Photos courtesy of visitsarasota.com

Sarasota is sometimes called by its nickname, Paradise, but don’t be fooled by that sophisticated label.
Yes, it has plenty of cultural activities – the symphony, theater, art museums and more – but it also has a secret: It’s a great family vacation destination. Five reasons to visit this summer:

Circus History and Fun

Sarasota was once the winter headquarters for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and many circus performers still have homes there. John and Mabel Ringling built a magnificent mansion on Sarasota Bay and their collection of Old Masters artworks are the core of The Ringling Art Museum.

The Ringling complex has a great surprise for kids: a Circus Museum that includes a 44,000-piece, hand-carved miniature circus with careful, authentic detail and an interactive museum with circus posters, memorabilia, glittery costumes, parade wagons and more. Kids can walk on a high wire, squeeze into a clown car or see the cannon that once propelled “human cannonball” performers.

Follow that visit with a trip to Bob’s Train, and eat lunch or dinner in a restored Ringling Bros. train car. When Bob Horne isn’t dishing out meals and circus history, he’s restoring the “JoMar” train car that was the Ringlings’ private residence when the circus was traveling from town to town.

Even St. Armands Circle, the sort-of Rodeo Drive of Sarasota, has a circus connection – it’s home to the Circus Ring of Fame. St. Armands is great for strolling, window shopping (or buying) and ice-cream treats. Parents will recognize names of some of the notable circus performers in the Ring of Fame.

Kids also would love a visit to the Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary, a large animal rescue for exotic animals, including bears and lions. It has a petting zoo, too, but don’t expect to be touching a lion’s mane!

Iconic Florida

Today’s Sarasota is a modern, growing city, but you’ll still find pockets of the “Old Florida” that seem unchanged since the state’s early days as a tourist attraction.

Visit Snook Haven and dine on the banks of the Myakka River near Venice, just south of Sarasota. You’ll be transported to the Florida of the 1950s. Enjoy seafood or a Back Woods Barbecue menu on picnic tables and listen to live music on an outdoor stage, rent a canoe or kayak or take a riverboat ride. Locals bring their own lawn chairs and sit a spell, just like in the old days.

Plan to see Historic Spanish Point on Little Sarasota Bay, where some of Florida’s earliest pioneers built homesteads in the 1800s. You can tour a 1901 home and visit one of the largest butterfly gardens in the state, or take a trip on MAGIC, a replica pioneer boat.

Sarasota Jungle Gardens has a flock of flamingos that kids can feed and more than 200 native and exotic animals kids can interact with in a beautiful garden setting. See the Jungle Bird Show or Reptile Encounter and stop by after the show for a chance to pet or take a photo with the animal stars. The attraction opened in the 1930s.

Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium was famous among shark researchers before it ever opened its doors to visitors. You’ll find sharks there, of course, but other marine animals as well in attractive displays that educate kids and adults. The sea otters are a favorite. Visitors can take a hands-on eco boat tour or sign up for a Shark Encounter, helping Mote staff prepare food and feed the sharks. Next door is Save Our Seabirds, a wild bird learning center and living museum that cares of injured birds unable to return to the wild.

Nature

Camp, hike and swim in the state parks around Florida, and see critters – alligators, too! – from a safe distance, of course. The closest state parks to Sarasota are Oscar Shear and Myakka.

At Oscar Shear, see endangered species, hike and fish from the docks. Normally, you can rent a campsite at Oscar Shear for an inexpensive, but priceless vacation and explore its 1,382 acres and two fresh-water lakes. This summer, though, the campsites will be closed while the campground bridge is replaced; it’s expected to reopen in November, if not sooner. At Myakka, take a boat trip on the Myakka River or a tram tour of the park, or rent bikes or a canoe to explore 58 square miles of wetlands and prairies.

Siesta Key Beach

The Beaches

Sarasota’s beaches regularly make Dr. Beach’s Top 10 Beaches list for their beautiful sand and amenities – Siesta Beach was No. 1 on the list two years ago.

Many families rent beach houses or stay at resorts on Siesta Key, Longboat Key or Lido Key and explore Sarasota from there. Swim in the ocean, built sandcastles, cook out on the beach or grab some bait, wade out into the water and fish for whiting or snook.

America’s Favorite Pastime

If your family likes baseball, take the kids to see the Bradenton Marauders game, a Minor League Baseball team affiliated with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The team plays throughout the summer.

For trips next year during winter or spring school breaks, you’ll be able to see “America’s Team,” aka the Atlanta Braves, in spring training at a new 6,200-seat stadium, Cool Today Park, in North Port in south Sarasota County.

The Details

Getting There: Sarasota is about an hour south of Tampa, about an eight-hour drive from Atlanta. Frontier Airlines just started direct service to Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, competing with Delta Air Lines and offering promotional airfares and a Kids Fly Free program (not really free, but a good deal).

Where to Stay: Rent a beach house, condo or private residence or pick a family-friendly hotel, resort or campground. You’ll find plenty to choose from at visitsarasota.com, the city’s convention and visitors’ bureau.

On a recent trip, we stayed at the Art Ovation Hotel, just off Main Street. It’s beautiful, with lots of engaging art, a rooftop bar and dining, and within walking distance to theaters – great for couples, business travelers and families with older kids, but probably not the best location for families with small children.

– Liz White

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