Travel Guide to Florida - - WEST CENTRAL FLORIDA -

When it’s time to go wild, be sure to visit Big Cat Res­cue in Tampa. One of the largest ac­cred­ited sanc­tu­ar­ies for ex­otic cats in the world, this is home to about 100 lions, tigers, bob­cats and cougars that have been res­cued and are now cared for by lov­ing staff and vol­un­teers.

An­other place to en­joy close en­coun­ters with an­i­mals is Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, five­time win­ner of Tri­pAd­vi­sor’s Cer­tifi­cate of Ex­cel­lence. Spend a day with an­i­mals from Africa, Aus­tralia, Asia and be­yond, learn­ing about their habi­tats and how to pro­tect them, and you’ll eas­ily see why it’s rated so highly. Down­town, dis­cover all of the won­ders that lie be­neath the wa­ter’s sur­face at the Florida Aquar­ium. Meet pen­guins, dive with sharks (SCUBA-cer­ti­fied only), swim with fish (for ages six and older) or sharks (for ages nine and older), or cruise out onto the wa­ters of Tampa Bay to watch for dol­phins.

Lo­cated right across the Street from Busch Gar­dens, Ad­ven­ture Is­land is the ul­ti­mate com­bi­na­tion of high-speed thrills and trop­i­cal, tranquil sur­round­ings for guests of all ages. And in March 2018, guests are in for the slide of their lives when Ad­venure Is­land Tampa Bay’s new epic drop slide, Van­ish Point, opens next to an­other fam­ily-fa­vorite, Colos­sal Curl.

In its 46th year, the largest non-profit wild bird sanc­tu­ary in the US—the Sun­coast Se­abird Sanc­tu­ary in In­dian Shores (lo­cated be­tween St. Peters­burg and Clear­wa­ter)—has been ded­i­cated to the res­cue, re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and hope­ful re­lease of sick, in­jured and or­phaned birds.

North of In­dian Shores, Win­ter, the star of Dol­phin Tale, makes her home at the Clear­wa­ter Marine Aquar­ium and is al­ways happy to greet her fans. Plenty of other marine life live along­side Win­ter: stop and say hello to her friends, Hope and Ni­cholas, and the res­i­dent sea tur­tles, ot­ters, stingrays, sharks, pel­i­cans and clown fish. You can get out on the wa­ter here, too, on board the aquar­ium’s 90-minute Sea Life Sa­fari Na­ture Cruise.

Take an­other look be­neath the wa­ter and you’ll find mer­maids in the crys­tal-clear wa­ters at Weeki Wachee Springs.

More amuse­ment is found wind­ing down the Weeki Wachee River on a Bay­port River Sa­fari; cool­ing off in the new in­door ice rink at Florida Hospi­tal Cen­ter Ice in Wes­ley Chapel; cre­at­ing art at the Glazer Chil­dren’s Mu­seum in Tampa; in­door sky­div­ing at the new iFly in Bran­don; and walk­ing among life-size di­nosaurs at Di­nosaur World in Plant City, not to men­tion the thrilling rides at Busch Gar­dens Tampa Bay.

OP­PO­SITE TOP: Mu­seum of Fine Arts in down­town St. Peters­burg. OP­PO­SITE CEN­TER: John’s Pass Village and Board­walk at Madeira Beach. ABOVE: Chi­huly Col­lec­tion at the Morean Arts Cen­ter in down­town St. Peters­burg.

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