Have fun with the kids this summer

Four ideal destinations to keep you and your kids happily distracted this summer.

click to enlarge EP-CAUGHT: Disney World's even more fun when you're in on the bargains. - Alisa Mitchell
Alisa Mitchell
EP-CAUGHT: Disney World's even more fun when you're in on the bargains.

When you have kids, summer is less a vacation and more a challenge. Forget about those pastoral memories of your youth, when you and a friend jumped into the old fishing hole and caught toads for impromptu hoppin' contests — it ain't like that around here. In fact, unless you have your very own pool, summer in the Bay area means finding ways to avoid being outside with your kids. And how many parents do you know — these days — who just send their kids out to entertain themselves for an eight-hour stretch? That's a surefire recipe for the kinds of kooky adventures that the DCF would frown upon, if they were competent.

In that spirit, here is a short list of activities for making it through the summer vacation while staying cool and providing distracting activities for the wee ones.

Bounce U

Essentially an indoor carnival staffed with perky teenage girls instead of carnies, Bounce U is one of the nicest franchised kids' entertainment operations to come to town in years. The entire, warehouse-sized space is crammed full of inflatable obstacle courses, slides and games, with no lines and a modest fee for entry. It's always kept ice cold, there's comfy carpeting, and the constant hum of fans and air pumps mutes the screeching of the kids. And don't be like all the moms I see chatting on the sidelines — those kids are screeching because this stuff is fun. Kick off your shoes and join in. 1925 Northgate Blvd.,
Sarasota, 941-355-3777
or bounceu.com.

Florida Aquarium Explore a Shore

Yeah, all the fish and educational stuff is nice, I guess, but visiting the aquarium is merely an excuse to get wet at Explore A Shore. Florida Aquarium's on-site kiddie water park is the kind of place children dream of — giant pirate ship with water cannons, secret tunnels and hidden caves, cargo netting that leads to tame but thrilling water slides. There's even a spot set aside for young toddlers. Sadly, it's not air-conditioned, but parents can still chill in the shade with a frosty beverage, thanks to the covered patio of an aquarium restaurant overlooking the water, while your kids do their things. Tickets are $19.95, $14.95 for children under 12, but if you plan on making this your go-to spot a family membership for $140 could be a better deal. 701 Channelside Dr., Tamoa, 813-273-4000 or http://www.flaquarium.org/.

Captain Memo's Pirate Vessel

Imagine taking your little ones on board a gigantic, bright red pirate ship and cruising around St. Pete with all the "aaarrr"-ing and "avast"-ing you can handle, and you've got the Memo experience. The ship looks like nothing more than Captain Hook's ill-fated vessel, and the two-hour trip includes tutorials on the finer aspects of the pirate life, minus any actual rapin' and pillagin' or rat-infested food. At $25 for kids, the price isn't a king's ransom, even when you count in the inevitable purchases of plastic swords and faux-flintlocks to outfit your budding pre-adolescent pirates. You will have to bring your own rum ration in a flask, but keep it on the down-low. 727-446-2587 or captainmemo.com.

Disney World at a discount

Normally, I'd shy away from any outdoor activity that requires constant walking in the blazing sun — Lowry Park Zoo, for instance, is only bearable in the cooler months — but Disney is hurting for visitors thanks to the economic downturn. That means specials, especially for Florida residents, are plentiful.

For a mere $99 (or $84 for kids), you can snatch a two-day pass to Disney's theme parks. The ticket's not a park-hopper, but you can visit a different destination each day. And Disney has extended that savings to their resorts. The low-end spots like the All-Star Sports, Music and Movie hotels are dirt cheap at $69 a night, while moderate spots like Port Orleans and Caribbean Beach clock in at $99.

The trick to visiting the Mouse on the cheap is planning. All the hotel rooms come with fridges, so plan on bringing as much food and drink as you can handle to cut expenses. And plan on visiting during someone's birthday to get either free entry for the day for that person or a merchandise credit equal to the cost of a single day's entry — which is a better option if you're buying the two-day passes. That's a lot of souvenirs for free.

As for the heat, well, it's surprisingly easy to handle the godawful screeching of "It's A Small World" when the temperature difference between outside and inside is about 30 degrees.

Final tip: Kids like Disney World, but they like swimming in a fancy pool as much, or more. Plan on staying an extra day to just sit by the pool with a thermos of margaritas (made in your room) while they frolic the hours away. disneyworld.disney.go.com

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