Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 15, 2017
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Three cheers for Tampa

This kid-friendly city has something for every age group

Even by Florida standards, Tampa excels weather-wise, with 361 days of sunshine a year. Poised on the eponymous bay, the city also gives easy access to some of America’s best beaches – and that combination makes it ideal for a fun-in-the-sun family vacation.

Of course, parents eager to slip a little learning amid the lounging can accomplish that as well, thanks to engaging attractions which meld education with entertainment. If being schooled in biology, history and physics isn’t on your kids’ holiday wish list, don’t worry: they’ll be too engrossed to notice.

Go wild

Busch Gardens (buschgardens.com; adults $74.95, kids 3 to 9 $64.95) has all the trappings of an amusement park. Mega coasters make it a magnet for thrill seekers and there are oodles of kiddy rides, many of them concentrated in the new Sesame Street Safari zone. Moreover, having been carved into “lands” which include a mock Morocco and mini Egypt complete with King Tut’s Tomb, it’s themed to the hilt.

Yet Busch Gardens remains a zoo at heart: showcasing 2500 animals, representing over 280 species, in a manner that is at once informative and fun. Take the pseudo Serengeti. Knowing cool conveyances are always a hit, the park lets you traverse a plain populated by zebras, giraffes, ostriches and more via train or aerial tram. Rhino Rally, similarly, turns a narrated jeep tour as a splashy off-road competition.

But the showstopper is Jungala, a Congo-esque land aimed at the six-to-13 crowd. Aside from the requisite rides, it spotlights two endangered species – Bengal tigers and orangutans – housing them in habitats that invariably elicit a “wow” response. The former has a pool with underwater windows (meaning you can watch big cats dog paddle) plus pop-up domes that curious tykes can put their heads in. There’s even a tug-of-war game that pits you against tigers without being eaten.

Not to be outdone, the orangutan area features treetop platforms, allowing guests to observe apes swinging on lines and relaxing in rope hammocks. If you’re inspired to emulate them, Jungala appropriately contains a multi-story jungle gym comprised of nets and tubing which affords a bird’s-eye view of the wildlife

Theme parks are pricey. However, this one does charge a few bucks less at the gate than Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando (145 kilometres inland); and adults save an additional $10 when purchasing tickets online. Better still, a single-day pass permits you to make a second visit free anytime within the following week. Simply exchange your used ticket for a return one before departing.

It’s a jungle out there

Despite the fact that Lowry Park Zoo (lowryparkzoo.com; adults $20.95, children 3 to 11 $15.95, rides extra) occupies only 24 hectares, it captured the primo spot in Parents magazine’s most recent survey of “The 10 Best Zoos for Kids.”

One reason it trumped much larger contenders is that this place, true to its Floridian roots, is not afraid to add some razzle-dazzle. Gator Falls, which incorporates a flume ride into an albino alligator habitat, is a case in point. Another is that its vast, varied collection of critters lives in meticulously-designed habitats that range from a faux rainforest to an imitation Outback.

What pushes Lowry Park over the top, though, is the access it allows to 2000-plus animals. In Safari Africa, for example, you don’t need binoculars to glimpse the giraffes because an elevated belvedere puts you head-to-head with them – providing the optimal vantage point to see their long lashes and longer tongues.

Elsewhere on-site, little guests can ride a camel or llama, pet a rhinoceros, get cozy with koi, greet a goat or feed a lorikeet in a free-flight aviary. Regularly scheduled Birds of Prey shows, along with Koala Keeper Talks and Penguin Encounters create further up-close opportunities.

The zoo has nearly as many animals as Busch Gardens but is only a sixth the size. That’s a huge advantage for parents with tots in tow. The compact property is easily walked and interspersed with play areas; hence burnout isn’t an issue. Young children won’t suffer from "sorry, you're too short" syndrome either, as virtually all the amenities (including rides) are geared to them.

Something fishy

Whereas Busch Gardens and Lowry Park have an international flavour, the Florida Aquarium (flaquarium.org; adults $19.95, children 3 to 11 $14.95) focusses mainly on its home state. The 23,225-square-metre facility has over 20,000 marine plants and animals and its most notable exhibits mimic the reefs, swamps, beaches and bays for which Florida is famous.

One standout is the stunning Coral Reef Gallery. Modelled on a real formation in the Florida Keys, it boasts a sea cave, transparent walk-through tunnel, and colourful indigenous creatures like green sea turtles, blue tangs, yellowtail snappers and rainbow parrotfish. Close-up experiences are available as well, whether it’s meeting gators in the Wetlands or stroking stingrays in the lobby touch tank.

Unique add-on activities give you the chance to put your best flipper forward. Visitors six and older can sign on for a 30-minute Swim with the Fishes program ($85, admission included), which enables aspiring Cousteaus to don small air tanks and regulators; then float through the signature coral reef. If that whets your appetite for adventure, there is a Dive with the Sharks ($150, admission included) option for certified divers age 15 and up, that gets you in the water with gentler species such as nurse and zebra sharks.

Your ticket includes entry to Explore a Shore: an outdoor aquatic park centred on a two-storey pirate ship outfitted with water canons. The site also holds geysers, misters, climbing structures and a toddlers-only zone. The kicker is that kids can splash out as adults look on from an adjacent cafe. Just leave this part for last and bring spare clothes so your soaked offspring can change.

Back in time

Tampa has a rich history that reaches back more than 10,000 years, through Cuban cigar makers, railway tycoons, cattle ranchers, and Spanish conquistadors to the ancient Calusa Indians. And you can bone up on the back story at the Tampa Bay History Center (tampabayhistorycenter.org; adults $12, youths 13 to 17 $10, children 4 to 12 $7), a $54-million venue that opened in 2009.

Parents reduced to teeth gnashing by the mere prospect of dragging their crew into a museum can relax, as this spot really lives up to its motto: filled with innovative displays, demonstrations, dioramas and multimedia presentations, it is “Exactly What You Didn’t Expect.”

Two exhibits exemplify the museum’s family-friendly approach. The first, on Tampa’s port, lets kids view an introductory film inside a cargo container; then play longshoreman at a table topped with Brio-style boats and trains. The second, highlighting Florida’s cattle industry, lets junior buckaroos watch on-screen cowboys while bouncing on spring-mounted saddles. Later they can devise their own cattle brand using an etch-a-sketch built into the backside of a model cow; or act out their “Home on the Range” fantasies in a full-scale “cracker” cabin (named for the sound of the cattlemen’s whips) featuring dress-up clothes and assorted touchable artifacts.

Sports enthusiasts will be impressed by the cases crammed with memorabilia from area franchises. Remember Tampa is teeming with professional teams. The city hosts both the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (football) and Tampa Bay Lightning (hockey). Major League Baseball is big too: the Tampa Bay Rays are based here, and the Yankees descend annually for spring training.

Mad scientists

Ask local youngsters who frequent this museum what’s best about the Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI) (mosi.org; adults $20.95, children 2 to 12 $16.95) and they’ll probably say the Kids in Charge building. That’s fair considering it is one of the largest children’s science centres in the US and packed with interactive gadgets designed to illustrate basic scientific principles in not-so-basic ways.

But there is much more to explore, including a butterfly garden, planetarium, 3-D theatre and IMAX Dome, plus hundreds of other imaginative exhibits inside the museum’s main building.

It is a testament to MOSI’s ingenuity that Disasterville – where you step behind the facade of a stylized streetscape to experience virtual disasters – manages to make Nature’s fury seem entertaining. In the earthquake room, the floor shakes as buildings topple on video monitors; in the wildfire room heat rises, smoke curls and fake flames crackle. Oh, and if you’ve ever wondered how it felt to be buffeted by hurricane force winds, a step-in simulator blasts air at 125 kilometres per hour.

Afterward, kids can assume the role of emergency broadcaster at an on-site TV studio equipped with anchor desk and meteorological green screen.

You don’t have to be one of the Great Wallendas to ride MOSI’s High Wire Bicycle. Pedalling along a 2.5-centimetre-wide cable, strung nine metres above the lobby, sounds scary. But it’s just mind over matter because the bike is counterweighted to lower the centre of gravity. (Riders are harnessed and there’s a net below for added assurance.) Physics class was never this much fun.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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