Beat the Heat at the Florida Aquarium

Originally published in Lake & Sumter Style magazine, June 2012. Photos by Mary Ann DeSantis.

When the weather is too hot to handle, cool off at The Florida Aquarium where you can swim with sharks and explore the shores.

Unique exhibits, high-tech galleries, and more than 20,000 aquatic plants and animals make The Florida Aquarium one of America’s best aquariums. The attraction has received numerous honors, including Nickelodeon’s Parents Picks Award for “Best Tampa Tourist Spot” and Parents Magazine’s ranking for top five “kid-friendly” aquariums in the U.S.

But don’t think The Florida Aquarium is just for kids’ entertainment. The 200,000 square-foot facility is designed to inspire and educate the entire family to become better stewards of nature. The aquarium is divided into four main galleries where visitors can experience hands-on encounters and get up-close looks at Florida’s ecosystem and aquatic habitats.

Make your first stop the Wetlands Gallery just under the spectacular glass-dome that dominates the modern structure. When you enter the aquarium’s mangrove forest and hammocks, it’s easy to forget you are in the heart of downtown Tampa. The sights and sounds of free-flying birds, playful river otters, and even a few alligators transport you deep into Florida’s natural habitat. The Wetlands Gallery is a photographer’s dream where turtles, ducks, spoonbills, and even a wise old owl seemingly pose for every snapshot. Before you exit the Wetlands Gallery, climb to the top of the dome to check out “Aquariumania,” an exhibit dedicated to home aquariums.

After leaving the fresh waters of the Wetlands, you can explore the brackish, salt waters in the Bays and Beaches Gallery. From lush sea grass beds to sandy beaches, this gallery is home to unusual and sometimes endangered creatures, including sea turtles, spiny lobsters, and stingrays. And be sure to look closely for the 300-pound Goliath Grouper who has been known to blend into his surroundings like a motionless statue.

The Ocean Commotion Gallery uses equal parts of innovation, education, and high-tech animation to celebrate the energy of the seas. Kids and grown-ups love entering the interactive gallery through a colorful curtain of fog. Be sure to check the program schedule, because you do not want to miss the exciting “Shark Divers!” in nearby Shark Bay. Trained divers swim among sharks and moray eels — all while answering questions from the audience through an underwater speaker system. Shows are held twice daily but are subject to change. If you are a certified SCUBA diver, age 15 or older, you also can come face-to-face with live sharks. Stop by Guest Services to learn more about diving in Shark Bay.

A Toadfish at the Florida Aquarium • photo by Mary Ann DeSantis

A Toadfish at the Florida Aquarium

Prefer to stay dry? Not a problem because you will feel immersed in the panoramic Coral Reef Gallery, especially when you step into a colorful coral grotto 60 feet below the water’s surface. Stand for a moment in the narrow tube near the deep sea panorama and watch moray eels, queen triggerfish, tarpon, and more just on the other side of the acrylic barrier. Or sit and unwind while the tank’s 2,300 inhabitants glide across a panoramic window in rhythm with soft background music. Guests six years or older may swim in the 200,000-gallon Coral Reef tank with advance reservations.

Be sure to stop “Down Under” and visit the Australian sea dragons, leafy creatures that look more like a plant than an aquatic animal. The Florida Aquarium is one of only a handful of aquariums and zoos in the world allowed to exhibit these unique creatures. The sea dragons are cousins to the nearby seahorses, also on display in the Dragons Down Under exhibit.

Among the most popular shows at The Florida Aquarium is the “Penguin Promenade” through the red-carpeted lobby where guests come face-to-beak with African black-footed penguins. Guests form a boundary where the penguins strut their stuff. Be alert because shoelaces and bracelets can become their new favorite toys. Check show times for the Penguin Promenade when you arrive at the aquarium.

Finally, head outside where it’s your turn to get wet. The outdoor water adventure zone, known as “Explore-a-Shore,” is filled with water cannons, slides, and even a pirate ship. The nearby Cantina Bar offers parents a shady place to watch all the action.

Located at 701 Channelside Drive near the Port of Tampa, The Florida Aquarium is open seven days a week 9:30a.m.–5p.m. For more information, visit www.flaquarium.org or call 813.273.4000.

Tampa’s Other Top Attractions

While in Tampa, take time to explore some of the area’s other popular attractions.

1. Tampa Museum of Art. Nationally recognized as a premier venue for exhibitions, the 66,000-square-foot museum features a growing collection of contemporary and classical art. It is located in the Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park near the aquarium. Visit www.tampamuseum.com.

2. American Victory Mariners Memorial & Museum Ship. Located adjacent to The Florida Aquarium, this museum depicts life aboard merchant ships during wartimes. Maritime artifacts and multimedia exhibits describe life at sea and Tampa Bay’s role in the worldwide maritime industry. Visit www.americanvictory.org.

3. Ybor City. Cobblestone streets and old cigar factories make up this historic and legendary area that is one of Florida’s few National Historic Landmark Districts. Founded in 1886, Ybor City became “the cigar capital of the world” by 1900. Today, it’s filled with quaint restaurants, shops, and galleries. Visit www.ybormuseum.org.

4. Busch Gardens. An ultimate family adventure park, Busch Gardens offers exciting attractions based on exotic encounters with the African continent. Thrill rides, a premier zoo featuring more than 2,000 animals, live shows, and restaurants provide a full day of fun. Visit www.buschgardens.com.

5. Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo. Ranked as the No. 1 zoo in the U.S. by Parents Magazine, Lowry Park features 56 acres of lush, natural habitats in seven main exhibit areas. The zoo was designed as an affordable destination and as a center for education and endangered species conservation. It is the region’s only dedicated zoological garden. Visit www.lowryparkzoo.com.


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