By Janet K. Keeler
South Florida is the closest you’ll get the family to a Caribbean vacation without leaving the country. The tropical plants, balmy weather and warm turquoise water make a family vacation here feel very special.
Calling the Florida Keys “America’s Tropics’ isn’t so farfetched and if you’re looking for a family vacation to remember for years, you’ve come to the right place. The chain of islands stretches like a string of pearls into the Gulf of Mexico from the mainland. You want a getaway? This is it. Warm, brilliant azure water, plenty of fishing, tons of good food and a laidback vibe encourages everyone to focus on what’s important. The family. Don’t forget snorkeling and other water activities.
Then there’s Miami, Florida’s international city alive with arts, food and culture all with a Spanish accent. Don’t leave without a drive along Calle Ocho and a stop at Versailles restaurant for Cuban sandwich and rice and black beans (Cristianos y moros). The Latin beat rings loudly in Miami and infuses the culture in many ways. While the reputation of Miami and South Beach might be bumping, all-night clubs, and there is that, there are many family-friendly attractions, from the Zoo Miami to the wide accessible beaches of Crandon Park Beach on Key Biscayne and Haulover Beach in Miami. An annual kite festival at Haulover is a draw in February.
And up and down the coast, east and west, are natural wonders where sun worshippers and shell seekers set up camp and relax for days. Sanibel Island on Florida’s West Coast is among the best beaches in the world on which to collect shells, some say the best. Before you leave home, practice the Sanibel Stoop to get in tip-top shell-collecting shape and assess what equipment you’ll need. Don’t worry though, shovels and nets are sold on the island.
South Florida has much more to offer families looking for vacation ideas.
Here are 15 ways to start making those Florida family memories:
1. A stand-up adventure. There’s an extensive chain of islands on Florida’s Gulf Coast and Don Pedro Island State Park near Cape Haze in Port Charlotte is one of them. One of the attractions on Don Pedro is nighttime Stand Up Paddleboarding with boards that light up from underneath with neon colors as you paddle through the mangroves. Among the creatures spied on the excursions are manatees, gopher tortoises and bald eagles. Area outfitters give lessons. There are also hiking trails and other paddling experiences.
2. Blinded with science. South Florida boasts many science museums that cater to children. The Frost Museum of Science in Miami has a planetarium and a monster fish exhibit featuring some of the biggest creatures of the deep. The Museum of Science and Discovery in Fort Lauderdale is built with young children in mind. They can learn about wildlife, weather and even space exploration. Older children (14 and up) can take the behind-the-scenes tour at the Smithsonian Research Center in Fort Pierce.
3. Riding the train. The Conch Tour Train in Key West, that is. Get to know this quirky city by climbing aboard the iconic train. The family will see the sights plus get a little history. If the conductor will stop long enough, you can jump off at the Southernmost Point and get a photo suitable for your holiday cards. There’s a line sometimes, though, so you might have to come back. At the Southernmost Point monument, you are just 90 miles from Cuba. Maybe you’ll be on the webcam.
4. Close encounters of the gator kind. Along the Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41), which runs through the Miccosukee Indian reservation, are companies offering airboat rides (and sometimes kayak rentals), among them Wooten’s, Tigertail, Osceola and Buffalo Tiger. They provide the sound mufflers to protect ears from the roar of the engine and make it a point of getting riders as close as possible to alligators.
5. When Robert is Here, stop. If you’re headed into Everglades National Park through the main park entrance in Florida City or just taking a detour through Homestead on your way to the Keys, you’ll come across one of South Florida’s most delicious fruit stands. In the summer, Robert is Here stocks many varieties of mangoes (try the Kent for sure), plus other tropics fruit. There’s a petting zoo out back but the real draw for the kids will be the amazing milkshakes, among them key lime, passion fruit, coconut, strawberry, orange and papaya. Pay little extra for the more exotic mamey sapotes, sapodilla, guava and mango. A great stop for quick refueling. And to stock up.
6. We love turtles. There are several varieties of sea turtles that lay their eggs on Florida beaches, including loggerheads, Kemp’s Ridley, leatherback, hawksbill and green. There are guided night tours and supervised turtle dig programs at Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, which has the largest nesting population of loggerhead turtles in the United States. The refuge is just south of Melbourne Beach and the best time for viewing the nesting turtles is June and July. Mark August and September on the calendar if you want to see the hatchlings emerge from the eggs. And really, who doesn’t?
7. More turtles. It’s impossible to get turtle overload in Florida. Especially for kids. The Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton has a turtle rehab center plus other marine exhibits. It’s named after the gumbo limbo trees which surround the area and frankly is just fun to say. There’s a boardwalk trail and a butterfly garden, too. Water adventure programs include kayaking, paddle boarding and canoeing for ages 6 and older.
8. We love dolphins, too. Miami Seaquarium is the place to have an encounter with the beloved dolphins. Swim with them, stand alongside them in a shallow pool fit for not-so-good swimmers, learn training techniques and shake hands (fins?) with a trained dolphin. It’s even possible to share a smooch. There’s an artificial reef to explore with snorkel and mask. How fun to see a turtle swimming by. There’s also a seal swim program and a penguin experience. For more dolphin encounters plus dolphin shows head south to the Theater of the Sea in Islamorada.
9. Dog days are the best days. It’s not just the kids who need to have a little vacation fun, the pooches need a good time, too. At Performance Pups at Lake Dania between Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale the dogs can cool off in the dog lake and jump from a dock that juts out into the water. Two-legged visitors can wade in the water but no swimming allowed. The water is for the dogs. Other than watch Fido and Fifi cavort there’s not much else to do but isn’t that enough? This would be a worthy detour on a car trip to give the dogs and kids a chance to run.
10. Underwater adventures. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo is a popular place for novice and experienced snorkelers. Reasonably priced snorkeling tours include gear rental. No need to drag all that stuff from Omaha. The state park is adjacent to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Snorkelers and scuba divers explore miles of coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangrove swamps. Key Largo, known as the dive capital of the world, has plenty of accommodations and dining possibilities suitable for all ages.
11. Vintage cars for miles. Make a pit stop at the recently relocated Muscle Car City in Punta Gorda. Housed in a closed big-box store, there are miles and miles of vintage cars in mint condition. There are more than 200 cars from the 1950s through the 1970s. Corvettes and pickups plus Thunderbirds and hotrods will make the heart of any car love go vroom-vroom. Have your kids check out the sound systems (we used to call them radios) in these babies. They will wonder how grandpa survived without a USB port.
12. Splash zone, big time. The Sun-n-Fun Lagoon in Naples is fun for kids of all ages. Including your grandma who wants to float down a lazy river and Missy who has her heart set on spending the day on the water slides. Turtle Cove playground pool caters to kids 5 to 12 with floating lily pads, water pistols and an overhead obstacle course. The toddlers are occupied in the Tadpole Pool, plus there’s a lap pool for adults. Refreshments, changing room and lockers, too.
13. Burn up some energy. Travel can be taxing to kids, especially if they’re sitting in the back seat too long. And the “are we there yet?” refrain can aggravate parents. The answer is Planet Air Sports, with locations in Doral and Deerfield Beach. An afternoon of rope courses, zip line, rock climbing walls, indoor paintless paintball should tucker them out. Bring a book and hang out in the café. Or try your luck in the arcade.
14. Explore Miami by water. Maybe you don’t have access to a yacht but a less expensive kayak adventure will provide a different vantage point. There are rental outfitters that can provide life vests along with guided tours if needed or directions to the best places to kayak. This video shows a launch from Dinner Key Marina and then a tour to an island on Biscayne Bay.
15. They will never forget this. Take a seaplane or boat to Dry Tortugas National Park, about 70 miles from Key West. Yes, you’re still in Florida but it hardly seems like it. Explore the 19th century Fort Jefferson and snorkel in the pristine water. There are primitive bathrooms but no store to buy supplies. Bring what you need with you, including camping gear if you are staying overnight. You will be roughing it in one of the most beautiful places in Florida, and the bird watching and stargazing is so worth it the trip.
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