Time with your kids—or grandkids—can be blissful, rich and rewarding. But sooner or later, even in sunny Sarasota, you’ll hear the dreaded lament: There’s nothing to do-o-o!
You can always head for the beach or one of our many tourist attractions. But maybe it’s time to look beyond the obvious. We scouted out 15 lesser-known activities that are guaranteed to cure cabin fever, entice kids away from their electronic devices and keep adults happy, too. What are you waiting for?
Bowl Them Over
Think bowling is a retro form of recreation in these digital days? Think again. Local bowling alleys are busy day and night. They’re also equipped with flashy new technology, from digital scoreboards to bumper lanes and ramps that allow even a toddler to score a strike. And after the game, the video arcade awaits.
If your child likes the game, consider a kids’ bowling league. At AMF Gulf Gate Lanes, the Friday-night league attracts a dozen or so players from about 8 to 18. Some send the ball spinning down the lane like TV bowling pros. But even the 8-year-old beginners get some good balls, winning cheers from parents and high fives from volunteer coaches Jan and Mike Romig.
The Romigs offer lots of encouragement and occasional tips, but the focus is on enjoying the game. “It’s wonderful to see them grow and improve,” says Jan. “But some just come to have fun—and that’s OK, too.”
League bowling is a bargain, just $10 per night, and that includes shoe rentals. League members also get two free games a week and a 20 percent discount on food. (941) 921-4447, amf-gulf-gate-lanes.com
Hunt for Shark’s Teeth
In our search for exotic kids’ adventures, we sometimes overlook the obvious. Generations of children have combed local beaches in search of our famous shark’s teeth, and grown-ups also enjoy searching for these pointy fossilized reminders of the sharks that have roamed area waters for millennia. Since one shark sheds some 20,000 teeth in its lifetime, there are plenty to be found. Grab a “Florida snow shovel,” basically a sieve on a stick—they are available at many local shops—and head to Nokomis, Manasota and Caspersen beaches, prime picking spots. And don’t forget the annual Sharks Tooth Festival April 12-14 at the Venice Airport Festival Grounds. sharkstoothfest.com
Nourish Your Kid’s Inner Chef
Home cooking is hot with kids, who pore over YouTube recipe videos and tune into TV cook-offs. That trend inspired chef Judi Gallagher, who teaches classes for corporate clients, to offer sessions for young chefs. She partners with restaurants to present small themed classes, such as rolling your own sushi at a Japanese steakhouse. She also offers individual classes, including an upcoming session for an 11-year-old who wants to master classic French sauces.
“We keep it fun and simple,” says Gallagher. Her students love the process as much as the product. One student posts pictures of her baking creations on an Instagram account; others scorn canned whipped cream after learning to make the real thing. [email protected]
At Publix Aprons Cooking School, chef Jim Hendry says the kids’ classes are among the most popular. “We have adults who took our classes as kids and are now bringing their kids to class,” he says. Classes range from all-kid group sessions to those for parents and children cooking together, and they cover a wide variety of topics, from Italian and French cuisine to building a gingerbread house over the holidays. Aprons also runs cooking camps for kids during school holidays and summer vacation. (941) 358-7829, publix.com
Learn to Fly—on the Trapeze
Tito Gaona, a trapeze artist who performed with the Ringling Bros. and Big Apple circuses as part of The Flying Gaonas, has landed in Venice and opened a flying trapeze academy near the Venice Municipal Airport. Locals often bring their kids for Saturday and Sunday workshops, but Gaona says grandparents are his biggest clients in season. They bring visiting children, from age 5 up, for individual lessons or a series of classes.
“We have the flying trapeze and the silks,” Gaona says. “The girls especially love the silks.” Safety is his emphasis, and once kids feel secure, strapped in with a safety belt and line, knowing a net is in place, they take to the air with ease. “They love it! They cannot stop,” he says. Besides, he adds, his eyes twinkling, “I am a very good teacher.” The classes build confidence and self-esteem, along with muscles, and many visiting kids return year after year. (941) 872-7393, titogaona.com
Fishing, families and Sarasota go together, and there may be no better place to reel them in than Hart’s Landing, just off the Ringling Causeway. Since 1934, the bait and tackle shop, perched over the bay and surrounded by bobbing pelicans, has been a hot spot for anglers. Recent renovations expanded its offerings—including fresh-made sandwiches—but kept its old-Florida charm. For just $8.50, your kid can rent a fishing rod for the entire day, and for a few bucks more, you get a dozen bait shrimp and a bucket to keep them alive.
Walk across the bridge to the Tony Saprito Pier or cast from the seawall. Either way, says owner Sherman Baldwin, “It’s good fishing—grouper, redfish, mangrove snapper and more.” His staff will show kids how to handle their tackle and hook their fish, and they sell fishing licenses, too—although kids under 16 don’t need them. And if you want to take a break, visit the playground at the adjacent Werlin Park.
Night fishing brings out a colorful crowd, along with dazzling views of downtown’s sparkling lights. Saturday nights from 7-10 p.m., the place turns into a party, with live music and free pizza. (203) 628-8843
Lions and Stories and Art, Oh My!
Storytime and artistic projects for preschoolers are what the Ringling Museum’s free ROAR (Ringling Order of Art Readers) programs are all about. The fun begins with a trolley ride from the Visitors’ Center to the Education Building, a brief but thrilling journey for the little ones. Staff and volunteers coax the kids into a big play circle once they arrive. On the days we visited, the group was small and comfortable, with everybody at ease.
After about 10 minutes of play, the kids hear a story, then work on a related artistic project. At one session, for example, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are was read, then the children made crowns like the main character wears.
Everybody’s favorite moment comes when the kids are told that the Ringling’s mascot lion, Ruben, will come out from behind a door if they roar as loud as they can. After vigorous roaring, the friendly costumed lion appears, and is swarmed with tykes demanding hugs.
Simple and satisfying, Roar! makes for a great morning with your child. Afterwards, walk over to the Bolger Playspace or have a snack at the Banyan Café.
Thursday and Fridays at 10:30 a.m. Get your free ticket at the Visitors’ Center. (941) 359-5700, ringling.org
Bring Your Baby to Yoga
New moms carry a lot on their shoulders—literally. Still recovering from pregnancy, they’re lifting and carrying a young child. And they can also feel isolated and unsure in their new role. The Mommy and Me yoga classes at Rosemary Court yoga help address those issues, says studio owner Liana Bryant.
Mothers—and sometimes fathers or grandparents—bring children from about six weeks old to 3 to the Thursday morning classes, which last 45 minutes.
“We focus on rebuilding strength and opening up tight areas,” says Bryant. She keeps the atmosphere playful, incorporating children’s music and rhymes into the routines. While the mothers practice poses, kids can play with toys or each other. Toddlers often try the poses themselves. “Most of them can do Downward Dog and the Tree Pose,” says Bryant. “It’s amazing how much they absorb.”
The small classes—usually about five moms and their kids—offer psychological as well as physical benefits. Moms share stories about parenting challenges, and kids make friends, too. (941) 952-5280, rosemarycourt.com
Dolphin-Watch from a Duffy Boat
You don’t need to own a boat to enjoy an adventure aboard. Grab a picnic basket and up to eight of your nearest and dearest and rent an 18-foot Duffy boat at the Crow’s Nest Marina on the South Jetty in Venice. The cute, all-electric boats putt-putt down the Intracoastal at a pleasant five miles per hour and are easy to navigate, says dockmaster Rick Schattauer. A generous canopy provides plenty of shade.
Families enjoy spotting dolphins and manatees along with water birds, he says, and recently some have seen bald eagles as well. The grown-ups in the boat will enjoy gaping, too, at the high-end waterfront homes you’ll pass by. (941) 484-7661, crowsnest-venice.com/marina
Explore Bay Preserve
Adjacent to Historic Spanish Point, the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast—a nonprofit organization that purchases land throughout Southwest Florida to create nature preserves—opens its idyllic four-acre Bay Preserve property on Little Sarasota Bay in Osprey to the public on the first Saturday in November for its Wild About Nature festival.
But you don’t have to wait until next November—the property is open to the public seven days a week for free. It offers a tranquil respite from the traffic and bustle of tourist season. A nifty children’s Discovery Zone nature-themed playground has a climbing platform that gives kids a bird’s-eye view of the tree canopies, a short trail and a bocce court. You’re also welcome to bring a picnic to enjoy on the pretty lawn. Bring a frisbee for the kids to toss. (941) 918-2100, conservationfoundation.com
Your children—and you—will gain new appreciation of our marine environment aboard the Sarasota Bay Explorer. The one hour and 45-minute cruise through Sarasota and Roberts bays is offered in conjunction with Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium.
From the comfortable, shaded 40-foot boat (and, yes, there’s a restroom), you’ll have great views of the water and wildlife. Your marine biologist guide is likely to spot pods of dolphins, manatees and marine birds such as ospreys and herons. Midway through the journey, the crew nets specimens and places them in jars that everyone passes around as the guide talks about them. On a recent trip, kids exclaimed over strange-looking pufferfish and an aptly named cowfish.
They also let off steam when the boat beached at an uninhabited island in Roberts Bay. Kids waded in the water, explored a trail through the pines and mangroves and reveled in the unfamiliar sensation of being in uninhabited nature. (941) 388-4200, sarasotabayexplorers.com
Step into a Virtual World
Yes, nature is awesome, but nothing wows a kid like technology. We asked a 12-year-old fan of downtown’s Escape Reality, which offers 3D virtual reality experiences, why he wants to escape actual reality for a manufactured substitute. “Because that reality is way more fun!” he replied.
The fun includes video games that immerse players in the action, enabling them to feel they’re wielding weapons and punching villains. But many customers choose calmer experiences, like an underwater adventure where you watch jellyfish and whales swim by. Co-owner Michael Katzman says older customers like traveling the world via Google Earth. “Say you’ve always wanted to go to Paris. Now you can fly over the Champs-Elysées and the Eiffel Tower in real time,” he says.
Escape Reality, which opened on Lockwood Ridge Road in 2016, started out as an escape room business. But virtual reality is evolving so quickly Katzman and his wife decided to open a downtown branch focused on that. And since they’re on Main Street, he says, they made it a bar, too, so parents can enjoy a beer while kids play—or seniors, reeling from their astounding journey, can come back to earth over a cocktail. escaperealitysarasota.com
Discover History at Spanish Point
Originally home to Native Americans, then to pioneer families in the 1800s, Historic Spanish Point was purchased by Chicago socialite Bertha Palmer in 1910 as her homestead. The 30-acre bayfront property is full of lovely gardens, period buildings and baywalks.
Volunteer Bonnie Thistle says children 8 or older tend to get the most out of a visit, soaking up historic details from the packinghouse, which replicates an authentic structure from the 1800s, when oranges were shipped out of the area; exploring the cemetery, where headstones note the resting place of pioneers; and going inside a prehistoric shell midden. To enhance your experience, she suggests calling ahead for a guided walking tour or a reserved spot on the tram that travels the property.
A bonus for dog owners: You can bring your pup to Spanish Point any day if you keep it on a leash; the kids can roam free. (941) 966-5214, historicspanishpoint.org
Feel the Beat at a Drum Circle
The rhythm is gonna get you at these gatherings of drummers, musicians, dancers, hoopers and spinners, which start about two hours before sunset on Siesta Key Beach on Sunday nights and on Wednesday and Saturdays at Nokomis Beach. Shy kids get a kick out of watching all the action in the circle, while bolder ones might just join the dancers and spin around in the sunset’s glow. Fun for grandkids of all ages, and nobody doesn’t love a gorgeous Southwest Florida sunset.
Close Encounters with Wild Birds
People come from all over to see the amazing array of birds in Southwest Florida, and one of the best places to spot them is right here in Sarasota County, at the Venice Area Audubon Rookery. On a small island a few feet away from the shore of a deep lake, the rookery is home to thousands of nesting birds this time of year. They stay on the mangroves and trees all day long, waiting for eggs to hatch and then raising their fledglings.
“Kids love seeing the babies,” says rookery administrator Charlie Sample. But they also enjoy the nightly show, when right before dusk, the long-legged birds fly in to roost. “It’s like an airport, as they circle in and land,” he says. You can also watch the bats emerge in the evening from four bat houses.
During season, Audubon volunteers, on duty from 9 a.m. until noon most days, will talk to the kids about the birds and lend them binoculars. It’s also a great place for youngsters to sharpen their nature photography skills, as most of the birds are easy to see and stay in the same position for long times, unlike birds you might spot in the woods. veniceaudubon.org
Travel Down a Wild River
Introduce your kids to the real Florida by paddling for an hour or two down the Wild and Scenic Myakka River. (That’s an actual official designation.) Snook Haven, an old-timey restaurant perched right on the river off East Venice Avenue, has a storied past that includes everything from being a spot for smugglers to unload moonshine during Prohibition to being the site of several Hollywood films in the 1930s. Today, there’s live music outdoors most days; the Gulf Coast Banjo Society shows on Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. are particularly popular.
Rent a canoe, or kayak, or paddle boat, then stay for lunch—maybe some tasty catfish or fried gator bites—while you tap your toes to the tunes. Or if you prefer not to paddle your own boat, hop aboard the big Logan Rivers Tour pontoon boat for a one-hour narrated trip down the river. Your guide will point out wildlife and natural sights in a way that engages passengers of all ages. (941) 485-7221, snookhaven.com