Top Ten Florida Destinations for Families
By Maria Thermann

Top Ten Florida Destinations for Families

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Situated between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, Florida offers families amazing tourist attractions, fabulous beaches, great snorkelling and diving and, of course, Walt Disney World in Orlando. Here are ten suggestions of where to take your family for a Florida holiday:

1. Sanibel Island:

Guarded by 98-foot Sanibel Lighthouse, this Gulf Coast barrier island is not just a paradise for families with kids, but also one for eco-travellers. Among the many thrills must surely rank the local dolphins, which leap out of the surf whenever the Sanibel Thriller high-speed catamaran (sanibelthriller.com) sets sail. This is a great adventure for young adults. Thanks to hiking and cycling paths provided throughout the J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge (fws.gov/dingdarling) along the Sanibel-Captiva Road, young explorers can catch a glimpse of bobcats, marsh rabbits, raccoons, red-bellied woodpeckers, roseate spoonbills and gators. Further south on the island there's the Gulfside City Park, some 47 acres of palm forest and wetlands and a small strip of sandy beach ideal for enjoying a picnic. Sitting along the Periwinkle Way towards Tarpon Bay Road is the 100-acre Bailey Tract, a freshwater marsh that is part of the Wildlife Refuge mentioned before. Smaller children will enjoy a visit to the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum (www.shellmuseum.org), which is bristling with shells in all colours and sizes that once housed molluscs from around the world.

Best Beach: Bowman's Beach in the west of the island is Sanibel's loveliest, and therefore most popular beach, accessible via Bowman's Beach Road off Sanibel-Captiva just before Blind Pass. It attracts shell hunters from around the globe and offers sunseekers showers, a shady picnic spot and spectacular sunsets.

Nightlife for parents: Not a lot, but what there is can be found at Fort Myers and Fort Myers Beach, fortmyers-sanibel.com

2. Orlando

British visitors will probably be heading straight to Universal's Islands of Adventure Wizarding World of Harry Potter with their kids aged 8 and over, but there's more to Orlando these days than just Hogwarts or Disney's Hollywood Studios. Next door to Hogwarts the Universal Studios 3-D Despicable Me attraction is about to open (www.universalorlando.com). Little visitors will appreciate being taken to Legoland Florida (florida.legoland.com), whereas nature fans might quite like to try out the Cypress Canopy Cycle through the treetops adventure, a Florida Eco Safari adventure (floridaecosafaris.com). A must-see for anyone keen on marine life is, of course, SeaWorld (seaworldparks.com/seaworld-orlando), which also offers thrill-seekers the chance to brave the third of the park's stomach-turning coaster ride. As for Disneyworld.disney.go.com: you'll have a hard time getting your teens to leave The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and the American Idol Experience!

Best Beach: Still Daytona Beach, where all ages can parasail, surf, try jet skiing or visit the famous speedway.

Nightlife for parents: You'll find a smattering of nightlife in Downtown Orlando's Orange Avenue and along International Drive or in Universal Orlando's own CityWalk (visitorlando.com)

3. St Petersburg

St Petersburg can be accessed via St Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. Located on the eastern rim of the Pinellas Peninsula, a stretch of land between Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, St Petersburg offers families many beautiful, secluded beaches. Fort De Soto Park (www.pinellascounty.org/park) was named America's best family beach thanks to its fabulous snorkelling, kayaking, swimming, cycling and waterfront camping facilities, not to mention wonderful walking trails through untamed vegetation that's interspersed with picnic tables every so often. A great place to go shell-hunting, the three miles of beaches in the park are also a good place to come for dolphin watching, especially in Caladesi Island State Park, which is only accessible by ferry. North of the famous pink Don Cesar Hotel lies Treasure Island, a good place to take older children keen on watersports. Nature lovers will enjoy a visit to the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, which is four miles north of Madeira Beach, at Indian Shores (www.seabirdsanctuary.com). It is North America's largest wild-bird hospital.

Nightlife for parents: If you're staying at the seafront TradeWinds Island Grand, you can let your children splash around at the Splash Island water park, while you're enjoying a pre-dinner cocktail at the bar...If you don't fancy hiring a car to get around, stay at Clearwater Beach, were the Jolly Trolley runs between Sand Key from the Sheraton Sand Key Resort and Clearwater Beach along Gulfview Boulevard, Mandalay Avenue and Acacia Street, taking in plenty of amenities along the way. Clearwater is also home to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium (www.cmarquarium.org), which provides an afternoon's fun for all ages. See visitstpeteclearwater.com for more information.

4. Everglades

Big skies with unbroken vistas of mangroves and wet prairie, long silences interrupted only by the occasional snapping jaws of an alligator, those are the overwhelming impressions visitors have when they come to the Everglades. This is a good place to take your teenage eco-tourists on a swamp buggy or airboat ride, or if you're feeling brave, a trip in a kayak or canoe. It's also possible to walk or cycle around Everglades National Park to enjoy a closer look at this delicate ecosystem. The best time to visit is in winter, when receding floodwaters prompt wildlife to congregate around alligator holes and rangers offer frequent activities and excursions. It's also a time when mosquitoes are mostly absent... Accommodation within the Everglades National Park is limited to 47 backcountry camp-grounds, which are mostly raised wooden platforms with a roof and chemical toilet, should you fancy taking your teens on a mini-adventure. Florida City, some ten miles east of the National Park, offers hostel accommodation (www.evergladeshostel.com).

Nightlife for parents: use Everglades City as a base from which to explore the Ten Thousand Islands section of the Everglades and you'll have at least a smattering of nightlife on your doorstep. The Everglades Area Chamber of Commerce Welcome Center (www.evergladeschamber.com) offers information on what's on locally.

5. Anna Maria Island

If you've ever wondered what historic Florida was like, do visit this miniscule island some 40 miles south of Tampa. Blessed with a total absence of high-rise buildings, fast food restaurants and big chain hotels, Anna Maria Island is home to vintage, ramshackle bungalows, old-fashioned seaside snack bars and pleasantly nostalgic shops. Get around by bike like the locals do (you can hire a bike via Beach Bums rentals, www.beachbumsami.com) and explore the small historic districts around Bridge Street. Or kayak with retired marine biology teacher Captain Scott for a spot of dolphin-watching. The Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce offers information on what's on locally in terms of entertainment and eating out (www.amichamber.org). Horse-mad sons and daughters will love a ride along Bradenton's beach (beachhorses.com), while little water babies will adore Coquina Beach, where swimming is excellent for all ages.

Nightlife for parents: Stay at the Silver Surf Gulf Beach Resort or the Siam Garden Resort (www.silverresorts.com or www.siamgardenresort.com) and you'll have tropical gardens, tiki huts and a moderate amount of nightlife within crawling distance of your room.

6. Miami

Time for parents to have some big-city excitement! Eat yourself silly on spicy Cuban cuisine in Little Havana or take your teens to the ocean-front courts for a volleyball match of an afternoon. Kids of any age will adore a visit to Jungle Island's interactive animal shows (jungleisland.com) and the reefs and shipwrecks of Biscayne National Park (biscayneunderwater.com), a paradise for snorkelling and scuba diving. Miami-Dade Parks are a great place to take young eco-warriors. Contact Eco Adventures (www.miamiecoadventures.org), which offers guided excursions to Biscayne Bay that include kayaking and snorkelling, as well as boat trips and excursions into the Everglades a little further afield. Not to be missed when travelling with small children: Miami Children's Museum (www.miamichildrensmuseum.org). Its interactive exhibits and Castle of Dreams should tire your little tykes out in no time!

More Info where to stay & nightlife at miamiandbeaches.com

7. Fort Lauderdale

Accessible via Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport, where you can rent a car, Fort Lauderdale is home to the Miami Dolphins in summer, when the football players come to train at nearby Davie at the Nova Southeastern University Campus. Dubbed the "Venice of America", Fort Lauderdale offers miles of meandering canals and promenades for biking and rollerblading. Take a water taxi to practically everywhere (watertaxi.com) or learn how to ride the waves with EZride Surf School (ezridesurfschool.com), or rent snorkel gear and flap your flippers along the three-tiered offshore coral reef (seaexperience.com) and frightened the local fishes. Kids of all ages will have fun at the Museum of Discovery & Science in the city's historic district (www.mods.org), one of Florida's best child-oriented science museums. Let your little ones experience what it's like to be an astronaut on a simulated trip to the moon, or visit the towering 3-D IMAX film theatre.

Nightlife for parents and teens: Riverwalk Arts and Entertainment District in Downtown begins just one block west of the art museum or head to Las Olas Boulevard, the city's upmarket shopping strip for a wide range of art, fashion, shopping and dining options. Here you can also take a structured water tour of the city: try a kitchy fun ride on the Jungle Queen Riverboat (www.junglequeen.com).

8. Tampa

Tampa offers families everything imaginable in terms of fun, from theme parks to ethnic food to nature treks. Busch Gardens is a theme-park recreation of colonial Africa, complete with a new Cheetah Hunt coaster ride that accelerates from 0 to 60mph in a blink of an eye (www.buschgardens.com) and amazing animal encounters that include hand-feeding kangaroos. More animal magic can be found at Lowry Park Zoo (www.lowryparkzoo.com), about five and half miles north of downtown Tampa and two miles southwest of Busch Gardens. It was Tampa's first zoo and today houses around 2,000 animals, many of them rare and endangered. Young science geeks and thrill-seekers alike will appreciate a visit to the Museum of Science & Industry (www.mosi.org), which includes the High Wire Bicycle ride that allows adventurers to ride 98 feet along a one-inch steel cable suspended 30 feet above ground! Compared to that a canoe trip along Hillsborough River, where gators and turtles lurk (canoeescape.com), seems positively tame.

More info on nightlife for parents and where to stay can be found at visittampabay.com.

9. Key West

Despite recent hurricane-related problems, Key West is still one of Florida's major visitor attractions. For parents there's not just a delicious rum punch waiting, but a vibrant nightlife with plenty of eating out experiences. Accessible via Key West International Airport, which paradoxically only handles flights from other Florida cities and Miami rather than international flights, Key West is best explored for a first impression via one of the many guided tours. Hop on Conch Tour Train at Mallory Square for a fun, yet informative tour of the island's main sights (www.conchtourtrain.com), or use Old Town Trolley (www.oldtowntrolley.com) for a good look round the historic part of town. Kids might enjoy the Ghost Tour more (www.hauntedtours.com), which is a guided walking tour that starts at the Crowne Plaza on Duval Street and includes many of the haunted homes and ghost legends of Key West. Pirates of all ages will love a visit to Oldest House Museum, also known as Wrecker's Museum (www.oirf.com), which sits at the junction of Whitehead and Caroline streets and deals with Key West's wrecker industry of days gone by.

Nightlife for parents: The main promenade, Duval Street, runs for around one mile through Old Town and offers plenty of boutiques, coffee shops, chain restaurants and bars that are safe for families. Duval House at no. 814 is a collection of seven historic Key West houses that offer lower-priced rooms (www.duvalhousekeywest.com) and rare parking spaces for your rental car.

10. Seaside on the Emerald Coast

This adorable little town sits along the Emerald Coast. Brimming with sherbet-coloured, pseudo-Victorian cottages set around a village green, it even boasts an old-fashioned High Street (www.seasidefl.com). Although not exactly overflowing with kid-friendly attractions, it is a foodie's paradise. Take your wee ones to Modica Market at 109 Central Square and stock up on cakes and gourmet picnic supplies before taking them to Seagrove Beach for a feast. Seagrove Beach is a great place for cycling or just paddling around. Although one of those strange, planned towns, Seaside offers plenty of interesting, unusual shops where one can find high-quality arts and crafts, artisan foods, expensive designer clothing and quality souvenirs.

For information on what's on locally and parent's nightlife options, please see www.beachesofsouthwalton.com and www.waltonareachamber.com. For details on where to stay, see visitsouthwalton.com.

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