Florida with kids (beyond Disney): the Gulf Coast

Florida does two things better than just about any place in America: beaches and theme parks. If you’re traveling with kids, that can be your itinerary – and if your kids enjoy wildlife, so much the better. Indeed, a Florida family trip can easily achieve legendary status with just a few well-placed phone calls. That’s why so many families return year after sandy year.

Every tourist town in Florida has already anticipated the needs of every age demographic in your family. With increasing skill and refinement, nearly every Florida museum, zoo, attraction, restaurant and hotel aims to please traveling families of all stripes.

Your only real trouble is deciding what to do. Florida offers so much for kids and families that planning can be tough.

While Orlando often grabs the spotlight with its big-name theme parks, families looking for a broader range of experiences will do well to head to Florida’s Gulf Coast, where you’ll find fewer crowds, some of the USA’s best beaches, and wildlife that’s free to see and abundant (and real). And don’t worry roller-coaster-lovers, they’ve got theme parks too.

Beaches

The prototypical Florida family beach is fronted by or near very active, crowded commercial centers with lots of water sports and activities, tourist shops, grocery stores and midrange eats and sleeps. The beaches listed here are popular destinations with all ages.

  • Naples – Upscale downtown bustles each evening; soothing beach scene.
  • Bowditch Point – At the northern end of Fort Myers Beach, close to urban amenities (and restrooms), but with plenty of wild beauty.
  • Sanibel Island – Bike, kayak and shell the days away; undeveloped beaches, great restaurants.
  • Siesta Key – Powdery white sand, plenty of activities, lively village scene at night.
  • St Pete Beach – Activity-filled social epicenter of Tampa Bay area beachgoing.
  • Panama City Beach – Crazy seaside amusements and carnival atmosphere.
  • Destin & Fort Walton Beach – For quieter getaways amid unforgettable beauty.
  • Pensacola Beach – Great mix of unspoiled strands and low-key tourist center.

Zoos, Museums & Attractions

Up-close animal encounters have long been a Florida tourist staple, and the state has some of the best zoos and aquariums in the country. Florida’s native wildlife is truly stunning, and it’s easy to see. Gulf Coast cities also have an high number of top-quality hands-on children’s museums.

Zoos & Theme Parks

  • Lowry Zoo – In Tampa; a fantastic zoo with up-close encounters.
  • Busch Gardens – In a state known for its theme parks, Busch Gardens stands out as a magical attraction; thrilling adults and children both with a taste of Africa and some of Florida’s best roller coasters.
  • Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park – Old Florida staple, emphasizes Florida wildlife, underwater manatee observatory.

Aquariums

  • Mote Marine Laboratory – Center for shark study; visit sharks, manatees, dolphins and sea turtles up close.
  • Florida Aquarium – In Tampa; another stellar aquarium, excellent re-created swamp, swim programs and sealife tours.
  • Clearwater Marine Aquarium – Intimate rehabilitation center with marvelous animal presentations.

Nature Centers

Children’s Museums

Getting Into Nature

Don’t overlook unpackaged nature. Florida is exceedingly flat, so rivers and trails are frequently ideal for short legs and little arms. Raised boardwalks through alligator-filled swamps make perfect pint-size adventures. Placid rivers and intercoastal bays are custom-made for first-time paddlers, adult or child. Book a sealife cruise, a manatee swim or nesting-sea-turtle watch.

  • Everglades National Park – Bike or take a tram tour along Shark Valley’s paved road, or short boardwalk trails around the Royal Palm Visitor Center. Visit Everglades City and Flamingo centers for family-friendly kayaking.
  • Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary – West of Naples; maybe the most diverse and rewarding swampy boardwalk trail.
  • Lee County Manatee Park – In Fort Myers; easy way to see wintering manatees.
  • Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve – In Fort Myers; another ideal, shady boardwalk trail often packed with wildlife.
  • Myakka River State Park – Tram tours, short hikes for birds and alligators; don’t miss fun Canopy Trail. Airboat tours and kayaking among hundreds of alligators.
  • Weeki Wachee Springs – Watch the mermaid show, then canoe the crystal-clear fish-and-manatee-filled river.
  • St George Island State Park – Near Apalachicola; seabirds and loggerhead turtle nesting.