Beaches, museums, amusement parks - Destin and Fort Walton were made for family fun.
By Jodi Mailander Farrell
White-sand beaches and emerald seas make Destin and Fort Walton Beach ideal vacation playgrounds, but they aren’t the only reason families flock to these Northwest Florida communities. From water parks to boardwalks, there’s never a dull moment.
With 24 miles of soft, white sand, the beaches are the primary pastime in Destin and Fort Walton Beach. There are five beachfront parks and 12 entry points for easy access.
A family favorite is James Lee Park, 3510 Scenic Hwy. 98, in Destin because the water is shallow and clear, plus there are multiple dune walkovers, picnic tables, pavilions, a playground and restrooms with changing rooms.
The 40-acre Wayside Park, 1030 Miracle Strip Pkwy. Southeast, on Okaloosa Island is adjacent to a fishing pier for added fun.
Neighboring John C. Beasley Park, 1550 Miracle Strip Pkwy., in Fort Walton Beach wins points with families for quiet, clean beaches and outdoor showers.
For an overview of the best beaches in the area check out the Emerald Coast Beaches Visit Florida guide.
Big Kahuna’s Water & Adventure Park, 1007 U.S. Highway 98 East, in Destin has more than 40 water play areas with huge slides, a wave pool and lazy river, along with miniature golf and race go-karts. There are also fountains and low-depth pools for toddlers.
Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park, 1010 Miracle Strip Pkwy. Southeast, in Fort Walton Beach overlooks the Gulf of Mexico and offers up-close dolphin shows and encounters for ages 3 and up. There are also touch tanks that make it possible for kids to pet hermit crabs, starfish and sting rays, and exhibits that feature otters, sea lions, exotic birds, penguins, turtles and more.
A three-story wooden go-kart course is part of the fun at The Track, 1125 U.S. Highway 98 in Destin. The park also has thrill rides, an arcade, miniature golf, an old-fashioned carousel, Ferris wheel and bumper boats with water cannons. Some of the rides are designed only for small toddlers so they don’t miss out on the fun.
Fun on the Water
A two-hour dolphin and sunset cruise on an 80-foot, glass-bottom boat is an exciting way to spend the afternoon. One of the oldest cruise operators, Southern Star, docks at HarborWalk Village, 100 Harbor Blvd., at the foot of the Destin Bridge.
Also based at HarborWalk, the Buccaneer Pirate Cruise is a two-hour treasure quest designed for kids that explores Destin Harbor and the Gulf of Mexico, with squirt gun and sword fights, face painting and cannons.
Rent your own pontoon boat from Destin X Watersports, 214 Harbor Blvd, in Destin, and head out to Crab Island, a submerged sandbar accessible only by boat where local boaters congregate and floating restaurants operate from March through October.
The Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier, 1030 Miracle Strip Pkwy. Southeast, provides fishing licenses so families can cast their lines and reel in catches from the pier.
For family fishing trips, check out one of the child-friendly fishing charters out of the Destin Boardwalk.
Parasailing is a great way to view Destin’s clear waters and sea life from 500 feet up.
Just Chute Me, 500 Harbor Blvd., in Destin is one of the many operators that serve ages 6 and older. (Kids under 125 pounds fly tandem.)
The Golf Garden of Destin, 12958 U.S. Highway 98, in Miramar Beach, is a family-friendly operation, with an 18-hole putting course, a driving range and a par-29, nine-hole executive course. In the summer, it’s lit for night play.
One of easiest and most picturesque trails is the three-quarter-mile, man-made path through the 30-foot white sand dunes at Henderson Beach State Park, 17000 Emerald Coast Pkwy., the last remaining coastal scrub area in Destin.
Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, 7525 W County Hwy 30A, in Santa Rosa Beach, 10 miles east of Destin, is a long, linear park that has a good mix of easy and difficult trails, with more than 15 miles of hiking. The Morris Lake Nature Trail, a loop through Topsail’s spectacular dunes, is considered the toughest, but most rewarding.
Turkey Creek Park, 340 John Sims Pkwy. West, in nearby Niceville has a broad, one-mile boardwalk trail, with a canoe landing and platforms for visitors to jump into the cool stream.
Wild Willy’s Adventure Zone, 1306 Miracle Strip Pkwy. Southeast, in Okaloosa Island is a dinosaur-themed adventure park with an indoor arcade, laser tag and 4-D movie theater.
Fat Daddy’s Arcade, 20009 Emerald Coast Pkwy., in Destin is another arcade option, with more than 120 games and prizes for redeemed points.
Rock Out Climbing Gym, 2001 98 Palms Blvd., in Destin is a no-harness, family-owned bouldering gym that welcomes ages 3 and up.
Use family team-work to find your way out of a crime scene or zombie apocalypse escape room at Escape Zone 60, 1077 U.S. Highway 98, in Destin.
Science & History
The Emerald Coast Science Center, 31 Memorial Pkwy. Southwest, in Fort Walton Beach is a hands-on discovery center with a robotics exhibit, a hurricane simulator, a chem lab, an embodied learning environment where movement is tracked by motion-capture cameras, and more.
Take advantage of the proximity of Eglin Air Force Base and visit the Air Force Armament Museum, 100 Museum Dr. It’s home to the fastest plane and the biggest bomb ever built, as well as 29 aircraft from the early days of World War I and a cockpit simulator that lets amateur aviators feel what it’s like to fly. Admission is free!
Built of native yellow pine in 1896, Wesley Mansion is a plantation home with formal gardens on the grounds of Eden Gardens State Park, 181 Eden Gardens Rd., in Santa Rosa Beach. It houses the second-largest collection of Louis XVI furnishings in America. Guided tours occur hourly Thursday through Monday.
Find out why Destin calls itself the “Luckiest Fishing Village in the World” at the Destin History and Fishing Museum, 108 Stahlman Ave., where exhibits include a historic mullet boat, nets, more than 75 local mounted fish, photos and the science of why Destin’s sand is white.
Learn about local history and the Native Americans who lived in the area at the Indian Temple Mound Museum, 139 Miracle Strip Pkwy., in Fort Walton Beach. The museum is the anchor for a larger Heritage Park & Cultural Center that includes a 1912 schoolhouse, a 1918 post office and a museum devoted to Civil War history.
At Uncle Bucks FishBowl and Grill, 4251 Legendary Dr., in Destin, sharks hang from the ceiling and families can eat while they bowl in an area that feels like it’s underwater. The menu has fried pickles, boneless wings, burgers and tacos, plus fish and shrimp.
Lulu’s Destin, 4607 Legendary Marina Dr., is owned by singer Jimmy Buffett’s little sister, Lucy Buffett. The 350-seat, bayfront restaurant has a seafood-centric menu with a Gulf Shores spin featuring fried green tomatoes, po’ boys and Krispy Kreme bread pudding. Plus there are six different allergy-free menus. Lulu’s has its own sandy beach with beach toys, and it offers activities like face painting, rope climbing and hair wraps to make it fun for kids.
After working up an appetite at the beach in James Lee Park, stop by the oceanside Crab Trap in the park, 3500 Scenic Hwy. 98, for crabs, fried shrimp, grouper sandwiches and burgers – along with great sunset views and a playground for kids.
More than just an access point to the beach, The Boardwalk on Okaloosa Island, 1450 Miracle Strip Pkwy., has beachfront restaurants and shops for souvenir hunting.
Downtown Fort Walton Beach, with its funky boutiques and antique stores, also has an Art Walk the first Friday of every month from March through November, and a year-round Farmers Market on the second and fourth Saturdays.
HarborWalk Village, 10 Harbor Blvd., in Destin is a central spot for rentals of paddle boards, kayaks, pontoon, jet skis, parasailing, glass bottom boats, dolphin cruises and pirate ship excursions. It also is loaded with restaurants and shops.
Destin Commons, 4100 Legendary Dr., is an outdoor mall anchored by a movie theater. A splash pad in the middle is a fun retreat for kids.
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