When my granddaughter moved to Florida, I was excited to share the Florida experience with her. While I planned to show her what I knew, she continually surprises me with what she sees. I didn’t expect the joy of seeing the world through a child’s eyes! Here are 10 experiences with grandchildren to enjoy around Sarasota.
Pro Tip: Most of these locations offer a membership that includes benefits to a reciprocal network of gardens and museums throughout the United States. Be sure to ask about it and consider joining if it makes sense for you!
1. Sarasota Jungle Gardens
Sarasota Jungle Gardens is 10 acres of lush tropical gardens located near the heart of downtown Sarasota. It’s home to exotic and local animals, wandering pink flamingos, reptile exhibits, a petting zoo, and presentations, all connected by a winding 1.2-mile paved-brick pathway.
The Gardens are one of the oldest, continuously running attractions in Florida. David Breed Lindsay, the founder of the newspaper that became the Herald-Tribune, purchased a swampy little banana grove in the 1930s to create a botanical garden. Today, the Jungle Gardens are under new ownership and continue to delight visitors and locals alike.
Gardens, Reptiles, Flamingos, And Goats, Oh My!
You may not think a garden would hold a child’s interest; however, following a path through the jungle where a new surprise is around every turn quickly becomes an adventure. Numbers on the map suggest a route, but if you follow it exactly, you’ll miss some exhibits. We start with the outer loop, head toward the petting zoo (a fan favorite), then continue around before following the inner circle toward the flamingos.
Pro Tip: When feeding animals at the petting zoo, stay outside of the fence. They recognize the sound of brown paper bags opening and will rush over (think a minor stampede) to whoever is holding the bag!
2. Mote Marine Laboratory And Aquarium
Mote Aquarium is on 10.5 acres near St. Armands Circle. What started as a marine scientist’s passion project in a one-room lab has grown into a program that spans from Sarasota to the Florida Keys. Exhibits are in two buildings, with plans for a new 110,000-square-foot facility at Nathan Benderson Park.
Two Buildings, One Special Day
You’ll walk into what feels like a cave surrounded by tropical color in the main building. Aquatic tanks lining the walls are alive with marine life. You can look into the eyes of a sea monster (a 27-foot giant squid), size up a replica of an enormous megalodon jaw, reach out and touch stingrays, and peer into the open-topped shark tank.
The Ann & Alfred E. Goldstein Marine Mammal Research & Rehabilitation Center is the second building. Here, sea otters, turtles, and manatees receive care. Docents are standing ready throughout the exhibits to answer questions. What I love about the aquarium is that it’s big enough to enjoy for a couple of hours and small enough for little feet to explore.
Pro Tips: Kayaking and eco-boat tours are available and launch near the aquarium. For things to do nearby, including best restaurants, consider Everything You Need To Know Before Visiting St. Armands Circle.
3. See Florida Sea Turtles
Florida’s turtle nesting season begins in May, babies start hatching in July, and the season ends in October. Nests are found on beaches along the coastline; with luck, you can experience turtle hatchlings dashing toward the sea. Sarasota has the largest density of loggerhead sea turtles along the Gulf of Mexico. Check the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Sea Turtle Viewing Opportunities page for the latest hatchling news.
Watch The Hatchlings’ Race To The Sea
Areas along the beach marked with caution tape indicate nest sites. When females lay their eggs, the marks left in the sand look like tire tracks reaching from the shoreline to the nest. Volunteers and researchers monitor the beaches looking for signs of nestings, mark the spot, then begin timing it to determine the hatching window.
Pro Tip: Sea turtles are protected, so interaction is not allowed. Help by keeping the beach free of debris and obstacles, turning off any lights during nesting and hatching season, and observing activity safely. You gotta let turtles be turtles! Want to know more? Read up on
- How These Colored Lights Along Florida’s Coast Are Helping Save Sea Turtles
- 7 Ways To Help Protect Baby Sea Turtles During Your Beach Vacation
4. Horseback Riding On The Beach
You get a special feeling when you see a horse walking on the beach. Now, imagine swimming with them in a bay! That’s an experience available near Sarasota that I’m excited to share with my grandchild when she is a little older. For now, we can enjoy watching them from the shoreline at Palma Sola Bay in Bradenton.
Feel The Gentle Power Of These Beautiful Animals
A few companies offer trail and beach rides in Tampa Bay, Bradenton, and Sarasota. Two highly rated companies are C Ponies and Florida Beach Horses. Some of these horses were rescued from unfortunate conditions, given a lot of love, and now enjoy doing what they love to do…playing! We’ve watched them from State Road 64 near Anna Maria Island and Robinson Preserve. Schedule a ride, or plan to be near the area around tour times to see these magnificent animals.
Pro Tip: Robinson Preserve is a great outdoor area with extensive boardwalk trails and a fun lookout tower.
5. Bishop Museum Of Science And Nature
I was surprised to find the largest natural history museum on Florida’s Gulf Coast in downtown Bradenton. If your grandchild is into dinosaurs like mine, they will be in awe of the life-sized mastodon skeleton in The Bishop Museum lobby. Beyond that, they can explore the natural world from prehistoric times, experience the Planetarium show, and more. The interactive style of the museum makes learning seem like play.
Backyard Play, Live Manatees, And The Moon
Enjoy story time in the Mosaic Backyard, which is equipped with a treehouse and room to explore. The Lego zone, where you’ll find more legos than you want to step on, will ignite their architecture and building creativity. Skeletons of manatees and sea turtles are upstairs, right next to the tank with live manatees in the Parker Manatee Rehabilitation Habitat. My granddaughter enjoyed watching them eat the floating romaine lettuce.
Pro Tip: After a few hours here, you can eat downtown (plan ahead with our picks for 10 Favorite Restaurants In Bradenton) or explore the Bradenton Riverwalk.
6. Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
They say that plants help boost moods, increase creativity, reduce stress, and eliminate air pollutants, so spending an hour or two at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens is a surefire way to feed your grandchild’s inner zen. There are two campuses totaling 45 acres. Selby Gardens, near downtown Sarasota, is 15 acres, and Spanish Point in Osprey is 30 acres.
Pro Tip: The gardens light up during the holidays, when you can stroll the grounds, sip hot chocolate, and enjoy the season’s magic.
Explore The Rainforest And Climb Among The Trees
Little ones will enjoy the Ann Goldstein Children’s Rainforest Garden and the treetop walkway at Selby Gardens. My granddaughter highly recommends the large garden chimes and tree swing. The colorful, oversized frogs are fun, too! Be sure to stop at the koi pond, where you can feed fish the size of your arm. They swim right up to the water’s edge. A special audio Family Tour, perfect for school-aged kids, presents garden information in a family-friendly manner.
They moved the butterfly house to Spanish Point, but you may see some butterflies in the butterfly garden. As of this writing, construction is active for their expansion; however, most everything is open.
Pro Tip: Bayfront Park is a few blocks down the street. Bring a picnic lunch, head to the tiki restaurant on the sand, and enjoy the park, fountain, and playground to finish the day.
7. Ride The Legacy Trail
The Legacy Trail is an 18-mile, multi-use paved trail that runs from Sarasota’s Payne Park, the former Spring training home for major league baseball, to the Old Venice Train Depot and Caspersen Beach via the Venetian Waterway Trail. It’s built on a former railroad, so street crossings are minimal, and several overpasses safely cross major streets. Much of the trail is shaded, and historical markers tell the county’s story. Many trailheads have a park experience with playgrounds and restrooms. You can rent a bike, trike, or e-bike and explore this much-loved trail.
A Multi-Use Paved Trail Everyone Can Enjoy
You don’t have to ride the entire trail to enjoy it! Little ones will enjoy the trailhead parks, older kids may enjoy Payne Park’s skate park, and one trail section goes through Oscar Scherer State Park. The closest access to that section is the Osprey Trailhead; if lucky, you may see baby alligators and other wildlife.
Pro Tip: Friends of the Legacy Trail started a surrey program in 2023 so those with reduced mobility can enjoy the trail! Volunteers pedal up to four people in a covered surrey. Reservations are required, and dates are limited, but the ride is free.
8. Siesta Key — The #1 Beach In The U.S.
Visiting Sarasota is only complete after a day at the beach! Siesta Key is known for its white crushed quartz sand that feels like powdered sugar. It’s cool to the touch, even on the hottest days, so little ones won’t need to hop-step over burning sand! The Crescent Beach area has a large parking lot, restrooms, and amenities. If you can, plan to stay for the sunset. You will not be disappointed!
Sand Castles And Salty Breezes
From Sarasota Beach to the north to sleepy Turtle Beach on the south, you’re sure to find a patch of sand you love! Turtle Beach has that Old Florida feel, smaller crowds, a campground, and grills. You may spot manatees swimming in the lagoon.
The area around Siesta Village has more beach stores, restaurants, and congestion. The free Siesta Key Breeze Trolley runs between Siesta Key Village and Turtle Beach, or you can rent bikes or scooters. So, keep the car parked and head to the village for a bite to eat, ice cream, sweets, and beachy shops.
Crescent Beach holds the Siesta Key Crystal Classic Sand International Sand Sculpting Festival in November. It takes several days for the sculptors to complete their work, so they rope off the area leading up to the event. You will be amazed by the artistry!
Pro Tip: During busy seasons, the area is congested (as expected). Crescent Beach has the largest parking lot and the most people. As you drive along Beach Road, watch for small pullouts on the Gulf side with unpaved parking if you want a smaller crowd and are okay with fewer amenities. For outdoor dining with a tropical vibe, try SKOB (Siesta Key Oyster Bar) in Siesta Key Village and Spearfish Grille on Old Stickney Point Road, where they stack boats for storage.
9. Ringling Museum
“The Circus Kings, Our Ringling Family Story” described early Sarasota as “half fishing village, half Western cow town.” The Ringlings fell in love with this jungle jewel, and Sarasota eventually became the winter home for the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus. John and Mable Ringling built their winter estate and filled it with art treasures from around the world with the idea of someday gifting it to Florida.
Venetian-inspired Ca’ D’Zan sits on prime real estate fronting Sarasota Bay. It hosted grand lawn parties on the pink-hued marble terrace, and today, you can visit the 66-acre complex for a glimpse into the life and legacy of the man behind The Greatest Show on Earth. His spark has made this area the Cultural Coast of Florida.
Explore Sarasota’s Circus Legacy
John Ringling was a man from humble beginnings, amassed enormous wealth during his lifetime, then died with just $313 in the bank. While not everyone is a fan of clowns, the circus is part of America’s legacy, a time when a child’s imagination came to life as acrobats dangled from impossible heights, larger-than-life beasts marched right before them, and, yes, colorfully painted clowns made them laugh (or cry!). It was a show they could see, smell, taste, and feel as the excitement and energy played out before their eyes.
There are six venues to explore at The Ringling, and the ones younger grandchildren will enjoy most are:
The Circus Museum: Tibbals Learning Center holds circus memorabilia. Kids can climb into a clown car, walk the wire, and get up close to a (faux) tiger for a chance to run off and join the circus, for the day anyhow.
Ca’ D’Zan: 36,000 square feet, five stories tall, with incredible waterfront views, this is the Ringling Estate. The interior is just as magnificent as the exterior.
Education Center: The classrooms for adult and child learning are here. Check their schedule for free family arts and crafts workshops. Afterward, you can enjoy the gardens.
Bayfront Gardens: You can stroll the grounds, including an arboretum, a rose garden, and an impressive row of banyan trees. Kids will enjoy the playground, turtles, birds, and running space! The museum has stroller tours that are a great way to enjoy the estate.
Pro Tip: As you walk down the row of banyan trees on the right side of the front of the mansion, watch for the cherub statue that the trees’ tendrils have swallowed up. You can see her face peeking out from the branches.
10. Hunt For Shark Teeth At The Shark Tooth Capital Of The World
Ten million years ago, the city of Venice was underwater and a popular habitat for sharks. As the water receded, the sharks died; today, only their fossilized teeth remain. With a keen eye and simple tools, you may find some to take home.
Fossils On the Beach And Hunting For Sharks Downtown
There are several Venice beaches to enjoy. Wear sunscreen, grab a kitchen strainer — or an official “Venice Snow Shovel” — then head to the shoreline that stretches from Venice Beach near historic downtown and the jetty to Brohard Park and Paw Park Dog Beach by the pier, and finally secluded Caspersen Beach. There are bathrooms at every beach, and some have additional amenities. You’re on the Gulf, so the waters are mostly calm.
Continue your shark-themed adventure in Downtown Venice with a shark-spotting hunt. It’s a one-mile loop that begins at Centennial Park by the Interactive Fountain (splash pad) during which you’ll search for little bronze shark sculptures spread throughout downtown Venice. Find the map and clues online. Adults enjoy strolling through downtown Venice while the littles follow their treasure maps. There are 10 sharks to find but be warned, some streets are dangerous.
You’ll be tempted as you pass by hard-to-resist sweets shops, ice cream parlors, and the aroma from downtown restaurants. My granddaughter loves to play in the fountain!
Pro Tip: Florida beaches are gorgeous most days of the year; however, there are days when red tide conditions (that is, the presence of harmful algae blooms) are high. This is troublesome for those with respiratory conditions. Avoid the beach on high red tide days; lower counts are usually not a problem. Current conditions can be found on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Red Tide Status page.