Thirty-some years ago, I started down the path of becoming a Florida family travel writer with my tow-headed, in-tow toddler, Aaron, as my assistant researcher. Now his curly-coiffed daughter, Layla, is in training for the position.
To celebrate her 10-month birthday, we headed to Fort Lauderdale, a favorite family destination. We thereby checked off another of our sand-bucket list items for Sunshine State family discoveries, always leaning into little-known and insider treasures.
Here we visit five spots that satisfy a three-generation family on the lam.
Some of the destinations and resorts I cover have hosted me in the past, but the opinions and recommendations expressed are entirely my own.
1. Fort Lauderdale
Subtitled “The Venice of America,” Fort Lauderdale is a water-wonderful world from its sprawling beach sandbox to its Everglades backyard, and 300 miles of canals in between.
Think of the beautiful beaches of Miami, but without the hype and bustle; same sand but more of a family vibe. This is especially true the farther away you roam from Las Olas Oceanside Park, although you’ll find the most amenities there. For quiet, head north to Fort Lauderdale Beach or south to Dr. Von D. Mizell-Eula Johnson State Park (with a side of nature and kayaking).
Museum Of Discovery And Science
One of Florida’s first and finest hands-on museums, it is geared toward teaching kids through games and interaction. The Museum of Discovery and Science has a 3D IMAX theater and hosts all sorts of learning experiences. Don’t miss the gift shop.
Bluefoot Pirate Adventures
Grab your eyepatch and get ready for a swashbuckling hour at sea shooting off water balloon cannons and learning to talk like a pirate. Adults, too, will enjoy the engaging narration aboard Bluefoot Pirate Adventures as the ship makes its way along the Intracoastal Waterway’s mansion- and yacht-lined shores.
Where To Stay
B Ocean Resort Fort Lauderdale had me at “mermaid shows.” As a family, you’ll want to skip the burlesque mermaid dinner shows you can watch through windows into the pool from the Wreck Bar. But weekend brunch shows are all about kids and teaching environmental responsibility.
The lazy river was the clincher for Pelican Grand Beach Resort. We love the oceanfront suites overlooking the beach’s quieter north end and the kid-friendly scavenger hunt and menus.
Where To Eat
Sea-breezy, alfresco dining oceanside, Sandbar Grill keeps it beach casual. Otherwise, we prefer to head away from the big-city beach buzz. Check out the restaurants to the north in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. Or head to Sistrunk Marketplace & Brewery food hall for a well-rounded selection of eats from Mexican to Korean. Funky Buddha Brewery has kid-menu choices plus ping pong and cornhole games indoors.
Pro Tip: Even pre-toddlers benefit from the stimulation of family attractions, so don’t feel you have to wait until your child gets older to take them traveling.
Part of Florida’s Treasure Coast, where shipwrecks and pirates are hardwired into history, Stuart hides in the shadows of the big-ticket destinations up and down the East Coast. Its beaches line Hutchinson Island while its historic downtown hugs the St. Lucie River.
Beaches Of Hutchinson Island
A litany of beach accesses string along Highway A1A from St. Lucie Inlet to Fort Pierce Inlet. The most popular with the most amenities, Stuart Beach and Jensen Beach both have excellent food concessions. Lifeguards patrol the beaches generally from 9 a.m.–5 p.m.
Right across the Stuart Beach access road, Elliott Museum is one of Florida’s best historical attractions, and perfect for families. Climb aboard a 1931 Ford school bus, go on a scavenger hunt, ogle collections of baseball cards and signed balls, stroll the streets of yesteryear, and gawk at more than 100 shiny vintage cars.
Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center
Also steps from the beach, the Oceanographic Center makes the perfect follow-up to a morning of beachcombing. Learn about local sea creatures from a 750,000-gallon gamefish lagoon, interactive stingray exhibit, touch tanks, and daily programs.
Children’s Museum Of The Treasure Coast
Set in a riverside park with a butterfly garden at its front door, the Children’s Museum skips the state-of-the-art techie gimmicks of modern-day science museums and brings learning down to a relatable, hometown level. Kids can catch a tarpon, go grocery shopping, and play on the beach, or take a voyage of fantasy aboard a pirate ship with cannons that shoot plastic balls.
Pro Tip: Combine your indoor time at the Children’s Museum with outdoor fishing and picnicking at Indian RiverSide Park.
Where To Stay
Like Stuart itself, its accommodation options are low-key — of the bed and breakfast, camping, and mom-pop sort. Even its sprawling Marriott Hutchinson Island Beach Resort is sedate, despite its two golf courses. Since Aaron’s teen-surfing years, we’ve favored Vistana Beach Club’s condo accommodations right at Jensen Beach.
Where To Eat
Our favorite breakfast spots, the aforementioned beach cafés, can’t be beaten for alfresco views and good food, also come lunch. Hit up Sand Dune Café at Jensen Beach or Seaside Café at Stuart Beach. For lunch or dinner on the Intracoastal Waterway, Conchy Joe’s Seafood scores for its fish-house casual setting and family welcome.
Orlando and its environs are the bull’s eye of Florida family travel. But next-door Kissimmee, while also convenient to the theme parks, pulls away from the hype with a past steeped in cowboys and nature, and a present that mixes in the Old Florida style.
Lakefront parks, old-timey storefronts, family restaurants, and historic murals give downtown Kissimmee and neighboring St. Cloud hometown flavor. Don’t forget your rod and reel to cast for bass. Airboat and other lake tours explore the natural treasures of Central Florida’s Chain of Lakes.
Boggy Creek Adventures
More wildlife encounters await at this escape to rural Florida. Zippy airboats at Boggy Creek take you into gator country for a ride on the wild side. Explore a butterfly garden, a fossil and gem mine, and a Native American village while you’re there.
To get close up to the slithering, jaw-some reptile world, take your fascination to Reptile World Serpentarium, home to more than 80 species of native and rare snakes; and Gatorland, where the thrill of seeing gators by the hundreds gets a boost from the park’s zip-line and off-road adventure.
Where To Stay
Kissimmee also has its resort side and many of its accommodations fall into the supersized destination category. A family favorite for outdoor types, Reunion Resort & Golf Club has its own water park, plus three links and junior golfing instruction. One- to three-bedroom suites and vacation homes generously accommodate families.
On the other hand, Gaylord Palms Resort (also with its own water park plus a surfing FlowRider), keeps you under a bubble that replicates a microcosm of Florida’s favorite destinations. Get a taste of St. Augustine, Key West, and the Everglades all in one resort.
Where To Eat
4. Fort Myers
Despite suffering a vicious hurricane attack in September 2022, the Fort Myers area still has much to offer families and continues to rebuild and grow for the kid market.
Barrier islands Sanibel, Captiva, and Fort Myers Beach took the hardest hit, but their beaches have begun to reopen, along with more lightly-impacted gulf-front parks on Bonita Beach. A website devoted to local beaches tells you which have reopened, including a few on Sanibel Island, known for its superlative seashell-picking. Tourism officials warn beachgoers to wear footwear and stay out of the water to avoid injury from remnant hurricane debris.
J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge
The natural crown jewel of the Fort Myers area, “Ding” Darling has reopened most of its facilities on Sanibel Island. Loop Wildlife Drive by car, bike, or foot and hike Bailey Tract to see birds, alligators, and even a bobcat if you’re lucky. Don’t miss a visit to the free Visitor & Education Center with its hands-on exhibits and award-winning “nature calls” restrooms. (Kids love them.) Tarpon Bay Explorers offers paddle craft rentals and tours currently on a limited basis.
Pro Tip: Low tide is the best time for bird-watching and morning is optimal for bobcats, river otters, and other refuge creatures.
Downtown Fort Myers
Least damaged, aside from the destruction of boats in its city marina, the Historic River District caters to families with its famous Edison & Ford Winter Estates museum, riverside gardens, and historic homes. Hands-on IMAG explores local history, live critters, and scientific phenomena. Don’t skip a stop at the newly reimagined playground at Centennial Park overlooking the Caloosahatchee River. Make late afternoon reservations for the virtual golf and other games at Chips Sports Pub at the Luminary Hotel.
Where To Stay
Riverfront Luminary Hotel situates you amid walkable, kid-lovable downtown. Accommodations include suites perfectly suited to families. For a different waterfront vista, Marriott Sanibel Harbour Resort & Spa goes the extra mile for families with a bayfront beach, watersports, and family-perfect suites; on the islands, ‘Tween Waters Island Resort & Spa overlooks a beautifully restored beach in addition to two swimming pools and a marina for watersports. On Fort Myers Beach, expect a Margaritaville Resort to open in fall 2023.
Where To Eat
With a Model A hanging from the ceiling, milkshakes, and a kids’ menu, Ford’s Garage makes a fun pit stop downtown, especially after a visit to the Edison & Ford Estates. On a Sanibel outing, stop at The Shack for sandwiches and frozen custard.
Pro Tip: More attractions and businesses open weekly in the Fort Myers area. Keep abreast of updates on its tourism bureau website.
5. Fort Walton Beach
Florida’s Panhandle in the Northwest boasts its own brand of local color — powdery sand white as snow, waters an enviable green, and a spunky attitude that redefines casual. Fort Walton Beach and Okaloosa Island are one of the Panhandle’s oldest and family-friendliest landing spots.
About those beaches: They range from the spring break party scene around the Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier and adjacent Boardwalk entertainment complex to the ethereal rolling dunes of Gulf Islands National Seashore en route to Destin, a newer town on the coast. The silky, squeaky sand and emerald, fish-fertile waters remain a constant.
Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park
Florida’s oldest aquarium attraction, Gulfarium is well-loved for its marine life shows and encounters featuring dolphins, sea turtles, penguins, sea lions, and stingrays. You will find it in the midst of the pier and Boardwalk activity.
Emerald Coast Science Center
Away from FWB’s beach culture, Emerald Coast Science Center lives in charming, historic downtown. It has a hometown, small-scale feel that doesn’t overwhelm like some of the bigger hands-on science museums. Live snakes and other reptiles add to the cool “ew” factor.
Where To Stay
Plenty of affordable and family-welcoming hotels and resorts line the beach on Okaloosa Island. Our favorite, The Island Resort, is central to beach attractions and has rooms that open right onto the cool pools, one with a grotto waterfall. Plus, the resort provides family entertainment including a mermaid appearance. Yep, had me once again at “mermaid.”
Where To Eat
Truthfully, we typically cross the bridge to Destin when it comes to mealtime. We love the Donut Hole Bakery & Café for breakfast and the somewhat kitschy Fudpucker’s Beachside Bar & Grill for lunch and a look through the alligator park. Closer to home, the Crab Trap Seafood & Oyster Bar at the Boardwalk has a playground on the beach, where parents can enjoy their dinner while keeping their kids within eyeshot.
Pro Tip: Unlike South and Central Florida destinations, the Panhandle’s season doesn’t start until spring break. Plan accordingly, as certain attractions and businesses close in the winter.