Florida for Family Fun

Looking for things to do with the family? Here are suggestions for your next vacation in the Sunshine State.
Karen Lingo

If all you could find to do in Florida was bask in the sun on a beautiful beach and play in the surf, it would still be a fabulous place to take the family. There's much here, though, that makes it even more incredible, for everyone from grandparents to toddlers.

For starters, you and your crew can go on safari, take an airboat ride, swim with dolphins, hobnob with real cowboys, get eyeball-to-eyeball with alligators, ride out a man-made hurricane, and learn to sail. So what are you waiting for? Come on and join in the fun.

Swim With Dolphins
Watching a pod of dolphins cruise along just offshore is exciting, but actually swimming with them ranks high on the list of unforgettable moments. Dolphin encounters at Gulf World Marine Park in Panama City Beach put you in the water with its most popular residents. If you want an even more in-depth experience, sign up to become a trainer for a day, shadowing real trainers, feeding the animals, and even joining in the Dolphin Show; (850) 234-5271. Marineland of Florida, south of St. Augustine, also offers Dolphin Encounters; (904) 460-1275 or 1-888-279-9194.

One of the most popular dolphin experiences waits at Discovery Cove, adjacent to SeaWorld Adventure Park Orlando. Before entering the water, you learn the hand signals that urge the 300- to 650-pound mammals to jump, chase a rubber toy, and wave a flipper. Reserve a spot in the new "Trainer for a Day" program, and you can work alongside animal experts and interact with dolphins and other creatures; toll free 1-877-434-7268 or www.discoverycove.com.

Travel by Airboat
For a great wind-through-your-hair experience, explore the state's inland waterways by airboat. With huge fans and engines mounted on the back, these unique watercraft skim across the surface with a deafening roar, bringing forth smiles and a heady rush of adrenaline. One of our favorite operators is Boggy Creek Airboat Rides in Kissimmee, which offers tours through the alligator-laced Boggy Creek area at the headwaters of the Florida Everglades; (407) 344-9550 or www.bcairboats.com.

For a tour of Lake Jessup, located north of Orlando, contact Gator Ventures of Seminole, Inc.; (407) 977-8235 or www.gatorventures.com. For trips on either Lake Jessup or the St. Johns River, contact Bill's Airboat Adventures, Inc.; (407) 977-3214 or www.airboating.com.

For airboat rides in the Everglades, try Wooten's Everglades Tours, south of Naples on U.S. 41; (239) 695-2781. Or call Miccosukee Indian Village/Airboat Tours, on U.S. 41 west of Miami; (305) 223-8380.

Take to the Treetops
A new walkway at Myakka River State Park near Sarasota takes you up into the treetops. The Myakka Canopy Walkway is actually a suspension bridge 24 feet high and 85 feet long. It includes a 74-foot-tall observation tower, where you can look out over the oak-palm hammock; (941) 361-6511 or www.myakkariver.org.

Cast Off With Pirates
Captain Memo's Pirate Cruise out of Clearwater Beach is a shiver-me-timbers hoot for anyone willing to act out a bit of maritime fantasy. Painted candy apple red with black trim, sporting a cartoonishly high poop deck, and crowned with a basket-like crow's nest, the ship hardly needs to fly the skull and crossbones to identify itself as a pirate's vessel.

You're barely out of the harbor before paper pirate hats or skull-print bandannas top every head, and face paint converts even the fairest cheeks and chins with scrolling mustaches, scruffy sideburns, and fiendish goatees. Then out come the blunderbuss-style water pistols, pitting kids against parents in a soak 'em fest that has everyone rolling. A finders-keepers treasure hunt, rowdy game of musical chairs, and tales of high seas adventures round out the activities; (727) 446-2587 or www.captainmemo.com.

For more pirate adventures, you can celebrate the Billy Bowlegs Pirate Festival in Fort Walton Beach, June 6-7 (parade on June 9).

Eyeball a Bunch of Gators
Virtually any natural body of water (and some man-made ones as well) in Florida serves as home to alligators, crocodiles, and other swamp-dwelling denizens. One of the oldest attractions in the state to display the creatures is the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park. It was established in 1893 and moved to its present site in 1922; (904) 824-3337 or www.alligatorfarm.com.

Another popular crocodilian attraction is Gatorland in Orlando. Here you'll find a three-story observation tower, elevated boardwalk, and meandering woodland trails that allow access to a cypress swamp and a palms-and-pines forest where hundreds of gators live. What keeps folks coming back, though, are the shows that feature gator wrestlers prying open those steel-trap jaws; 1-800-393-5297 or www.gatorland.com.

For a more natural experience, head to Seminole County, home to Lake Jessup (located northeast of downtown Orlando). Spreading over 10,000 acres, it's believed to have the largest concentration of alligators per acre of any lake in the country. Arrange a guided tour from Black Hammock Fish Camp and Marina; (407) 365-1244. More alligators live in the Wekiva River, which flows along the western boundary of the county. You can rent a canoe at Wekiwa Springs State Park, located at the headwater of the river; (407) 884-2008 or www.floridastateparks.org.

Call on the Goodyear Blimp
Ever wonder where the Goodyear blimp goes between public appearances? The Stars & Stripes, one of three in Goodyear's North American fleet, makes its home at the Pompano Beach Municipal Airport. The craft stays home more than it travels, and anyone can drop by to see it. In the small visitors center, you'll learn how lighter-than-air helium, a thin skin of polyester fabric, aircraft engines, and a system of cables and rudders combine to lift, power, and steer the odd craft. Call to make sure the blimp is home before you go; (954) 946-8300 or www.goodyearblimp.com.

Stroll the Best Beach
More than a decade ago, Dr. Stephen Leatherman, the country's foremost coastal expert, started rating U.S. beaches. Every year, at least one of Florida's beaches has made it into the top 10. In the most recent rating, the state captured four of the top spots, including number one.

The best beach in the country is St. Joseph Peninsula State Park near Port St. Joe, a pristine 9-mile stretch of sand so blindingly white it looks like snow. It lies a remote 22 miles from Port St. Joe. Reservations for one of the eight rustic loft cabins on the bay side of the park are about as hard to get as Super Bowl tickets. But snag one, or pitch your tent in the campground, and you'll find out what makes this place so special; for more information about the park, call (850) 227-1327, or visit www.floridastateparks.org. For cabin and camping reservations, call 1-800-326-3521.

The three other top beaches in Florida are Fort De Soto State Park in St. Petersburg (# 4), Caladesi Island State Park near Clearwater Beach (# 5), and Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Recreation Area on Key Biscayne near Miami (# 9).

 

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.

Play Golf
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.

 

Dive With Sharks
You don't want to encounter them in the wild, but you can safely interact with sharks at two Florida attractions. Certified divers 15 years of age and older can make reservations to enter the shark tank at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa. The dive lasts 30 minutes and costs $150; (813) 273-4000 or www.flaquarium.net.

At SeaWorld Orlando's "Sharks Deep Dive," you can either snorkel or scuba dive (certification required) and enter the water in a shark cage. If you just want to dine surrounded by sharks, head to Sharks Underwater Grill, the park's new restaurant. It features floor-to-ceiling windows into the shark encounter attraction; (407) 351-3600 or www.seaworld.com.

Catch a Wave
Surfing is big on Florida's Atlantic coast, especially at Sebastian Inlet State Recreation Area in Sebastian; (321) 984-4852. For all your surfing needs, visit the giant Ron Jon Surf Shop in Cocoa Beach; (321) 799-8888. For lessons, check into Lou Maresca's Central Florida Surf School in Vero Beach. Equipment is included, and you'll be catching waves before you know it; (772) 231-1044 or www.surfschoolcamp.com.

Learn To Sail
Even if you don't know jib from jibe, you can learn to sail. Offshore Sailing School in Fort Myers and the Florida Keys, as well as the Annapolis Sailing School in St. Petersburg, will be happy to teach the entire family.

Offshore Sailing School offers a variety of programs that last from three to six days. There's even a special program for youngsters ages 7-11. The school has three Florida locations, one at South Seas Resort on Captiva Island, one in St. Petersburg, and another at Hawk's Cay Resort in the Florida Keys; 1-800-221-4326 or www.offshore-sailing.com.

The St. Petersburg branch of the Annapolis Sailing School takes advantage of the superb sailing conditions on Tampa Bay; 1-800-638-9192 or www.usboat.com/annapway.

Hang With The Cowboys
It may be known for sun and sand, but Florida is also one of the top beef-producing states in the country. Vast ranches spread across its interior.

One of the best ways to learn about the history of cow hunters is to visit the re-created 1870s cow camp in Lake Kissimmee State Park. The best place to find a little more action is at a rodeo. Catch one most Wednesdays at the Davie Arena in Davie; (954) 797-1166. On Friday nights, head to the Kissimmee Sports Arena; (407) 933-0020. In July, the All-Florida Championship Rodeo comes to Arcadia; (863) 494-4033.

Camp Out
State parks are scattered across Florida like freckles on a redhead's nose. Many have campgrounds, and some have cabins. A new central reservation system makes it easy to schedule your nights under the stars; 1-800-326-3521 or www.reserveamerica.com.

Catch a Great Sunset & Show
The best sunset show in Florida happens on Mallory Square in Key West. Mimes, jugglers, and acrobats entertain on the square until the sun dips low. Then all eyes turn to the horizon; (305) 294-2587 or www.fla-keys.com.

Pick a Special Pool
There are pools, and then there are pools. The Venetian Pool in Coral Gables falls into the latter category. Carved into the quarry from which coral-rock was taken to build many of the homes in Coral Gables, the pool is an oasis of waterfalls, caves, and lush foliage. Children must be at least 38 inches tall or 3 years old to swim; (305) 460-5356.

Another stunning pool with waterfalls amid lush vegetation refreshes guests at the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress Resort in Orlando; 1-800-554-9288 or www.hyattgrandcypress.com.

Plan Your Stay in Orlando
Face it--you can't see and do everything in Orlando in just one visit. You'll have to come back. But to get the most out of what time you have, plan, plan, plan.

A three-day scenario could include SeaWorld, Universal's Islands of Adventure, and Disney-MGM Studios. If you're spending five days, add Discovery Cove, the Magic Kingdom, and Epcot to the itinerary. For information: Disney Parks, (407) 824-4321; Discovery Cove, toll free 1-877-434-7268; SeaWorld, (407) 351-3600 or www.seaworld.com; Universal's Islands of Adventure, (407) 363-8000. For information about area discounts, call 1-800-551-0181, or visit www.orlandoinfo.com.

Go On Safari
Rhino Rally, an off-road safari at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, takes you into areas where wild animals roam free. From your customized Land Rover, you'll see rhinos the size of trucks, elephants, warthogs, and a host of other exotic critters. The ride really gets wild when you ease onto a rickety pontoon bridge, which breaks free and sweeps you downriver to the end of your journey; 1-888-800-5447 or www.buschgardens.com.

Watch for Turtles
Between mid-May and mid-August, at night on many Florida beaches, you can watch for sea turtles lumbering ashore to lay their eggs. Roughly two months after the eggs are deposited in their sandy nests, hatchlings emerge and head for the water. The area around New Smyrna Beach, including Canaveral National Seashore, is a prime nesting ground. One of the most intense programs to protect the eggs and hatchlings takes place at the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, between Melbourne and Sebastian Inlet. In 1989 it was designated America's first sea turtle refuge; (321) 861-0667.

To find more ways to have fun in Florida, call 1-888-735-2872 and request a copy of "The Official Florida Vacation Guide," or visit www.flausa.com.

This article is from the April 2003 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.