By Carrie McLaren
Take your family along to some of Pensacola's great museums, zoos and fun attractions.
The Pensacola Bay Area is about blue skies and emerald-colored water. And while some may be content to simply relax beachside on the shimmering quartz sand, you're really missing out if you don't explore all this area has to offer.
One of Florida's busiest attractions is the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola. Here you'll find more than 150 aircraft and enough displays -- with subjects ranging from engines to Medal of Honor recipients -- to entertain grandkids and grandparents alike. And there's no admission fee.
Details are the foundation of this treasure. Items such as the reindeer-skin mukluks (Eskimo boots) worn by Richard Byrd during his flight over the North Pole in 1926 will keep you moving from exhibit to exhibit.
Kids can play interactive computer games, experience a flight simulator or climb into dozens of cockpits like the ones used by the Navy's Blue Angels. They'll be captivated by the museum's flagship movie, The Magic of Flight, a dazzling IMAX film covering the early days of flight and Blue Angel pilot training.
From March to November, the Blue Angels practice above the complex, usually on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings. The whole family will be impressed by this building-shaking treat that comes with high-speed stunts and controlled spins. The pilots often stop by the viewing area to interact with fans after practice on Wednesdays.
For more down-to-earth attractions, head to The ZOO in Gulf Breeze. The ZOO, a 50-acre preserve that has been featured on The Animal Planet, is designed to make the animals feel at home. How often, after all, do you run into a pair of turkeys on the sidewalk? These full-feathered creatures seem to get a kick out of "gobbling" for giggling children.
Take your pick: goat, sheep, cow, pig, rabbit. They're all waiting at the petting zoo for young visitors to touch or feed them. (There's a hand-washing station when the kids are done.) If you're lucky, there will be hatchlings in the incubator area. If not, the zoo kitchen provides an inside look at the work involved in feeding more than 700 animals.
You can also view Gorilla Island from the elevated boardwalk or ride the zoo's train (an additional $3 per person). You'll see otters at play, hear an African lion roar and watch coyotes behave like porch dogs.
Step into nature at Big Lagoon State Park, just along the shores of Perdido Key. Crabbing is one of the park’s most popular activities and don’t forget to bring your fishing pole -- you might just catch your own dinner -- redfish, bluefish and sea trout are caught seasonally.
A Walk Back in Time
It wasn't that long ago that pioneers had to deal with nature outside a zoo. Signs throughout downtown Pensacola, one of the oldest National Register Historic Districts, remind visitors that the city has ties back to 1559.
To get a real-life feel for the Pensacola Bay Area's past, you'll want to visit Historic Pensacola Village and take a walking tour, with or without a guide. Key to this cluster of historic structures is the T.T. Wentworth, Jr. Florida State Museum, built in 1908. The museum is known for its odd displays, such as a petrified cat, as well as local history.
You'll learn about brickmaking at the Museum of Industry, along with how trains, fishing and lumber played an important role in the area's past. The Museum of Commerce uses storefronts to illustrate how early vendors sold everything from hardware to harnesses, and there are even some old children's toys on display.
The Pensacola Museum of Art, also located downtown near the village, hosts workshops for kids. The classes, which fill up early, give a brief tour of current exhibits and explain, in "kid-speak," the latest artwork on display. Children then create a project that is loosely based on that art. And don’t miss the Saturday Studio Kids Club on the third Saturday of each month.
More Kid Favorites
The Discovery Gallery, part of the Children's Museum in historic downtown Pensacola, features hands-on exhibits where children can dress up in costumes or play in a French Creole house.
Kids love the Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier, which extends almost 1,500 feet out over the emerald-green Gulf of Mexico. The fishing is great here, and catches have included sailfish and a rare white marlin. Be on the lookout – you may even see dolphins.
Kids of all ages can experience Mardi Gras festivities each year 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.
If the kids still need more excitement, rev up their engines at Sam's Fun City, Sam's Surf City or Fast Eddie's Fun Center. Sam's Fun City is reminiscent of a cozy county fair, with a Ferris wheel, laser tag and arcade games. Sam's Surf City is a water park that features 12 water slides, a 1,200-foot lazy river, interactive kiddie pools and more. Fast Eddie's has miniature golf and go-karts, including one designed to look like a sheriff's car.
And if you get tired from all the attractions the Pensacola Bay Area has to offer, you'll still have plenty of beautiful sand where you and the family can stretch out and just relax.
RELATED: Pensacola Beach in 360° (VIDEO)