Caspersen beach. Photo credit: Beth Luberecki
Caspersen Beach. Photo Credit: Beth Luberecki
Celery Fields. Photo Credit: Beth Luberecki
Celery Fields. Photo Credit: Beth Luberecki
Myakka River State Park. Photo Credit: Beth Luberecki
Myakka River State Park. Photo Credit: Beth Luberecki
Season of Sculpture. Photo credit: Beth Luberecki
Season of Sculpture. Photo Credit: Beth Luberecki

Family Fun on the Cheap

You don't have to shell out a lot of money to have a great time in Sarasota County. In fact, sometimes you don't even have to spend a cent. That's good news for families who have traveled here for spring break - or for locals opting for a staycation - because expenses can quickly start to add up, especially with several kiddos in tow. Here are ten things to do in Sarasota County during the spring that are both budget- and kid-friendly.

Hit the beach.

That's probably a big reason why you came here in the first place. And since parking is free at Sarasota County beaches, it won't cost you anything to spend some time on the sand. Find family fun and lots of activity at Siesta Key Beach, named the number-one beach in America in 2011 by Dr. Beach for its wide expanse of powdery, white sand. Farther south, check out North Jetty Park on Casey Key in Nokomis, where kids can slide and swing at the playground, watch the boats coming in and out of the Venice Inlet, and take a dip in the Gulf of Mexico. Venice and Caspersen beaches are great places to hunt for the fossilized sharks' teeth for which the area is known.

Myakka River State Park. Photo Credit: Beth Luberecki

Watch for wildlife.

Two critter-filled state parks can be found within Sarasota County. At Myakka River State Park (941-361-6511, $6 per vehicle admission fee) in eastern Sarasota, possible animal sightings include everything from deer and owls to bobcats and alligators. Gators also call Oscar Scherer State Park (941-483-5956, $5 per vehicle admission fee) in Osprey home, along with bald eagles, gopher tortoises, raccoons, and the Florida scrub-jay, a threatened species found only in the Sunshine State.

Scan the skies.

You don't need anything more than good eyesight to enjoy the popular local pastime of bird-watching. More than 200 species of birds have been spotted at the Celery Fields (941-861-5000) in Sarasota, a former agricultural site turned storm-water collection zone and park with 100 acres of wetlands. (There's also a manmade mound at the park - a byproduct of the wetlands restoration - that kids will love to climb.) At the Venice Area Audubon Rookery (941-496-8984), you can observe birds like herons, egrets, and anhingas building nests, incubating eggs, and raising chicks during nesting season, which runs from December through May.

Head to market.

Local farmers' markets are in full swing at this time of year. And you can hit one almost every day of the week. There's the Phillippi Farmhouse Market on Wednesdays ( October through April); Englewood Farmer's Market on Thursdays (October through April); North Port Farmers Market, Venice Farmers Market, and Sarasota farmers' market on Saturdays year-round; and Siesta Key Farmers Market on Sundays year-round. It doesn't cost anything to browse, and in addition to locally grown produce, these markets also typically offer artisan food products (and sometimes free samples), crafts, and live music.

Feel the beat.

Locals and visitors alike head to Siesta Key Beach around sunset on Sundays for the ever-popular Siesta Key Drum Circle, a free area phenomenon everyone should experience at least once. All kinds of dancing, twirling, and enthusiastic drumming take place on the sand. Farther south, Nokomis Beach also hosts its own free drum circle on Saturdays just before sunset. 

Embrace the arts.

This area is often called the Cultural Coast, and there are approachable and affordable ways for kids to get a taste of Sarasota County's artsy side. Through May of 2014, 18 large-scale artworks line the Sarasota bayfront as part of the latest Season of Sculpture exhibit (941-928-4445). They're funky, fun to explore, and great conversation starters. The world-class Ringling (941-359-5700) museum complex offers free admission to its Museum of Art on Mondays and reduced-price admission on Thursdays between 5 and 8 p.m.

Indulge your sweet tooth.

Sample the local food scene without breaking the bank by treating yourself to dessert, which is far less expensive than a lunch or dinner at a restaurant. There are all sorts of creative confections to try, from the cake pops at the Lollicake Queen (941-955-8101) and the truffles at the Short Giraffe (941-706-2075) to the soft serve at Nokomis Groves (800-426-5274) and the shave-ice specialties of the Hukilau Hut (941-350-2029).

Go to the dogs.

If your kids had to leave Fido at home or are dreaming about a pet of their own, head to Southeastern Guide Dogs' Sarasota Training Center & Dog Boutique (941-953-2892) for a little canine companionship. On Saturdays, visitors can spend time with "ambassador dogs" from the organization, which matches guide dogs with veterans and visually impaired individuals. Still need more puppy love? Trained therapy dogs from the Suncoast Humane Society take part in frequent (and free) "Read with the Dogs" programs at various locations within the Sarasota County Library System (941-861-1110).

Pick playgrounds with pluses.

When the kids want to hit the swings and slides, look for parks that offer more than just the standard playground equipment. Urfer Family Park (941-861-5000) in Sarasota, for example, features a one-mile nature trail that travels through pine flatwoods and wetlands and the restored, circa-1906 Dr. C.B. Wilson House, which is open for self-guided tours some days and offers a peek at the area's past. Shamrock Park and Nature Center (941-861-5000) in Venice includes a butterfly garden and a one-mile paved trail that winds through the park's coastal scrub habitat and connects with the Venetian Waterway Park.

Find a festival.

There's a wide variety of events and festivals taking place this spring, celebrating everything from good old-fashioned barbecue to the art of sandcastle building. Many offer free or low-cost admission to get in on the fun. 

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