A Little Florida History, Y’all

Roaring Springs presented by Pinch a Penny is the all-new, family water adventure that plays an homage to the old Florida way of life. Who better to write about that than our friends at the Tampa Bay History Center?

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Tampa ‑ the Cowtown of the Cuban Cattle Trade

The ancestors of many founding families in the Tampa Bay area were “cowmen” or “cowhunters.”  Interestingly, the term “cracker,” now sometimes used to describe native Floridians, was probably borrowed from the Florida cattle trade.  Florida cowhunters cracked eighteen-foot rawhide whips to drive cattle down the trail.  They were so adept with these whips that they could flick horseflies off an animal’s hide without breaking the skin!

In his travels, Tampa entrepreneur and ship captain James McKay learned of a huge demand for beef in Cuba.  By 1858, McKay was organizing regular cattle drives from the interior of Florida to loading stations on the Interbay Peninsula southwest of Tampa.  The venture made him a very wealthy man as the Spanish paid him in gold doubloons.

Tampa quickly became the railhead for cattle shipments to Cuba.  Cowhunters and their ponies were a common sight on 19th century Tampa streets.  “The effect of the opening of this trade is witnessed daily,” noted the Florida Peninsular in the July 28, 1860 issue.  “Thousands upon thousands of dollars are thrown into our midst, and as a necessary consequence other branches of traffic and industry are proportionately enhanced.”  William B. Hooker, who had pioneered the Hillsborough cattle industry in the 1840s, owned 10,000 head by 1860 and was considered the “Cattle King of Florida.”  He was soon joined by other cattle barons: James Alderman, John T. Lesley, and Jacob Summerlin.

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Written by Rodney Kite-Powell, Curator of History – Tampa Bay History’s Center


Florida Cattle

Contrary to popular belief, Florida, not the American West, was the site of the first North American cattle industry.  Juan Ponce de León brought a herd of Andalusian cattle to Florida in 1521, long before the first Spanish expedition brought them to the American Southwest.  By the 1700s, Spanish vaqueros had established large cattle ranchos in Northwest Florida.

The “golden age” of the Florida cattle industry began in the 1850s.  Despite predators like wolves, panthers, bears and alligators, thousands of wiry cattle thrived in the tall brush of the unfenced interior.  By 1860, Florida “cowhunters” routinely rounded up herds from the Florida brush and drove them to ships in Hillsborough Bay for sale in Cuba.  Although there was little demand for tough and lean Florida beef in the U.S., Cubans had few cattle and were willing to pay premium prices.

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Beef for the Confederacy

During the Civil War, Jacob Summerlin provided 600 cattle a week to the Confederate Army at $8 per head.  However, his job was complicated by the reluctance of Florida ranchers to part with their cattle in exchange for almost worthless Confederate currency.  Hearing of a round‑up, the cattlemen would drive their herds into the brush to avoid the Confederate contractors.  At times, they even sold cattle to Union forces and later reported them stolen.  When Summerlin could no longer round up enough cattle to meet the demand, the Confederate Army cancelled his contract and gave it to James McKay.  Despite many challenges, McKay and his men managed to provide Confederate forces with some cattle throughout most of the war.

A Cattle and Shipping Empire

The cattle industry played a major role in the Tampa Bay economy after the Civil War.  Cubans still wanted Florida beef and the Florida cattle industry was still intact.  At first, most Florida cowmen were reluctant to sell to James McKay and the other shippers, hoping to receive a better price.  They gave in and sold after a Peninsular newspaper story chastised them for stalling the state’s economic recovery.  Profits from the first postwar shipments eliminated any further reluctance.  During the decade of the 1870s, 165,669 head of cattle were shipped to Cuban ports at nearly $15 per head.

A Tampa Bay shipping industry grew out of the cattle export business.  This business expanded to include citrus, phosphate, tobacco, bananas and other commodities.  The Tampa Bay sail and steamship trade was dominated by Dr. Howell T. Lykes and his sons.  In 1874, Dr. Lykes married Almeria McKay, daughter of James McKay.  Dr. Lykes and his sons created a shipping empire in Florida and Cuba that grew into the extensive operations of Lykes Brothers, Inc., and Lykes Brothers Steamship Company, Inc.  While cattle is no longer shipped through the Port of Tampa, it is the 7th largest port in tonnage in the United States.

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Job Fair



Please review our booking tips before continuing

1. Please make one field trip per reservation order. Complete one and start a new one if you have multiple days you are booking.

2. Headcount can be approximate. Please include children and adults in your headcount. Please do not include pass holders in your headcount for a ticket.

3. On the ticket page, choose the correct grade level (to the left of your screen) to receive the correct chaperone ratio.

4. On the ticket page, when on the calendar section, the number of tickets available will appear in the top right corner for each particular day. Tickets available include children and adults. If you have more people than tickets available, please choose another day.

5. Anyone that is ordering lunch, even pass holders and adults that receive free chaperone tickets, do need to pay for a lunch IF they are ordering one. Free chaperone tickets and pass holders are for admission only.

Boxed lunch orders must be received 5 business days prior to your field trip arrival. Groups will be responsible for all boxed lunches that were confirmed at that time.

6. Payment does not need to be paid at the time of registration. Choose the pay upon arrival option if you would like one person to pay for your entire trip on the day of your visit.

7. The prices of adult and children’s tickets are different.

8. You will receive a confirmation number and confirmation letter via email when your trip is confirmed. If you do not, please contact Jamie.Elkington@Zootampa.org right away.

Outside Food & Drinks Policy

ZooTampa at Lowry Park offers a variety of delicious food for guests at several restaurants and concession stands throughout, but we understand that guests may need to bring outside food for special dietary needs. Acceptable and prohibited food items are listed below. For the convenience of our guests, there is a picnic area located outside the park near the main parking lot.

 Acceptable Items
  • Bottled water (max 20oz bottle, sealed) one per guest
  • Small snacks for young children
  • Baby food/baby formula
  • Soft-sided insulated bags no larger than 8.5” wide x 6” high x 6” deep (limit one per child)
  • Pre-purchased empty ZooTampa souvenir cups
  • Any food required for medical purposes and medically-indicated nutritional supplements
 Prohibited Items
  • Prepared or packaged food or meals
  • Alcohol
  • Glass or any open containers or water bottles filled with beverages
  • Hard-sided coolers of any size
  • Soft-sided coolers larger than 8.5” wide x 6” high x 6” deep
  • Suitcases and soft-sided bags with wheels larger than 24” long x 15” wide x 18” high

Prohibited Items

For the safety of our animals, guests and employees, the following items are not permitted to be brought into ZooTampa:

  • Any type of explosive or weapon 
  • Knives or other sharp objects
  • Pepper spray
  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Marijuana
  • Illegal drugs
  • Straws
  • Clothing likely to create a danger or disturbance
  • Any hazardous items or materials

The following items are also prohibited to avoid blocking of walkways and/or trip hazards:

  • Segways
  • Hover boards
  • Two-wheeled scooters
  • Self-balancing electric vehicles
  • Shoes with wheels
  • Drones
  • Hard-sided coolers of any size
  • Soft-sided coolers larger than 8.5” wide x 6” high x 6” deep
  • Suitcases and soft-sided bags with wheels larger than 24” long x 15” wide x 18” high

Please leave any unnecessary articles secured within your vehicle to expedite your entry into the park.

We reserve the right to deny entry to anyone not observing Zoo Rules.

Pay For A Day Tickets

With a new Pay For A Day, Rest of Year Free ticket – for a limited time – you get unlimited admission through December 31, 2024 including access to our seasonal event series. Some blockout dates apply — see below for details. Not valid with any other discounts.

When does my Pay For A Day ticket expire?

Pay for a Day Get the Rest of the Year Free tickets purchased in October, November, or December of 2023, are valid from the day of purchase until 12/31/2024. Any Pay For a Day Get the Rest of the Year Free tickets purchased prior to October 1, 2023 expire on 12/31/2023.

What are the blockout dates?

11/24/23 – 11/26/23
12/26/23 – 12/31/23
3/9/24 – 3/17/24
11/24/24 – 11/26/24
12/26/24 – 12/31/24

Blockout dates apply to admission before 4:00 PM on the above dates.

Can I purchase a Pay For A Day ticket on a blockout date?

Yes! You can purchase a Pay for a Day, Rest of Year Free ticket for first-time use on a listed blockout date and have full access to the park on that day. Blockout dates apply to repeat visitation.

Can I use my Pay For A Day ticket on blockout dates? If you already have your Pay for a Day, Rest of Year Free ticket and wish to visit during a listed blockout date, please stop by the Zoo’s ticketing windows for alternate options:
  1. During blockout periods, Pay For A Day ticket holders have access to significantly discounted single-day tickets.*
  2. For a limited time from the date of purchase, Pay For A Day tickets can be upgraded to a Zoo Membership (with no blockout dates).
I purchased a Pay For A Day ticket online. How do I get my actual ticket?

Bring a copy of your confirmation (or show the confirmation email on your mobile device) to expedite entry into the Zoo. At your convenience during your visit you can stop by the Tours & Guest Services kiosk located just inside the Zoo to print your physical pass. No need to stand in line at the ticket windows. Walk right in!
Still have questions? Email us or call (813) 935-8552 ext. 0.