By Carrie McLaren
Is it any wonder that Florida is the Number One dream vacation spot for kids? After all, it's the home of Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort, Busch Gardens and other thrilling theme parks. And Florida has 1,800 miles of coastline, translating to sandcastle-building, fishing, and family fun.
In the Sunshine State, your kids can meet Mickey Mouse, for sure. But they can also meet an astronaut at the Kennedy Space Center and a professional baseball player at a spring training game.
Here, kids can swim with dolphins and manatees, see real live alligators, and snorkel surrounded by colorful tropical fish. They can experience fun, hands-on exhibits at kid-friendly museums, aquariums and zoos.
Here are some places that just shouldn't be missed while in Florida.
Alluring Amusement Parks
Beloved cartoon characters, exotic animals and killer whales. Scream-inducing, stomach-turning roller coasters, magical fairylands and realistic simulators. Fireworks parades and light shows. Stunning costumes and talented dancers and singers. This is the world of Florida theme parks -- sensory overload and excitement like nothing your kids have ever experienced. Theme parks are a must do in Florida.
The Orlando area is theme park central, home to the Walt Disney World Resort (including Magic Kingdom Park, Epcot, Disney's Hollywood Studios and Disney’s Animal Kingdom); Universal Orlando Resort (including Universal Studios Florida and Universal's Islands of Adventure); and SeaWorld Aquatica and Discovery Cove.
In nearby Winter Haven, LEGOLAND Florida is a family favorite, filled with rides for little ones and even a waterpark.
Busch Gardens Tampa, about an hour away, offers thrills as well as animal encounters.
Visit A Fort
Theme parks may seem like the obvious vacation choice when traveling with kids, but you can expand your trip to include a variety of activities. Spend a day in one of Orlando’s abundant theme parks, then travel just 90 minutes away to historic St. Augustine. Castillo de San Marcos in downtown St. Augustine is impressive and well-known. Just two miles north is Fort Mose Historical State Park, the first free community of ex-slaves. Africans who fled slavery in the British Carolinas were welcomed by the Spanish government to this fort in 1738.
A Launching Pad for Fun
Get swept up in the thrill of space exploration at the awe-inspiring Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex on the Space Coast. Here, your family can learn about early space pioneers, see their personal memorabilia, and feel what it's like to walk on the moon. Also, enjoy 3-D movies in two giant IMAX® theaters, live shows and exhibits. A behind-the-scenes tour will bring you by huge rockets as well as launch and landing facilities. Meet a member of NASA's Astronaut Corps by signing up for the "Lunch with an Astronaut" program. For an extra treat, make sure your visit coincides with a rocket launch - a truly out-of-this-world experience.
A Beach for Each
A visit to Florida just isn't complete without spending at least one day at the beach. From powdered sugar-white sand and emerald water in Northwest Florida beaches to hard-packed golden grains and pounding surf on the Atlantic coast, a beach can be easily reached, no matter where you are in the state.
Toddlers love wading and splashing in the warm water, or digging holes in the sand. Older kids swim, snorkel, play a game of beach volleyball, or surf (surf's up mainly from New Smyrna Beach to West Palm Beach to Venice Beach).
Beaches offering food, restrooms, and rental beach toys, or chairs are particularly family-friendly. Check out Siesta Key, Clearwater Beach, Fort Myers and Fort Walton Beach to name just a few.
For a unique special event, kids of all ages can experience the Mardi Gras festivities in Perdido Key. With a lighted boat parade, live music and the Cajun cook-off, the festivities carry on into the evening with a fireworks show over the water.
See lions and tigers, plus leopards, elephants, zebras and more, all living in natural habitats at Florida's zoos. The state is home to several, including ZooTampa at Lowry Park, ranked first in Child magazine's list of the country's "10 Best Zoos for Kids" in 2004 and also No. 1 by Parents Magazine in 2009. Lion Country Safari, just outside West Palm Beach, is home to the state’s only drive-thru safari and is home to over 900 animals.
Take your family out to the ballgame -- on a budget. Florida hosts 15 Major League Baseball teams during Spring Training. Bring your mitts and catch a game; your kids can see their favorite pros up-close, and you won't go broke on tickets.
Florida is the place to be for football fans in your family. Depending on the time of year, you can enjoy the Florida Blue Florida Classic in Orlando. The game features two Historic Black College Universities based in the Sunshine State: Bethune Cookman College and Florida A&M University. High profile college bowl games take place each year throughout the state -- the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, and the Orange Bowl in Miami are just a few of the annual matchups.
If college football is not your preference, Florida is also home to professional football teams such as the Miami Dolphins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Jacksonville Jaguars.
Give your children an unforgettable experience -- snorkel or scuba dive the crystal-clear warm waters of the Florida Keys to view the only living coral reef in the continental U.S. Head to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and the adjacent Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, where kids can see brain corals and sea fans up-close, and swim with rays turtles and tropical fish. While breathing underwater is part of the fun for many children, younger tykes might rather experience the reef via a glass-bottom boat tour.
Florida is blessed with more than its fair share of water parks -- cool wonderlands that provide a refreshing complement to traditional theme parks. From daunting, nearly vertical waterslides to "rivers" with currents allowing you to float lazily along in a tube, Florida's water parks offer rides for every family member from teen daredevil and toddler. Check out Adventure Island in Tampa. Walt Disney World Resort has two water parks: Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach, which features the world's tallest fastest waterslide.
If your child is the creature-loving type, up-close, hands-on encounters will provide the thrill of a lifetime.
At Discovery Cove in Orlando, your family can swim and play with a bottlenose dolphin, snorkel among rays and tropical fish, and feed tropical birds. Your kids will be kissed and hugged by dolphins and sea lions respectively at Theater of the Sea in Islamorada. And for swimming with wild, gentle manatees, head to Crystal River and Homosassa Springs.
You can participate in a variety of animal encounters, including dolphin care experiences and photo opportunities with resident animals to help you remember your day at Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
The ZOO in Gulf Breeze is a 50-acre preserve where little ones won’t want to miss the petting zoo – home to goats, sheep, cows, pigs and rabbits. Be sure to take a peek at the hatchlings in the incubator area and see the zoo’s kitchen, offering an inside look at the work involved in feeding more than 700 animals.
For Kids Only
There aren't many places in this world made especially for kids. But Florida is one big exception. At Ronnie Van Zant Park south of Jacksonville, for example, you can't fish unless you're accompanied by someone younger than 16 years old.
Or check out one of the many children's museums located throughout the state. Jacksonville's Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens interactive kids' section, called Art Connections, allows little ones to touch/feel and make their own art. Pensacola's Children's Discovery Museum is a historical museum featuring a trading post, a Native American village, and displays from the city’s maritime industry. Also, the Florida Aquarium in Tampa offers an outdoor aquatic exhibit for kids called Explore-A-Shore. Here, kids can climb on sea creature models, board a pirate ship, slide down a waterslide and play in water jet sprays.
Gawking at Gators
Are your children pestering you about seeing alligators on your trip to Florida? One of the best ways to view these toothy reptiles is aboard an airboat, a flat-bottomed propeller craft known to speed through mangrove tunnels in Everglades National Park and in waterways and swamps throughout Florida. Airboats come in different sizes, offering seating for two to 18 passengers. The propellers are loud, but drivers give out ear muffler,s and most kids love the ride, which can include speeds of up to 45 miles per hour. In central Florida, Boggy Creek Airboats takes riders up-close along the shores of East Lake Tohopekaliga.
Another option for true reptile-philes is Gatorland in Orlando, home to the hands-on "trainer for a day" program.
Visit north and central Florida's state parks and show the kids some of the coolest geological features in the Sunshine State.
In Chipley, walk the nature trails and check out the 67-foot waterfall at the aptly-named Falling Waters State Park. At Florida Caverns State Park in Marianna, view the extraordinary formations on your cave tour and then cool off in the swimming hole.
At Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park in Gainesville, see the huge 120-foot-deep sinkhole that was formed when a cavern's roof collapsed. Explore the sinkhole from boardwalks or from a nature trail around the rim.
In today's world, family members are often scattered all across the globe. So why not set a date to reconnect in a fun and relaxed locale for a reunion? And what better locale is there than Florida, where there's sunshine, warm weather and activities for kids and teens as well as for their parents and grandparents?
Many Florida resorts specialize in family reunions, offering blocks of rooms at a discount as well as activities ranging from poolside get-togethers and games of water polo to dinners in formal dining rooms.
The Walt Disney World Resort offers "magical gatherings"- vacations featuring special experiences for groups - for those staying at a Disney resort. In addition, vacation rental companies offer furnished and completely stocked houses and cozy cottages. Families can easily rent one large residence or several homes in the same neighborhood. No matter where you go in Florida, a memorable family reunion is guaranteed.
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