By Janet K. Keeler
Central Florida is stacked with the two things that make the Sunshine State a great family vacation destination: Theme parks and beaches.
This region of the state was practically built with families in mind, starting with Orlando, ground zero for the theme parks where childhood memories are made.
Disney World is the big kahuna with its four main parks: Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios. Add to that a couple of water parks, oodles of hotels (and a campground) in various price ranges plus the dining and shopping complex Disney Springs. It’s no wonder squeals are heard across the land when someone announces, “We’re going to Disney World!”
Universal Orlando is a huge attraction too, especially for Harry Potter fans. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter brings muggles from all corners of the world, who stay for Islands of Adventure and Volcano Bay, a new water park. Hotels (Can you say Hard Rock?) and the dining, shopping and entertainment complex University CityWalk complete the deal.
Whew. Time to head to the beach, and Central Florida has some of the country’s best. Siesta Key Beach near Sarasota has been named the No. 1 beach in America twice by Dr. Beach, and Clearwater Beach gets gushing accolades, too. The high marks come, in part, for their family friendliness. And there are others including Caladesi Island State Park, mere miles from Clearwater but its pristine shoreline makes it feel so far away.
Beaches and theme parks are wonderful, and Central Florida has even more destinations for making memories:
1. Get prehistoric. Never heard of the Peace River or Zolfo Springs, the nearest town? Never mind. Just know that this spot about 50 miles east of Sarasota is the place your junior dinosaur hunters must come to hunt fossils. Among the ancient relics are the bones of mammoths, mastodons, camels, bears, llamas and more. It’s a seasonal activity so plan ahead.
2. Get prehistoric 2.0. Drivers can see a couple of life-size dinosaurs as they whiz by on Interstate 4. That’s a tease for Dinosaur World in Plant City. Your wee ones will have a blast wandering among the ancient behemoths in a natural setting. They can dig for fossils and mine for gems, too. There are no rides but a lot of thrills.
3. Gators in their habitat. Alligators have bounced back from the brink of extinctions and now there are 1.3 million of them in Florida. Among the state’s gator attractions are GatorWorld Parks in Wildwood near Orlando. This drive-thru park guides visitors in their cars through the park and past specially designed pools where about 400 gators swim and feed. At the end, there’s a platform to observe and feed the reptiles. Also in Orlando is Gatorland, a 110-acre theme park that is home to about 2,000 gators.
4. They call her Anna Maria. Anna Maria Island near Bradenton is a vacation spot where the family can build the days around fun and sun. It’s quiet here but the laid-back nature is welcome when you can walk or a ride a bike to the beach. There’s ice cream and beach food, plus warm water and soft sand. Make sure you eat at the Rod & Reel Pier and hope a thunderstorm makes some noise over Tampa Bay. That’s one serious show. There’s some mighty fine fishing around the pier, too.
5. Down on the (citrus) farm. A stop at Mixon Farm’s citrus grove in Bradenton is a good place to drink the sunshine and sample good farm fixins’ at the café. The hourlong Orange Blossom Tram Tours get everyone out into the groves and past the gator pens. (Remember, you’re in Florida.) There’s a colorful play area for kids, too.
6. The underwater delights. The Florida Aquarium is a must-stop in Tampa. Your family will lose themselves in the underwater world of the Sunshine State. The exhibits celebrate the coral reefs, sharks and sea turtles found in Florida’s “blue backyard.” There’s a touch tank so visitors can get close to rays and lots of activities of children. Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota is another stop on the undersea tour, this one with a big dose of science.
7. Get the family to giddy-up. At HorsePower in Oldsmar kids have the opportunity to connect with animals. There’s a stable and a petting farm, plus HorsePower has a play area. Check your schedule and theirs to see if you can sign the kids up for an equestrian camp. The folks here also welcome and work with children with special needs.
8. Birds-eye view of the big city. Hop aboard the The Wheel at ICON Park in Orlando and soar 400 feet above the ground. Each capsule holds 15 people so there’s room for the entire family. You can even spy the Kennedy Space Center on the East Coast during the 25-minute and 360-degree tour.
9. The art on the wall. If your kids are fans of art (and maybe even if they aren’t) add Florida’s arts city, St. Petersburg, to your travel plans. Start with a walking tour of city’s downtown murals, all painted in the past few years. The Dali Museum draws crowds of visitors to its legendary collection of Salvador Dali paintings and the Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg boasts an “encyclopedic connection” of works across genres and time periods. A free trolley takes visitors to the city’s many arts districts and galleries on the second Saturday night each month.
10. The mermaid mystery. Your kids won’t stop talking about seeing the real-life mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, about 50 miles north of Tampa. The mermaid show is one of Florida’s oldest and most quirky attractions. Besides the mermaid extravaganza, there are wildlife shows with animal handlers and a river cruise on a pontoon boat that gets you out into Real Florida.
11. Gentle giants. Drive a bit farther north from Weeki Wachee and the family will be in Crystal River. This is ground zero of manatee observation, an experience that is as Florida as a grouper sandwich at the beach. The gentle sea cows congregate here mostly in the winter so if you’re down to visit the grandparents or for the December holidays, this is a memorable family friendly stop. There are many outfitters that offer boat excursions to get closer or to even swim with the manatees. For landlubbers, there are observation boardwalks in various places.
12. Take a wild ride. The Safari Wilderness Ranch just of north of Lakeland takes visitors on an excursion over a 260-acre facility. Visitors can hop aboard specially outfitted vehicles that hold up to 20 passengers or visitors can traverse the area on camels. There are also kayak tours, too. Safari Wilderness, in the middle of the Green Swamp, is home to the second-largest collection of Oryx in North America and two of the largest herds of water buffalo and defassa waterbuck. Other animals on the trail are free-roaming lemurs, cattle, zebra, fainting goats, ostriches and llamas.
13. Chow time and showtime. Dinner and a show seem a decidedly adult affair but not so in Orlando. There are several fun spots where you and the family can have a bite and take in music, comedy or even a luau. Or maybe watch the horse-riding jousters at Medieval Times. There’s the Hoop Dee Doo Revue at Disney and a super entertaining Wantilan Luau at Universal’s Royal Pacific Hotel is complete with roast pig. That nutty upside down WonderWorks building on International Drive also houses the Outta Control comedy show with dinner.
14. The best winter strawberries. Strawberries? In winter? Yep, that’s Florida’s upside-down growing season. Down here, we can have strawberry shortcake for Christmas dinner. If you and the family are visiting in the winter months, stop at Parkesdale Farm Market in Plant City for mile-short shortcake and a photo opp in the Strawberry throne. The annual Florida Strawberry Festival in March is a cross between an old-time country fair with rides and food, plus lots of top-notch country music acts.
15. Ride ‘em cowboys. The Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo east of Lake Wales is an unlikely Florida attraction. But on second thought, it pays homage to the state’s rural cattle and ranching history, with plenty of updated fun. Activities range from watching the rodeo to horseback riding, bungee jumping, golfing, fishing, horseshoes, pony rides, rock climbing and a petty zoo. Accommodations are pretty swanky, too, ranging from cabins to traditional hotel accommodations.
16. Meet inspiring marine mammals. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium's mission is to inspire others through the rescue and rehabilitation of marine animals -- a cause that exploded in popularity with Winter, the movie star dolphin with the prosthetic tail. Winter died in November 2021, but the aquarium's mission remains the same.