If for the rest of its days the Clearwater Marine Aquarium is known foremost as the home of Winter – a dolphin fitted with a life-saving prosthetic tail after losing her real one to a crab trap – the aquarium would likely be okay with that.
I’m guessing that, not only because the aquarium’s website is a testament to Winter (it's seewinter.com), but also because Dolphin Tale, the hit movie released in September and based on Winter’s story, is inspiring droves of family vacationers to visit the aquarium to meet the miracle dolphin, learn about the technology behind her new tail, and see sets from the film firsthand.
Winter and her biopic have also raised awareness about the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area in general, which is a good thing for travelers in search of a less-trodden slice of Florida paradise. Much like Orlando sights beyond Walt Disney World and tranquil Amelia Island, St. Petersburg/Clearwater is a part of Florida that deserves to be more top-of-mind among families in search of a top-notch, well-rounded vacation destination.
“What most people know about Florida is M&M – Mickey and Miami,” says David Downing, assistant director of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Convention & Visitors Bureau,” noting that if you do happen to be in Orlando – for Mickey or some other reason – you'll be hard pressed to find a beach there. Which is why, once your family is done with Orlando, you might consider the easy 90-minute drive on I-4 from Orlando to visit a beach in the St. Pete/Clearwater area.
If seclusion is what you’re after, two beaches in particular are worth your time, though one of them, Fort De Soto Park, may soon be Florida’s worst-kept secret given its ongoing presence on best beaches lists. Families are wild about the park’s beaches not just because they’re free, Downing suggests, but also because the outlying shifting barrier islands have created a shallow, natural lagoon there that parents love for peace-of-mind beach time with their smaller kiddies. Also quite family-friendly and with an above-average café is the beach at Caladesi Island State Park, accessible by the Caladesi Island Ferry ($14 adults, $7 children, 5 and under free), which leaves from Honeymoon Island State Park.
Beyond the realm of dolphins and sunshine, The Dali Museum is a surprise cultural bastion that awaits in St. Petersburg. The permanent collection of paintings, photos, and other pieces will likely pack appeal for your teens and older kids, while the Saturday program Breakfast with Dali ($21 adults, $10 children 6–12, kids 5 and under free for the program and the museum itself) focuses on Dali works that appeal to younger children and is geared toward the 5 to 12 set. If you’re not around for the breakfast, the free Dillydally with Dali program is available for several hours a day all week and includes activities and stories in the museum’s education classroom.
One more thing: Right about now through the end of January, you’ll find some lower-than-usual hotel rates in St. Pete/Clearwater; as is the case in other parts of Florida. Historically, pricing will begin to creep up again in mid-February, just in time for school winter breaks.