By VISIT FLORIDA
A family vacation is the perfect time to de-stress, reconnect, and make memories that’ll last a lifetime. The memories that may last longest are the ones fueled by thrills and excitement. Here are just a few of the adventures you and your family can experience in Florida.
At iFLY, 8969 International Dr., feel the rush of flying with an indoor body flying experience.
The Orlando Circus School, 6809 Visitors Circle, offers trapeze and aerial silks lessons for all ages.
The ICON Orlando, 8401 International Dr., is a 400-foot-tall observation wheel that provides fabulous, 360-degree views of the city.
Tree Trek Adventure Park, 7625 Sinclair Rd., is an elevated, outdoor obstacle course with zip lines, suspended bridges, nets and Tarzan swings.
The Orlando Slingshot, 7001 International Dr., propels passengers over 390 feet at 100 miles per hour for a human rocket sensation.
Get close to sharks, clownfish and sea turtles in the intimate Sea Life Orlando Aquarium, which offers talks and feedings at 8449 International Dr.
Zip line over gators or ride an off-road monster vehicle through mud and alligator ponds at Gatorland, a family-owned, 110-acre theme park and wildlife preserve at 14501 S. Orange Blossom Trail.
Exotic Animal Experience is a private, seven-acre animal sanctuary at 32833 Quinlan St., where visitors pet and hold sloths, lemurs and other small animals.
Wet & Wild
Kelly Park, 400 E Kelly Park Rd., is a free-flowing natural spring in nearby Apopka that is a local favorite for tubing in water that stays a constant 68 degrees.
At Orlando Watersports Complex, 8615 Florida Rock Rd., try beginner or advanced wakeboarding, water skiing or kneeboarding at one of the country’s largest cable wakeboard parks.
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.
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.)
One of the most beautiful public pools, the historic, 1923 Venetian Pool at 2701 DeSoto Blvd. in Coral Gables is worth the drive to the suburbs. It’s a spring-fed coral rock quarry with waterfalls and cave-like grottos patrolled on busy days by lifeguards riding surfboards. It’s a diaper-free facility so children under the age of three are not allowed in the park.
If you have a little one, Flamingo Park, 999 11th St., in Miami Beach has the pool for you. Its aquatic center has a zero-depth entry play pool perfect for wading with babies and toddlers.
Young thrill seekers will enjoy the water slides, lazy river and splash pools of Grapeland Water Park, 1550 NW 37th Ave., near Miami International Airport.
Indoor Kid Zones
Seek out air-conditioned fun at Miami’s many indoor escapes. Hands-on experiments, a touch tank, planetarium, local birds of prey exhibit and a stunning, three-story aquarium make for an all-ages retreat in downtown Miami at the Frost Museum of Science, 1101 Biscayne Blvd.
Next door at the Perez Art Museum, 1103 Biscayne Blvd., ask at the front desk for a Family Pack, which includes activity sheets, pencil kits, puzzles and scavenger hunts to explore the galleries.
For kids 10 and under, a play cruise ship, supermarket and kid-sized TV studio are part of the fun at Miami Children’s Museum, 980 MacArthur Cswy.
Thrill seekers will want to head back to Wynwood for FunDimension, 2129 NW 1st Ct., an indoor playground packed with arcade and virtual reality games, laser tag, bumper cars and a bungee dome.
Ever felt a giraffe’s 18-inch prehensile tongue curl around your hand? At Zoo Miami’s Samburu Giraffe Feeding Station, families stand on a tall wooden platform to get eye-to-eye and feed greens by hand to a herd of African giraffes. There are also camel rides and more than 2,000 animals at the cage-free attraction, 12400 SW 152nd St., the largest tropical zoo in the continental United States.
In Everglades National Park, discover alligators, great blue herons and other native species in the wild by renting bikes for the 15-mile, paved trail or taking the two-hour tram tour inside the park’s Shark Valley, 36000 SW 8th St., a 50-minute drive from downtown Miami.
Back in the city, Jungle Island eco-adventure park at 1111 Parrot Jungle Trail brings parrots, lemurs, sloths and other animals up close for interactive encounters. There’s also a 22-acre rainforest, an 80-foot high zipline and free-flight wind tunnel.
Nearby, Miami Seaquarium, 4400 Rickenbacker Causeway, offers swim-with-dolphin (or seal) encounters, touch pools and sea life exhibits.
THE FLORIDA KEYS
The Keys are home to the continental United States’ only living-coral barrier reef, which runs about five miles offshore. The ultimate entry point is at John Pennekamp State Park, 102601 Overseas Hwy., in Key Largo, where the remnants of an early Spanish shipwreck have been placed about 100 feet off the beach. Snorkeling tours that depart from the park daily are best for advanced swimmers, but there are also glass-bottom boat tours for small children and non-swimmers.
Fort Zachary Taylor State Park and Beach, 601 Howard England Way, where the waters of the Gulf of Mexico meet the Atlantic Ocean, is the best snorkeling beach in Key West, with clear waters and a rocky bottom.
Calusa Beach inside Bahia Honda State Park and Beach, 36850 Overseas Hwy., in Islamorada is ranked one of the top spots in the Keys for swimming and snorkeling; it also has campgrounds and cabins for unique overnight stays that can be booked in advance on the Florida State Parks website.
For the ultimate adventure, charter a trip to Dry Tortugas National Park, almost 70 miles west of Key West. The 100-square-mile park, accessible only by boat or seaplane, is home to the 19th century Fort Jefferson and remote campgrounds.
Swimming with Dolphins
At the Dolphin Research Center, 58901 Overseas Hwy., in Grassy Key, there’s a menu of interactive experiences that includes observations, play sessions and even painting with dolphins. Small children can join dockside encounters and older kids can participate in dolphin trainer programs.
Also in the Middle Keys, Hawks Cay Resort, Spa & Marina , 61 Hawks Cay Blvd., in Duck Key offers the country’s only hotel-based dolphin connection program.
In Islamorada, Theater of the Sea, 84721 Overseas Hwy., has been a family-owned marine mammal adventure park since 1946, with swimming and snorkeling dolphin programs.
Other Animal Encounters
Robbie’s of Islamorada, 77522 Overseas Hwy., is a longtime, only-in-Florida attraction tucked under a bridge in the Middle Keys. Purchase a bucket of bait fish to hand feed the school of 100 tarpon that hang out here.
Also in the Upper Keys, the Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center, 93600 Overseas Hwy., in Tavernier is a nonprofit rescue center that has a public sanctuary for up-close observation of injured hawks, owls, vultures, pelicans, terns and other winged creatures.
In the Middle Keys, the Turtle Hospital, 2396 Overseas Hwy., in Marathon offers kid-friendly guided tours with lessons about the rehab and release of endangered and protected sea turtles, along with coloring books.
At the end of the island chain, the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory, 1316 Duval St., is a glass-canopied, lush urban oasis filled with more than 1,000 butterflies that are not timid about landing on visitors.
On the Water
Fort Lauderdale’s system of canals has earned it the nickname “Venice of America.” The city’s affordable, narrated water taxi is a good way to hop on and off all day for sightseeing. The fleet of 14 boats has 15 convenient stops at beaches, the Museum of Discovery and Science and Las Olas Boulevard shops, among other places. The Water Taxi Tracker app allows visitors to see the wait time until the next boat arrives at each location.
For a more elaborate excursion, book a narrated cruise on the Jungle Queen riverboat, an operation that has plied the New River since 1935. There are 90-minute narrated trips, three-hour tours that stop on a tropical island for animal shows, and dinner cruises with all-you-can-eat buffets and live variety shows. Catch the riverboat at the Bahia Mar Yachting Center, 801 Seabreeze Blvd.
Topeekeegee Yugnee Park (TY Park for short) is a 138-acre park with nature trails and playgrounds, but it’s best known for its Castaway Island Water Park, which includes a gentle water playground for ages 5 and under, a lagoon/swimming pool with waterfall, and a big-kid water playground with dumping buckets and slides. Located at 3300 N. Park Rd. in Hollywood, it’s among the top water parks for kids in South Florida.
Bluefoot Pirate Family Adventure is an interactive pirate cruise designed for families with children of all ages on the Intracoastal Waterway. The 90-minute excursion on the “high seas” includes pirate costumes, a treasure hunt, face painting and water cannon fights. It’s based out of the Bahia Mar Yachting Center, 801 Seabreeze Blvd.
Everglades Holiday Park, at 21940 Griffin Rd., is a wildlife preserve and theme park on 29 acres of wetland just west of the city that offers 60-minute airboat rides, gator shows, animal encounters and fishing.
Retreat to tropical gardens, waterfalls and 20,000 butterflies at Butterfly World, 10 miles north of Fort Lauderdale at 3600 W. Sample Rd. in Coconut Creek. It’s the largest butterfly preserve in the world. You can hand-feed the Lorikeets!
On Captain Memo’s Original Pirate Cruise, 25 Causeway Blvd., in Clearwater Beach, kids take to the seas on a 70-foot, three-tiered ship for two hours to search for treasure and dolphins, play water gun games, and have fun with stories, dancing and face painting.
In nearby Madiera Beach, the Royal Conquest Pirate Ship, 140 Boardwalk Place West, offers a similar swashbuckling adventure.
The Dolphin Queen, which runs out of the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina at 400 Second Ave., offers 90-minute, dolphin-spotting cruises.
The Florida Aquarium, 701 Channelside Dr., in Tampa is considered one of the best in the nation, featuring more than 20,000 plants and animals in fresh and saltwater environments, including river otters, alligators, deep sea fish and touch tanks with stingrays, starfish and urchins. Bring swimsuits for small children, who will enjoy the splash pad.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium, 249 Windward Passage, specializes in the rescue and rehabilitation of injured marine creatures, but it’s best known as the home of Winter the dolphin, the star of the “Dolphin Tale” and “Dolphin Tale 2” movies.
Just north of downtown, Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park, 1101 W. Sligh Ave., has been voted the #1 Family Friendly Zoo in the country by Parents Magazine. Its giraffe-feeding station, behind-the-scenes Expedition Africa Safari, and Gator Falls Flume ride are family favorites.
Big Cat Rescue, 12802 Easy St., in Tampa is the largest big cat sanctuary in the world, offering guided tours through advance online booking.
Since 1986, manatees have been flocking to the warm water discharged by Big Bend Power Station, where Tampa Electric has created a Manatee Viewing Center, 6990 Dickman Rd., in Apollo Beach so people can watch the sea cows from November to April for free.
Ghost Tour of St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay offers candlelight walking tours of both downtowns for ages 4 and up, with ghost stories and visits to haunted houses led by costumed tour guides.
At eBoats Tampa, 333 S. Franklin St., 12-passenger electric boats are available for rental and tours of downtown Tampa’s waterways.
For a unique twist, go hunting for prehistoric fossils with Paleo Discoveries Fossil Hunting Tours, which guides walk-in or canoe trips on the Peace River in search of the remains of ancient sharks, whales, saber-tooth cats and other animals.
Take in panoramic views of the area 1,000 feet up with Big Red Balloon Sightseeing Adventures, which takes off from 30 different launch areas before dawn.
Tampa Bay Aviation, operating out of three different airports, offers aerial tours by plane or helicopter.
Jacksonville’s beach break and soft, sandy bottom make it a prime surfing location – and a great place to learn the art of riding waves. The Wave Masters amateur surfing competition has been held every May here since 1983.
Jax Surf & Paddle, 241 Atlantic Blvd., in Neptune Beach offers extended and half-day surf camps for kids, ages 6 to 16.
The all-female staff at Saltwater Cowgirls, 931 3rd St. North, in Jacksonville Beach provides girls-only surf camps for ages 7 to 17, and private lessons for all ages. Learn more about favorite surf spots, like “The Poles” outside of Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, and surfing competitions at Visit Jacksonville.
Crazy Fish, 4461 Port Arthur Rd., offers airboat and fishing tours on the Intracoastal Waterway. Take the Do-It-Yourself route and rent a Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP) or kayak from one of the many outfitters that offer rentals and tours.
The 117-acre Jacksonville Zoo, 370 Zoo Pkwy., is home to more than 2,000 animals, with giraffe and lorikeet feedings, stingray touch tanks, a goat petting yard, an enclosed butterfly garden and keeper talks.
Night hikes for ages 5 and up are 1½-hour, behind-the-scene tours that showcase the after-hours activity of tigers, jaguars, reptiles and other animals.
Tree Hill Nature Center, 7152 Lone Star Rd., is a 50-acre wilderness preserve dedicated to hands-on environmental education. Along with trails and a butterfly garden, you’ll find animal and nature exhibits and shows.
Other must-see stops on the air base include the National Naval Aviation Museum, entered through the station’s west gate at 1878 S. Blue Angel Pkwy., is where there are flight simulators, a 4D theater experience and the chance to see the Blue Angels practice on scheduled days.
Note: The National Naval Aviation Museum is open Monday through Sunday from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. to current Department of Defense (DoD) ID cardholders. Access to NAS Pensacola is limited to current Department of Defense (DoD) ID card holders (active-duty service members, retirees, and their families) and Veterans who possess a Veterans Health Identification Card (VHIC) from the Department of Veterans Affairs that displays the Veteran’s eligibility status. DoD ID card holders can escort guests as part of the Trusted Traveler Program, but must remain with their guests at all times. Unless sponsored through the Trusted Traveler program, no civilians will be granted access onto the base until further notice, and thus will not be able to access the National Naval Aviation Museum. Call 850-452-8450 for answers to your questions about visiting the museum and attending Blue Angels practice air shows.
Ages 3 and up can go parasailing over Pensacola Beach with Radical Rides, 444 Pensacola Beach Blvd., which also rents wave runners, kayaks and paddleboards.
Explore the Gulf Breeze Zoo, 5701 Gulf Breeze Pkwy., on the elevated boardwalk or aboard the popular train. There’s a farm with pygmy goats, pigs and chickens, plus a giraffe feeding area.
The new Screamer’s Park, 25 S. Atlantic Ave., is home to the Sling Shot, which propels riders over 150 feet into the air at 70 miles per hour.
Within blocks of the beach, Daytona Lagoon, 601 Earl St., is a water park and arcade in the Ocean Walk Village resort complex. There are slides and flumes that tower over 50 feet high, a wave pool, tubing river, playground for smaller kids, laser tag, go karts, miniature golf and a rock wall for climbing. The complex also houses shops and restaurants, so it’s an easy way to spend the day.
Sky Zone Trampoline Park, 1300 W. International Speedway Blvd., is an indoor trampoline park with freestyle bouncing on the wall-to-wall trampolines, dodgeball, a foam zone and Toddler Time for ages 6 and under (with free coffee for parents)!
Hangar 15 Extreme Air Sports, 290 N. Nova Rd., is another trampoline complex that includes a trapeze, aerial silks and Family Night discounts on Monday nights.
The Need for Speed
Did you think we’d forget the Daytona International Speedway? No chance! A $400-million renovation has transformed the Speedway into a motorsports facility where gaming events and light shows are as common as the track’s famous NASCAR races. The track, at 1801 W. International Speedway Blvd., offers 30-minute tours that are perfect for families.
There’s also the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in the same complex, with displays on stock cars, drag racing, powerboating and other forms of motorsports.
- 4 minute read
By Sean Daly Our critic was looking not just for themes of sun, surf, sand, and skin, but also mood: mellow, romantic, sweaty and geography, from the...