The Sunshine State makes it so easy for families to have a good time that many return year after sandy, sunburned year. But with so many beaches, theme parks and kid-perfect destinations and activities, the challenge is deciding exactly where to go and what to do.
Best Regions for Kids
A spinning wheel of theme-park fun and oodles of family entertainment beyond the gates.
- Tampa Bay & Gulf Coast
Great zoos, aquariums and museums, plus some of Florida's prettiest, most family-friendly beaches and alluring island getaways.
- Florida Keys
Snorkeling, diving, fishing, boating and an all-around no-worries vibe.
- Space Coast (Hwy A1A)
World-class surfing, nature preserves and sleepy beach towns combine with vintage airplanes and all-things-space to make this 75-mile stretch of barrier islands a favorite.
- Emerald Coast
The Panhandle coastline has stunningly white sand beaches, crystal water and pockets of frenetic boardwalk amusements.
Kid-focused zoos and museums, but also Miami itself, one of the USA's great multicultural cities.
Florida for Kids
Kids love Florida. And what's not to like? Sandcastles and waves, dolphins and alligators, Cinderella and Harry Potter. There are the classics and the don't misses, the obvious and the cliché, but just as memorable – and often far less stressful and less expensive – are the distinctly Floridian under-the-radar discoveries. Roadside attractions, mom-and-pop animal rescues, intimate wildlife expeditions, street festivals and more…and when you've had enough, there's plenty of opportunities to do a whole lot of nothing in the sun.
The self-contained resort complexes of Walt Disney World® and Universal Orlando Resort offer multiple theme and water parks, on-site hotels and transportation systems, and just beyond their gates you'll find Legoland. The only big-hitter theme park beyond Orlando is Busch Gardens.
While the prototypical Florida family beach is fronted by crowded commercial centers, you'll find loads of beaches that echo that quintessential Old Florida feel. Many are protected in state parks, wildlife preserves and island sanctuaries, and there are pockets of road-trip-perfect coastline, with mile upon mile of beautiful emptiness dotted with flip-flop-friendly low-rise towns. Remember that there's a distinct difference between Gulf and Atlantic beaches – many find the shallows and gentle surf of the Gulf perfect for little ones, but Atlantic beaches often lie on barrier islands that are flanked by calm-water rivers and inlets to the west. Currents can be dangerously strong along both coasts; always pay attention to rip-tide warnings.
Zoos & Museums
Up-close animal encounters have long been a Florida tourist staple. The state has some of the best zoos and aquariums in the country, as well as all kinds of small-scale jewels and Old Florida favorites that offer hands-on interactions and quirky shows. Florida's cities also have top-quality children's museums, and art museums and centers throughout the state almost always offer excellent kids' programs.
Getting into Nature
It's easy to get out into nature in Florida – there are wilderness preserves and state parks up and down the state, and you don't have to drive far, hike long or paddle hard to get away from it all. The best part is, once you get there, you're almost guaranteed to see some pretty cool critters.
Florida is exceedingly flat, so rivers and trails are frequently ideal for short legs and little arms. Placid rivers and intercoastal bays are custom-made for first-time paddlers, and often are so shallow and calm you can just peek over the boat and see all kinds of marine life. Never snorkeled a coral reef or surfed? Florida has gentle places to learn. Book a sea-life cruise, a manatee swim or nesting-sea-turtle watch, or simply stroll along raised boardwalks through alligator-filled swamps, perfect for pint-size adventurers.
Believe it or not, these extensive highlights merely cherry-pick the best of the best.
Family Beach Towns
On the Atlantic
- St Augustine Pirates, forts, jails and reenactors.
- Cocoa Beach Surfing rattle-and-hum energy along the Atlantic with lessons for kids and easy access to lovely Banana River kayaking.
- Vero Beach Carefully zoned with grassy parks, a pedestrian-friendly downtown and wide, life-guarded beaches.
- Indialantic Flip-flop Old Florida beach life with a boho vibe.
- Lauderdale-by-the-Sea Less snooty than towns just south; great butterfly park.
- Stuart For outdoors-eager families, with getaway beaches and a Smithsonian Marine Station on Hutchinson Island.
- Amelia Island Easygoing and upscale.
On the Gulf
- Anna Maria Island Old Florida, with a low-rise beachfront, independent hotels and a historic fishing pier.
- Florida Keys The whole island chain brims with activities for all ages; check out the street performances at Key West's Mallory Sq.
- Naples Upscale downtown bustles each evening; easy access to miles of beautiful wide beaches.
- Sanibel Island Bike, kayak and shell the days away; undeveloped beaches but no pedestrian-friendly downtown.
- Siesta Key Crescent of soft white sand, plenty of activities and a lively village scene at night.
- Fort Myers Beach Party atmosphere, lots to do, yet quieter beaches just south (we like Lovers Key State Park).
- Gasparilla Island Intimate, easy and blissfully free of high-rises and chain restaurants and hotels; ditch the car and toot around in a golf cart.
- St Pete Beach Activity-filled social epicenter of Tampa Bay area.
- Pensacola Beach Mix of unspoiled strands and low-key tourist center.
- South Walton Family-perfect Panhandle beauty.
- Apalachicola Tiny historic fishing town on Apalachicola Bay; close to excellent beachside state parks.
- Lowry Park Zoo Tampa; fantastic zoo with up-close encounters.
- Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park Gulf Coast, 70 miles north of Tampa; Old Florida don't-miss staple emphasizing Florida wildlife; underwater manatee observatory.
- Zoo Miami Extensive, with all the big-ticket species.
- Monkey Jungle Miami; the tagline 'Where humans are caged and monkeys run wild' says it all. Unforgettable classic, opened in 1933; don't miss the wild monkey swimming pool.
- Jungle Island Miami; tropical birds and exotic species such as the liger, a tiger-and-lion crossbreed.
- Lion Country Safari West Palm Beach; an enormous drive-through safari park and rehabilitation center.
- Brevard Zoo Melbourne, on the Space Coast; little old-school favorite; feed giraffes and lorikeets.
Nature Centers, Wildlife Preserves & Parks
- Everglades National Park Don't miss the Anhinga Trail, an easy boardwalk past alligators and beautiful birds; for family-friendly kayaking, head to Everglades City and Flamingo centers.
- Marjory Stoneman Douglas Biscayne Nature Center Key Biscayne; kid-friendly intro to subtropical South Florida.
- Environmental Learning Center Vero Beach; Florida ecosystems and touch-tanks.
- Loggerhead Marinelife Center Juno Beach, 18 miles north of West Palm Beach; excellent little turtle rescue and rehabilitation center with children's programs.
- McCarthy's Wildlife Sanctuary West Palm Beach; first-rate animal rescue featuring endangered animals and discarded exotic pets in botanical surrounds and up-close interactions.
- Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center Key West; entertaining displays pull together Florida Keys ecology.
- JN 'Ding' Darling National Wildlife Refuge Sanibel Island; easy tram tours and the park's education center is tops.
- Nancy Forrester's Secret Garden Key West; intimate labor-of-love parrot rescue and rehab sanctuary in a private garden, with education, bird interaction and storytelling.
- Naples Botanical Garden Designed especially with kids in mind.
Wildlife Encounters on Land
- National Key Deer Refuge Big Pine Key, Florida Keys; kids love spotting these cute-as-Bambi mini deer.
- Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park Key Biscayne; accessible island-ecology walk.
- John D Macarthur State Park West Palm Beach; ranger-led sea-turtle watches, beautiful beaches, calm-water kayaking.
- Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary Thirty miles northeast of Naples; maybe the most diverse and rewarding swampy boardwalk trail.
- Myakka River State Park Sarasota; tram and air-boat tours, canoeing, short hikes and hundreds of alligators.
- Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve Fort Myers; another ideal, shady boardwalk trail often packed with wildlife.
- Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park Gainesville; hiking trails through prairies, woods and wetlands, with alligators, armadillos and more.
- Leon Sinks Geological Area Tallahassee; bizarre sinkhole terrain is bound to make an impression.
- St George Island State Park Apalachicola; loggerhead nesting.
- Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge Cocoa Beach; Black Point Wildlife Dr and excellent visitors center.
- Butterfly World Coconut Creek, outside Lauderdale-by-the-Sea; sanctuary of butterflies and exotic birds.
Wildlife Encounters by Water
- Biscayne National Park Homestead, 30 miles south of Miami; glass-bottom boat tours, snorkeling over an epic reef.
- John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park Key Largo, Florida Keys; great coral reefs, by snorkel or glass-bottom boat tour.
- Loxahatchee River Jupiter, 20 miles north of West Palm Beach; one of Florida's two National Wild and Scenic Rivers, this placid 8-mile river is great for kayaking and canoeing.
- Canaveral National Seashore Titusville, 35 miles south of Daytona; easy paddling on the Indian River and sea-turtle watches along 24 miles of undeveloped Atlantic Coast beaches.
- Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge 80 miles north of Tampa; legendary manatee spot where you can boat and swim among them.
- Ichetucknee Springs State Park Fort White, 37 miles northwest of Gainesville; inner-tube along crystal-clear slow-moving water with manatees, otters and turtles.
- Blue Spring State Park DeLand, 35 miles north of Orlando; canoe and cruise among manatees.
- Suwannee River State Park 75 miles east of Tallahassee; great muddy river dotted with crystal-clear springs for swimming.
- Dolphin Study Naples; dolphin-spotting ecotours.
- Fin Expeditions Cocoa Beach; kayak through the mangroves with small-group nature tours tailor-made for kids.
Not all of Florida's wildlife encounters are with animals of the here and now. Much of central and southern Florida was underwater as recently as 100,000 years ago, and as a result, the rocks and sands of the state are teeming with remnants of ancient marine life. Look carefully and it's not hard to find fossilized shells of clams, sand dollars and corals. More rare, but not uncommon if you know where to look, are shark teeth (including those of the megalodon, a school-bus-sized relative of the great white) as well as bones of extinct ice age mammals.
Mark Renz, an expert on Florida fossils, has been leading family-friendly fossil-hunting expeditions for more than 20 years. Small-group kayak and river-walking trips with his Fossil Expeditions include screen-washing and snorkeling in knee-deep water, and Mark is great with kids – even little ones enjoy digging around in the mud and muck. Trips are usually in streams between Arcadia and Wauchula, and in the Peace River, 45 to 70 miles north of Fort Myers.
- Glazer Children's Museum Tampa; charming interactive extravaganza.
- Museum of Science & Industry Tampa; huge hands-on science fun, with an IMAX and a planetarium.
- Miami Children's Museum Extensive role-playing environments.
- Golisano Children's Museum of Naples Modern facility geared toward kids under eight.
If you're a parent, you already know that fortune favors the prepared. In Florida's crazy-crowded, overbooked high-season tourist spots, a little bit of planning can make all the difference. Sort out where to go, where to stay, and a few pillars of plans to hang the trip on in advance – book that manatee cruise, schedule a day at the Kennedy Space Center, reserve a character-meal at Disney, but always check about cancellation policies. Once there, it may turn out that all anyone wants to do is play in the sun and sand.
Resorts & Hotels
The vast majority of Florida hotels stand ready to aid families. They have cribs, roll-away beds and sleeper-sofas, suites and adjoining rooms, refrigerators and microwaves, and most do not charge extra for kids under 18. Most full-service resorts offer children's programs, including beach walks, art activities and educational workshops exploring Florida sea life, and at theme-park hotels in Orlando you'll find poolside screenings of family-friendly movies.
Renting a House or Condo
Though staying in a hotel may feel like more of a vacation for harried parents, and it's awfully nice to have room service, on-site children's activities and daily housekeeping services, renting a private house or condo can save thousands of dollars. And it can, in fact, ultimately be much more relaxing than staying in a hotel. You have plenty of room to spread out, you don't have to worry about eating in restaurants for every meal, and many homes are right on the beach or boast private pools. On top of that, Florida is particularly overflowing with vacation-home rentals – you'll find options in every nook and cranny of the state, from riverside cabins to urban bungalows to Mickey-themed extravaganzas. Be sure to peruse the listing details carefully and always ask about cancellation policies before committing to a rental.
Airbnb (www.airbnb.com) Your best bet for rentals of less than a week.
Home Away (www.homeaway.com) Easy-to-use with a dizzying number of choices.
VRBO (www.vrbo.com) Reputable and user-friendly vacation-home rental.
What to Bring
Pack light rain gear, a snuggly fleece (for air-conditioning and cool nights), water sandals (for beaches, fountains and water parks), mosquito repellent and a simple first-aid kit with band-aids, antibiotic cream, tweezers (for splinters), anti-itch cream, children's paracetemol and Vaseline (perfect for little faces after too much sun and wind). If you have infants, a pack-and-play can be helpful, especially if you're road-tripping or sticking to amenity-poor, budget-range motels.
Most importantly, bring and use sunscreen. We've tried them all, from thick white goos that never seem to rub in to fancy stuff from the cosmetic aisle, and our hands-down favorite is the made-in-Florida Sun Bum and their naturally sourced Baby Bum line.
Florida car-seat laws require that children must be in a rear-facing car-seat until they are 20lb and one year old, a separate or integrated child-safety seat until five, and a booster until the seat-belts fit properly (over 4ft 9in and 80lb). Rental-car companies are legally required to provide child seats, but only if you reserve them in advance. Avoid surprises by bringing your own.
Don't sweat it if you forget something. Except for your child's can't-sleep-without stuffed blue elephant and favorite blanket, you'll be able to find anything you need in Florida.
Renting Baby Gear
If you prefer to travel light and save the hassle of lugging loads of essentials, several services offer baby-gear rental (cribs, strollers, car seats etc) and infant supplies (diapers, baby food etc), all delivered to your hotel; some deliver to the airport.
Babies Travel Lite (www.babiestravellite.com)
Jet Set Babies (www.jetsetbabies.com)
Traveling Baby Company (www.travelingbabyco.com)
Babysitting & Childcare Centers
Traveling with children doesn't necessarily mean doing everything as a family. Several childcare services, including Sunshine Babysitting (www.sunshinebabysitting.com), the Babysitting Company (www.thebabysittingcompany.com) and the Disney- and Universal-recommended Kid's Nite Out, offer in-hotel babysitting by certified sitters, and full-service resorts often have childcare centers, organized kids' camps and local sitter recommendations. At Walt Disney World®, you don't need to be a resort guest to reserve a spot at a Disney's Children Activity Center; five centers, located at resort hotels, welcome kids aged three to 12.
Florida-Themed Books for Kids
Get kids in a Florida mood with these great books.
- Hoot (Carl Hiaasen) Zany characters, snappy plot twists and an environmental message.
- Because of Winn-Dixie (Kate DiCamillo) Heartwarming coming-of-age tale about a 10-year-old girl adjusting to her new life in Florida.
- The Yearling (Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings) Pulitzer Prize–winning tear-jerking classic about a boy who adopts an orphaned fawn in Florida's backwoods.
- The Treasure of Amelia Island (MC Finotti) Spanish-ruled Florida through the eyes of an 11-year-old.
- Bad Latitude (David Ebright) Unabashed pirate adventure.
- Suzanne Tate's Nature Series More than 30 paperback picture books on southeastern USA sea animals; there's Oozey Octopus: A Tale of a Clever Critter, Tammy Turtle: A Tale of Saving Sea Turtles, Rosie Ray: A Tale of Watery Wings and more.