How to Have a Memorable Family Vacation in Northwest Florida
By Janet K. Keeler
Northwest Florida is calling you. And you should answer with a family vacation at some of the most beautiful beaches in the state. Ah, but there’s more.
The Gulf of Mexico laps at the shores of these beaches and it is here that you begin to de-stress and start making memories that your kids will carry long past pigtails and sand buckets. (Though who really ever loses their love for building sand castles?) The gentle waves are perfect for young ones who want to frolic at the shoreline without worry of losing their balance. That’s more fun for parents, too.
If your children love the thrill of skateboarding or even snowboarding, they’ll find an afternoon of skim boarding up their alley. Get the camera ready, Mom and Dad. For kids of all skill levels, check out these video tips on skim boarding.
Northwest Florida has more to offer for family vacations than beaches. Zoos, children’s museums and a chance to see gators are also favorite family activities.
Here are 15 ideas to make your next Florida vacation the best ever:
1. A zootastic experience. The ZOO at Gulf Breeze is an obvious stop if you’ve got Pensacola in your travel plans. You’ll pass through the town of Gulf Breeze as you cross Pensacola Bay on your way to Pensacola Beach. Put on the brakes. The ZOO is a 50-acre preserve that your wee ones will love thanks to a petting zoo of farm animals. From an elevated boardwalk, check out antelope, deer, zebras, gorillas and rhinoceros. A safari tram runs through the complex and there are plenty of opportunities to watch the animals, including giraffes, during feeding times.
2. Take a kid fishing. What better way to relax and enjoy some family time than with a fishing pole in everyone’s hands? Big Lagoon State Park on Perdido Key at the Gulf Islands National Seashore is an angler’s paradise. It’s so close to Alabama that you might just cast your line into another state. Crabbing is a popular activity and so it fishing for redfish, bluefish and sea trout. Want to eat the fish or crabs but don’t have the facilities to cook them? There are a number of restaurants in the area that will cook your fresh catch for you. What a great way to teach your children about eating local.
3. Dancing with wolves. An up-close encounter with these magnificent creatures at Seacrest Wolf Preserve in Chipley, off Interstate 10 west of Tallahassee, is an experience your children won’t soon forget. But those children need to be older than 10, the age restriction for all tours. Reservations are required for the daily tours. This is a unique experience (where else will you get to pet a wolf?) but it’s important to read the visitor rules and the details of the tours as you start your planning.
4. A jewel of a coast. The coastline from Pensacola to Panama City is called the Emerald Coast and there are plenty of special events that make the area shine. The Billy Bowlegs Pirate Festival in late spring in Fort Walton Beach is the perfect place for your young scalawags to make like rogues of the sea. Music, food, games and more are part of the two-day event. End a sun-filled day at the beach with music under the stars at Mattie Kelly's Concerts in the Park in Destin on Thursday nights in May and June. There’s free parking, food and drink for purchase but, sorry, no pets.
5. Make like a fighter pilot. While you’ve got the family in Fort Walton Beach, take a break from the sun and stop by the Air Force Armament Museum. How much fun will it be for the kids to climb into the cockpit of a fighter plane? Outdoors, there’s an “aircraft garden” of vintage military aircraft and indoors you’ll find cockpit simulators plus aviation warfare armament from World War I and later. This is a wonderful multi-generational attraction and the best news is it’s free.
6. Look at those dolphin jump. Don’t leave Fort Walton Beach just yet. The Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park beckons with its dolphin shows and touch tanks. This is a great stop for families with small children because so many of the exhibits are at kid level. A walk along the Expedition Trail promises encounters with turtles, tortoises, baby alligators and birds.
7. For adventurous eaters. A stop in Apalachicola is all about oysters and the quaint Big Bend town is well worth a day trip from your beach accommodations. Apalachicola is the center of the state’s oyster industry and there is no lack of restaurants featuring the shellfish, raw or cooked. Maybe it’s just the adults who want to try the local seafood, and there’s plenty of it beyond oysters. Kids don’t like seafood? Chicken fingers and burgers will be on all the menus. But maybe, just maybe, you’ll be awakening the taste buds of the next great food critic.
8. An island adventure. Not far from Apalachicola is St. George Island, a beautiful barrier island sandwiched between Apalachicola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Here families can play hard, relax hard and get a real dose of Real Florida. Get the kids to climb the 92 stairs to the top of the Cape Saint George Lighthouse built in 1852 or bike the 17-miles of paved paths through the island. There are fishing excursions or kayak rentals for those who want to get out on the water. Dolphin tours and sunset cruises are fun for kids. And then there’s the beach.
9. A trip back in time. Don’t be surprised if your children ask to go back to Wakulla Springs State Park or grow up and take their own kids. Wakulla is just south of Tallahassee, and has one of the world’s largest and deepest freshwater springs. There’s a swimming hole with a 22-foot diving platform and observation deck, plus picnic sites, walking and biking trails, an historic lodge (no TVs, bring cards and board games) a wonderful restaurant plus an old-timey, sit-at-the-counter snack bar. Ranger-led boat tours take visitors on the Wakulla River for about 45 minutes. Boats are handicap accessible. A big attraction for kids in the lodge lobby is Old Joe, an 11-foot taxidermy gator, shot dead by a poacher in 1966.
10. Murals at the capitol. Famed Florida painter Christopher M. Still of Tarpon Springs has captured the history of the Sunshine State in 10 murals that hang in the Florida House of Representative chambers. Still has work in public places all over Florida, including Tampa International Airport, but you need to arrange a tour of his works at the capitol. It’s worth the effort, especially if you’re in town to tour Florida State University or watch the Seminoles play baseball or football. Another draw at FSU is the circus. Yes, circus. The FSU High Flying Circus stages about 80 shows a year under the big top on campus.
11. Big rides and arcade games. A trio of attractions in Pensacola has kid-fun written all over them. Sam’s Fun City in Pensacola has a county fair feel with Ferris wheel, laser tag and tons of arcade games. But, wait, there’s more. Also in the complex is Sam’s Surf City and that’s a water park with four water slides, a lazy river and an interactive play area for young kids. Fast Eddies Fun Center is where you’ll go for miniature gold and go-kart racing. That will get their motors running for sure. Did someone say organized water balloon fights?
12. Another Sunshine State gem. There are many small towns to discover along Northwest Florida’s seaside. Grayton Beach is one of them. Start at Grayton Beach State Park with its boat launches and paddling trails through the salt marsh ecosystem. Picnic areas plus beaches are family friend. The village of Grayton Beach itself boasts lots of cottage rentals plus one of Florida’s best spots to get gumbo: The Red Bar. Get it at lunch, along with whopper crab cakes. At nighttime, the Red Bar is more about music and adult drinks and gumbo is served only as an appetizer.
13. A walk over the Gulf. Take a family stroll on the Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier that juts nearly 1,500 feet over the Gulf of Mexico. There’s some good fishing here (no license required!) and it’s even fun to watch the other anglers haul in their catch. The luckiest ones have been known to catch sailfish or even a rare white marlin. Dolphin watching never gets old and this is a good vantage point.
14. Playing dress up. The Discovery Gallery at the Pensacola Children’s Museum is worth an afternoon visit and is geared toward children under 10 years old. There are costumes for kids to try on that re-create Colonial life on the Gulf Coast plus other areas to explore Native American and Civil War history, all through exhibits geared toward children. There is a gift shop so expect to go home with a trinket or two. Closed Mondays.
15. One-stop vacationing. Sometimes, the best vacations take place all in one spot. The Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf & Resort Spa is that kind of place. The name tells you there are lots of relaxing and fun activities for adults, but kids haven’t been left out of the equation. From supervised activities at the beach and indoors, paddleboarding, kayaking, a water park, there’s something for every age. Plus child care. Bonus.