How to Have a Memorable Family Vacation in Florida
By Janet K. Keeler
A family vacation in Florida is always a good idea. The beaches. The theme parks. The endless summer. The good, good times.
A family vacation is all about letting go of the everyday and having fun every day. For this, the Sunshine State has you and the kids covered. But where to begin with such a rich slate of possibilities? Start with these Florida vacation FAQs and then call the travel agent or book your own trip online.
First-time visitors are likely to make Orlando and its cast of characters with ears and wands their first destination. The parks of Disney World and Universal Orlando, plus their resorts, water parks, shopping and dining complexes and other attractions, are central Florida’s big draws. SeaWorld Orlando and LEGOLAND in Lakeland plus Busch Gardens in Tampa have their own magical draws, and one of them is thrill rides fit for all ages.
Florida has about 825 miles of family friendly beaches, some on the rollicking Atlantic Ocean and some on the more bucolic Gulf of Mexico. And then there’s the laid-back Florida Keys, where the azure water all around might trick you into believing you’re frolicking in the Caribbean.
Beyond that there are professional sporting events (basketball, baseball, football and hockey), spring training games, children’s museums, world-class performance music and theater venues, natural wonders, water sports and other activities for land-loving kids, parents and grandparents. So pack your beach bags (video tips here in case you’re new at this) and load up the car. The sunshine and memories await.
Here are 10 ways to enjoy the Sunshine State with the family:
1. Meet the dolphins. One of the joys of vacationing near the water in Florida is spying dolphins leap from the water. These delightful creatures love to put on a show. A gentle boat cruise on Charlotte Harbor on Florida’s west coast guarantees some jumping dolphins in the boat’s wake. And the louder that the passengers clap, the more the friendly mammals perform. And there are many more places to see dolphins all around the state.
2. Learn their lessons well. Just because your children are on vacation doesn’t mean they can’t learn something. Just don’t tell the kids that the Florida Aquarium’s “Penguin: Backstage Pass” tour is a STEM lesson masquerading as vacation fun. Florida is a real-life classroom from Tampa’s aquarium to the historic streets of St. Augustine to the outer space dreams at the Kennedy Space Center and the best shelling in the world on Sanibel Island.
3. Don’t leave without seeing a gator. There are more than 1.3 million alligators in the state, many of which can be observed safely in the Everglades from the seat of an airboat or from observation decks and boardwalks in state parks. They can also be seen at wildlife theme parks and in their natural habitats in freshwater lakes around the state. More places to observe the prehistoric reptiles.
4. The beach is back. Siesta Key near Sarasota has been named the best beach in America twice by Dr. Beach. Part of the reason is that the waves are so gentle parents don’t worry about their wee ones getting knocked down when they play at the shore. Plus there’s plenty of parking and bathroom/changing facilities. More beaches for families around the state.
5. Fun for the teens, too. Out of the mouths of teens come recommendations for three trips they promise to love. And that’s saying a lot. From surfing on the east coast, to exploring Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park and knocking around Key West, we promise naturally sullen teens will find their inner happy kid. Just give them a little space and a Florida sunset (or sunrise?).
6. Entertainment under the stars. Take it outside to one of Florida’s many outdoors theaters where the family can watch old flicks and first-run movies, or maybe settle in for a concert under the stars. At Grapeland Water Park in Miami you’ll be watching movies while bobbing in the water on a floating device. The Swap Shop in Fort Lauderdale has 14 outdoor screens and the Silver Moon Drive-In Theatre in Lakeland is a blast from the past. If you’re going to be in St. Augustine, check the amphitheater’s schedule of country acts and classic rock bands. Dogs are welcome at the Ruskin Family Drive-In Theatre where double features are the norm and the price is just $1 for kids 5 to 8; younger are free. Everyone else is $6.
7. Getting close to nature. The national wildlife refuge system got its start in Florida in 1903 when President Theodore Roosevelt moved to protect Pelican Island in the Indian River Lagoon to provide a haven for birds. Since then, 28 more refuges have been established in Florida; many of them open to the public. Activities include bird watching, paddling and biking, plus the chance to see a variety of nesting sea turtles.
8. Shoot for the stars. There are several planetariums around the state from north to south, where families can learn about the heavens. (Uh oh, more education.) All of them have special programs throughout the year and special activities for children. If you are in Florida for an extended period, consider a multi-day camp for your budding astronomers.
9. A view from the lighthouse. Florida has 29 lighthouses perched around its 1,200 miles of coastline. Some of them allow visitors to climb to the top, such as the barber-pole striped St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum. From that vantage point, you’ll be able to see for miles. The state’s tallest lighthouse is the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse south of Daytona Beach. Take a deep breath (or two or three) and start the climb up the 203-step spiral staircase. Trails and a keeper’s quarters that can be toured surround the lighthouse.
10. Gone fishin’. Florida has some of the best fishing in the world and there are plenty of fishing spots from St. Augustine to Destin to the Florida Keys that are perfect for young kids. Fishing the flats around the mangroves on barrier islands all over the state is an easy excursion. The water is calm and there’s plenty of marine life and birds to watch while waiting for the big bite. Kayaking and canoeing are also fine water activities for children. Outfitters are at the ready to rent equipment so you don’t have to worry about hauling poles from Peoria.