Panama City Beach is no longer a sleepy beach town, but it's not all about the pop and glitter featured on those teen TV programs, either. What you can count on: plenty of things to do with family in Panama City Beach, FL, including breathtaking beaches, near-perfect weather and plenty of fun, G-rated entertainment – plus a wide selection of hotels and resorts.
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.
Family Things to Do in Panama City Beach: Shore Fun
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, countless family-friendly diversions and plenty of G-rated entertainment. There's also a wide selection of hotels and resorts.
My sister was always smart, but she was brilliant in booking our stay at the Boardwalk Beach Resort through the property's reservation website. This family-friendly resort on the Gulf of Mexico was rich with amenities both expected and surprising: pools, fountains and special kid-friendly activities. The resort offers so many things to do with family in Panama City Beach, FL.
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.
Beach Town Pursuits
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.
Where to Eat
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.
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.