STORY: Mary Ann DeSantis
The visiting children and grandchildren may be somewhat bored with Mickey and friends when they visit. Forget the Turnpike and head south on I-75 to Tampa where the holiday lights illuminate fun for all ages.
After the holiday gifts have been unwrapped and tummies are filled to capacity, you’ll probably ask your visiting friends and family what they would like to do.
They often shrug and then request a theme park or the beach because that’s what they always do when they visit.
This year, go southwest to one Florida’s most historic—and fun—cities: Tampa. Quite frankly, I never thought about Tampa as a holiday destination until I visited the Henry Plant Museum for its annual Victorian Christmas Stroll last year.
The delightful experience was a walk through history and inspired me to return to see what other holiday delights the city has to offer. The Plant Museum is not the only place that dresses up for Christmas. Tampa’s attractions are always fun, but their holiday transformations are spectacular.
Here are some old and new favorites that I’ll be exploring again this season:
HENRY B. PLANT MUSEUM
35th Annual Victorian Christmas Stroll
Located downtown and part of the University of Tampa campus, the Henry B. Plant Museum is the former Tampa Bay Hotel, and you’ve most likely seen its rooftop minarets from the highway.
The Victorian Christmas Stroll gives visitors a glimpse of what Christmas looked like when the hotel opened in 1891. Granted those 19th century guests didn’t have 40,000 lights like now, but the vintage costumes, decorations, and antique toys are authentic.
Be sure to relax on the veranda with complimentary cookies and cider.
If you can stay for the evening, live music is featured each evening from 6-8 p.m. The Vintage Christmas Stroll runs from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Dec. 1-23. Tickets: $15 adults, $13 seniors, $9 youth (Discounts available on Family Days: Dec. 5-6 and 12-13).
TAMPA BAY RIVERWALK
Winter Village at Curtis Hixon Park
Overlooking the Hillsborough River, the 2.4-mile Tampa Bay Riverwalk is a destination within itself with shops, restaurants, and museums.
This year, the Curtis Hixon Park located at 600 Ashley Drive near the Tampa Museum of Art, will be transformed into a Winter Village. While the ice skating rink may be a major draw, the Winter Village features much more including a “Pop-Up” Christmas market and a waterfront café.
“This is a new concept that will offer a whole winter experience,” said Ashley Anderson of the Tampa Downtown Partnership. “The open-air café will have a distinct menu of holiday classics, and parents and others who do not want to ice skate can watch the skaters.”
The Winter Village runs from Nov. 18-Dec. 25. Weekend hours are 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. On weekdays, the Winter Village opens at 4 p.m. Visiting the village is free; ice skating is $12 for 90 minutes.
After visiting the Winter Village, hop aboard the Pirate Water Taxi at the Curtis Hixon Park, and cruise the river channel to your next stop. For a complete list of stops, visit www.piratewatertaxi.com
THE FLORIDA AQUARIUM
“Swim with the Fishes”
Ride the Pirate Water Taxi to The Florida Aquarium where you can have an in-water reef experience. Guests age 6 and older swim on a replica of one of the Florida Keys’ most beautiful coral reef dive sites—the Dry Tortugas—without being a certified SCUBA diver.
During this introduction to diving, guests wear a small SCUBA tank, regulator and floatation device to stay on the surface.
The manmade reef is home to a vibrant community of fish including moray eels, a prickly porcupine fish, colorful surgeonfish, and much, much more! While you get up close and personal with the fishes, your friends and family watch from the exhibit pathway.
The “Swim with the Fishes” experience is $75 per person, which includes Aquarium admission. Children 6-8 years old must have a paying adult swim with them.
General admission to The Florida Aquarium is $19.95, children 3-11; $22.95, seniors; and $24.95, adults.
LOWRY PARK ZOO
“Christmas in the Wild”
Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo takes on a magical ambiance during the holidays with its festival of lights and holiday events in the evenings.
Open until 10 p.m. on Dec. 2-3, 9-10, 16-23, and 26-30, the “Christmas in the Wild” showcases the animals at night but also features Christmas carolers, holiday treats at the Christmas Lodge, artisan displays, and, of course, Santa Claus.
Encompassing 56 acres in a lush, tropical garden setting, the Zoo offers popular educational programming and fun recreational amenities.
It has won accolades as one of the country’s most family-friendly zoos. With more than 1,200 animals, the Zoo emphasizes endangered, threatened and vulnerable species from climates similar to that of the Tampa Bay region.
The natural settings make it a favorite spot for local photography club field trips.
Single day tickets are $22.95, children; $29.95, adults. Online discounts and membership passes are available.
The Epicurean Hotel
Cooking Classes, Cocktails, Yoga & More
This upscale Tampa hotel, across the street from the famed Bern’s Steak House, was built for food lovers with a state-of-the-art kitchen theater, an award-winning restaurant, a colorful patisserie, and a chic rooftop bar.
If your holiday excursion calls for a grown-up getaway, The Epicurean is just the place to relax. Or maybe mom and dad want to take a cooking class while the little ones explore Tampa with grandparents.
At a recent class, I met a woman whose husband had taken the kids to Busch Gardens while she spent the day in the Epicurean Theatre.
When you enter the wine-themed lobby, a personal attendant hands you a glass of wine and escorts you to your room where the entire check-in procedure is handled via electronic tablets.
Located in Tampa’s Hyde Park area, The Epicurean offers a variety of cooking and wine classes as well as Sunday morning yoga classes.
Check the website for the monthly classes and events. Special packages are available, including a Florida resident package that starts at $139 through Dec. 17.
The most economical way to visit several attractions is to get a Tampa Bay CityPASS®. For $99, adults, and $89, children, you will save $114.79 over regular admission prices to five Tampa Bay attractions. Those attractions include Busch Gardens, Lowry Park Zoo, Florida Aquarium, Clearwater Marine Aquarium, and a choice between the Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI) or the Chihuly Collection in St. Pete. You have nine consecutive days to use the pass and even if you don’t get to all five attractions, you still save money. To order in advance, go to citypass.com/tampa or you can buy passes at one of the participating venues.