.

We want power and peace. Our kids play outside – on their iPhones. We spend more time working in order to have time to do the things we like doing when we’re not working.

Another unavoidable contradiction involves human sprawl and the environment. We seek to preserve the beauty of our world – until we need to use that land for something else.

If you’re strolling along beautiful Bayshore Boulevard downtown, you’ll notice the power plants and industrial facilities across the bay. One of these structures is Tampa Electric’s Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach. In 1986 when the commercial operation of Big Bend Unit 4 began, people started noticing something strange. Manatees in large numbers were seeking comfort and refuge in the warm water coming out of the power station’s discharge canal. Word got out and people flocked to see these gentle giants. Their presence gave birth to the Manatee Viewing Center, now a federally designated manatee sanctuary for the protected species.

Viewing the manatees at the power station is like visiting the center of a paradox. At times you have the calm, natural beauty of hundreds of manatees peacefully swimming about in the water. Yet there, in the background, is the huge, metal, electric, smoking power plant. The power plant is as visually striking as the manatees – just in an extraordinarily different way. Seeing them both together is mentally confusing.

It seems as though both TECO and the manatees have made the most of this unintentional relationship. The Manatee Viewing Center is open from November to April. During these months the water in Tampa Bay tends to cool down enough that the manatees migrate to this warm spot.

Tampa Electric has made the center a very welcoming place for visitors, which is also somewhat striking as tourism is not typically a specialty of power plants. Beautiful boardwalks overlook the area in which the manatees congregate. An education center hosts information about manatees as well as other plants and wildlife found in their ecosystem. Featuring lots of hands-on exhibits tucked into a relatively small space, the education center also teaches visitors about different types of energy and how they are produced. A concession and a gift shop help round out the amenities.

So the next time you feel compelled to view a contradiction wrapped in a paradox, consider a visit to Tampa Electric’s Big Bend Power Station, where industry and nature live in a striking, cooperative relationship.

TECO Manatee Viewing Center

By Marilyn Gyselinck

Marilyn Gyselinck is a resident of Westchase and can be reached at


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All New Heights!

You’ve no doubt driven by it countless times on trips to Orlando.

Chances are, however, you haven’t stopped to check out the action at Fantasy of Flight. Chances are you are underestimating everything they have to offer. Chances are you’re missing out on a great outing!
According to their Web site, Fantasy of Flight “showcases the wonder and history of aviation.” As you stroll through the world’s largest collection of vintage airplanes, you’ll see planes that played significant roles in the major historical milestones we all read about in our textbooks as children. You can even step back in time to 1903 when the Wright Brothers finally succeeded in their goal of flight. There are also plenty of military aviation collectables and the opportunity to take a close-up look as expert craftsmen restore multi-million-dollar vintage planes to pristine condition.

The collection of vintage aircraft is more than enough to draw in aviation enthusiasts. Fantasy of Flight, however, really does offer something for everyone. Visitors can experience many hands-on activities in the museum like flying paper airplanes in the Fly Zone. State of the art simulators allow you to safely hang-glide and pilot a hot air balloon. You can even see what it feels like to parachute to earth by leaning into a cloud simulator.

The attraction’s addition of the Wing Walk Air ropes course takes adventure to a new level. Visitors can reach new heights while towering 40 feet in the air. Thirty-three different challenges, from tight rope crossings to plank bridges, dare you to master them. The fun is topped off by a 600-foot zip line over the water.

The most unique experience at Fantasy of Flight has to be the daily aerial demonstrations. Every day it is a surprise to see which plane will be showcased in the air. Visitors are able to ask the pilot questions about their planes and their experience in the air before they take to the clouds to put on their show.

It doesn’t end there. Fantasy of Flight also offers visitors the chance to get into the air themselves. There are opportunities to soar in the air in a real hot air balloon, a fully restored 1929 bi-plane or a WWII Stearman. Certainly there’s a bucket list item here for anyone!

Fantasy of Flight is located in Polk City, just off of Interstate 4 at exit 44, between Tampa and Orlando. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily except during special events, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. General admission is $28.95 for adults and $14.95 for kids. Some of the activities have at an additional charge so check their Web site, for d,etails.

By Marilyn Gyselinck

Marilyn Gyselinck is a resident of Westchase and can be reached at


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Ice, Ice Baby

Have you ever ice skated – outdoors – in Tampa?

This month Tampa again brings an unlikely holiday tradition to town. If you have not had the opportunity to lace up your skates and hit the ice at the city’s riverfront Curtis Hixon Park, let this be the year you skate on down there.

As you would imagine, Florida doesn’t feature many outdoor ice skating rinks. Our weather is not conducive to the picturesque scene we see at the Rockefeller Center each morning on the Today Show. In fact, Tampa’s only outdoor skating rink requires a high-tech cooling system and a tent to keep the rink cool enough to skate on!

Nonetheless, they have made the impossible possible – a mantra that fits the holiday season perfectly. The rink opened on Friday, Nov. 16, and will be open through Saturday, Jan 5. Curtis Hixon Park is situated in the middle of downtown Tampa, right in front of the Glazer Children’s Museum. It’s an absolutely beautiful urban park along the Hillsborough River and overlooks the University of Tampa. This year they will even be showing free movies on the lawn in the evening. Where else can you ice skate and then grab a picnic and a blanket while catching a fun movie?

The cost for the ice skating is $10 per person for 90 minutes, which includes skate rentals. They do offer group rates if you want to get a Scout group or some neighborhood friends together.

Whether you’re a Florida transplant looking to rekindle memories of a cooler hometown or a Florida native that wants a live a piece of the holiday dream, make the trip downtown to enjoy an afternoon or evening in our beautiful city.

The rink is open daily until Jan. 5 (Mon-Thu, 4-9 p.m.; Fri, 4-10 p.m.; Sat, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun, noon-9 p.m.) Holiday hours are10 a.m.- 4 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 24, and 4-9 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 25.

Tampa’s Downtown on Ice

By Marilyn Gyselinck

Marilyn Gyselinck is a resident of Westchase and can be reached at


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Back In Time

During November we are constantly reminded to be thankful.

We’re reminded to be grateful for our health, our families, our friends, our homes, our jobs, our faith and our possessions – for the big things, for the little things and for all the things in between. Much of what we value we owe to the men and women who have served this country, individuals who have ensured our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

One of the most meaningful ways to acknowledge and appreciate our veterans’ sacrifices is to learn more about them. Why not take the time to discover a hidden gem, a very special ship, which calls Tampa its home? The USS American Victory is a fully operational World War II ship, one of only four in the country. It was built in 1945 and circumnavigated the globe twice. The ship served in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam. Tampa Bay residents are lucky to have the opportunity to climb aboard.

When you step onto the USS American Victory, you are stepping back in time. You are able to explore, touch and walk on almost every inch of the ship. Many of the spaces are left just as they were when the ship was in service. You can see the bunk beds the sailors slept on and even walk into the engine room, which is still operational. Tickets are $10 for adults; $8 for seniors or veterans; and $5 for children.

Enough memorabilia exists on the ship to keep a history buff busy all day. Seeing its safety boats, its anchors and its cargo cranes is remarkable. You can climb the ship’s original steep and narrow stairs to different levels for some pretty incredible views.

The most astonishing part of this ship is that twice a year they actually take it to sea! On Nov. 10 the ship will come alive for the day with live entertainment, re-enactors, ceremonies, drills, flyovers, food and drinks. The organizers expect around 600 people to take advantage of this opportunity to relive history.

As you reflect this month about all the many things for which you are thankful, consider showing your gratitude by visiting the USS American Victory. Not only will you have more perspective about historical events, but you will help preserve an attraction that allows others to do the same.

USS American Victory

By Marilyn Gyselinck

Marilyn Gyselinck is a resident of Westchase and can be reached at


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Drive Up for a Good, Old-Fashioned Time!

Not many Florida attractions can say that they have been around longer than Disney World. 

Yet a favorite tradition of the baby boomer generation, the almost extinct drive-in theater, can be found right here in our own back yard. Tampa’s Fun-Lan Drive In Theatre debuted its first movie on a chilly January evening in 1950. Though the days of 48¢ admission and 10¢ popcorn are long gone, the charm and character of the Fun-Lan Drive In remains.

Fun-Lan Drive In has four movie screens and features movies every night of the year (yes, every night of the year).  What you might find surprising is that most of the movies are current theater releases and change weekly.  You can call their hotline, 234-2311, or check their Web site, for c,urrent movie listings.  They also feature seasonal favorites throughout the year – like scary movies for Halloween or Christmas movies in December. 

Fall is the perfect time of year to visit the Fun-Lan Drive In because you don’t have to worry about the heat, the cold or the bugs once the sun goes down!  Arrive early to secure the perfect parking spot, tune your radio station to the corresponding channel and enjoy the movie in the privacy and comfort of your own car.    Imagine watching your favorite thriller out in the open air with the breeze, the stars and the sounds of the night.  It certainly offers a different ambiance than the traditional theater.

A visit to Fun-Lan offers an affordable outing with admission at $7 for adults and $2 for kids ages 5-12.  Keep in mind that they do have a concession stand, but the selection is fairly limited.  Many people opt to bring their own food, candy and beverages.   Some take part in the nostalgic tradition of packing up a delicious meal in a picnic basket and a topping it off with a bottle of wine. 

Fun-Lan Drive In is located on Hillsborough Ave just east of I-275.  It’s about a 25-minute drive from Westchase.   With very few drive-in theaters open in the entire nation, we should certainly take advantage of the opportunity to visit one so close by.  Whether reliving your own childhood memories or creating new ones for your own children, an evening at Fun-Lan Drive In is sure to be an unforgettable experience.

Fun-Lan Web site

The Definitive Resource for Drive-In Information

By Marilyn Gyselinck

Marilyn Gyselinck is a resident of Westchase and can be reached at


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A Purr-fect Fall Outing

A stone’s throw from Westchase is an attraction that receives nationwide attention for the work it does.

You would never even know it were it not for an inconspicuous sign leading you down a dirt road.

Big Cat Rescue is hidden right across the street from Citrus Park mall and is the largest accredited sanctuary in the world dedicated entirely to abused and abandoned big cats. Over 100 big cats call this their home.

Most of its feline residents have been abandoned, neglected or abused in their former homes. They also rescue cats that have retired from circuses and other performing acts. Big Cat Rescue’s dual mission is “to provide the best home [they] can for the cats in [their] care and educate the public about the plight of these majestic animals, both in captivity and in the wild, to end abuse and avoid extinction.”

To visit Big Cat Rescue you must find the dirt road leading to the facility and attend a guided tour. They are, first and foremost, a sanctuary and, second, a tourist attraction. They rely heavily on the support of volunteers and donors to continue their work. The volunteers and staff who have all dedicated countless hours to the work at Big Cat Rescue are the ones who provide the tours. They are full of information about the cats and the facility’s work. Educating their visitors is one of their most important jobs because it increases awareness and translates into support for big cats and their protection.

The cats themselves are kept in large habitats with specifications that match each breed’s needs. For example, if a particular cat likes to climb trees, there will be trees. There are a total of 14 species currently at the sanctuary. The largest are lions and tigers. On the tour, you are able to get up close and personal with these cats and enjoy their beauty and personalities. The volunteers and staff, however, are very strict about their rules and policies in order to ensure the safety of visitors and the cats.

Visitors can choose from a variety of tours, everything from a standard 90-minute day tour to feeding tours, field trips and even weddings! Check their Web site, for a,ll the different options and prices. Hearing the stories of how the cats ended up at the sanctuary can be a very moving experience. While these animals are undoubtedly receiving a very high quality of life at the facility, most would argue that it’s a shame a big cat is ever put in a situation where it has to live the rest of its life in a cage.

As the weather cools down a little bit this fall, make it a point to visit Big Cat Rescue and learn a little bit more about their work and the cats that live there.
By Marilyn Gyselinck

Marilyn Gyselinck is a resident of Westchase and can be reached at


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Tampa Bay’s Best Fireworks Displays

Don’t give in to the temptation to blow up your neighborhood this Independence Day.

Under the Westchase Community Association’s deed restrictions, fireworks are banned in Westchase. Their use by homeowners can result in steep fines. If you’re looking for a safer, fun way to celebrate the Fourth of July, check out these popular fireworks displays.

Clearwater Celebrates America
Time: 4 p.m. festivities; 9:30 p.m. fireworks
Location: Coachman Park, Clearwater
Price: Free
For more information:

Celebrate the Fourth of July with the City of Clearwater at Coachman Park. This year’s event will feature a concert with Mostly Pops Orchestra and The Wilsons. Gates open at 4 p.m. and the concert begins at 7:30 p.m. There will be children’s activities from 5-9 p.m. The fun culminates at 9:30 p.m. with Tampa Bay’s largest synchronized fireworks display.

Channelside Fourth of July
Time: 1 p.m. festivities; 9 p.m. fireworks
Location: Tampa’s Channel District
Price: Free
For more information:

Enjoy a day filled with live music, entertainment and lots of dining options at area restaurants. And don’t forget the fireworks! The best place to see the fireworks is from the wharf, and only the first 3,000 people will be admitted. Wristbands will be given out for access at the Garrison Street Gate at 7 p.m. See Web site for parking suggestions.

St. Petersburg Pier Fourth of July
Time: Noon festivities; 9 p.m. fireworks
Location: The Pier, St. Petersburg
Price: Free
For more information:

From live music and face painting to a one-man circus, this event is chock-full of Fourth of July fun! Stop by the Dockside Activity Room, where you can be a star in your own dance/music video, compliments of The Dance Heads. Be sure to stay for the main attraction: fireworks brought to you by the City of St. Petersburg.

Treasure Island’s All American Family Fourth of July Celebration
Time: Noon festivities; 8:45 p.m. fireworks
Location: On the beach behind Bilmar Resort
Price: Free
For more information:

Come celebrate all the things you love about America at this fun, family-friendly event. Take part in a good ol’ fashioned watermelon-eating contest, don your favorite Fourth of July hat for the Most Patriotic Hat Contest, and enjoy live music all day long. Then sit back and watch the fireworks fly over the gulf from your favorite spot on the beach.

Safety Harbor Fourth of July Parade and Celebration
Time: 10 a.m. parade; 5 p.m. festivities; 9 p.m. fireworks
Location: Downtown Safety Harbor
Price: Free
For more information:

Start your Independence Day off at 10 a.m. with a patriotic parade down Main Street. Then bring the whole family out for a July Fourth Celebration beginning at 5 p.m. and ending with fireworks that will light up the bay. The day will be filled with children's activities, live entertainment, food vendors and plenty of fun for the whole family. Then find a good spot at the marina or on the Safety Harbor Resort & Spa’s back lawn to view one of the best fireworks displays in Tampa Bay.

By Karen Ring


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A Cove to Discover

Imagine an Orlando theme park in the middle summer without the endless crowds and without melting.

Discovery Cove offers visitors an exceptionally unique experience in a very controlled environment. It’s a wonderful place to take the family for some aquatic adventures.

Of course, it is the dolphin encounter that draws people from far and wide. Those participating in the encounter are scheduled for a specific time when you arrive at the park. At that time you go to your designated meeting hut where you are briefed – along with about 20 visitors – on all of the rules and regulations. The group is then broken up and taken down to the beach where you meet your dolphin trainer. They tell you a bit about dolphins and then stand you in a line. First the dolphin swims by you several times, slow enough to touch. The dolphin then performs a few tricks, leading up to the highlight of the encounter. They take groups of three out into the deep water. One-by-one you hold onto the dolphin’s dorsal fin and ride back to the beach. The entire encounter lasts eight to ten minutes. It’s exactly as advertised – no more and no less.

You have, however, several other options to keep you busy the rest of your day at Discovery Cove, among them Explorer’s Aviary, The Grand Reef and the Wind-Away River. The aviary is beautiful and full of birds not found in most aviaries. They have everything from peacocks to parakeets. Visitors can feed the birds with cups of food; many of them will stand on your hand while they eat.

If you expect the river to be similar to many “lazy rivers’ found in water parks and resorts, think again. The Wind-Away River is enjoyably fast and surprisingly deep. The river goes through tunnels and over bridges, through the aviary and right up to the beach. The river gets as deep as 15 feet in some parts. Luckily there are plenty of flotation devices for those who want to relax and enjoy the ride.

The Grand Reef is a surprisingly unique experience. You strap on your snorkels and swim alongside giant rays and tiny fish. For someone who might have slight trepidation of snorkeling or sea creatures of any kind, this is a great introduction to the idea. It can be an alarming sensation to have things swim under you or approach you by surprise. While the park limits itself to 1,000 visitors a day, the reef, however, can get very crowded. Towards the end of the day when many park visitors have left is a wonderful day to explore without the crowds.

When you arrive at Discovery Cove, you are given a wetsuit, a snorkel set, a locker and sunscreen. You must wear their sunscreen because it’s safe for the animals. The best thing about Discovery Cove is that it’s all-inclusive. All the food, drinks (even adult drinks) and incidentals are all included in your park fee. If the kids want to make a second trip to get more dessert, no problem! Thirsty? Help yourself. In fact, you can put your wallet in your locker and not worry about needing it unless you plan to stop at the gift shop or buy pictures.

The only additional fee is for a new underwater walking tour.

All in all, Discovery Cove is a wonderful place to be introduced to some pretty unique activities. Could snorkeling in the Grand Reef inspire a snorkel trip to the Keys? Will the amazing birds in the aviary spark the mind of a young budding ornithologist? Will looking into the eyes of a dolphin inspire your passion to protect our world and everything in it?

At the end of a tired, fulfilling day, that’s what really makes Discovery Cove worth a trip.

Discover Cove

Sea World and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund

By Marilyn Gyselinck


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Good Times on A River with a Funny Name

If you’re looking for a great day trip this spring, explore the Myakka River State Park just east of Sarasota.

The Myakka River is one of only two Florida rivers recognized as wild and scenic rivers, which offers the highest level of state protection. As one of Florida’s oldest and most scenic state parks, Myakka River is popular for hiking, fishing, camping and wildlife observation.

The park features a variety of activities to keep visitors busy. As its namesake suggests, the river and lake are what draw most people to the park. To get a taste of the lake, you can take a ride on the world’s largest airboats, affectionately named the Myakka Queen and the Gator Gal. These calm and peaceful air-powered boats let you leisurely explore the sights, sounds and wildlife of the river. Their guides also provide a lot of information about the park and can answer any questions. Several boat tours leave throughout the day, depending on the season, and they cost $12 for adults and $6 for children 6-12. Children 5 and under are free if held in your lap.

Those feeling a little more adventurous can also explore the lake by canoe. It takes a certain amount of bravery considering the number of gators that are plainly visible in the lake. The park guides, however, assure guests that it is safe to canoe in the lake and that there has never been a major injury at the park due to alligators. Canoes and kayaks are rented for $20 for the first hour and $5 each additional hour.

Of course, you can also explore on dry land as well. The canopy walk through the park is a beautiful and peaceful trip that the entire family would enjoy. It takes you high into the trees, where you can see across the entire park. Visitors can also rent bicycles to cover a little more ground. Renting a bike is a particularly good idea if you are camping at the park and want a way to get around a bit faster than by foot.

Myakka River State Park offers camp sites and they make camping simple. They are one of only a handful of Florida state parks that rent cabins. There are a total of five log cabins that were built in the 1930's by the men of the Civilian Conservation Corps. They have since been modernized a bit and can comfortably accommodate six with lots of room to move around. They rent for $70 per night.

Park entry fees are $6 per vehicle for two to eight persons. The park is available for day-use daily from 8 a.m. until sunset but check the Web site for specifics on when the outpost is open to rent canoes, kayaks, bikes and boat rides.

While Myakka River State Park might be one of the oldest state parks in Florida, it never gets old. Over the decades it has delighted generations of visitors, so what are you waiting for?

Myakka River State Park

Myakka River State Park on Trip Advisor

By Marilyn Gyselinck


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So Many Options, So Little Time!

Spring break is coming – whether you are ready or not.

Chances are you either have a great trip planned somewhere amazing or you are a little nervous about what you are going to do with the kids for an entire week. The good news is that there are so many options for last-minute trips that the only challenge is deciding how many you can fit into just a week.

North of us you will find some beautiful spring waters to explore. Take this opportunity to swim with the manatees in Crystal River. There are several tour companies in the area that will do everything they can to make sure that you have a nose-to-nose manatee encounter. Also nearby, you can go tubing on the Rainbow River. If you need a day to relax and wind down, this is the way to do it.

Head to the northeast corner of the state and take in the sights of historical St. Augustine. From Castillo de San Marcos, an incredible fort build over 300 years ago, to the city’s ghost tours through prisons and old cemeteries, history comes alive in St. Augustine.

A little farther south on the east coast you can take advantage of some surfing lessons at Ron Jon Surf School, the nation’s number one surf school! If you have ever wanted to catch a wave, this is your chance to learn from world-class instructors. While on the east coast you can also explore a different kind of ride at Kennedy Space Center, which is still forging the future of our nation’s space exploration.

Heading just west of the space center is the one-and-only Orlando. The list of opportunities here is endless: Disney, Universal, Legoland, Sea World and tons more. There are also a few hidden gems: Florida EcoSafaris, Captain Fred’s Airboat Nature Tours and Myakka River State Park. Florida Eco Safaris offers zip lines and even a Cypress Canopy Cycle (riding a bike through the trees). Captain Fred takes you on an airboat journey to explore a side of Florida that most never see. At Myakka River State Park you can canoe in a lake with hundreds of gators. Who could pass up a chance to do that?

To our south you will find the picture-perfect beach towns like Anna Maria Island, Longboat Key, Siesta Key and more. If you are being called to a folding chair with your toes in the sand, you can’t go wrong with any of these. Park your car, rent a bike and slow everything down for a day – or two or three.

Last, to our west we also have some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. If the sun is out and the weather’s warm, explore everything Fort De Soto Park has to offer. Walk the beaches of Honeymoon Island or take in the sunset while enjoying a drink with an umbrella at Frenchy’s on Clearwater Beach.

People from all over the world come to the state of Florida for their spring break and it is easy to see why. Sometimes when things are so close to home, we neglect to set aside the time to discover them. Don’t fall into the same trap. Find something you have never done before and go check it out!

Swim with the Manatess – Native Vacations

Tubing on the Rainbow River

St. Augustine Tourism

Ron Jon Surf School

Kennedy Space Center

Captain Fred’s Airboat Tours

Florida EcoSafaris

Myakka River State Park

Anna Maria Island

Longboat Key

Siesta Key

Fort De Soto Park

Honeymoon Island


By Marilyn Gyselinck


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A Playful World of LEGO Adventures

It has been the talk of the playgrounds and parks in the area since its opening.

To the delight of elementary school architects everywhere, LEGOLAND Park opened this past October on the land that Cypress Gardens once filled. If you have not yet made the trek out to visit the park, here’s what you’re missing.

LEGOLAND’s creators have done a fabulous job of building a theme park that is really targeted at preschool- and elementary school-aged kids. Many of the rides are pint-sized versions of rides and attractions found at other theme parks. There are so many different rides and attractions at the park (about 50 of them) that you could definitely spend the entire day there and still not try everything.

The most impressive part of the park, however, is not the rides, but the MINILAND LEGO City. This is an entire section of the park that is dedicated to LEGO creations. Entire landscapes of iconic cities like New York, San Francisco and Las Vegas spread out before you. You can spend hours walking around the different displays with the children just as mesmerized as the adults. In fact it’s like a real-life I SPY book; the closer you look, the more you find.

LEGOLAND Florida also features some attractions that pay homage to the history of the park. They have maintained the botanical gardens, which used to be the namesake of the former Cypress Gardens Park. They have also transformed Cypress Gardens’ water ski show into a pirate-themed water show.

The most underwhelming aspects of the new park are the prices and the distance from, well, anything else. It’s about an hour from Tampa, about 30 minutes off of Interstate 4. We might be a little spoiled by other Florida theme parks that are quite accessible from major highways, so be prepared.

Another criticism of the park has been the price. At around $70 for adults and $60 for kids, it is priced very comparably to theme parks like Busch Gardens and Disneyworld. You also have to pay for parking. Given that the park is really only aimed at families with preschool and elementary school kids, they may be unable to justify the prices in the long run. There are deals to be had though. A good Web site to check whenever you are looking at any Florida theme park or attraction is Mousesavers.

If you have young children, one positive is that the park is not going to be crowded with high school and college kids or any adults without children. It is even more family friendly than other Florida theme parks. Frankly, while the price may be high, if your child loves LEGOs as much as mine did when he was little, the price wouldn’t have mattered!



Traveler Reviews

By Marilyn Gyselinck

Gyselinck, a resident of The Shires, can be reached at Aerial photo courtesy of LEGOLAND and Chip LitherlandPhotography.


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Ahoy Mateys!

Every year Tampa Bay takes part in a tradition like no other.

Long ago, legend holds, Tampa was invaded by pirates. Tampa Bay now celebrates this part of our history with the Gasparilla Pirate Fest, which includes activities and parades for all ages. But really it just provides us all with a chance to talk like pirates and stock up on plastic beads!

One of most cherished parts of the Gasparilla experience is the Children’s Gasparilla Parade, which celebrates the return of the Gasparilla season. This year the parade will take place on Saturday, Jan. 21, from 3-7:30 p.m. The Children’s Gasparilla Parade, which runs down Bayshore Boulevard, has been going on since 1947.

At 3 p.m. the children’s parade kicks off with the Air Invasion, a precision parachute jump from the United States Special Operations Command Jump Team. Although the historical invasion was only by sea, the air show certainly adds to the event’s excitement.

When the invasion is complete, the Children’s Parade starts. There are usually hundreds of floats from various schools, community groups, krewes and private businesses that participate to celebrate Tampa Bay children. There are plenty of beads, but it’s all good clean fun. Don’t mistake this for the other Parade of Pirates (the adult parade). The Children’s Gasparilla Parade is just for families and the debauchery is kept to a minimum.

After the parade, stick around a little bit longer for the Piratechnic Extravaganza. This fireworks show is one of the largest in the country and is supposed to represent a sea battle between the City of Tampa and the Pirates of Ye Mystic Krewe of Tampa. Your kids will be mesmerized by the lights in the sky.

Make it a family tradition to share a bit of Tampa Bay’s history and fun. For complete details about all of the Gasparilla events, check their Web sites.

Gasparilla 2012

Official Gasparilla Facebook Page

By Marilyn Gyselinck

Gyselinck, a resident of The Shires, can be reached at


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Mega-Plex, Schmega-Plex

Less than two dozen U.S. places made it onto LIFE Magazine’s list of America’s 21 Wonders.

Tampa’s own Tampa Theatre, however, made the cut in the final issue of the LIFE Magazine back in 2007 – alongside places like Coney Island Fair and Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. If you have not discovered the Tampa Theatre yet, there is no better and more magical time to do so than during the holiday season.

Each year the theater hosts the Holiday Movie Series, featuring a collection of holiday favorites. These holiday films have become a delightful holiday tradition for many families. There is nothing quite as special as grandparents sitting alongside their grandchildren to enjoy the timeless film It’s A Wonderful Life or to watch Bing Crosby sing White Christmas for the very first time.

While classic and distinctive, the movies are not what make a trip to the theater such an enchanting experience. As you walk through its entry, you are transported to a lavish, romantic, Mediterranean courtyard – complete with beautifully decorative tiles, greenery, gargoyles and Tiffany lighting. Possibly the most breathtaking part of the theater is the twinkling stars and floating clouds of the nighttime sky overhead. The theater is an escape back in time. When it was built in 1926, it was considered one of America's most elaborate movie palaces. Today it’s an historical treasure.

The Tampa Theatre has fought fiercely over the years to survive in the face of progress. As urban sprawl drew people away from the cities and modern movieplexes offered luxury, high-backed chairs and super-sized screens, the Tampa Theatre has still managed to survive. It escaped destruction and stands today because of the intensely loyal and generous supporters that rallied back in the 1970’s to preserve the building. It still wouldn’t be able to operate today, however, without the generous support of the Tampa community.

The theater presents and hosts over 600 events a year, including films, concerts, special events, corporate events and tours. In fact, it is one of the most heavily utilized venues of its kind in the nation.

Admission to the Holiday Movie Series is $11 for everyone. The theater opens one hour prior to the start of the show. To ensure the best seats you’ll want to make sure you are there with plenty of time to spare. While you are not required to buy tickets ahead of time, it’s suggested. Not only do the holiday movies sell out sometimes, but you can avoid spending part of your evening in line.

While you wait inside the theater, you can enjoy the pre-show holiday sing-a-long, a wonderful theater tradition.

This holiday, however, don’t take for granted the thousands of people through the decades who have worked to make sure that this theater still stands today. Let their sincere, tireless dedication be an inspiration to the priorities in your life. After all, It’s A Wonderful Life!

Now go enjoy it.

Tampa Theatre

By Marilyn Gyselinck; Photo by George Cott/Chroma Inc.

Gyselinck, a resident of The Shires, can be reached at


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