By Karen Rubin

There we were, my 11-year old and I, standing over the patient, wrapped in sheets except for the rectangular opening at his heart. Looking down into the open cavity, we watched the surgeon's hand's snip and suture, as he explained the steps in this delicate open-heart surgery. Then, about two minutes later, it was over, and the process repeated again.

The "surgery" was a clever video projection on a manikin, one of the many incredibly engaging and creative techniques used at the Tampa's Museum of Science & Industry (known as MOSI) to convey complicated scientific principles in simple, easy-to-understand terms.

In Tampa, Florida, the science museum is as engaging as the city's famous theme park, Busch Gardens, while the theme park is as enriching as the science museum, and the canoe trip through the Florida wilderness arranged through Canoe Escape is the best water ride of all.

Each winter, during what has become our annual visit to my parents in Florida, I organize a mini-trip we can all take together. The multi-generational getaway is a marvelous way to bring everyone together, sharing experiences and activities and the spirit of adventure.

This year, we targeted Tampa, just 80 miles west of Orlando on Florida's Gulf Coast. It proved an ideal venue for our trip, providing a dazzling array of experiences and attractions that appeal to all ages, from the color and nightlife of Ybor City, the Cuban historic district, to the enchantment and dazzle of Busch Gardens, to the engaging exhibits at the science museum, to the wonder of Florida's wilderness experienced by canoe. There was so much to do, in fact, we had to leave before we completed our list of "to-dos" so we hope to make a return visit.

Tampa is a city, a real place (picture a coastal, tropical Philadelphia), a cosmopolitan , sophisticated city with resort amenities. Downtown is sculpted by tall skyscrapers with names of major regional banks, wide boulevards, distinct neighborhoods, a magnificent waterfront which is being developed with any number of attractions (much like Baltimore's Harbor area), and a wide diversity of attractions.

Significantly, the many attractions and sights that enthrall families are located in the city itself-Busch Gardens theme park, the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI), Ybor City (a district famous for its Cuban cigar factories, now turned into an entertainment center), the Florida Aquarium, the Lowry Park Zoo; Adventure Island (a waterpark), even Canoe Escape, which lets you paddle along the tranquil waters of the Hillsborough River to see the "real Florida" of alligators, feral hogs, turtles, snakes and exotic birds.

Our hotel, The Hyatt Regency Tampa, proved an excellent base for our visit, putting everything within reach while adding sophistication and a level of pampering service (and you cannot imagine the feeling of swimming outside at night after a busy day at Busch Gardens theme park, in the Hyatt's heated pool, staring up at stars and the lights of the city reflected off the glass buildings) which gives an extra dimension to a Florida family vacation oriented around theme parks and attractions.

Arriving in Tampa in the evening, we checked in, unloaded our bags, and set off for Tampa's historic Hyde Park District, a charming area of restaurants and shops. We discovered one of the quaint bistro-style restaurants, Bella's, with a lovely moderne décor, elegantly served Italian selections very reasonably priced: Caesar salad with chicken, $7.99; pastas magnificently prepared and presented, $8.99-$11.99; fresh Snapper, $12.99; personal pizzas, $7.50-8.50 (Bella's Italian Café, 1413 S. Howard Ave., 813-254-3355 www.bellasitaliancafe.citysearch.com).

Returning to the Hyatt Regency, we had a chance to survey our surroundings and the creature comforts of this magnificently designed hotel. The 520-room hotel had just undergone a $10 million renovation. There is a very pleasant café where you can pick up bagels, muffins, coffee and juice in the morning if you are on the run, and a delightful 50s-style diner where we enjoyed a more casual breakfast, plus an elegant restaurant. One of the nicest features for a family holiday in Tampa is the Hyatt Regency's outdoor pool and fitness center, open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. The hotel is also wonderfully located if you are visiting any of the sports events at the new arena, or if your trip combines a convention at the city's convention center. The valet parking is an excellent feature (Hyatt Regency Tampa, Two Tampa City Center, at the corner of Tampa and Jackson Streets, 813-225-1234, 800-223-1234).

'Real Florida'
On our first morning, we set out for Canoe Escape, in Thonotosassa (actually, the edge of Tampa), and transported with our canoes to the bank of the Hillsborough River. It took awhile to convince the family to participate in this part of our adventure, which would bring us up close to alligators and other wildlife (but the alligators were the main issue). It proved to be the highlight of our visit.

Canoe Escape may sound like a theme park ride, but "escape" is apt: from the moment you push off from the bank and enter the magnificent and gentle Hillsborough River, beneath a canopy of great cypress trees and oak, you feel you have escaped the pressures and worries of modern life. You may as well have been transported 100 years back in time. I don't recall ever being so serene and so excited at the same time.

Canoe Escape offers canoe trips year-round (except for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Thanksgiving). Moonlight trips are offered October-April, once a month on the Saturday closest to the full moon, offer a four-hour Moonlight Trip, finishing with coffee and dessert at a local restaurant. In February, the group meets at 5 p.m. and launches at 6 p.m., canoeing until 10 or 10:30 p.m.; bring a flashlight to illuminate the male gators' eyes (the males have a red pigment). Rates for the two-hour trips (Trip 1, 2 and 3) are $32 for a canoe (that includes two adults and up to two children under 12 can ride along for free) or tandem kayak; the four-hour trips (4 and 5, which are combinations) are $38. Solo kayaks can be rented for $25 for Trip 1, 2 and 3 and $30 for Trips 4 and 5. Canoe Escape is easy to reach at its base at 9335 East Fowler Ave., Thonotosassa, Fla. 33592 (just east of I-75). Reservations for all trips are highly recommended. Call 813-986-2067, 800-44-TAMPA, www.canoeescape.com. (The website provides details about what to bring and what to expect.)

It is also possible to go horseback riding through wetlands and grassy open areas (Horseback River Safaris, 813-659-0743); join a 90-minute guided eco-tour of the Anclote River Ranch (J.B. Starkey's Flatwoods Adventures, 877-734-WILD); go saltwater fishing; or watch for migrating West Indian manatee from a 35-acre nature preserve at the Hyatt Regency Westshore, located on the shore of Old Tampa Bay.

'Edutainment' at MOSI
You can be finished with the canoe trip in three hours, have a bite to eat and travel a short distance, literally up the road to Tampa's fabulous Museum of Science and Industry (4801 East Fowler Ave. 813-987-6100, www.mosi.org). Make sure you have at least four or five hours to spend in the museum, including taking in one of the fabulous IMAX movies. MOSI, the largest science center in the southeastern U.S., has the only IMAX Dome Theatre in Florida. MOSI is one of the most exciting science museums we have visited, with more than 450 hands-on exhibits that engage and enthrall youngsters and adults, alike.

There is an amazing array of science is on display; several sections focus on science and environment of particular importance to Florida: the aquifer, water cycles, hurricanes. There is even a hurricane chamber where you can experience the force and high winds of a Gulf Coast Hurricane (weddings have actually been performed in the chamber).

For a delightful evening, wander about Ybor City-like New Orleans but with Cuban ambiance. What used to be a district for cigar factories has been converted into an entertainment district with restaurants, nightclubs, boutiques.

This past summer, the district saw the opening of Centro Ybor, including a $5 million restoration of the Centro Espanol building, a national historic building that once was one of the social clubs in the Latin Quarter. The $45 million project includes Steven Spielberg's GameWorks Muvico movie theaters, Café TuTu Tango, Johnny Rockets, Café Mezzanote, Starbuck's, Improv Comedy Club and more. The district also now has a Don Vincente de Ybor Inn, a $1.7 million renovation of an 1895 building that produced a 16-room historic inn with restaurant and bistro.

Other Tampa attractions include:
Busch Gardens-Tampa Bay (Busch Blvd. & 40th St., 800-4ADVENTURE, 800-042-KUMBA for vacation packages, www.buschgardens.com) offers array of fascinating African-themed attractions, rides, live shows, restaurants, shops and games.

Adventure Island (adjacent to Busch Gardens, at 10001 Malcolm McKinley Drive, 813-987-5600, www.4adventure.com) offers 25 acres of water attractions-slides, corkscrews, waterfalls and wave pool--within a soothing Key West atmosphere.

Lowry Park Zoological Garden (7530 North Boulevard, 813-932-0245, www.lowryparkzoo.com), includes a Florida Manatee and Aquatic Center, native Florida Exhibit, Primate World, Asian Domain, aviary and a petting zoo. If you don't have a chance to swim with the manatees in person, be sure to drop in.

The Florida Aquarium (701 Channelside Drive, 813-273-4000 , www.sptimes.com/aquarium), one of the country's best designed marine-life habitats, where you can get up and close with thousands of aquatic creatures from frogs to sharks.

Big Red Balloon (16302 East Course Drive, 813-969-1518; 800-44-TAMPA, www.bigredballoon.com), a sightseeing company that takes you on a panoramic view of Tampa's bays, backyards, and beaches. This is a four-hour flight, available only to kids 5 and older, a minimum of 48 inches is required of all.

Wildlife on Easy Street (12802 Easy Street,813-920-4130 , www.wildlifeeasyst.com), provides two-hour-guided tours featuring over 200 rare and beautiful animals, including 148 exotic cats. There is a Feeding Frenzy Tour on which visitors can help feed the animals. Cabins are also available for overnight rental, to experience the nightly howling of the residents. Children must be at least ten years old to participate.

Celebration Station (10230 Palm River Rd., 813/661-4557), a family fun center featuring go-karts, bumper boats, playland rides, and miniature golf batting cages. You can eat lunch at the pizza restaurant and then play a little games at interactive video wall.

Legends Field (813-875-7753), where the Yankees do their spring training. Practices are free and begin at 10 a.m. daily and conclude between noon and p.m.

One of the new attractions enhancing the travel experience in Tampa is Riverwalk, the first phase of which opened in March, 2000. Riverwalk connects the Tampa Marriott Waterside to the Tampa Convention Center. Eventually, the Riverwalk will line the entire waterfront along the Hillsborough River and Garrison Channel in downtown Tampa and connect the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, Museum of Art, Convention Center, Marriott and Ice Palace arena and down to Channelside and the Florida Aquarium.

Channelside is a 230,000 sq. ft. entertainment complex will open along the downtown waterfront in the fall of 2000. The $32 million facility will have a 14 screen movie theater plus IMAX theater, restaurants and shops.

In the works: an electric streetcar is being planned which will provide visitors with free, convenient front-door service to major venues. It is a throw-back to Tampa's first streetcars which whisked passengers around Ybor City more than 110 years ago (they stopped rolling in 1946). The first phase of the system, which will start up in January, 2001, will link the downtown and encompass the Convention Center, Ice Palace, Garrison Seaport, Florida Aquarium and Ybor City.

Saddlebrook Resort
If you prefer to stay in a true resort setting, the Saddlebrook Resort, in a suburban setting, is fabulous. The Saddlebrook, which is an entire resort village, boasts two championship golf courses and the Arnold Palmer Golf Academy (including special camps for juniors, 12-18), 45 tennis courts (in all Grand Slam surfaces) and the Hopman Tennis Program, a 270-foot long SuperPool; 7,000 sq. ft. spa, wellness center, and 3,300 sq. ft Fitness Center. The resort also offers supervised activity program, S'kids Club, for children 4-12 which incorporates themed activities and off-property excursions to area attractions (aimed at the convention and meetings participants who come and bring their families); in addition, children 7-12 can enjoy movie night on Friday and Saturday, 7-10 p.m. A variety of packages are available, including Golf Escape, Spa Escape, Couples Spa/Golf (Saddlebrook Resort, 800-729-8383).

For further information, call Tampa Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau, 400 N. Tampa Street, Suite 1010, Tampa, Fl. 33602, phone 813-223-1111, www.visittampabay.com.

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