Florida for Family Fun
Looking for things to do with the family? Here are suggestions for your next vacation in the Sunshine State.
Ride Out a Hurricane
You'd never want to be caught in a hurricane--the energy one can release in a single day is equivalent to 8 billion tons of TNT. But visit the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa (MOSI), and you can experience a man-made version that makes your hair stand on end (or at least fly straight back). The Gulf Coast Hurricane exhibit places you in a chamber with 74 m.p.h. winds. Pieces of foam rubber whip and spin through the air, bouncing harmlessly off seated visitors who wear protective goggles. Imagine those pieces of foam are furniture or other debris, and it can be a sobering experience; (813) 987-6100 or www.mosi.org.
Miniature golf is a great activity for the whole family, especially after a long day of sand and surf. You won't have any trouble finding a place to play. These fun courses seem to sprout like sea oats around beach resorts.
But if you're looking for the real thing, check in to one of the state's great resorts. Better yet, sign up at one of the top-notch golf schools to improve your game. Here's where to go--Amelia Island Plantation Golf School, Amelia Island Plantation, 1-800-874-6878; Jim McLean Golf School, Doral Golf Resort and Spa, Miami, 1-800-723-6725; Dave Pelz Scoring Game School, Boca Raton Resort & Club, Boca Raton, (561) 995-7280; Grand Cypress Academy of Golf, Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress Resort, Orlando, 1-800-790-7377; The Academy of Golf at PGA National, PGA National Resort & Spa, Palm Beach Gardens, 1-800-832-6235.
Sleep With the Fishes
Imagine yourself tucked into a sleeping bag, surrounded by whales and polar bears. It can happen at SeaWorld Adventure Park Orlando. You and your children (kindergarten through fifth grade) can sign up for one of the sleepovers offered periodically throughout the year; (407) 363-2380 or 1-800-406-2244.
Kayak the Keys
For the ultimate dip into nature, explore the Florida Keys by kayak. Outfitters throughout the area offer gear and guidance. One of our favorites is Adventure Charters & Tours in Key West. Instead of paddling out from a marina or dock as some do, this outfitter loads you and your kayak onto a high-speed catamaran to motor deep into the Great White Heron Refuge. The trip includes lunch back on board the catamaran and a stop in the Snipe Keys for more kayaking, snorkeling, and beachcombing. You can even bait a hook and cast for dinner; (305) 296-0362, 1-888-817-0841, or www.keywestadventures.com. Other outfitters in the area include Florida Bay Outfitters, Key Largo, (305) 451-3018; Mosquito Coast Island Outfitters & Kayak Guides, Key West, (305) 294-7178; Ocean Paddler South, Marathon Key, (305) 743-0131; and Reflections Nature Tours, Big Pine Key, (305) 872-2896.
Slip Slide Away
Say you're more of a mountain person than a beach person? Then head to Walt Disney World's Blizzard Beach with its acres of Himalayan-looking adventures. Slide down the face of 90-foot-high Mount Gushmore, or brave its 120-foot-high Summit Plummet for an exciting splash landing. Disney's Typhoon Lagoon offers more thrills (if not chills). Take your chances on the Storm Slides, curving chutes that wind around barriers and obstacles before splashdown in the bottom-of-the-mountain pool. Then, if you dare, drop down Mount Mayday, and twist through the craggy caves at 30 m.p.h. on Humunga Kowabunga's three awesome water slides. Blizzard Beach, (407) 560-3400; Typhoon Lagoon, (407) 560-4141.
Other area water parks include Wet 'n Wild, Orlando, 1-800-992-9453, and Wild Waters, Silver Springs, (352) 236-2121.
Walk With Ghosts
As Florida's oldest city, St. Augustine is also one of its most haunted. Take a horse-drawn tour through the moonlit streets while listening to the city's scariest tales, or walk the narrow cobblestone pathways in search of spirits. Visit the Old Jail, the St. Augustine Lighthouse, and other spooky sites; (904) 826-4218 (for times and tickets).
Watch the Blue Angels
Capture two treats with one visit when you stop by the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola. The first treat is a chance to roam through the immense collection that documents the history of military aircraft. You can even climb into the cockpit of a trainer for pretend test flights. The second treat is a free air show.
At 8:30 a.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays March through October, you can watch from the museum grounds as the Blue Angels practice their amazing precision maneuvers. Following the Wednesday practice, pilots are available for a brief autograph session inside the museum; (850) 452-2583 or www.blueangels.navy.mil.
Search for Seafood
You don't have to look far to find great seafood in Florida. Popular restaurants abound. The best, though, according to the annual Southern Living Readers' Choice Awards, is Capt. Anderson's in Panama City Beach. It has received the first place award for eight years in a row. Arrive early for dinner, by 4:30 p.m. or so, or you will have to wait for a table; (850) 234-2225, 1-888-878-6750, or www.captanderson.com.
In Clearwater Beach, Frenchy's Rockaway Grill serves noteworthy she-crab soup and a variety of other seafood dishes. Ultracasual, it sports a wide wooden patio that pours onto a beach where families can play and relax while waiting for a table; (727) 446-4844.
If you're hungry for seafood at breakfast, Another Broken Egg Cafe in Destin offers the Floridian, an omelet made with fresh crabmeat, butter, garlic, green onions, cream cheese, and Monterey Jack cheese; (850) 650-0499.
Blast Into Space
The Space Coast of Florida offers a variety of ways to learn about this country's forays into space. The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is a must, with films, exhibits, and displays about previous and future space exploration. Take one of the bus tours, and you can see the Air Force Space Museum and the space shuttle launch pads.
Experience another aspect of the Visitor Center Complex at the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in Titusville. It boasts the world's largest collection of astronaut memorabilia and includes tributes to these heroes; (321) 449-4444 or www.kennedyspacecenter.com.
The recently opened Challenger Learning Center in Tallahassee serves as a memorial to the astronauts who lost their lives in 1986 aboard the Challenger space shuttle. Located downtown on Kleman Plaza, the facility includes a Space Mission Simulator, digital planetarium, and imax Theater; (850) 410-6425.
Comb the Beach
Because of its unique east-west placement in the Gulf of Mexico, Sanibel Island is known as one of the three best shelling spots in the Western Hemisphere. You can't even take a step without crushing some of the millions of shells that wash up on the beach here.
Another great place to find treasures from the deep is Shell Island, off the coast of Panama City. The only way to get there is by boat. Catch the shuttle from St. Andrews State Recreation Area ($4 per car for entry into the park; $9.50for adults and $5.50 for children ages 2-12 to take the shuttle). For the best shelling, go early, before boatloads of beach walkers arrive; (850) 233-5140.
For sharks' teeth, head to Caspersen Beach in Venice. Paleontologists haven't been able to satisfactorily explain why, but ancient sharks' teeth turn up in abundance here. Found in shades of black, gray, and brown, they range from 1/8-inch baby teeth to 3-inch-wide incisors. There's even the occasional 7-inch behemoth (keep in mind that these are fossils that haven't taken a bite out of anything for millions of years). Regulars to the beach use basket-like scooping devices called Florida snow shovels (sold in local gift shops) to scoop up the shiny souvenirs; (941) 488-2236.