Who needs animatronics and technological wizardry when our attractions offer dazzling displays of natural beauty, from the rare and spectacular orchids of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens to Jungle Gardens' languorous pink flamingos?
Sure, the beaches top everyone's list of "Things to Do," but do make time to explore our state parks and science and aquarium centers as well. Mote is a nationally recognized center of marine research and along with the other attractions listed here, will entertain the kids (and the kids in us adults) for hours.
And don't forget the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, where the circus impresario's Sarasota home of Cà d'Zan has been renovated to capture its original 1920s splendor. The museum's collection of Baroque art is one of the world's largest, and a museum devoted to the circus arts is part of the Ringling complex.
De Soto National Memorial, 75th St. NW, Bradenton. 792-0458. Believed to be the site of explorer Hernando De Soto's landfall in Florida, more than 450 years ago. During the winter and spring season, park employees in period dress perform demonstrations and give talks about that era of Florida's history.
South Florida Museum/Parker Manatee Aquarium, 201 10th St. W., Bradenton. 746-4131. Exhibits cover our local history from the Indians to De Soto to the Crackers who settled the region. And Snooty the lovable manatee greets guests to the aquarium.
Gamble Plantation and Mansion, U.S. 301, Ellenton. 723-4536. Southwest Florida's oldest building, once part of a thriving sugar plantation, also served as a hideout for the Confederacy's Secretary of the Treasury when he was on the run from the Yankees. You'll see a slice of history and get a glimpse of Florida plantation life.
Historic Spanish Point, 500 Tamiami Trail, Osprey. 966-5214. A unique 30-acre environmental, historical and archaeological site that has been home at different times to prehistoric Indians, the pioneer Webb family and society matron Mrs. Potter Palmer. Period buildings and exhibits on view.
Oscar Scherer State Park, 1843 S. Tamiami Trail, Osprey. 483-5956. One of the area's favorite parks, full of Florida scrub jays, gopher tortoise, gopher frogs and indigo snakes. Consists of pine flatwoods and several lakes; you can hike the trails or take to the water in a kayak or canoe.
Cà d'Zan; Museum of the Circus. 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. 359-5700. Two of the biggest draws at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art complex are the Ringlings' 1920s mansion, Cà d'Zan, and the Museum of the Circus, with costumes, posters and other circus memorabilia. Open daily.
Crowley Museum and Nature Center, Rt. 2, Sarasota, near Myakka City. 322-1000. Return to the days of early Sarasota pioneers in this reconstructed village, with its walking trails and unspoiled nature. Call ahead for an escorted tour.
G.WIZ, Blivas Science & Technology Center, 1000 Boulevard of the Arts, Sarasota. 906-1851. Hands-on science exhibits and activities aimed at kids, including electricity displays, mind-bending puzzles and a butterfly garden.
Jungle Gardens, 3701 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. 355-5305. Jungle Gardens offers 10 tropical acres filled with trees, flowers, pink flamingos and exotic birds. There are also bird and reptile shows each day, a playground, gift shop and snack bar.
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, 811 S. Palm Ave., Sarasota. 366-5731. Orchids, epiphytes, bromeliads, banyans and many other green or blooming things live in this oasis along Sarasota's bayfront, where botanical research is also carried on. A Museum of Botany and the Arts and the Selby home are also located here.
Mote Aquarium, 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota. 388-2451. Sharks, sea turtles, manatees and other creatures of the deep. Also, a rare giant squid. Group tours, gift shop available.
Myakka River State Park, 14 miles east of Sarasota on S.R. 72. 361-6511. Wild Florida thrives on this 28,000-acre preserve that's home to deer, alligators, osprey and even the elusive Florida bobcat. Tram rides, nature trails, airboat tours, canoeing, and camping are available. For a wildlife tour, call 365-0100.
Pelican Man's Bird Sanctuary, 1708 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota. 388-4444. Set on two waterfront acres, the sanctuary is home to more than 200 permanently disabled birds and also cares for injured animals. Boardwalk, gift shop and public viewing areas.
Sarasota Classic Car Museum. 5500 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. 355-6228. More than 100 automobiles beginning with the horseless carriage, a musical instrument exhibit and an antique game arcade.
The Springs International Spa Resort & Wellness Institute, 12 miles south of Venice (exit 34 off I-75). 426-1692. A possible answer for those in search of the Fountain of Youth. This 87-degree year-round spring is especially popular with European visitors.
n a giant 135,000-gallon tank at Mote Marine Aquarium, sharks tread water in a hypnotic dance alongside Goliath grouper, tarpon, pompano and cobia-fish they would ordinarily consider prey.
Why no ongoing bloodbath between the species? Volunteer John Ayre explains it succinctly: "They only eat when they're hungry."
And at Mote, they only get hungry on Monday and Wednesday at 11 a.m. That's when workers spill a few hundred pounds of fresh catch into the tank, sending the fish into a wild, sometimes violent feeding frenzy.
"When sharks are fed on a regular basis, they won't attack other fish," Ayre says. (There are exceptions; Ayre once watched a Goliath grouper lurch from beneath a boulder and swallow a shark whole.)
Emboldened by their hunger, or perhaps tipped off by the sudden crowds milling about in the Brickwalk, where the tank is located, the fish dart around as feeding time nears. By 11 a.m. they're circling the tank, pensive and menacing, until their food finally plunges in. The carnage is brief, but it takes a while to shake the image of fish being ripped apart like a cotton dress.
So far, says volunteer Mike Stewart, no children have been frightened by the spectacle. But because it draws huge crowds, arrive by 10 a.m. to get the best viewing spot. -Pat Haire
Mote Marine Aquarium, 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota (941) 388-4441.