Family-Friendly Fort Lauderdale

By: Lillian Seays

Culture, education and fun are easily found in family-friendly Fort Lauderdale.

As soon as school was out, our grandchildren wasted no time cashing in on our promise to take them on vacation. Planning a retreat for an African-American family of four requires a little research. My goal was to plan an experience that would be both fun and culturally enriching. Pop's goal was to find the closest hammock and stay firmly planted.

While mainstream hotspots had their place on my list of priorities, culture-oriented venues were foremost in choosing the perfect place to visit. Welcome to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

The weather in Fort Lauderdale is perfect for year-round vacations. The average temperature in summer is 85 degrees, while the average year-round temperature is a balmy 77. Couple that with the beautiful, sparkling beaches and Fort Lauderdale got our vote. The city has hundreds of hotels and resorts ranging from affordable to "Lauderdale Luxe." 

We seldom drove anywhere; the Water Taxis make frequent stops at hotel docks, making it convenient to visit various hotspots for dining, dancing and entertainment — including the popular Las Olas Boulevard and brick-lined Riverwalk.

One evening, we set sail for the three-hour Jungle Cruise with the Jungle Queen Riverboat. Our guide gave an account of all the luxury homes along the crystal blue waterway. After nearly an hour, the cruise vessel delivered us to shore, where we were treated to a scrumptious barbecue meal and live entertainment. My unsuspecting ham of a husband got the surprise of being randomly chosen from the audience to participate in the show. In one fell swoop, the man managed to both delight the audience and embarrass me. The kids loved it.

Pop was clearly enjoying this trip as much as the kids. He insisted that the only thing that could make this vacation better was to find some good soul food. So the next day we found Betty's Soul Food and Barbeque at Sistrunk and 22nd at the railroad track.

Warning: If you go there, remember to wear loose clothing, because this friendly "down-home" eatery has every soul food delicacy your Southern taste buds could desire: chitterlings, oxtails, fried chicken, fried fish, barbecued ribs, collard greens, yummy desserts and homemade biscuits to die for. You'll overindulge before your know it.

When you leave Betty's — if you can still walk — take a stroll down Sistrunk Boulevard. Named after Broward County 's first African-American doctor, it's lined with African-American businesses of all sorts. If you're interested in mingling with the natives and learning snippets of local history, this is the place to be.

Another day, we headed to a must-stop in Fort Lauderdale, the African-American Research Library, located at Sistrunk and 27th. This $14 million facility is one of only four African-American research libraries in the United States. The center boasts a 300-seat state-of-the art auditorium, and scores of African-American paintings and sculptures adorn the 5,000 square feet of gallery space. Its meeting rooms and full-service small business center make it neighborhood-friendly. The Computer Technical Center offers online research capability and enhances the learning experience.

Coaxed to request access to the special collections, the grandkids discovered new meaning of the word "freedom" as they perused the Civil Rights Sit-ins exhibit of 1960-1961 and the Alex Haley Exhibit. From there, we went to the Harambee room to see the paneled depiction of how life used to be in Broward County. We stood on the terrazzo floors installed with an image of the ocean and imagined the transport of African slaves. Maybe it's the imagination, but the acoustical treatment of the room made our voices sound as if they were coming from the midst of the ocean.

Later that afternoon, The Museum of Discovery & Science scored a hefty 10 with my grandchildren. Located in the heart of downtown Fort Lauderdale, it offers an awesome encounter for the young and old alike. The kids spent hours exploring astronomy, gravity, centrifugal force and numerous other wonders of science. Our Auto Nation IMAX 3D Theater experience was a life-like adventure into the heart of an African safari.

As our vacation days dwindled and money got shorter, with still more souvenirs to buy, we visited the Swap Shop. It's a shopper's playground, but more than that, you can catch your breath while the kids enjoy the outdoor carnival rides.

I snuck off to check out Sawgrass Mills to shop. I returned a few minutes later to retrieve the rest of the family. I had discovered paradise — the world's largest discount and entertainment mall housing designer outlets such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus. Now, I was the wide-eyed one with all the energy. After enjoying a quick snack at The Cheesecake Factory, Pop decided to take in a movie while the rest of us ran buck wild shopping and checking out the other entertainment venues.

Before leaving Fort Lauderdale, we got another piece of the Black Heritage experience at The Old Dillard Museum, formerly Dillard High School and the first one built there for blacks.

Boarded up and condemned in 1980, the school later reopened as a regional historical museum. It is divided into eight galleries. The first one, Heritage Gallery, depicts home life in one part of the room and in the other, a fully equipped replication of an early classroom — right down to the potbelly stove.

I loved the Rotating Exhibition Gallery with its eclectic exhibit; Pop's favorite was the Jazz Room, which houses memorabilia from Florida jazz greats including Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, former teacher at the old Dillard High School. Concerts are also held in this room.

The Minds-On Hands-On interactive gallery captivated the kids. Getting them away from tie-dyes and storytelling was not easy, until they realized we were their only means of transportation.

The library carries a wonderful collection of books, tapes, CDs and such.

Before heading back to the hotel, we stopped in at Tom Jenkins Bar-B-Q for ribs. Their sauce is fantastic and the collard greens are perfectly seasoned and garden-fresh.

During our stay, we visited John U. Lloyd Beach State Park in nearby Dania. Known as the first "colored" beach in the area, its visitors now come from a diverse background. My granddaughter, the risk-taker of the family, was excited for Pop to take her on her first snorkeling adventure. Meanwhile, I took my grandson on a 45-minute nature walk.

Having completed our jaunt, we regrouped at the Whiskey Creek picnic area for lunch. We refused to leave before jumping in a few waves on the beach and enjoying the scenery from our rented kayak. It was altogether a great day.

All in all, Fort Lauderdale proved to be the perfect choice for our family vacation. We went for fun, culture and education, and we left with memories that will last a lifetime. 

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