Explore Sarasota with the Kids
Editor’s Review by Pamela Settle
Having lived in Pinellas County for exactly ten years now, I am embarrassed to say that I had never been to Sarasota. We have plenty of beaches here, I thought, so why drive a 75 minutes to someone else’s beach? Then came the invitation to spend a few days learning some of what Sarasota has to offer families with children and now I can’t wait to go back.
Tidbit of Sarasota culture. The circus came to town in 1927 when John Ringling brought elephants and all to winter in Florida, making them quite possibly the first elephants to be called snowbirds! This grew into a major identifier for the city which is today home to museums, landmarks, the historic Sarasota Opera House, an original circus train, two working circuses, circus training schools and an eclectic array of circus families and performers. Visit sarasotacircushistory.com to learn more.
First stop was the Ringling Museum of the American Circus where kids can look with awe at the 3,800 square foot miniature replica of circus life constructed over a 50-year time span by master builder Howard Tibbals. This work of art contains eight main tents, 152 wagons, 1,300 performers and workers, 800+ animals and a 59-car train. It really was amazing.
We moved into the exhibit halls to see costumes and memorabilia and the kids could see what it was like to walk on a tight rope and stand on the back of horse. Outside the museum on the grounds is the David F. Bolger Playspace, with its tower and slide, basket swings, hand-powered fountains and other novel pieces of equipment.
Visitors can also stroll the 66 acres of the Bayfront Gardens, take in the majesty of the Ringling mansion and go through the 31 galleries of the Ringling Museum of Art. Families who enjoy performance arts need to keep an eye on the schedule for the historic Asolo Theater, an intimate venue for performances. Sign up for their newsletter at Ringling.org.
We dropped in on the Circus Arts Conservatory where children and adults can learn to perform just about any of the circus arts like juggling, hand balancing, trapeze, aerial silks, rolla bolla, clowning and more. They offer out of towners Saturday classes, so never say never. Learn more about them at CircusArts.org.
Next up was a trip to see lions, tigers and bears, but we were not going to the circus and we were not in Oz. Instead, we went to the Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary where we were able to get up close and personal with lions, tigers, bears and a rare liger, close enough to feed them – off a stick for $2. Allowing guests to pay to feed the animals is brilliant because it costs so much to feed each animal daily and they have to raise the money somehow because they don’t turn any needy animal away. The woman with all the mouths to feed is founder Kay Rosaire, a famed eighth generation animal trainer and the passionate force behind this rescue facility. Training the animals to perform in their show is a means to maintain the rescue. It’s an intimate, homey, informative and entertaining show where Kay and her knowledge about animals are actually center stage. During the show she urges spectators to be informed about animal rescue and animal rights. She tells personal stories of the animals in training while she gets them to balance on a giant globe or jump through a hoop as casually as asking a dog to sit and heel. The tigers do fancy tricks like they do in the large circus acts, but that tiger act is never followed up by a chimpanzee who laughs like crazy when it’s tickled on the belly at a big circus.
Aside from the big animals, the habitat is home to camels, exotic birds, lemurs and a petting pen. The trip is worth it to see the majestic cats and bears up close and to learn from Kay. It was unlike any animal attraction I have ever been to and definitely the first time I fed some steak to a tiger who looked me straight in the eyes.
We left the animals behind us and explored some gorgeous gardens at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. Our tour started with a steamy stroll through the orchids in the Tropical Conservatory followed by a jaunt through the Ann Goldstein Children’s Rainforest Garden which opened recently. Here kids can climb up a tree house, walk over rope bridges and stop at the interactive research station. The shade of the Banyan Grove was nearby but we chose to cool off in a kid’s playhouse that had crafts and educational information about plants. Set between Sarasota Bay and Hudson Bayou, the full 15 acres of this world-renowned garden is definitely worth a relaxing day trip to explore and take in the spectacular and diverse beauty.
Tidbit of Sarasota culture. Sarasota is well known for its art and its food. It is the only city on the west coast of Florida to have its own opera, ballet company and orchestra. There are five professional theater companies and theaters for plays, comedy, dance, music and Broadway shows. Add visual arts, festivals and heritage to the cultural mix that enriches the city year round. Award-wining chef’s drawn to the high-caliber cultural scene have helped to create what’s been called a “foodie’s paradise.”
Our family-friendly itinerary included two restaurant stops that I want to mention. First is Nancy’s Bar-B-Q, a rustic, local spot for some tasty barbecued meat served on a stainless steel tray covered with paper. Here the sides are just as scrumptious as the meats, which is usually not the case at a barbecue joint, so don’t miss the scalloped potatoes, baked beans and sesame crunch slaw. Nancy is known for her smoked pork, which is the food that got her started in this business as a private caterer turned road-side vendor turned restaurant owner due to customer demand. All this happened after the age of 50, making Nancy a female entrepreneur hero in my book. NancyBarBQ.com
The second restaurant on my list is Der Dutchman. Who knew there was a significant Amish presence in Sarasota? Well there is and they operate this buffet-style restaurant with an impressive pie list, bakery and gift shop. Homemade comfort foods fill up the all-you-can-eat buffet line. The fried chicken is the star. Surround it with mashed potatoes and gravy, macaroni and cheese and vegetables and you’ll be transported to your childhood. Save room for the lemon or the peanut butter cream pie, which, I was told were made every night by scratch by an 80-something Amish woman during the night. Of if you’re too full, stop at the bakery on the way out. Warning: plan ahead and bring a cooler because it’s Florida and the cream pies will get hot on the way home. Just do it. You won’t be able to say no as you pass through their bakery and store. The gift shop is fun too, as are the surrounding shops that sell Amish goods. Derdutchman.com
We stayed on the beach at Lido Key in a newly renovated Holiday Inn that was affordable and convenient for Pinellas families who want to drop down for a long weekend trip. The rooms were lovely with views of the even lovelier Lido Key Beach. Within walking distance is the famous St. Armand’s circle with upscale shopping and restaurants. The other Sarasota attractions are short drive away.
Sarasota has these and other attractions to fill a calendar with day trips with the kids. It also makes an ideal staycation getaway as it’s only an hour from most of Pinellas County, but different enough from home to feel like you’ve really gone somewhere new.
Learn more at Visitsarasota.org.