Best Places to Take Kids in Florida

Florida is the number-one family destination in the United States – if not the entire universe. And it’s small wonder. Not only is it home to Disney, Universal, SeaWorld and other dream parks, but Florida also has 3000 km of sun-kissed coastline, and natural wonders ranging from the gator-filled Everglades to the coral reefs of the Florida Keys.

Where else can you get face-to-face with Mickey Mouse, Cinderella and a real-life astronaut all within a few days? Or swim with gentle manatees one morning, and plunge down a death-defying waterslide the next? Whether your idea of fun is to paddle a canoe to a deserted island or take a simulated mission to Mars, Florida will always leave you wanting more. And more is exactly what you get – more water parks, more theme parks, more wildlife encounters, more quirky attractions. So be warned – one visit to the Sunshine State will rarely be enough.

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Miami

Best Places to Take Kids in Florida - Gator Park

Perfect if you don’t want to rent a car, many of Miami’s attractions are within easy walking or cycling distance. With its Latin-American vibe, this is a particularly cool city for teenagers who will appreciate its Art Deco buildings, buzzing nightlife and serious shopping potential, particularly at Aventura Mall, Dolphin Mall and the boutiques along Ocean Drive.

As well as great beaches, Miami has numerous family attractions, including animal antics at Jungle Island, Seaquarium and Metrozoo where there is an excellent zookeeper programme for children. The Miami Children’s Museum has interactive exhibits ranging from a television studio to a mini cruise ship, while Gator Park offers airboat rides into the Everglades National Park. To the north of Miami, chic Fort Lauderdale has beaches, sidewalk cafes and the vast Sawgrass Mills – one of America’s largest outlet malls.

Florida Keys

Best Places to Take Kids in Florida - Florida Keys

A 260-km chain of stepping-stones extending into the Gulf of Mexico, the Florida Keys consists of around 800 islands, 42 of which are linked by bridges. The entire archipelago lies within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, while Key Cargo provides access to the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and Biscayne National Park, both of which offer snorkelling, diving and glass-bottom-boat tours. Heading west along the Keys, Islamorada’s Theatre of the Sea provides opportunities for swimming With dolphins, sea lions and stingrays.

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At Marathon, in the heart of the Keys, you can hike through a tropical hardwood grove and visit the home of an early settler family before crossing Seven Mile Bridge to Bahia Honda – a great spot for kayaking or simply lazing about on some of the Keys’ best beaches. Next is Big Pine Key with its National Key Deer Refuge, while at the end of the chain lies Key West, renowned for its watersports and sunsets – the latter of which are celebrated by street performers in Mallory Square.

Everglades National Park

Best Places to Take Kids in Florida - Everglades National Park

A refuge to endangered species like the American crocodile, Florida panther and West Indian manatee, this vast subtropical wetland sprawls over 600,000 ha of southern Florida. Stop at one of the park’s four visitor centres for an introduction to the area’s fascinating ecology and for details of independent and ranger-led activities. A short distance from the Ernest F Coe Visitor Center (the nearest to Miami), the 800-m Anhinga Trail offers one of the best opportunities for close-up views of birds and alligators.

Continuing south towards Flamingo there are several short, well-interpreted trails (many of which are buggy-friendly) leading from parking areas along the 61-km Park Road. At Flamingo Visitor Center, boat tours explore Florida Bay and the backcountry. There are also several canoe and walking trails nearby (canoes can be rented from the marina). At Shark Valley Visitor Centre, off the Tamiami Trail, a tram tour leads to an observation tower providing superb views across the sawgrass prairie.

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The Gulf Coast Visitor Center at Everglades City is the’ jumping-off point for canoe trips along the Wilderness Waterway or Ten Thousand Islands, North American Canoe Tours offer guided trips or, if you’re up for a wilderness challenge, rent a canoe and set off on your own, paddling out to a deserted island or chickee (a wooden platform on stilts) where you can spend the night with nothing but manatees, ospreys and raccoons for company.

Naples

Best Places to Take Kids in Florida - Naples

Style-central for western Florida, Naples goes to town with boutique shops and gourmet restaurants. At the pier, kids will enjoy watching pelicans belly-flop on scraps tossed by fishermen. The Gulf Coast entrance to the Everglades is nearby, and so too is Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary where a 3.6-km boardwalk weaves through pinewoods, prairie and a stand of 40-m-tall bald cypress.

As well as alligators, the 4455-ha reserve is renowned for its birdlife, including a colony of endangered wood storks. To the south of Naples, Marco Island has gorgeous Gulf Coast beaches, like Sand Dollar Bay, where children will wile away hours shelling, kayaking, snorkelling and building sandcastles. To the north of Naples are the equally laid-back islands of Sanibel and Captiva and the more lively mainland resort of Fort Myers.

Tampa Bay

Best Places to Take Kids in Florida - Tampa Bay Beaches

Two of the best-known Gulf Coast beach resorts in this area are Clearwater Beach and St Pete Beach. There’s plenty to keep families happy here, from long sandy beaches to fishing trips and dolphin encounters. To the south lies Sarasota – another beach beauty. The big attraction in the Tampa Bay’ area, however, is Busch Gardens, a heady mix of exotic wildlife and pulse-pounding rides.

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One moment you’ll be hand-feeding giraffes on the Serengeti Safari, the next you’ll be clutching your stomach on SheiKra, North America’s first dive coaster that sends riders on a 60-m vertical drop at speeds of over 110 km/h. Other highlights include the Pirates 4D show and Congo River Rapids. Just across the street, Busch Gardens’ water park, Adventure Island, is awash with slippery slides, wave pools and adventure lagoons, but it’s Riptide – Florida’s original four-lane mat-slide – that kids will make a beeline for.

Orlando

Home to Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Studios and SeaWorld, Orlando is theme-park heaven. See pages 308-309 for tips on how to plan the ultimate fantasy escape in Florida’s number-one holiday I destination. From Orlando, it’s also possible to arrange excursions to east-coast highlights, including Kennedy Space Center – see below – and Daytona International Speedway.

* See Spacemen *

Best Places to Take Kids in Florida - Kennedy Space Center

It’s just one of the ‘other-worldly’ experiences on offer at the superb Kennedy Space Center. Start with a tour of the LC-39 observation gantry for a bird’s eye view of the shuttle launch pads, then gawk at the huge Saturn V moon rocket and explore a mock-up of the International Space Station. You can then experience lift-off yourself with the Shuttle Launch Experience, a motion simulator that brings to life the sights, sounds and sensations of an actual launch.

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Equally riveting is the Space Station 3D IMAX presentation and the Astronaut Hall of Fame with its hands-on exhibits and collection of astronaut memorabilia. As for meeting a real-life astronaut, there are daily Astronaut Encounters where you can question a member of NASA’s Astronaut Corps. Alternatively, sign up for Lunch with an Astronaut.

If that inspires you to greater things, you can always enrol for Family ATX – an Astronaut Training Experience where families (with children aged 8-14) spend a half-day immersed in a special programme, riding simulators, building and launching rockets and performing a shuttle mission to the International Space Station in a foil-scale orbiter mock-up.