My family loves Central Florida. We love the theme parks and the nature. But in summer, things get pretty crowded because it’s the peak season for family trips to Disney World.
(Also, it’s hot, and crowds just make it feel even hotter, don’t you think?)
You can’t avoid the summer heat in Florida, but you can sidestep the crowds. Here are other Florida destinations that are great for families. I’m going to put my picks into two categories: mainly activity-oriented and mainly beach-oriented.
If you want to relax on the beach…
1. Hollywood Beach. Every time I’ve been here, the water of the Atlantic Ocean has been a fantastic color. Not only will the water make your Insta followers jealous, but Hollywood Beach has a 2.5-mile paved car-free walkway called the Broadwalk (often mistaken for “Boardwalk”). That means your kids will only have to dodge bicyclists and skaters at the beach. With the beach on one side and restaurants and shops on the other, the Broadwalk has a lot to do, including an open theater, playgrounds and a splash pad at Charnow Park. There is also usually plenty of parking. Hollywood is great for the beach, but you’re not far from Fort Lauderdale museums or airboat rides in the Everglades. For a hotel on the Broadwalk, try the Marriott Hollywood Beach, Margaritaville Beach Resort, or any number of small motels.
2. Sanibel/Captiva. Sanibel Island and its northern neighbor Captiva Island are twin relaxation stations on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. People go for the famed seashell collecting — and it is a good place to find shells on the beach — but it’s also great for fishing and fresh seafood. If your family likes to ride bikes, you can easily rent them and use them to get around Sanibel, which has a paved path the whole length of the main road through the island. There are even shelters with water fountains on the path when you need a break. Another big draw: J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which covers about a third of Sanibel Island and has a 4-mile wildlife drive (which you can also walk or bike). Visit Tarpon Bay Explorers for a guided kayaking tour through the mangroves, or Captiva Cruises to take a dolphin-watching boat tour. If you’re campers, bring your tent or RV to the only campground on either island, Periwinkle Park. Yes, there are permanent homes here, but don’t let that deter you from staying; kids will love the exotic wildlife that live here: parrots, monkeys, lemurs (all in enclosures), swans, and geese. And the campground is a 10-minute walk to Nerita Beach. If camping’s not for you, try one of the small inns or family-friendly South Seas Island Resort. See The Pack’s longer post on Sanibel Island here.
3. 30A area. Between Panama City Beach and the Destin area in Florida’s panhandle (aka the Emerald Coast), 30A is a scenic road the follows the Gulf of Mexico through Walton and Bay counties. This is where you bring your family to relax in luxury if you want to rent a vacation home on the beach, park yourself in the sand, poke around in quaint shops, and play a little golf. The towns and resorts here have names like Rosemary Beach, Carillon Beach, Seaside and WaterColor. (And it’s where the 1998 Truman Show movie featuring Jim Carrey was filmed.) If you go, don’t miss the Airstream food trucks at Seaside’s town square, especially our fave Raw & Juicy. To the west, don’t miss the Twin Oaks Farm Stand in Santa Rosa Beach and the nearby art shops. If you drive the length of the scenic road, you will go through Grayton Beach State Park, which is a great place to camp or stay in a cabin if you can’t score a house rental.
4. St. George Island and Cape San Blas. If you really want peace and quiet with your family, look into St. George Island, a barrier island about an hour and a half southwest of the state capital, Tallahassee. You won’t find high rises or lots of tacky tourist shops here — just lots of white-sand beach, the Gulf of Mexico, Apalachicola Bay, lighthouses and vacation rental homes. St. George Island State Park has a beautiful beach that made Dr. Beach’s top list this year as well as in 2012, nature trails, camping, canoeing and kayaking. Across the bay back on the mainland is Apalachicola, a charming fishing town. If you can’t find a rental on the island, try the historic Gibson Inn or Water Street Hotel in Apalachicola. Farther west is Cape San Blas, a tiny peninsula in the Gulf whose upper half is taken up by St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. You can camp or stay in cabins here. Go in August or September to collect scallops.
5. Pensacola. Pensacola Beach is a standout, mainly because so much of the beach is preserved as part of Gulf Islands National Seashore. The seashore has several tracts, not all of them directly on the Gulf, and it’s best to look at a map to find them all. Tour Fort Pickens, hike trails and play in the ocean. Big Lagoon State Park on the other side of the inlet is another place to get into the water and hike trails. When you’re not at the beach, visit the National Naval Aviation Museum, where several aircraft and historical exhibits are on display. Kids 10 and up can try out the flight simulator. Peg Leg Pete’s seafood restaurant will be a hit with kids if only because of the playground. If you’re looking for more to do, check out the local zoo or fun park. Stay in the national seashore or state park campgrounds, or choose from several chain hotels and vacation rentals in the area.
If you want to go, do and see…
6. Sarasota. This is Florida’s “Cultural Coast” with art museums, music festivals and theaters. Some of that culture might be too high-brow for young kids, but the Ringling Museum of Art has children’s programs (a stroller tour for families with babies, Kids Quest for tweens, and story times for kids in between), and Ringling’s Circus Museum is, well, showy. There is a playground on the Ringling campus, and it’s always free. Marie Selby Botanical Garden has a beautiful Children’s Rainforest Garden, and the Sarasota Children’s Garden will appeal to toddlers and preschoolers who love to make believe. When our family is in Sarasota, we love to visit Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium to see the manatees and sharks, and to check out the touch tanks. Mote also offers various nature tours and talks. We also love to go to Myakka River State Park east of Sarasota and have camped there a few times; there are cabins too. We love to climb up to the Canopy Walkway, a 100-foot-long walkway through the treetops, and up even farther to the top of the observation tower to look over the forest and river. Look for alligators in the river on a tour in the largest airboat in the world. Hike or big miles of trails, where you might see sandhill cranes, deer, or wild pigs. To stay in Sarasota, you’ll find chain hotels and small lodging near the beach and downtown.
7. Tampa/Clearwater. In this area, many visiting families head straight to Busch Gardens and its next-door water park, Adventure Island, for some of the best thrill rides in Florida, and for the wildlife. You could easily spend two days at the parks, especially if you have a preschooler who won’t leave the theme-park-in-a-theme-park Sesame Street Safari of Fun. (We’ve been there.) I know what I said about avoiding crowds in the summer … but it’s true. But maybe you have a kid who loves anything that remotely looks like a train, so you could head downtown to ride the real trolley TECO Line Streetcar. The streetcar passes right by the beautiful Florida Aquarium, where you can look through the panoramic viewing window to watch reef creatures swim, try out the touch tanks, and see animals like otters, birds, and lemurs. Kids love the splash pad/playground outdoors. Downtown is also where you’ll find the Glazer Children’s Museum and historic Ybor City. When you want to play in the ocean, it’s a short drive to Clearwater Beach, where there’s a celebration at sunset every night on the beach at Pier 60 (the westernmost end of State Road 60). Find a place to stay on the beach, like Hilton Clearwater Beach Resort next to Pier 60, or several hotels throughout the area.
8. Florida Keys. This 127-mile-long island chain on the tip of the continental United States is a great place to enjoy the outdoors, mainly the water. In the Keys, active families can swim, snorkel, scuba dive (some places will get kids certified if they’re at least 10 years old), fish (kids under age 16 don’t need a license in Florida), kayak, paddleboard, and boat to their hearts’ content. There are excellent state parks where you can access the beach or get on a boat, including our favorites John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Bahia Honda State Park, and Curry Hammock State Park. You can’t go to the Middle Keys without stopping at Robbie’s in Islamorada where kids can feed the tarpon and where you can check out local arts and crafts. Take a boat tour from Robbie’s, Keys Diver in Key Largo, or other marinas that will take you to the reefs or for a sunset cruise. From the Southernmost Hotel in Key West all the way up to the chain hotels in Key Largo, there are resorts, small lodging, and vacation rentals to fit almost every budget. To camp, try the state parks first because they are excellent — but be aware these campgrounds can fill up 11 months in advance. Then try private campgrounds like Fiesta Key (which also has cottages for rent) or the KOA on Sugarloaf Key (once it reopens after Hurricane Irma).
9. St. Augustine. The oldest city in the United States is the place to go if your family likes history and unique attractions. Many visitors like to take a guided tour of the city, or one of the bus/trolley/tram tours you’ll find on the streets. One of the most popular attractions in St. Augustine is the national monument Castillo de San Marcos, a fort dating back to 1672. Visitors also check out the Fountain of Youth and the St. Augustine Lighthouse. Older children may appreciate the Lightner Museum‘s architecture and its collection of items from the 19th century. Adventurous families, take the zipline over the gators and crocs at St. Augustine Alligator Farm, where you can also see reptiles, birds, and lemurs. Kids will love Whetstone Chocolates, which offers tasting tours of the factory; kids 5 and younger are free. To play on the beach, head to Anastasia State Park, where the Castillo de San Marcos rock was mined, and where you can camp. If you’re not camping, stay at the charming B&Bs, vacation rentals, or any of a number of chain hotels in the area.
10. Cocoa Beach. To many people, Cocoa Beach means either surfing, or space. It’s an easy place to situate your base camp for both. Tour the Kennedy Space Center for kid-friendly interactive space exhibits, bus tours of the facility, and lunch with an astronaut. If you love the ocean, play on the beach here and make a pilgrimage to the flagship Ron Jon Surf Shop, open 24 hours a day. Cocoa Beach is also a great place for taking day trips to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, which has a 7-mile wildlife drive where you’re likely to see alligators and migratory birds along with beautiful coastal habitats. Active families will also find plenty of nature tours here. Stay at the Four Points by Sheraton, which is right next to Ron Jon, or any of the hotels along the beach or Banana River.
This post was updated from a previously published post by the author.