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. While we’ve always enjoyed going to the beach, we love learning about the history and culture of any city we travel to just as much. Fortunately, if you’re looking for fun things to do in Sarasota with kids (or without) you can have all that and more.
The beautiful bay, white-sand beaches and rich history of Sarasota County make it the perfect family vacation destination. Whether you’re visiting with or without kids, there are so many awesome things to do in Sarasota, FL for everyone.
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 commision for qualifying purchases through our links at no charge to you.
Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquariums
The Mote Marine Lab and Aquarium is a working aquarium that includes a wide variety of marine life. You can find anything from coral reefs, sharks and an abundance of salt water and fresh water fish. The main building of the aquarium includes a wealth of information about the oceans and Mote’s efforts conserve them. With Mote being a working aquarium, there are many opportunities to observe scientists first hand in the labs.
There are also two touch tanks in the main building at Mote Aquarium, including a stingray tank. The touch tanks are a favorite of kids and one of many reasons this aquarium is one of the best things to do in Sarasota, Fl.
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. The Marine Mammal Center contains a number of rescued animals, including turtles, alligators and manatees. The sea turtle area in particular has great viewing spots for visitors of all ages, and a fun turtle netting area that kids can climb through.
Another highlight of the Marine Mammal Center is the feeding and training sessions with the adorable river otters. If time allows, you can also explore the second floor of the building, which is aptly named “Oh Baby! Life Cycles of the Seas.” This exhibit contains babies of many species found at the aquarium, and you can learn first hand how they’re cared for.
With the Mote Aquarium being primarily inside, it’s especially great if you’re looking for indoor things to do in Sarasota, FL.
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. At the time I visited, Paul Gauguin was being featured. Both his artwork and Polynesian artifacts were featured throughout Selby Gardens.
Children’s Areas at Selby Gardens
Botanical gardens may not be the first thing you think of when looking for fun things to do with kids in Sarasota. It’s clear, however, that children are also such an important consideration of the Selby Gardens. (Making it one of the best things to do in Sarasota with kids!) 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
Want a break from the Florida sun? The Kids’ Corner offers a great indoor play area in Sarasota. The space is packed with nature themed toys and games for kids. 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, 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. It’s easily one of the most unique things to do in Sarasota. With limited time during our visit to The Ringling, we focused on 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. One of the highlights here is a huge model circus that’s the largest model in the world. The model spares no detail, and it also contains an abundance of facts about the circus as you walk through it.
The newest wing of Tibbals Learning Center also has an 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. Here you can climb into a clown car, walk on the “high wire” and see several life size animal replicas up close.
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 adults enjoy reading about the history of the circus, the colorful details of the exhibits and circus memorabilia are great for capturing the attention of kids.
Ringling Museum with Kids
In addition to the kid-friendly features of the circus museum, there’s a huge playground at the Ringling Museum 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, there’s also a Summer Circus Spectacular geared specifically toward family audiences. Definitely something that will be on our list of family things to do in Sarasota, FL for the future!
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!
Circus Sarasota is one of the most popular Sarasota family activities. 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 brings in different acts each year, with some of the best performers from all over the world.
A few of the amazing Sarasota Circus performers include:
- 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.
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.)
Sarasota Jungle Gardens
The Sarasota Jungle Gardens are another awesome attraction if you’re looking for outdoor things to do in Sarasota besides the beach. The Jungle Gardens are part zoo/ part gardens and a staple of Sarasota families for years. The jungle loop is over a mile long and takes you through a jungle setting with several different species of wildlife along the way. Some of the highlights of visiting the Sarasota Jungle Gardens include:
- Friendly, free roaming flamingos that you can feed.
- A variety of animal species such as alligators, lemurs, prairie dogs, snakes and a variety of bird species.
- Interactive wildlife shows throughout the day that include birds, reptiles and more.
- A Jungle Playground for kids with several animal themed play structures.
- A petting zoo with goats, sheep, pigs and turtles.
Know Before You Go: Sarasota Jungle Gardens are located by downtown Sarasota at 3701 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota, FL 34234. Kids under 4 are free.
Explore the Great Playgrounds in Sarasota
With the amazing weather all year round, one of the best things to do in Sarasota with toddlers is explore the many Sarasota playgrounds. One of the best playgrounds in Sarasota is the Sarasota Beach playground in Siesta Key. 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 with swings, all of which are on a cushy surface.
In addition to Siesta Beach playground, we also had a chance to check out the aforementioned playground at The Ringling Museum (Bolger Play Space.) For more great playgrounds in the Sarasota area, including the circus-themed Payne Park, see here.
Visit Siesta Beach
Siesta Beach is by far one of the best beaches in Sarasota and has consistently been rated one of the top beaches in the United States. 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 the beach. This beautiful, white-sand beach is easily accessible and has a number of amenities that make it great for families. This Gulf Coast beach is also super calm, making it perfect for kids of all ages.
Related Post: Packing Tips and Beach Essentials for Baby
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
There are so many great beaches in Sarasota besides Siesta Key Beach. Other favorite beaches for families in Sarasota include Lido Beach, Crescent Beach and Venice Beach.
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.
Additional Things to Do in Sarasota with Kids
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.
Related Post: Kid-Friendly Places to Eat in Siesta Key
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