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).