60 Seconds in Panama City Beach
Panama City Beach is no longer the sleepy beach town we visited as children, but it's not all about the pop and glitter featured on those teen TV programs, either. What you can count on: breathtaking white-sand beaches, near-perfect weather, numerous family-friendly diversions and plenty of G-rated entertainment. There's also a wide selection of hotels and resorts to suit your whole gang.
It isn't often I get to spend time with my younger sister and her two children. So when she called from the freezing tundra that is Ohio to tell me she and the girls were flying south for a winter reprieve and were looking for family things to do in Panama City Beach, I jumped at the chance to meet up with her on Florida's northwest Gulf Coast.
Where to Stay with Your Family
My sister was always smart, but she was brilliant in booking our stay at the Boardwalk Beach Resort. This family-friendly resort on the Gulf of Mexico was rich with amenities both expected and surprising: pools, fountains and special kid-friendly activities.
We stayed in a three-bedroom suite equipped with a garden spa tub – a delicious luxury after a long flight. Our private paradise was decorated with beautiful faux oil paintings, four-post beds and elegant, beach-themed furniture. Our suite also had a small patio that overlooked the azure gulf to the left and a world-class golf course to the right. Our boys back home were jealous, to say the least.
Hanging out at the resort was a simple but irresistible luxury for the girls. They couldn't choose between the beach and the pool – and the beauty was they didn't have to. For kids that need more entertainment, or for parents who need a break, there's the B.W. McCaw's Kid's Club (a seasonal program for kids up to age 12). Activities from origami and jewelry making to ice cream socials and games keep kids busy all day long, six days a week.
Given its proximity to the water and attractions, our suite was surprisingly affordable, and during the off-season some real steals can be had. There's nothing like a beachfront home away from home at a bargain price.
The Boardwalk is just the tip of the sandbar: Panama City Beach offers a wealth of beachfront resorts, from affordable retreats to spare-no-expense splurges. Choose from vacation rentals like a townhouse or beach house; stay at a Panama City Beach resort, hotel, or motel; or sleep under the stars at a campground or RV park . If your dog is part of your family, no worries: choose a pet-friendly accommodation. Here are places to stay from the area's visitors services.
Family-Friendly Things to do in Panama City Beach
Most of the things to do with family in Panama City Beach, FL are situated along a stretch of road aptly named Front Beach Drive.
Ripley's Believe It or Not! was the first pick from a long list of fun things to do. You enter through a "sinking ship" and are greeted with other oddities: a Jade sailing ship, shrunken heads and more than 500 artifacts from around the world. There's also a 4-D movie. I'm not sure the girls believed it all, but it definitely had them captivated for the moment.
If you ask Mira and Ellie what they want to be when they grow up, they'll usually answer either "marine biologist" or "yoga teacher." Since we couldn't find any yoga studios on the beach, we opted for a marine biology-themed afternoon at Gulf World Marine Park. We saw fascinating underwater wonders and Mira was kissed by a sea lion.
The park is unusually barrier-free – most of the exhibits are built to encourage up-close and personal interaction with the animals. Ellie enjoyed the exotic bird aviary best, with its macaws, flamingos and umbrella cockatoos (one Double Yellow-Headed Amazon Parrot even serenaded us with "You Are My Sunshine"). As for me, I fell in love with the African black-footed penguins.
Here are (many) more things to do from Panama City Beach's visitors services, including thrilling aquatic activities. Try kayaking, paddleboarding, jet skiing, or diving, and while you’re at it, you may come across local wildlife. Cruise the waterways on a boat tour and explore the untouched beach of Shell Island, where you may encounter bottlenose dolphins.
Another way to enjoy the waterways is on a fishing trip.
We opted for an early dinner at a fun-loving place called Harpoon Harry's. We found a sunny spot on the deck and jammed out to Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" (the classic Southern rock band actually hails from Jacksonville, Florida) while sucking down fresh oysters and sautéed crab claws.
There are plenty of dining opportunities in Panama City Beach, each offering its own take on local fresh-catch favorites. Capt. Anderson's Restaurant & Waterfront Market and Schooners Last Local Beach Club are two must-not-miss dinner experiences.
Back at the resort, there's The Anchor Bar & Grill, a restaurant serving chicken, steak and seafood; Under the Boardwalk, serving fresh seafood, light fare and salads; and The Food Court, offering familiar kid-favorites. With food, as with the rest of the town's offerings, we found plenty of choices.
Check out more places to eat from Panama City Beach's visitors services, including ice cream and dessert shops perfect for any season and every sweet tooth; and the ever-popular donut joints. Don't miss Pink Pelican Ice Cream Bar, a hit with kids and adults alike. With more than 40 ice cream flavors, as well as frozen yogurts, sherbets, and decadent sundaes, stop before or after a day at the beach to add extra sweetness to your family vacation.
Beachfront restaurants invite you to enjoy gulf views and delicious cuisine. One favorite is Barefoot on the Beach Bar & Grill, open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Choose from an array of options, ranging from chicken wings and burgers to fresh oysters and shrimp baskets, and order a round of tropical cocktails. With equally scenic views, dine outdoors at Pier Park
Until Next Time
Our weekend adventure filled with family things to do in Panama City Beach came and went too quickly, but it was a great pardon from the bitterness of winter for my sister, and a much-needed break for me. Whether you're seeking sunshine and warmth, beach town fun or just an escape from the everyday, Panama City Beach makes for the perfect family retreat.