For years, we’ve heard such wonderful things about Sarasota from family and friends. We were so excited to finally visit this beautiful area along the Florida Gulf Coast this March. With family in Siesta Key, it was perfect location for access to the award winning beaches, along with all that Sarasota has to offer at our fingertips. While we’ve enjoyed going to the beach with our son since he was a baby, we love learning about the history and culture of any city we travel to just as much.
Fortunately, Sarasota is a place that offers all this and more. We quickly found during our visit that the beautiful bay, white-sand beaches and rich history of Sarasota County make it the perfect vacation destination. Whether you’re traveling to Sarasota with kids or not, there truly is something for everyone.
Keep reading for our list of fun things to do in Sarasota, as well as a few we’re saving for the next trip!
Our visits to Mote Aquarium, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens and Ringling Museum were sponsored by Visit Sarasota. As always, all opinions are our own. This post may also include affiliate links, which means we may earn a small commision for any items purchased through our links at no charge to you.
Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquariums
The Mote Marine Lab and Aquarium is a “working aquarium” that offers tons of marine life from the second you walk in. This includes coral reefs, sharks and an abundance of fish, to name a few. There are also two touch tanks, including a stingray tank; a favorite of our son’s at any aquarium. Throughout the entire aquarium, you can also find a wealth of information about the ocean and Mote’s efforts conserve it. With Mote being a working aquarium, there are opportunities to observe scientists first hand in the labs. This added experience makes Mote unique compared to other aquariums we’ve visited in the past.
Mote Marine Mammal Research and Rehabilitation Center
The second building of Mote Aquarium is the Mote Marine Mammal Center. This building is accessed through a short walk from the main aquarium. Here, there are a number of rescued animals, including turtles, alligators and manatees. If you’re visiting Mote with young kids like us, you’ll notice that each of the turtle tanks also have windows near the ground for their viewing. Be sure to also stop by the tunnel for kids that’s made up of netting used for rescuing turtles.
While you’re at the research center, try to catch a feeding and training session with the adorable river otters. Watching them do tricks and follow commands for their food is pretty much the cutest thing ever. Definitely something that shouldn’t be missed! We unfortunately ran out of time and weren’t able to explore the second floor of this building, where you’ll find the “Oh Baby! Life Cycles of the Seas” exhibit with babies of many species found at the aquarium.
Know Before You Go: Mote Marine Lab & Aquarium is located on Sarasota’s City Island at 1600 Ken Thompson Pkwy, Sarasota, FL 34236. Children under 3 are free. For more on visiting the Mote Aquarium, see here.
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
From the moment you step into the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, you’re greeted with the most amazing and colorful plant life. In addition to the abundance of plants, the entire grounds of Selby Gardens are immaculate and set against the scenic and peaceful Sarasota Bay. (The views are almost as beautiful as the Gardens themselves!) The entire area is divided into separate sections, with everything from indoor plants to desert landscape to mangroves.
In addition to the regular displays, Selby Gardens spotlights a different botanical artist every few months. Currently, Paul Gauguin is being featured through June 30, 2019. In addition to his works of art, there are nature-themed inspirational quotes and Polynesian inspired tikis, canoes and hand-carved masks throughout Selby Gardens.
Children’s Areas at Selby Gardens
Botanical gardens may not be the first thing you think of visiting when sightseeing with a toddler. It’s clear, however, that children are also such an important consideration of the Selby Gardens. There are two major areas at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens that are dedicated to children. (Plus the rest of the grounds are completely kid-friendly.) The Children’s Rainforest Garden is the main outdoor section for kids, and it includes:
- Several huts set up for pretend play, including a wooden cafe set and musical theater.
- Swinging hammocks and tire swing under the shade
- A play area with beautiful, painted fogs amongst dozens of colorful hula hoops
- A learning garden with a variety of plants on display
- A few areas to play music amongst the plant life
If you’re looking for a break from the Florida sun, the Kids’ Corner offers a great indoor play area. This space, located next to Selby Cafe, is packed with nature themed toys and games for kids. And with everything from a nursing rocker to dress-up clothes, it caters to everyone from the newborn babies up. Selby Gardens also offers a monthly Little Sprouts Club that includes activities geared toward kids ages 2-5. We didn’t get to check it out on this visit, but the program includes rainforest themed activities, a snack and story time.
Know Before You Go: The Selby Botanical Gardens are located 900 S. Palm Avenue, Sarasota, FL 34236. Admission is free for kids up to age 5, making it super affordable for families. The grounds are very spread out, so be sure to have either a stroller or carrier if you’re visiting with younger children.
The Ringling Circus Museum
Before planning our trip to Sarasota, I had no idea how much Sarasota has deep roots in the circus. In fact, John Ringling, one of five Ringling Brothers, along with his wife Mable, brought much of the wealth and cultural significance to the Sarasota area. Knowing this, we couldn’t leave Sarasota without a visit to the Ringling Circus Museum. With limited time during our visit to The Ringling, we focused our time on enjoying the Tibbals Learning Center and the Original Circus Museum.
Tibbals Learning Center at The Ringling
The best place to start right after getting through the Visitor’s Center is Tibbals Learning Center. Once you go through the big top entrance, you’re immediately greeted by a large, colorful mural of the circus from the 1970s and 80s. The adjoining hallway also contains a number of original circus posters from the early years of the Ringling Brothers circus. Next door is the world’s largest circus model. The “Howard Bros. Circus” is a recreation of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® circus from the 1920s and 30s. The model spares no detail, from the performers to the animals to the train cars used to house them. The display also contains an abundance of facts about the circus as you walk around the model, which was a great way to visualize the circus while simultaneously learning more about it.
The newest wing of Tibbals Learning Center on the first floor also has an amazing, interactive section that’s great for both kids and kids at heart. This portion of the museum allows visitors to take a hands-on approach to learning about the museum. Our toddler son’s favorite displays included:
- Listing to different circus tunes from the headphone sets
- Climbing into the clown car and operating the lever
- Pretending to walk the high wire and hitting the applause button at the end
- Seeing the life-size animals up close and learning about their contributions to the circus, including a decorated elephant, a tiger and a horse that you can “ride”
The Original Circus Museum at The Ringling
After Tibbals Learning Center, we made our way to the Original Circus Museum. This huge space included several original cars dating back to the early days of the circus, well as several large props. One of the newest additions to the museum is the beautifully restored and a side-show mural exhibit. This section also has a reading nook full of circus-themed books if you’re visiting the Ringling Museum with kids.
While my husband and I enjoyed reading about the history of the circus, the colorful details of the exhibits and circus memorabilia were more than enough to keep our son’s attention.
In addition to the kid-friendly features of the circus museum, there’s a huge outdoor play area on the property called the Bolder Playspace. This park includes a few different play structures and swings, and it’s free to the public. Ringling also offers a number of family programs, including stroller tours in the Museum of Art, ROAR! story time in the Education Center and Family Saturdays. If you’re there in the summer months, we also discovered that there’s a Summer Circus Spectacular geared specifically toward family audiences. Definitely something that will be on our list for future visits!
Know Before You Go: The Ringling Museums are located at 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota, FL 34243. Children under 5 are free, and children 5-17 are only $5. The museums are large and spread out, so we’d recommend bringing a stroller or carrier if you’re visiting with younger kids. Be sure to grab a scavenger hunt for kids at the Visitor’s Center as well!
We were super excited to find out that Circus Sarasota was running during our visit to the area. This show is one of few held at the red and white “big top” at the Nathan Benderson Park by University Town Center in Sarasota. Circus Sarasota is a production from the Circus Arts Conservatory, a non-profit and one of the only of it’s kind dedicated to educating and entertaining families on the circus arts. Circus Sarasota brings in different acts each year with some of the best performers from all over the world. To highlight a few of the amazing performers in 2019, our favorites included:
- Ambra Andrine and her equestrian act with horses that danced around the ring in synchronized fashion
- The Hans Klose trained canines, with 20 well-trained dogs doing tricks to make the audience laugh in awe
- The Carrillos high wire act, with gravity defying stunts
- The Kolev Sisters, who showed their amazing strength with a hand balancing act
- Ringmaster Joseph Bauer Jr, who ended the show by performing on the Wheel of Destiny, where he walked blindfolded on a wheel in the air with no support
More Information on the Circus in Sarasota
Circus Sarasota only runs for a few weeks during February and March, and we were lucky to catch the last show of 2019 during our time in Sarasota. In addition to Circus Sarasota, there are several other performances from the Circus Arts Conservatory throughout the year. (Including the Summer Circus Spectacular for “children of all ages” at Ringling’s Historic Asolo Theater.) Be sure to check out their website for more info on everything this conservatory has to offer for kids in Sarasota, from performances to classes and camps.
Know Before You Go: Circus Sarasota is about 2.5 hours long, which can be a lot of sitting for younger kids. I’d recommend trying to get seats along the aisle so you can easily get out to give kids a break without disturbing others’ views. While I did see some families exit early, we took advantage of the entrance tent with concessions and tables for breaks.
Ride the Siesta Key Breeze Trolley
This Sarasota County mode of transportation quickly became one of our favorite things about Siesta Key. Not only is it an easy way of getting around Siesta Key, but this brightly colored bus is almost an attraction in itself if you’re visiting Sarasota with a toddler. Each time we told my son that we were taking the trolley, which he referred to as a “choo choo,” he couldn’t have been more excited. What little kid doesn’t love trains?
The best part is that the Siesta Key Trolley is free, and it loops between Siesta Key Village, the beach, and back around. This makes it great to use if you’re at Siesta Beach and want to hop over to Siesta Key Village for a bite to eat without having to re-park.
The bus system in Sarasota County is just as great and convenient to use for a small fee. For more information on the buses in Sarasota and the Siesta Key Trolley schedule, visit the Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) website here.
Explore the Great Playgrounds in Sarasota
With the amazing weather all year round, Sarasota is home to a number of playground for kids. While we were staying in Siesta Key, a favorite of our son’s was the beachside playground there. There’s a huge playground geared toward older kids as well as designated toddler playground for kiddos 2-5 years old. The toddler playground even has large shades to shield kids from the Florida sun. Additionally, there’s a separate area for both baby and regular swings, all of which are on a cushy surface. The playground area is also surrounded by covered picnic tables. The setup makes it easy for parents to easily supervise (and maybe even relax!) while the kids play.
In addition to Siesta Beach playground, we also had a chance to check out the aforementioned Bolger Play Space at The Ringling. For more great playgrounds in the Sarasota area, including the circus-themed Payne Park, see here.
Visit Siesta Beach
Siesta Beach, although last on this list, was certainly one of the highlights of our trip. Even if you’re not staying in Siesta Key, any trip to Sarasota with kids isn’t complete without spending at least a few hours at Siesta Beach. This beautiful, white-sand beach has consistently been rated one of the top beaches in the United States. The best part is that the sand is actually cool to the touch. (This was our toddler son’s first time walking on the beach by himself, and the sand make it so much easier!) The Gulf is also calmer than the beaches in the northeast that we’re used to, making it perfect for kids of all ages.
In addition to the amazing playground previously mentioned, the facilities at Siesta Beach include:
- A beach pavilion with a well stocked cafe and a few beach necessities
- Several shaded tables and pavilions located throughout
- Bathroom facilities with changing tables
- Several outdoor showers to get all that sand off
- Chair and umbrella rentals
- Volleyball nets
If you happen to be in Siesta Key on a Sunday evening, there’s also a drum circle on the beach that takes place during the beautiful sunset. We didn’t get a chance to see it this time, but we did catch the Siesta Beach sunset and are definitely looking forward to the drums on our next visit!
Know Before You Go: Parking fills up quickly at Siesta Beach. If you’re driving, I recommend getting there before 10am. The Siesta Breeze Trolley and Sarasota/ SCAT bus drops off right there as well. For more on other beaches in the Sarasota area, head to Visit Sarasota website.
Additional Things to Do with Kids in Sarasota
With limited time to explore, there were so many things on our list that we didn’t get to. We’re already thinking about our next trip to Sarasota! Here are a few more ideas for things to do in Sarasota with kids:
- Kayaking in the Mangroves with Kayaking SRQ (Recommended for age 2+ with discounted rates for children)
- Dolphin & Manatee Watch Cruise on LeBarge Tropical Cruises (Under 4 is free)
- Shark Tooth Hunting in Venice Beach, the Shark Tooth Capital of the World (Free, self-guided activity)
- Nature Trail and Canopy Walk at Myakka River State Park (Free, self-guided activity)
With so much to do in Sarasota County, in addition to the beautiful beaches, it’s definitely a place we plan to return to. Please share in the comments if you have any favorite attractions in Sarasota with kids to add to this list.
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