Staying in Tampa for Your Walt Disney World Vacation

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©Scott Wurzel
©Scott Wurzel

A common topic of discussion for Walt Disney World vacation planning is whether to stay on or off-site. Assuming you choose the latter, most look to Orlando area hotels and resorts. This of course gives you good access to Disney World parks and other area attractions, but if you are interested in a more complete Florida vacation, staying in Tampa for your Walt Disney World vacation is a compelling alternative. Because Interstates 75, 275, and 4 form a triangle around the city, most attractions in Central Florida are an hour or less away, and the best beaches in the continental United States are even closer.

Orlando Parks

Walt Disney World (All Parks)
Via: I-4
Travel Time: 75 minutes.

Universal Orlando (Universal Studios Florida and Island of Adventure)
Via: I-4
Travel Time: 85 minutes.

SeaWorld Orlando
Via: I-4
Travel Time: 70 minutes.

©Scott Wurzel
©Scott Wurzel

Beaches

With white powdered sand, warm gulf water, and calm seas the beaches of Pinellas county consistently rank in the top ten beaches in the US. The best part: sunsets. No need to drive to California to watch the sun sink into the ocean.

Clearwater Beach
Via: State Road 60, over the scenic Courtney Campbell Causeway.
Travel Time: 50 minutes.

St. Petersburg Beach
Via: I-275.
Travel Time: 55 minutes.

Central Florida Attractions

When you separate yourself from the Orlando area, your attraction options widen. Busch Gardens and its seasonally operated water park Adventure Island, are located in North Tampa and are less than 20 minutes away from anywhere in the city.  The Embassy Suites a few blocks away are a good base camp for the whole area and a short walk to the park.

The Channel District houses the beautiful Florida Aquarium and Central Tampa has the small but well themed Lowry Park Zoo. Legoland is also about as far away as Disney World, and Dinosaur World is on the way to both!  Kennedy Space Center is a little further away, but possible (and worth it) for the space enthusiast in your family.

Busch Gardens, Adventure Island, Florida Aquarium, and Lowry Park Zoo
Via: Local Roads.
Travel Time: 10-20 minutes.

Legoland
Via: I-4.
Travel Time: 60 minutes.

Dinosaur World
Via: I-4.
Travel Time: 20 minutes.

Kennedy Space Center
Via:  I-4.
Travel Time: 2 hours.

Museums

The area also boasts Florida’s most popular museums. The Tampa Museum of Art, Glazer Childrens’ Museum, and the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts are all within a few blocks of each other in downtown. Near Bush Gardens is the Museum of Science and Industry. A short drive to St. Petersburg gets you to the Salvador Dali Museum and about an hour south of Tampa is the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota.

Salvador Dali Museum ©Scott Wurzel
Salvador Dali Museum ©Scott Wurzel

Tampa Museum of Art, Children’s Museum, Museum of Photographic Arts, and MOSI
Via: Local roads.
Travel Time: 10-20 minutes.

Salvador Dali Museum
Via: I-275.
Trave Time: 40 minutes.

Ringling Museum of Art
Via: I-75
Travel Time: 70 minutes.

Food and Drink

Orlando and the Walt Disney World area have a lot of well known names on their restaurants, but the cultural and creative trends in the Tampa area are unique in the state. Without exhaustively listing the best restaurants and drinking establishments, here are some I think you would regret missing.

Bern’s Steak House (map)
World famous steaks and an entire room dedicated to dessert. Its cellar is an attraction itself and supports the restaurant’s claim to the largest wine list anywhere in the world.

Cigar City Brewing ©Scott Wurzel
Cigar City Brewing ©Scott Wurzel

Cigar City Brewing (map)
Located in a nondescript area near Tampa International Airport, this little brewery is quickly becoming one of the most famous in the country. On the weekends and Friday you will usually find a local food truck parked outside.

Columbia Restaurant (map)
Florida’s oldest restaurant, this Spanish establishment opened in 1905 in Ybor City; now Tampa’s historic district. Standouts are paella, arroz con pollo, and local seafood cooked in various Spanish styles.

The Refinery (map)
Twice nominated for a James Beard Award, it features a menu that changes weekly and some of the best deals on wine and beer in the area.

Rapp Brewing Company (map)
This is about a 40 minute drive over Tampa Bay, but if you are a beer drinker, there isn’t a better place in all of Florida to have a few. Stop by on your way to the beach. Food trucks usually show up on Saturday.

When you plan your next adventure to visit the Mouse, consider not just staying offsite, but in one of Florida’s *other* rich entertainment strongholds. Maybe you will discover a little piece of what brought Walt to Florida (other than the gigantic swath of vacant swamp). Since you will be driving a little bit to get the Walt Disney World, make sure you check the crowd calendar.  It will help you determine how late you can sleep in and when the parks open.

Do you have any favorite areas of Florida to stay? Please share below.

Scott Wurzel

A native of the Mouse State, Scott has had an annual pass longer than a driver's license. He is an avid photographer in and outside of the park. Check out his other work on Flickr and his portfolio at angrymob.us.

5 thoughts on “Staying in Tampa for Your Walt Disney World Vacation

  • September 3, 2014 at 2:08 pm
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    I stayed about 1-hour south of Tampa on Anna Maria Island, and drove to Disney for an overnight stay at the park. It was about a 1.5 hour drive from the island to the Yacht Club Resort, and it was probably the best trip. Beaches, sun, relaxation, and a few days in Disney Parks. It still ranks up at #1 for Best Vacation Ever.

  • September 3, 2014 at 2:16 pm
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    Our family owns a condo in Clearwater so we do a lot of day trips to Disney when we visit or do combo half-Disney/half-beach trips. Clearwater beach is a really fun place. The area is perfect for families who might want a “compromise” trip. Someone wants the beach, someone wants Disney, this way you get a little of both.

  • September 3, 2014 at 3:28 pm
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    Living in the Tampa area its no big deal to go to Walt Disney just for dinner. Many of time I’ll head up and watch Yee-Haw Bob or go to the ESPN club. Like any city Tampa has many hidden gems. Scott mentions some great places to see, thanks Scott. I really wish the train was built between Tampa and Orlando. There’s been times when a guest at the hotel where I work has ask “How long does it take to get to Disney” or because they are here on a business trip they have no transportation to get there.

    • September 3, 2014 at 3:50 pm
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      Public transportation is definitely a pain point for Florida. It’s getting better slowly, but trains between our major cities would be nice. Maybe Disney will by Busch Gardens and build that bullet train. 🙂

  • September 5, 2014 at 4:21 am
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    As a guy born and raised, and now again, living in Tampa, it’s great to see Touring Plans profile the city I love that keeps me just 90 minutes from driveway to turnstile. The skyline picture was definitely taken from my neighborhood. I drive over that bridge 5 days a week.
    I’ll second Scott’s Tampa picks. Bern’s for the dessert room. I’m not a fan of ales or IPAs, and thankfully Cigar City Brewing also makes “Hotter than Helles” lager too. The Columbia is a cornerstone of traditional Tampa restaurants and Tampa history. You can eat here at any time, but if you want a table in the room with the stage on the nights they have flamenco dancers, you should get a reservation. If you don’t have one, you can still get into the restaurant. You’ll be in a different, but still beautiful, room.
    The Refinery is a personal favorite especially when it’s nice enough out to sit on the rooftop deck. When it’s not nice out, the ground-level dining room can get crowded. Another nearby choice in Seminole Heights is Ella’s Folk Art Cafe. If you’re in downtown for the museums, I’ll also plug Cafe Hey on Franklin St just north of the interstate (and not just because they named a sandwich after me).
    In short, Yes! Stay in Tampa for a couple of nights and check out both our tourist attractions (I’ll add the Tampa Bay History Center) and local favorite restaurants.

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