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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
http://www.ghosttour.net/tampa.html

Ybor City Ghost Tour
http://www.yborghosttour.com

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 http://www.moreanartscenter.org. 

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
http://www.guidedogs.org
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
http://www.pinellascounty.org/trailgd/

Florida Biking
http://floridabiking.wordpress.com/

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
http://www.pathfinder-ed.org
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
http://www.stpete.org/sunken
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. 

Gatorland
http://www.gatorland.com
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, http://girafferanch.com 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 editor@westchasewow.com 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
https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/attractions/typhoon-lagoon/

By Marilyn Gyselinck

Marilyn Gyselinck is a resident of Westchase and can be reached at mari.gys@gmail.com.

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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
http://www.sunsetsatpier60.com

By Marilyn Gyselinck

Marilyn Gyselinck is a resident of Westchase and can be reached at mari.gys@gmail.com.

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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
http://www.tampawaterski.com

By Marilyn Gyselinck

Marilyn Gyselinck is a resident of Westchase and can be reached at mari.gys@gmail.com.

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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 http://www.frrm.org 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
http://www.frrm.org

By Marilyn Gyselinck

Marilyn Gyselinck is a resident of Westchase and can be reached at mari.gys@gmail.com.

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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, http://www.zipthecanyons.com  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
http://www.zipthecanyons.com

By Marilyn Gyselinck

Marilyn Gyselinck is a resident of Westchase and can be reached at mari.gys@gmail.com.

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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 mari.gys@gmail.com.

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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
http://www.paintingwithatwist.com

By Marilyn Gyselinck

Marilyn Gyselinck is a resident of Westchase and can be reached at mari.gys@gmail.com.

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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
http://www.tampaelectric.com/company/mvc/

By Marilyn Gyselinck

Marilyn Gyselinck is a resident of Westchase and can be reached at mari.gys@gmail.com.

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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, http://www.fantasyofflight.com for d,etails.

By Marilyn Gyselinck

Marilyn Gyselinck is a resident of Westchase and can be reached at mari.gys@gmail.com.

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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
www.tampasdowntownonice.com/2801.html

By Marilyn Gyselinck

Marilyn Gyselinck is a resident of Westchase and can be reached at mari.gys@gmail.com.

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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
www.americanvictory.org

By Marilyn Gyselinck

Marilyn Gyselinck is a resident of Westchase and can be reached at mari.gys@gmail.com.

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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, http://www.fun-lan.com 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
www.fun-lan.com/lake_fun/index.html

The Definitive Resource for Drive-In Information
www.drive-ins.com

By Marilyn Gyselinck

Marilyn Gyselinck is a resident of Westchase and can be reached at mari.gys@gmail.com.

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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, http://bigcatrescue.org 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 mari.gys@gmail.com.

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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: www.myclearwater.com

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: www.channelsidebayplaza.com

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: www.stpetepier.com

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: www.mytreasureisland.org

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: www.cityofsafetyharbor.com

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
http://www.discoverycove.com

Sea World and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund
http://www.swbg-conservationfund.org/

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
http://www.myakkariver.org/index.php

Myakka River State Park on Trip Advisor
http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g34618-d105479-Reviews-Myakka_River_State_Park-Sarasota_Florida.html

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
http://www.nativevacations.com

Tubing on the Rainbow River
http://www.therainbowriver.com/tubing.html

St. Augustine Tourism
http://www.floridashistoriccoast.com

Ron Jon Surf School
http://www.ronjonsurfschool.com

Kennedy Space Center
http://www.nasa.gov/centers/kennedy/home/index.html

Captain Fred’s Airboat Tours
http://www.captfreds.com

Florida EcoSafaris
http://www.floridaecosafaris.com

Myakka River State Park
http://www.floridastateparks.org/myakkariver

Anna Maria Island
http://www.annamariaislandchamber.org

Longboat Key
http://www.longboatkeychamber.com

Siesta Key
http://www.sarasotafl.org/siesta-key

Fort De Soto Park
http://www.pinellascounty.org/park/05_ft_desoto.htm

Honeymoon Island
http://www.floridastateparks.org/honeymoonisland

Frenchy’s
http://frenchysonline.com

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!

LEGOLAND
http://www.legoland.com

Mousesavers
http://www.mousesavers.com

Traveler Reviews
http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g34746-d2322446-Reviews-LEGOLAND_Florida-Winter_Haven_Florida.html

By Marilyn Gyselinck

Gyselinck, a resident of The Shires, can be reached at mari.gys@gmail.com. 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
http://www.gasparillapiratefest.com

Official Gasparilla Facebook Page
http://www.facebook.com/OfficialGasparilla

By Marilyn Gyselinck

Gyselinck, a resident of The Shires, can be reached at mari.gys@gmail.com.

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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
http://www.tampatheatre.org

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

Gyselinck, a resident of The Shires, can be reached at mari.gys@gmail.com.

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Opening the Door to Tampa Bay History

What do you know about local history?

If you’re like most Floridians, your historical knowledge of Tampa Bay may be as shaky as your awareness of The Tampa Bay History Center. I only heard about it after one of my own children went there on a school field trip. Later, when we had a history-loving grandparent visit, we decided it would be the perfect activity to keep everyone happy.

Our expectations were not that high. We simply figured our visit would keep us from sitting around on the couch all day. My family, however, ended up learning so much that day. The Tampa Bay History Center is far more than a museum full of historical artifacts. It’s really a portal to Florida’s history. It allows you to walk through centuries past, from the early explorers to the entrepreneurs who made Tampa what it is today.

Upon entering the museum visitors are immersed in the stories and artifacts of the first Native American inhabitants as well as the Spanish Conquistadors, who were convinced there were treasures to be found along our waters. Their stories are told through hands-on exhibits, artifacts and engaging movies. The information is honest and factual and really makes you think about the lives that were affected by the events that shaped the Bay area.

Visitors then move on to the stories of the pioneers, sports legends and cigar barons who shaped Tampa’s character. The museum even offers the opportunity to stroll through a 1920’s era cigar store and see authentic machines used in the cigar warehouses back in the day.

Did you know Florida is the second largest cattle producer in the U.S.? Visitors can learn more about cattle ranching by riding along a virtual cattle drive. They can explore state landmarks, featured in historic photographs and an interactive map. Visitors can even step into a pioneer cottage and row a boat down the Hillsborough River. The museum pays homage to all of the pieces of Florida’s history that helped to create the character of the community where we live and work.

The Tampa Bay History Center is a 60,000-square-foot building in the picturesque Channelside District. Located on the waterfront, the center features a beautiful atrium and its signature Columbia Cafe.

As the old saying goes: those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. Don’t be satisfied with repeats. Be sure to catch the original show soon.

The Tampa Bay History Center
http://www.tampabayhistorycenter.org
801 Old Water Street (formerly St. Pete Times Forum Drive)
Tampa, FL 33602
228-0097
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving and Christmas

By Marilyn Gyselinck

Gyselinck, a resident of The Shires, can be reached at mari.gys@gmail.com.

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MOSI SkyTrail Ropes in the Curious

The closest thing to a mountain in Florida opened just down the road this past summer.

If you have ever visited Tampa’s Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI), you have already explored the largest science center in the Southeastern United States. Featuring over 450 hands-on activities, MOSI’s exhibits are designed to encourage visitors young and old to explore everything related to science, industry and technology.

At the end of this past summer a completely new attraction opened at MOSI. MOSI’s Sky Trail Ropes Course is an exhilarating climbing course unlike any other in the Tampa area. Once you are harnessed into MOSI’s 36-foot high, multi-level structure, you can explore the different trails and obstacles on your own. There are stairs to climb, planks to walk and tightropes to skitter across like a circus acrobat. You can go up, down and back around until you’ve had your fill.

The course is meant for all ages and safety is a top priority. Before entering the course, climbers are put into a harness that attaches to the course structure. Because you are actually attached to the course the whole time, you can push your limits and explore your climbing abilities in ways that you otherwise would not feel comfortable doing. If you lose your balance or miss a step, the rope is there to catch you.

The staff is very friendly and knowledgeable. They are there to ensure you have a wonderful experience. The course welcomes single explorers as well as groups and you can purchase tickets to just the Sky Trail or add it to your MOSI admission. Closed, secured or athletic footwear is required. No wheelies, flip-flops or open-heel shoes are allowed.

Check out http://www.mosi.org for all the details.

MOSI’s Sky Trail® Ropes Course

Hours: Mon-Fri: Noon-5 p.m.; Sat, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sun, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

Visitors must be a minimum of 48 inches tall if climbing alone, Children who are
42-47 inches in height may still climb if accompanied by a responsible adult 18-years-old. Individuals shorter than 42 inches may not use the course.

By Marilyn Gyselinck

Gyselinck, a resident of The Shires, can be reached at mari.gys@gmail.com.

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A Tail with a Tale

A trapped baby dolphin, caught in a crab trap near Cape Canaveral six years ago, may just have you sitting in a movie theater in a few weeks.

In December of 2005, a Mosquito Lagoon fisherman discovered an entangled, 3-month-old bottlenose dolphin. The fisherman waited with the wounded animal until a rescue team arrived from Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

The team was immediately troubled by the baby dolphin’s condition. They found deep wounds on her tail flipper, her mouth and both pectoral fins and did not expect the dolphin, whom they named Winter 24/7, to survive.

The dolphin, however, refused to give up and her determination defied everyone’s expectations. Winter’s peduncle (tail flippers) actually fell off within a few days of arriving at the aquarium. When a prosthetic company heard about Winter’s story, they accepted the challenge of building Winter a prosthetic tail. Because of the generosity of her rescuers, Winter has grown into a healthy dolphin who is now changing the lives of others.

One day a little girl with a prosthetic leg happened to be at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium while vacationing with her family. After the staff decided to introduce her to Winter, the chance encounter changed the little girl’s life. Winter, they discovered, has a way of connecting to people with disabilities and truly letting them know that they are not alone.

People now travel from across the country to meet Winter. They say the dolphin makes them feel like they can face life’s great challenges. Winter, whose life was saved six years ago, has found a way to give back that no one would have ever expected.

Last year Warner Bros. filmed a feature film based on Winter’s story. Called Dolphin Tale, it will be released in theaters on Sept. 23 and has an all-star cast, including Harry Connick, Jr., Ashley Judd, Kris Kristofferson and Morgan Freeman. Because of the attention that the movie has created, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium has seen a dramatic increase in visitors. They now hope to expand the facility, something they never would have dreamed was possible.

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is a non-profit organization that strives to educate, rescue and rehabilitate injured marine life. Its expansion will allow them to accomplish their mission on a larger scale.

The aquarium is open to visitors seven days a week, so you can actually see Winter yourself! Check their Web site, http://www.seewinter.com for t,heir various rates and hours. Be a part of sharing Winter’s story and take with you the lesson that no matter how unattainable a goal may seem, it can be reached with resilience, compassion and friendship.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium
http://www.seewinter.com

Dolphin Tale Movie Trailer
http://dolphintalemovie.warnerbros.com/index.html

By Marilyn Gyselinck

Gyselinck, a resident of The Shires, can be reached at mari.gys@gmail.com.

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