A Trip to the Zoo: The Magic of Meeting the Wildlife

Next to Disney World, nothing gets a kid more excited than the idea of going to the zoo for the first time. Recently, Ariana had her first field trip to the zoo and couldn't contain her excitement. Her entire kindergarten class visited Lowry Park Zoo, a 24-acre facility that houses more than 1,200 wildlife. 

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There were many reasons why the little one was beyond thrilled about this field trip. For one, visiting the zoo is better when you have an exploration buddy, in this case, Gabie, who shared every "ohhs" and "ahhs" at the magical sight of giant elephants, playful tigers and splendid manta rays, just to name a few. 

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Secondly, this little girl was so excited about the trip because she was eager to go on a school bus for the first time. Yes, this trip was a lot of firsts for this five-year-old! She was more than eager to report that her first bus trip was "magical." Only one other thing could possible top that: Being in the zoo itself and seeing all the rare and endangered animals.   

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There are multiple exhibits at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo, but her favorite is the Safari Africa exhibit. To experience the full exhibit, we hopped on a Safari trolley where a guide drove us around the entire area and pointed out unfamiliar wildlife in each enclosure. We saw okapis, zebras, cheetahs (the little one's favorite!) as well as magnificent African elephants. Lowry Park Zoo is home to three elephants from Swaziland, one from Namibia and two calves born at the zoo. Our guide also noted that the male elephant is always separated from the rest of the herd as he prefers to be solitary.

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When planning a zoo trip with your little one, wait to visit until they are old enough to truly appreciate the full experience. As rookie parents, we made the mistake of taking Ariana too early to the Newport Aquarium in Cincinnati in the pastshe was either uninterested or terrified to see the giant mammals. Learning from our mistake, we made the decision to wait until she's older before bringing her to the zoo. This time around, she enjoyed every bit of the experience, including seeing the gigantic rhinocerous up close. 

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Don't skip the bird sanctuary when in the zoo. The girls were delighted to see different species of birds, including eagles, hornbills and lovely flamingos in bright tangerine color. They were truly a one-of-a-kind sight to see!

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Over at the Florida exhibit, the girls saw the Sunshine State's diverse wildlife, including manatees, crocodiles and the Florida panther. In fact, the girls (above) were simply in awe at these pre-historic-looking creatures.

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Next to the sting ray exhibit is the aquarium for otters. The otter was clearly loving the attention as it kept showing off its amazing swimming and diving skills close to the glass where the kids were huddled to get a closer look at the tiny animal. As clearly shown on the little one's face, she was impressed by the little creature's aquatic performance!

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Aside from its wildlife exhibits, Lowry Park Zoo also has a mini aquarium which displays sea horses, rare schools of fish, turtles and other amphibians.

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Perhaps the highlight of the day was seeing the tiger and her baby cub play and chase each other. It was so adorable to see these wild creatures play hide-and-seek and playfully pounce on each other. It was almost easy to forget these are natural predators that are, in the wild, born to haunt and prey. 

Overall, it was such a wonderful experience for the kids. On the way home, this little girl summed up her day: "Best day ever!"

Sponge Docks: A Little Taste of Greece (Part II)

For the uninitiated, the little quaint community at the Sponge Docks has long been known as the Greek Village because of its storied history. When early entrepreneurs discovered the profitability of harvesting and selling sponges, experienced Greek divers flocked to the Bayou to help create Tarpon Spring's sponge industry. Today, it's easy to have your full senses delighted by what you see, touch, smell, hear and taste at Florida's "Little Greece."

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TOUCH: At the Greek Village at the Sponge Docks, there are more than 100 unique shops to visit. It's an "Adult Disneyland" for the souvenir-shopper as there's always a little treasure worth bringing homewhether that's a rainbow collection of starfishes, handmade bomb soaps, a miniature sponge diver sculpture or a hand-carved wooden pelican that would make a lovely decor by the porch. 

Madhatters: Ariana and daddy tested out  the silly hats sold at one of the novelty shops.

Madhatters: Ariana and daddy tested out  the silly hats sold at one of the novelty shops.

SEE: When shopping along its rows of boutiques and novelty shops, take in every color and view. You'll be amazed by the contrasts of organic, neutral palette that evokes a farmhouse-feel in some of its shops to the explosion of colors of many of its trinkets, like the nut-made bracelets above.

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SMELL: It's impossible not to be drawn in by the shops' lovely aroma of handmade soaps, many of them made with olive and essential oils. One of our favorite shops around the block is Getaguru, which has the most fragrant lavender and peppermint soap we've ever found. Over at The Sponge Factory, be sure to grab a jar of the locally made body scrub in delicious scents. Ariana couldn't resist the Cotton Candy scrub, and mommy is not complaining as it left my hand ultra-soft.

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HEAR: Hear trivia about Tarpon Springs and how sponges are harvested while you enjoy the brief documentary movie inside its sponge factories. Who knew the place was first called Bayou before Mary Ormond, the daughter of the Bayou's early settler, named it Tarpon Springs after the magnificent fish that inhabited its waters?

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TASTE: You can never claim you've been at the Sponge Docks unless you've delighted in authentic Greek food. There are more than 10 restaurants and bakeries to choose from, some features live entertainment, belly dancing and authentic Greek music. There's Costas, which offers breakfast on the docks during weekends, Rusty Bellies Waterfront Seafood for either a serving of gyro or fresh-catch-of-the-day, and The Original Mama Maria's where the calamari is to-die-for. What better way to cap a Greek weekend adventure? With desserts, of course. Stop over at Hellas Bakery. We guarantee, you won't be able to resist the delightful desserts!

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EXPERIENCE: To get the full experience, don't just have the customary photo shoot at the diver's booth at The Sponge Factory, but take the cruise experience to see sponge divers in action, go dolphin-watching or spend the entire day sport-fishing on a rented boat.

At the Sponge Docks, there is no shortage of things to do. The only thing short in this little paradise is, you guessed it, time. 

Sponge Docks: A Little Taste of Greece (Part I)

When I think of Greece, I think of its storied history, temple ruins, mythical gods and undeniable beauty, much like Helen of Troy, "the face that launched a thousand ships" in Greek mythology. The beautiful island of Greece is definitely on the family's bucket list of places to see, so when we heard of a little Greek community at the Sponge Docks at Tarpon Springs along Tampa Bay, Florida, we took the opportunity to experience a little taste of Greece.  

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A trip to the Sponge Docks from where we live is a short 30-minute drive, making it ideal for a quick Saturday family adventure. Despite what mythical stories may tell you, there is no Greek tragedy here. The Sponge Docks came into being after John Cheney discovered the business potential of selling sponges harvested from Florida's rich ocean floor. Cheney was an associate of a wealthy entrepreneur named Hamilton Disston who, in 1880, saved the state of Florida from bankruptcy by purchasing four million acres of land (Tarpon Springs included) from the government.

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By 1890, the sponge industry was firmly established at Tarpon Springs. With news of a growing sponge industry, Tarpon Spring's population grew as experienced sponge divers from Greece were soon after hired to help meet a growing market demand. Along with this, tourism exploded as more tourists were eventually drawn to the Sponge Docks to purchase sponges, see the divers in action and indulge in authentic Greek food. 

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As more and more Greek divers came to Tarpon Springs for work, they later created a community that continued to celebrate the Greek way of life. Today, a life-sized statue of a sponger stands tall to honor the early divers who helped put Tarpon Springs on the world map as the "Sponge Capital of the World."

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Sponges are aquatic animals that cling to a rock or coral. When harvesting, divers gently squeeze out the gurry, a gelatinous substance found in sponges. They then pound and clean the sponges on the ship's deck. Be warned: You'll likely get a whiff of rotten smell while walking by a ship with drying sponges. While the sponges' skin is drying, heat releases a gas that causes a salty, dead-fish smell.

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Today, the Sponge Docks offers a lot of quirky finds, including decorated bicycles randomly displayed throughout the street, which are actually art installations by a local artist named Warren Gregory who was inspired to create art bikes from his time in Amsterdam. Visitors and diners may also enjoy acoustic music al fresco-style, with a view of the calm sea, docks and ships. Who could possibly resist a nice glass of wine, gyro or baklava with a stunning view?

Clockwise:  Ariana with her Papaw Arvil at The sponge factory; playing with puppets sold at one of the gift shops and with the rest of the family for a customary photo shoot in front of the divers' memorial.

Clockwise: Ariana with her Papaw Arvil at The sponge factory; playing with puppets sold at one of the gift shops and with the rest of the family for a customary photo shoot in front of the divers' memorial.

At the Sponge Docks, there are surprises at every turn. There are many more to this adventure so keep an eye out of Part II of this travel diary.