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Autism Friendly Tampa – 5 days in Tampa with kids
Looking for a sunny getaway that has autism-friendly activities for the entire family? Then look no further than Tampa, Florida! The girls and I took a road trip down to Tampa, Florida, for 5 days, and it was an action-packed adventure! In this post, I will provide the details you may need to plan your own Tampa adventure, Autism-friendly tips, and our itinerary to help inspire you while planning!
Disclosure: This post is sponsored by the Traveling Mom & VisitFlorida. All opinions expressed are my own.
Best Time of Year to Visit Tampa
One of my favorite things about Florida is that nearly every season (I’m looking at you Summer) works for you to get into some great adventures. Tampa is in Central Florida, so the weather is excellent earlier in the year for folks looking to knock the chill off their snowy days, with daytime temps in the mid-70s. I would recommend late January & February, avoiding Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend and President’s Day. If you’re looking at Spring, it could be a great season to visit due to the cooler weather and lighter crowds, ideally after the Spring Break season ends and before Memorial Day. After the sweltering heat of the summer, Fall brings a welcome reprieve with cooler weather and lower humidity.
How to get to Tampa
Depending on where you live, you can get to Tampa via car or by plane. Tampa is a little over an hour from Orlando, four hours from Miami, and about 6.5 to 7 hours from Metro Atlanta.
*Pro tip: If you decide on a road trip, start early in the morning, so your kiddos can take a long nap on the drive down. This way, you’ll be about halfway there when they wake up. Which will help avoid those “are we there yet” conversations.
Where to Stay in Tampa?
While in Tampa, we stayed at the Marriott Water Street hotel and had the perfect view of the Tampa Riverwalk. Our room was great, but the girls spent most of the time on the balcony, as it was the perfect sensory break spot for Roo during our trip. The Marriott Water Street hotel just steps away from the Tampa Riverwalk and puts you close to the Florida Aquarium and Sparkman’s Wharf. We stayed in the 2 Queen water view room, but they also have City View rooms available.
If your kids are anything like mine, they’re all about the pool when it comes to vacation, and the Marriott Water Street hotel has a rooftop pool with plenty of seating and cabanas available for rent. Over the past few years, Roo has gotten quite confident in her water abilities, so her favorite part was jumping off the diving platforms in the middle of the pool.
The Marriott water street hotel has several onsite restaurants, which makes feeding hungry kiddos a cinch! We had breakfast at their Waterside Grill, the Driftlight restaurant across the street at the JW. I highly recommend the poppy seed pancakes at Driftlight. Absolutely delicious!
Autism-Friendly Activities in Tampa
I want to preface this by saying that even though we were in Tampa for 5 days, we didn’t even scratch the surface of all the things that can be seen and done. I was also very intentional about only planning one big activity or attraction daily to avoid overstimulation and meltdowns.
Glazer Children’s Museum
My kiddos love children’s museums! They are interactive and fun, making a great world/home school field trip to solidify learning. The Glazer Children’s Museum has some great exhibits, including a large water play area, a grocery store, a farm, a medical/vet area, and a massive climbing structure in the middle of the building. They also offer Sunshine Sunday, a special monthly event for children with special needs, with the lights and sounds turned down. They also offer adaptability boxes with weighted vests, fidgets, and noise-canceling headphones.
– Take the elevator, start your visit at the top, and work your way down. It can be tempting to go directly to the water area, but I can assure you that if your kids are like mine, they will never want to leave the water area.
– If your kiddo is scared of heights or anxious about new climbing structures, assess before allowing them to go in the Water’s Journey climbing structure in the middle of the building. My kiddos enjoyed it, but it was also a bit of a stressor for Bug until she became confident to explore it more independently.
Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park
Directly out and to the right of the children’s museum is the Tampa Riverwalk, which features a playground with accessible toy structures! After running off some energy, the girls and I enjoyed a popsicle and watched the boats going by.
Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park
Zoo Tampa was hands down one of our favorite things to do while we were in Tampa; I practically had to bribe the girls to leave! Primarily because Zoo Tampa is Autism-friendly, it is the perfect size to navigate. See features six different animal areas, and there are over 1,300 animals to see, such as Orangutans, African Penguins, Giraffes, white rhinos, and, best of all, manatees! There were so many places for the Roo to take a sensory break across the zoo, which helped increase our mileage without a meltdown.
During your visit, be sure not to miss the Expedition African Safari. Remember that there can be a 15-20 minute wait before getting on the tram, which can be difficult for kiddos on the Spectrum. The Safari is a 15-minute narrated open-air tram ride. It gives you a closer look at some animal exhibits in the Africa section of the zoo.
While at Zoo Tampa, Roo & Bug experienced their first up-close animal encounter with the tortoises. This is the perfect encounter for kiddos on the Spectrum or those who have anxiety as the tortoises move slowly and often stay still, which allows kids to build up the courage to approach the tortoises and pet them their shells. The caretakers do an excellent job explaining in-depth information about the animals and answering curious questions, making it an excellent activity for World/Homeschoolers. If your kiddo is a bit more adventurous, they also have up-close encounters with rhinos, giraffes, elephants, African penguins, and more!
Busch Gardens Tampa
Gardens Tampa Bay is an Africa-themed park. It has an eclectic mix of theme parks & zoo, which was perfect for everyone in our family.
*Pro tip: Be sure To create a ride plan for your trip, especially if you are traveling with kiddos on the Spectrum. I made a rookie mistake and did not adequately plan for rides or which animals we would be seeing, so I felt a bit like a fish out of water trying to make up things on the fly. Luckily the girls had a blast and spent most of the time in the Sesame Street area, but if you have older kids, it may be wise to plan your rides before arriving at the park. Also, check out our full Busch Gardens Tampa blog post over on the Traveling Mom to learn more about our visit and some Autism-friendly tips when planning your visit!
The Florida Aquarium
The Florida Aquarium is rated among the best aquariums in the US, and I can see why! And this is coming from people who have the Georgia aquarium in their backyard. The aquarium features 11 unique exhibit areas featuring marine animals such as otters, alligators, moon jellies, and lemurs. Roo & Bug love all things aquatic and marine life, so we could have easily spent the entire day exploring. Be sure not to miss the 4D theater, playground, and splash pad outside!
The Florida Aquarium is also Autism friendly with hands-on activities, quiet areas, and a sensory bag to borrow for those with special needs. Aquarium also offers Day of Discovery events which are special sensory events for children with sensory differences.
*Pro tip: During our visit, Roo and Bug both had a mild meltdown at the fact that the stingrays were not interested in being touched. Touch tanks can always be a bit of a sensitive spot for some kiddos, so set some flexible expectations ahead of time and be aware that there is another touch tank with sea anemones and sea urchins just around the corner.
Where to eat in Tampa with Kids?
Sparkman Wharf is a waterfront food Oasis with a wide variety of local restaurants and shops. We decided on tacos at Gallito Taqueria, but they also have chicken, burgers, barbecue, ice cream, and all kinds of cuisine in between.
I would recommend Watervue Grille for the views alone, so be sure to request a table outside when you’re making your reservations. The service was excellent, and the food was delicious! I recommend getting the Pan Seared Scallops and the Glazed Pork Belly.
Goody Goody burgers
Don’t let that name confuse you because we came here for breakfast. Let me tell you; it was hands down the best breakfast I had, not only in Tampa but the best breakfast I’ve had in a long while. I recommend anything on their menu but whatever you get, make sure you get their browned butter maple syrup. It is divine!
Gen X Tavern
If you’re an 80s or 90s baby looking for the perfect trip down memory lane, this is the place! Let me warn you, though; nothing ages you quicker than having to explain what it was like before the internet or what a Nintendo, Atari, and VHS tapes are to your young children. Be sure to try their Dunk-a-Roo inspired dip. It took me all the way back to my childhood and made me so happy! It was also special to share those memories (and dunk-a-roo dip) with the girls.
*Pro tip: We went on a game day, which meant it was a little louder than usual. The girls had their noise-reducing headphones with them, but we still opted to take our food to go; however, I would absolutely come back on a nongame day.
Forbici Italian restaurant
Forbici Italian restaurant is an Italian restaurant in Hyde Park. The cavatelli was delicious, and I love when an Italian restaurant has a good kids’ menu. The girls were both able to get things they enjoyed which is always a relief.
Oxford exchange is more of an entire experience than just breakfast. It’s a restaurant with a bookstore, a gift shop, a co-working space, and even an eyeglass store onsite. The conservatory is breathtaking. The sun coming through the windows with all the plants just sets the perfect ambiance for brunch!
Armature Works is an event space featuring the Heights public market, which is a space that has a variety of quick service food options such as Pizza, Mediterranean, sushi, and even dessert with communal seating. There are also a couple of full-service restaurants on-site, including a rooftop bar for adults-only time! If you’re traveling with little ones, never fear; there are also spots for coffee, cocktails, and wine.
A quick recap of our 5 Day Tampa itinerary:
Day 1: Arrive in Tampa
- lunch at Sparkman Wharf
- Glazer Children’s Museum
- Tampa Waterfront
- Dinner at Watervue Grill
- Breakfast Goody Goody
- ZooTampa at Lowry Park
- Dinner at Armature Works
- Breakfast at Café Waterside at Tampa Marriott Water Street
- Busch Gardens® Tampa Bay
- breakfast at Driftlight at the JW Marriott Tampa Water Street
- The Florida Aquarium
- Lunch at Gen X Tavern
- Dinner at Forbici in Hyde Park Village
- Breakfast at Oxford Exchange
- Beach Time!