By Chelle Koster Walton
Check out the best family beaches in Florida and local resorts that welcome you and the kids.
Bright and busy, they've got color, they've got action, they've got toys and excitement. These family-friendly beaches in Florida's Gulf Coast — Clearwater Beach, Fort Myers Beach, Fort Walton Beach among them - practically ooze a Coney Island atmosphere, a perfect place for a family fling any time of the year.
Here on these busy, sunny Florida beaches, the action centers around a pier. Affordable accommodations and restaurants make them attractive to families and—at certain times of the year—college students. All are undergoing a renaissance to make them more pedestrian-friendly and to polish up their images.
Kids everywhere! Young boys push dump trucks through the sand and surf. Tots and grade-schoolers play on slides, swings and cool bouncy things. Young tanned bodies spank volleyballs over the net. Adolescent girls dance to live music. Moms sputter "motorboat, motorboat" with their babies in the waves.
We found our two—son Aaron and friend Andrew, both 11 at the time—sifting sand through some sort of funnel gizmo next to the playground. The sun was setting on another weekend summer day at Clearwater Beach, and families were celebrating as they do every night at Pier 60.
The sands of Clearwater Beach are wide, white and sink-into soft. The resort town is known for its volleyball. But volleyball is only one game in town. Across the street from Gulfview Boulevard (the main area with the pier), Clearwater Municipal Marina fills in the other part of the fun-in-the-sun equation. Shop the docks for all kinds of sea-bound adventure - parasailing, deep-sea fishing, sightseeing, island-hopping, dinner cruising and dolphin sighting. Young maties will love Captain Memo's Pirate Cruise. It's easy to see why Clearwater is one of the top family-friendly beaches in Florida.
Here, at this hub of Clearwater Beach hubbub, redevelopment centers around a landscaped roundabout, which replaced an old traditional intersection where the causeway meets the island. It's a bit confusing at first, but then you realize that roundabout is the best way to get to the beach. And this beach couldn't be better suited to beach babies of all ages. The playground has a roof (how thoughtful!). Beach concessions, restaurants and shops across the street provide on- and off-sand diversion.
To be closest to the action, stay at the Hilton Clearwater Beach, which has a dynamite kids' program.
As you head north of the pier, the beach gets less crowded. One of our favorite Clearwater Beach restaurants, Frenchy's Rockaway Grill, sits beachside in this vicinity. For the ultimate in seclusion, wade across the pass between Clearwater Beach's north end to Caladesi Island State Park (this is easiest at low tide). Ferries also take you there.
Fort Myers Beach
If you want a potent taste of Fort Myers Beach "lively up," go for Fourth of July. The official fireworks show takes place at the pier, in the vicinity of so-called Times Square, where the bridge and Estero Island join.
But any time of year, Fort Myers, like all of the best family beaches in Florida, offers plenty for families to enjoy. Times Square is turning pedestrian north of the bridge intersection, lined with ice cream shops, beach wear stores, and open-air restaurants. Lynn Hall Memorial Park, around the base of the pier, has a playground. Up and down the beach, concessions promise wet thrills in the form of Jet-skiing, Hobie cat sailing, windsurfing, parasailing and surf-biking. Kids bring their skim boards because the shallow waters of Fort Myers Beach are made for scooting along on thin, sleek boards. If Johnny forgets his, you can buy one at surf shops around Times Square.
Fort Myers Beach's other reputation comes from its shrimp fleet, which harvests pink shrimp, the sweetest variety known to connoisseurs. Restaurants serve it up steamed, fried and inexpensive - along with other local catches.
Plenty of hotels congregate around the 560-foot pier, where pelicans and anglers flock. With small children, you may want to consider accommodations at the north end (Pink Shell Beach Resort and Spa) or the south end (GullWing Beach Resort).
At the south end, the beach widens and a sandbar attracts birds while keeping waters safe for small kids. Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve is known for its dolphin population. A variety of Jet-ski and boat tour charters take you in search of them.
At the extreme northern tip of the island, Bowditch Beach is secluded from center island traffic. South of Estero Island, across Big Carlos Pass, you'll find Lovers Key State Park, a retreat as lovely as its name.
Fort Walton Beach
Sea oats bend in the breeze and the sun makes diamonds out of wave ripples. Crab holes and crooked bird tracks mark mounds of angel-white, angel-soft sand. In a few hours, the beach will fill with families, set free by the beach's permission to do nothing but play.
But for now, only two small, barefoot children are visible, one scooping up damp sand at the surf line while the other pats each new gritty handful into shape.
Floridians are finally beginning to discover what our northern neighbors have known for years: Florida's Panhandle holds some of the finest beaches in the world and some of the best family beaches in Florida. In Fort Walton Beach, a boardwalk complex at the pier and jaunty structures at other beach accesses have brought new life to this quintessentially Southern beach town. Nightclubs, restaurants, volleyball and concessions keep things lively at the boardwalk day and night.
Families will especially like Anglers Beachside Grill, where kids can play on a private, roped-off playground as parents watch from above.
Next to the pier, at the recently renovated Old Florida attraction Gulfarium, visitors can delight in watching dolphins leap and sea lions play during spectacular shows. You can also participate and interact directly with these and other animals including stingrays, sharks and otters during educational interactive programming. Advanced reservations are required for animal encounters. At any time, enjoy animal exhibits, aquariums and beautiful ocean views. Across the street, you'll find charters for parasailing, jet-skiing, windsurfing and pontoon-boating, available on Santa Rosa Sound, the island's leeward side.
And if that isn't enough, Destin lies a few minutes to the east. Go there for fishing, snorkeling and other boating excursions, and (during summer only) to visit Big Kahuna's Water and Adventure Park, the chief among amusement parks in these parts, with both wet and dry components. In between the two beach towns, there is a military-only beach access and a portion of Gulf Islands National Seashore. The uninhabited, undulating dunes of the seashore are dotted with dwarfed pines and magnolias poking comically from their depths, like vegetation caught in a Florida snowdrift.
Fort Walton Beach comes in two parts - mainland and the beach, which occupies part of Okaloosa Island. (The northern portion holds Eglin Air Force Base and is closed to the public.) There is a variety of lodging on Okaloosa Island. If you wish to stay close to all the action, book at Ramada Plaza Beach Resort, or at The Four Points Hotel by Sheraton, next to the boardwalk. The island's west end is quieter, where the new Holiday Inn Resort provides deluxe accommodations right on the beach, with a kids' program and club (summertime only).
East of the pier and boardwalk, Beasley County Park is away from it all. On the sound side of the island, Gulf Islands National Seashore supplies beach and water-sports fun.