There’s a point when you’re driving along Florida’s A1A when the scenic beachside state road turns into a bustling highway, with a major bridge often featured in Hollywood action flicks.
As the highway cuts across Biscayne Bay to make its way south toward the Keys, A1A cuts right through one of Miami’s best kept secrets: a tiny man-made island that features parrots, tigers and even a make-believe grocery store for tots.
Better known for cozy beachfront eateries, this spot along Miami’s portion of A1A includes Watson Island, a former Goodyear Blimp parking station that now is home two of South Florida’s must-see stops for small children.
On that island tucked beside the roadway that connects the city of Miami Beach to Miami are Jungle Island and the Miami Children’s Museum, attractions aimed at educating and entertaining kids. (And maybe even their parents, too.) A decade ago the island was nothing but wasteland, but has become a year-round destination for both locals and out-of-town visitors.
Located off I-395, most drivers don’t realize they’re still on A1A.
“When we moved here, people didn’t know what Watson Island was,” said Deborah Spiegelman, CEO of Miami Children’s Museum. “You’d say ‘Watson Island,’ and they’d say, ‘What’s that?’”
Spiegelman, whose nickname is “Queen of Watson Island,” would explain that the spit of land near downtown Miami was originally made using dredge from the nearby Port of Miami. Named after a former Miami mayor, it is home to a yacht club, public boat ramp and a conservation program. It’s also the site of a future hotel and retail complex and offers one of the best views of majestic cruise ships visiting South Florida.
Jungle Island and the Children’s Museum moved here about a decade ago when both attractions needed more space and a central, accessible location. The Children’s Museum is a 56,000-square-foot facility that features 14 different galleries. The interactive exhibits range from a replica cruise ship, a mock Publix, an art studio and performance rooms. Children get to dress up in multi-cultural costumes, play firefighter and learn about the Everglades, the sea and daily tasks such as banking and road construction.
Aimed at children younger than 8, the Children’s Museum costs $16 for out-of-state visitors and $12 for locals.
Its building was designed to represent the elements – earth, wind, water and fire. About 400,000 people visit each year, 20 percent of them tourists. Some vacationing families use the museum for its day camp.
Parents with special needs children enjoy a special Saturday morning each month where lighting and sound are adjusted to consider children with special needs. On those mornings known as “Sensory Saturdays,” the museum is closed to the public to avoid large crowds and “cool down” rooms are set aside for kids to relax.
“We’re still one of the best kept secrets,” Spiegelman said. “We are the best indoor year round destination for children. The sun and beach are our No. 1 competition.”
Across the island from the museum is Jungle Island, which bills itself as a more hands-on interactive animal attraction. (Don’t say “zoo.”)
Established in 1936, Jungle Island first opened in the southern end of the county. Then called “Parrot Jungle,” the attraction was famous for kitschy cockatoo shows, with birds riding skateboards and bicycles.
The park moved to Watson Island in 2003, and changed its name to Jungle Island four years later. Parrots are still the signature feature at the park, which has 300 other animals, including, of course, the macaws available for holding and feeding.
But beyond the skating birds is a wide variety of creatures such as kangaroos, wart hogs, ligers, alligators and emus, Australia’s tallest native bird. The primates include orangutans, lemurs, baboons, gibbons and capuchins. The one in the news most lately has been Peanut, an orangutan going through chemotherapy treatment.
Chakra and Bindi are the Bengal Tigers. Lord Ivory, the 500-lb white lion, is usually found perched in a spot where he can bask in the sunshine.
“The biggest thing here is the experience you get with the animals,” said general curator Jason Chatfield. “It’s up close and in your face.”
During their downtime, park employees are known for walking about with animals perched on their shoulders.
There are three different shows, Winged Wonders (think birds on bikes), Wild Encounter (big cats), and Dr. Wasabi’s Wild Adventure, an interactive show that features a host of animals from penguins to turtles. Jungle Island also has an Everglades replica, a real beach and a petting zoo.
The attraction costs $34.95 for adults and $26.95 for children. People who are interested in a 90-minute private VIP tour and lunch pay $240 for adults and $120 for kids.
Chatfield said the park designers are particularly proud of the magnificent flora and fauna, which manage to create a park atmosphere in an urban setting.
“In five minutes you forget you’re 100 yards from a major highway. People come for the animals and leave thinking about the plants,” Chatfield said. “The biggest challenge is to make the humans and the animals happy. We try to do it every day.”
If you go…
Miami Children’s Museum
Miami Children's Museum
980 MacArthur Causeway
Miami, Fla., 33132
Phone: 305.373.KIDS (5437)
Open daily from 10am-6pm.
Closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.
Florida Resident $12
Children under 1 year free
1111 Parrot Jungle Trail
Miami, Fla., 33132
Phone: (305) 400-7000
Open 10-5 weekdays and till 6 on weekends, open 365 days a year
Adult $32.95 + tax = $35.26
Child (3-10) $24.95 + tax = $26.70