Behind the beaches and roller coasters of our big tourism centers hides a hometown, just like you'd want your kids to grow up in. Places with neighborhood parks, favorite swimming holes, even farms to explore. We'll show you where the fun is by planning three days' worth of neighborhood activities in three of Florida's visitor hot spots - Orlando, Tampa Bay and Fort Lauderdale.
Orlando: Behind the Scenes
Everyone knows Orlando has some great theme parks, but you may not know about its entertaining smaller attractions. Here are some of the best.
If you have pre-schoolers, Kissimmee's Green Meadows Petting Farm is a must-see. I remember vividly the faces of the toddlers I saw holding a baby chick or milking a cow. This place is as precious as can be, with a hay ride, tractors to climb and baby lambs to pet. Tip: Bring antibacterial hand wash or moist towelettes.
Follow that with a picnic lunch in downtown Kissimmee at Lakefront Park. Buy an ice cream cone from the caboose stand, burn it off on the playground, and walk up Monument Avenue to give the kids a painless geography lesson at Monument of States. Historic downtown Kissimmee is the perfect spot for a pleasant hometown stroll.
For a little light afternoon history, let the kids run around the old Cracker buildings at nearby Pioneer Village and Museum. Inside, they'll like the exhibit on how schools have changed through the centuries.
In downtown Orlando beats the heart of a small town. Head to Loch Haven Park for some morning culture. Mennello Museum of American Art offers a dose in child-bright colors, an outdoor sculpture garden on the lake and houses the permanent collection of Earl Cunningham.
Orlando Science Center sneakily teaches kids about math, physics and natural science while they push buttons and solve puzzles. Exhibits include "DinoDigs: Mysteries Unearthed" and NatureWorks, featuring Florida's habitats and the animals that live in them. The museum has a luncheon cafeteria with outdoor seating overlooking the park.
Top off the afternoon with a relaxing swan ride at Eola Park, a short drive away. The swans are actually paddleboats.
Start at Gatorland in Orlando's southern reaches but as far removed from city life as you can get. Kids of all ages are fascinated by alligators, and Gatorland has enough 'gators and crocs to satisfy them for a lifetime. A splash park called Gator Gully and shows enhance the pure entertainment value of slimy creatures, including snakes and lizards. Try some 'gator nuggets at Pearl's Patio Smokehouse.
Then devote the afternoon to pure play at a favorite swimming hole, Wekiwa Springs State Park. Umbrella oaks drip Spanish moss for atmosphere. Water bubbles from crystal-clear depths, climate-controlling the temperature to a cool-in-the-summer 72 degrees. Canoe, bike, picnic and hike around the boardwalks and trails to learn about Florida history and nature.
Play Away on Tampa Bay
Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater offer each other plenty of competition for luring family travelers. Split your time between them for the best of both Florida worlds - beach and amusements.
Start out your city stay with an escape from it. Canoe Escape makes it hard to believe you're paddling along the same river that runs straight through downtown. Time your departure when the sun is well up, say around 10 a.m., and you'll see armies of alligators sunning on the banks. Canoe Escape outfits and shuttles you to a Wilderness Park access, where you may want to pause for lunch.
Lowry Park Zoo has grown up some from the local neighborhood zoo it once was and has been voted the #1 family friendly zoo in America by Child Magazine in 2004 and #1 by Parents magazine in 2009. Its critters range from the local variety to Komodo dragons, Indian rhinos and other exotics. Splash fountains (dress the little ones in swimsuits), a jungle-animal carousel and a discovery center further appeal to a wide age-spectrum of youngsters.
In the afternoon, it's thinking caps time at the Science Center in St. Petersburg, a neighborhood, Science Guy kind of place with a have-fun-and-learn curriculum. An alternative: head to Great Explorations Children's Museum in downtown St. Petersburg for hands-on fun.
One can hardly visit here without going to the beach - you have a whole string from which to choose. Head to Clearwater Beach for a day of guaranteed water-oriented fun. Before you hit the sands, grant the family a lesson on creatures of the sea at Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Dedicated to marine research, rehabilitation and education, it puts kids in touch with shellfish and other saltwater types. Visitors see dolphins, otters and sea turtles. Sea encounter cruises also depart from the facility.
Around Pier 60 in Clearwater, every family member will find entertainment. Fish from the pier. Whack volleyballs in the very capital of beach volleyball. Play on the covered playground. Rent water toys. Relax with a good book. At sunset, revel in the nightly celebration of performers, face-painters, clowns and artisans.
Greater Ft. Lauderdale: Where the Kids Are
Fort Lauderdale's outlying neighborhoods offer much in the way of family fun, from dinosaur bones to a bike-racing track.
Pack a picnic lunch and go to Brian Piccolo Park - or eat at its Snack Attack stand. Just don't forget your wheels. The best parts of Brian Piccolo are its skate park and velodrome (bike and inline skating race track). You can rent expensive race bikes as well as pads and helmets for skating. (They can tell you a place nearby to rent regular bikes.) The facilities stay open in the evening. Lessons and classes are available.
You could spend the entire day at Anne Kolb Nature Center/West Lake Park in Hollywood. It has two parts - one educational, one recreational. The attractively designed nature center teaches about local wildlife before you set out on a nature quest of your own by foot, bike, or tour boat. In the recreational park, you can picnic, canoe and splash around the Manatee Play Area.
The afternoon calls for relaxing at the beach. This is Fort Lauderdale after all; you can't go home Florida-resident pasty. Plan on lunch at one of the ultra-casual, affordable sidewalk cafes along Hollywood Beach's Broadwalk. To absorb the best of Hollywood Beach, slip in for a croque monsieur or something equally oolala in this wintertime haven for French Canadians. The wide beach is totally family-amiable.
Toddlers to teens will love the hands-on stuff throughout IGFA Fishing Hall of Fame & Museum on the west side of Dania Beach- especially the virtual marlin or tarpon they reel in. Play the computerized "Name That Fish" game. Kids ages 2 to 7 can make fish prints and pretend to go boating in the Discovery Room. Ask about Scout programs, summer camp, the Junior Anglers Club and educational youth programs.
Lunch at Islamorada Fish Company, inside Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World, a football-field-sized sports store that is an attraction in itself. Check out the Everglades aquarium and Pilar, the famous sister ship to Hemingway's boat.
In rootin'-tootin' Davie, Young at Art Children's Museum lets kids explore their creative tendencies, no matter what age.
Away from the beach, Fort Lauderdale's best side runs along New River. Riverwalk Linear Park winds along the water beginning at the shops and galleries of Las Olas. It's an easy walk, skate or bike ride from start to finish.