10 Florida Trips for Families
It’s been a rough winter in the north this year! You can’t blame families for wanting a little warmth and sunshine for spring break, and Florida is a nice place to get it. (At one point this winter, Florida was declared the only state that didn’t have snow.)
After reading Mile High Mama’s list of 10 spring break trips in Colorado, I thought I would list my 10 picks for family spring break (or anytime) vacations in Florida. I’m going to put my picks into two categories: mainly activity-oriented and mainly beach-oriented.
If you want the beach and not much else…
1. Hollywood. Every time I’ve been here, the water of the Atlantic Ocean has been a fantastic color. I don’t know if the reason is that Hollywood is south of the port where cruise and cargo ships come and go and the Atlantic Gulfstream takes port oil and debris north with it. Whatever the reason, Hollywood Beach not only has water that will make your family, friends and neighbors jealous, but it 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 or any number of small motels.2. Sanibel/Captiva. Sanibel Island and its northern neighbor Captiva Island are twin relaxation stations perched on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. People may come for the famed seashell collecting, but they stay for riding a bike to get around, birdwatching, fresh seafood and the lack of chain stores or restaurants. Another big draw: J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which covers about a third of Sanibel Island and which offers a 4-mile wildlife drive (which you can also walk or bike). The range of small inns here is delightful, and so is the larger resort property of South Seas Island, which offers a lot for families with children.
3. 30A area. Along the beach in Florida’s panhandle (aka the Emerald Coast), 30A is a 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, genteel 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 farmers market.
4. St. George Island. 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 Florida State Capitol 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 (a top oyster area), lighthouses and vacation rental homes. St. George Island State Park offers a beautiful public beach that made Dr. Beach’s top list 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.
If you want to go, do and see…5. Sarasota. This is Florida’s “Cultural Coast” — with its art museums, music festivals and theaters, you can see why. When you’re not immersing yourself in the arts, there’s plenty to do outside. The barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico, especially Siesta Beach with its powdery white sand. If your family likes wildlife, visit Mote Marine Laboratory for a great kid-friendly aquarium that also offers boat tours, or Jungle Gardens. You might spot wildlife also in the wild at Myakka River State Park east of Sarasota. Look for alligators in the river on a tour in the largest airboat in the world, and look for birds and other forest critters on the canopy walkway. If you have young children, check out Sarasota Children’s Garden for make-believe and fun. You’ll find top resorts and small lodging near the beach and downtown. 6. Tampa. If you have plenty of vacation days to spend, Tampa will help you keep them filled with things to do. Many families head straight to Busch Gardens and its next-door water park, Adventure Island, for some of the best roller coasters in Florida, the gardens and 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. In downtown Tampa, a real trolley is a draw for kids who love rails, even if it’s not a train. The trolley passes right by the beautiful Florida Aquarium, where you can watch underwater creatures for hours, try out the touch tanks, and see animals like birds and lemurs. 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. 7. Florida Keys. Florida’s famous island chain calls to mind Margaritaville for some, Kokomo for others, and authors and artists, songs and movies for even more people. But 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. Active families can swim, snorkel, dive (many places will help you get certified if you’re at least 10 years old), fish (kids under age 16 don’t need a license), kayak, paddleboard and boat to their hearts’ content. There are excellent state parks where you can access the beach or get on a boat (John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Bahia Honda State Park, Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, Long Key State Park and more), plenty of roadside marinas (check out Robbie’s in Islamorada where kids can feed the tarpon) and other fun places to check out. See my post, 12 Reasons Key West is Great for Kids, if Key West is on your wish list. From the Southernmost Hotel in Key West all the way up to the Hilton and Marriott chain hotels in Key Largo, there are resorts and small lodging to fit almost every budget.
8. St. Augustine. The oldest city in the United States is the place to go if your family likes history and unique attractions, shops and restaurants. Many visitors like to take a guided tour of the city, or one of a few trolley tours you’ll find on the streets. One of the most popular attractions in St. Augustine is the 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. Then if you’re feeling brave, take the zipline over the gator lagoon at St. Augustine Alligator Farm, where you can also learn about reptiles, birds and lemurs. To relax on the beach, explore Anastasia State Park. Stay at the historic Casa Monica Hotel in the heart of the city near the plaza, at the quaint bed-and-breakfast inns or at chain hotels.
9. Cocoa Beach. To many people, Cocoa Beach means either surfing, or space. Or both. Cocoa Beach is one easy place to situate your base camp for exploring the nearby Kennedy Space Center (SpaceX employees sometimes stay in hotels here on business trips) as well as the surf. The flagship Ron Jon Surf Shop here is open 24 hours a day. It’s also a great place to take 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 Surf Shop, or any of the hotels along the beach or Banana River.10. Orlando. This is where the main theme parks are, so it’s natural that many families would want to visit here for spring break. Given that it’s such a popular destination, though, Orlando is going to be crowded, especially during the weeks traditionally taken for spring break: right around Passover and Easter. If you can avoid Orlando around April 12-26 (2014), the month of July and the last two weeks of the year, you can avoid a lot of the crowds too. In addition to theme parks, consider the water parks, garden and museums. Click here for a separate post on a couple of my favorite “off-property” hotels.
What is your favorite family trip in Florida? What was your favorite experience? I’d love to hear about it!