Florida with Kids…
Is it any wonder that Florida is the number one dream vacation spot for kids? After all, it is the home of Disney, Universal, LEGOland, and other thrilling theme parks. And Florida has 1,800 miles of coastline, translating to sandcastle-building, surfing, fishing and kite-flying fun.
In the Sunshine State, your kids can meet Mickey Mouse, for sure. But they can also meet an astronaut at the Kennedy Space Center, and a professional baseball player at a spring training game. Here, kids can swim with dolphins and manatees, see real, live alligators and snorkel surrounded by colorful tropical fish. They can experience fun, hands-on exhibits at kid-friendly museums, aquariums and zoos.
The following are places that shouldn’t be missed while in Florida. However, it’s about as easy to come up with a manageable list of must-sees for your family’s time here as it will be for your children to sleep the night before you leave home!
Beloved cartoon characters, exotic animals and killer whales. Scream-inducing, stomach-turning roller coasters, magical fairylands and realistic simulators. Fireworks, parades and light shows. Stunning costumes and talented dancers and singers. This is the world of Florida theme parks – sensory overload and excitement like nothing your kids have ever experienced.
The Orlando area is theme park central, home to the Walt Disney World Resort (including the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney-MGM Studios and Animal Kingdom), Universal Orlando Resort (including Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure) and SeaWorld Adventure Park. In nearby Winter Haven is Cypress Gardens Adventure Park, featuring lush gardens, rides and water ski shows. Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, about an hour away, offers thrills as well as animal encounters.
Even if your kids aren’t huge car racing fans, they’ll still have fun at DAYTONA USA, a motor sports attraction built around the Daytona International Speedway.
For young NASCAR aficionados, there are motion simulators, video games and a 3-D IMAX® movie that will let them in on the secrets of racing. Other activities include acting as a pit crew member or a race announcer. See the current Daytona 500-winning car and tour the speedway on off-race days. You’ll see why people come from all over to “feel the thunder.”
Get swept up in the thrill of space exploration at the awe-inspiring Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex on the Space Coast. Here, your family can learn about early space pioneers, see their personal memorabilia and feel what it’s like to walk on the moon. Also, enjoy 3-D movies in two giant IMAX® theaters, live shows and exhibits. A behind-the-scenes tour will bring you by huge rockets as well as launch and landing facilities. Explore a full-size space shuttle replica, or meet a member of NASA’s Astronaut Corps by signing up for the “Lunch with an Astronaut” program. For an extra treat, make sure your visit coincides with a shuttle or rocket launch – a truly out-of-this-world experience.
A visit to Florida just isn’t complete without spending at least one day at the beach. From powdered sugar-white sand and emerald water in Northwest Florida to hard-packed golden grains and pounding surf on the Atlantic coast, a beach can be easily reached, no matter where you are in the state.
Toddlers love wading and splashing in the warm water, or digging holes in the sand. Older kids swim, snorkel, play a game of beach volleyball or surf (surf’s up mainly from New Smyrna Beach to West Palm BeachVenice Beach).
Beaches offering food, restrooms and rental beach toys or chairs are particularly family-friendly. Check out Siesta, Clearwater, Fort Myers and Fort Walton beaches, to name just a few.
See these three, plus leopards, elephants, zebras and more, all living in natural habitats at Florida’s zoos. The state is home to several, including Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, ranked first in Child magazine’s list of the country’s “10 Best Zoos for Kids.”
Many Florida resorts offer kids’ programs, comprising everything from sports to popsicle-stick boat races. These programs allow kids to have fun and to learn a thing or two on vacation. Club Med Sandpiper in Port St. Lucie, for example, will teach kids staying at the resort how to water-ski, perform in a circus or in-line skate.
But you don’t have to be a guest at a resort to take advantage of such programs. Check out the family sleepovers program at SeaWorld in Orlando. In one, your kids get to camp out in the “Arctic Circle,” next to aquariums with Beluga whales and polar bears.
Take your family out to the ballgame… on a budget. Florida hosts 18 Major League Baseball teams during Spring Training. Bring your mitts and catch a game; your kids can see their favorite pros up-close, and you won’t go broke on tickets.
Give your children an unforgettable experience – snorkel or scuba dive the crystal-clear, warm waters of the Florida Keys to view the only living coral reef in the continental U.S. Head to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and the adjacent Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, where kids can see brain corals and sea fans up-close and swim with rays, turtles and tropical fish. While breathing underwater is part of the fun for many children, younger tykes might rather experience the reef via a glass-bottom boat tour.
Florida is blessed with more than its fair share of water parks – cool wonderlands that provide a refreshing complement to traditional theme parks. From daunting, nearly vertical waterslides to “rivers” with currents allowing you to float lazily along in a tube, Florida’s water parks offer rides for every family member, including teen daredevil and toddler. Check out Adventure Island in Tampa, Wet ‘N Wild in Orlando and Kissimmee’s Water Mania, home to Wipe Out, the state’s only surf simulator. Walt Disney World Resort has two water parks: Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach, which features the world’s tallest, fastest waterslide.
Cypress Gardens Adventure Park recently broke ground on its new water park, Splash Island, scheduled to open this summer with speedy slides, a wave pool, a children’s water play area and a lazy river.
If your child is the creature-loving type, visit Florida, where up-close, hands-on encounters will provide the thrill of a lifetime.
At Discovery Cove in Orlando, your family can swim and play with a bottlenose dolphin, snorkel among rays and tropical fish, and feed tropical birds. Your kids will be kissed and hugged by dolphins and sea lions respectively at Theater of the Sea in Islamorada. And for swimming with gentle manatees, head to Crystal River and Homosassa Springs.
There aren’t many places in this world made especially for kids. But Florida is one big exception. At Ronnie Vanzant Park, south of Jacksonville, for example, you can’t fish unless you’re accompanied by someone younger than 16 years old.
Check out one of the many children’s museums located throughout the state. Or, visit Wannado City at Sawgrass Mills Mall in Sunrise, a role-playing theme park resembling a town where kids can try tons of careers on for size.
Jacksonville’s Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens has an interactive kids’ section, as does Pensacola’s T.T. Wentworth, Jr. Florida State Museum. Also, the Florida Aquarium in Tampa offers an outdoor aquatic exhibit for kids called Explore-A-Shore. Here, kids can climb on sea creature models, board a pirate ship, slide down a waterslide and play in water jet sprays.
Are your children pestering you about seeing alligators on your trip to Florida? One of the best ways to view these toothy reptiles is aboard an airboat, a flat-bottomed propeller craft known to speed through mangrove tunnels in Everglades National Park and in waterways and swamps throughout Florida. Airboats come in different sizes, offering seating for two to 18 passengers. The propellers are loud, but drivers give out ear mufflers and most kids love the ride, which can include speeds of up to 45 miles per hour.
Another option for true reptile-philes is Gatorland in Orlando, home to the hands-on “trainer for a day” program.
Visit North Central Florida’s state parks and show the kids some of the coolest geological features in the Sunshine State.
In Chipley, walk the nature trails and check out the 67-foot waterfall at the aptly-named Falling Waters State Park. At Florida Caverns State Park in Marianna, view the extraordinary formations on your cave tour and then cool off in the swimming hole.
At Devils Millhopper Geological State Park in Gainesville, see the huge, 120-foot-deep sinkhole that was formed when a cavern’s roof collapsed. Explore the sinkhole from boardwalks or from a nature trail around the rim.
In today’s world, family members are often scattered all across the globe. So why not set a date to reconnect in a fun and relaxed locale for a reunion? And what better locale is there than Florida, where there’s sunshine, warm weather and activities for kids and teens, as well as for their parents and grandparents?
Many Florida resorts specialize in family reunions, offering blocks of rooms at a discount, as well as activities ranging from poolside get-togethers and games of water polo to dinners in formal dining rooms.
The Walt Disney World Resort offers “magical gatherings”— vacations featuring special experiences for groups — for those staying at a Disney resort. In addition, vacation rental companies offer furnished and completely stocked houses and cozy cottages. Families can easily rent one large residence, or several homes in the same neighborhood. No matter where you go in Florida, a memorable family reunion is guaranteed.
– Kara Chalmers
For information on travel to Florida or to order a copy of VISIT FLORIDA’s free Vacation Guide visit VISIT FLORIDA’s consumer web site, www.VISITFLORIDA.com, or call VISIT FLORIDA’s toll-free consumer number at 1-888-7-FLAUSA
Don’t forget off-the-beaten-path Florida locations like Sunnyvale, Florida.