Although Florida is currently closed to nonessential travel, it won’t be that way forever.
Florida has more than 600 miles of beaches. Chances are at least one section of the sandy stretch around the edge of the Sunshine State will make your family happy. But every brood has different spring (and summer) break priorities. Maybe your perfect tanning spot needs to be near a theme park, or chock-full of reasonably priced family restaurants, or kissed by clear blue, soothing waves. Here’s where to go for Florida family trips when it’s safe to visit.
Fort De Soto ParkUpdated
Located about 14 miles southwest of St. Petersburg, Fort De Soto Park is spread out over five small islands connected by bridges and causeways. These west coast keys have everything you’d want in a beach getaway: Three miles of beach, two swim centers, two fishing piers, and seven miles of trails — no motor vehicles allowed. There’s marine life and wildlife to peep on those walks, including 328 bird species and a loggerhead sea turtle refuge. The 1,100 acres even include some notable history, as Native Americans inhabited the land around 1,000 A.D. and Union troops built fortifications on the islands during the Civil War to help with the blockade of Tampa Bay.
Families who camp can reserve a space to stay overnight, and the facilities include restrooms, grills and washing machines. Boaters should take advantage of the one of the park’s 11 docks.
While Singer Island is located in a ritzy neighborhood — just a short ride from West Palm Beach — it has beautiful, wallet-friendly places where the whole family can enjoy the sun. MacArthur Park includes a beach as well as several designated sections preserving natural wildlife and plants. Ocean Reef Park is usually uncrowded in the morning and has picnic areas and a kids’ playground. Singer Island is also a launching pad for deep sea fishing trips and snorkel tours. If you like water sports, you can rent a kayak, Jet Ski, paddleboard or even a hydroflying jetpack (it’s like having two firehoses attached your feet, but in a fun way).
While most beaches are covered in sand made of pulverized coral, the fine powder on Siesta Beach is quartz. The mineral traveled down hillsides via rivers, eventually being deposited on Florida’s western shore. And that material change makes a big difference. Unlike coral, the reflective powder (which feels like flour) quartz keeps cool even on piping hot days.
The quartz sand, turquoise waters and numerous amenities make Siesta Beach a consistent top choice for families. In addition to a free parking lot large enough for 1,000 cars, the beach also features several restaurants. The Sunday night drum circle that brings together several generations of people in search of a good beat.
The Siesta Key area also has two other notable beaches and a small village. Crescent Beach, south of Siesta Beach, has one small public access point and caters to local resort-goers. Turtle Beach is preferred by beachgoers looking for a more secluded option, and is better for older kids and adults. There are also fewer amenities. A little ways from the beach, Siesta Key village has numerous fun seafood restaurants and cute shops.
The filming of MTV’s “Floribama Shore” took place in Panama City, but please don’t hold that against this good-time town. To try and curb the rowdiness, it’s illegal to consume alcohol on the beach in March. This panhandle city has sugar-white beaches, topnotch snorkeling, and plenty of southern treats.
Panama City Beach looks out onto the Gulf of Mexico’s clear water. For those who want to stay close to land, it also has hiking trails and fishing piers. At the end of Pier Park, Russell Fields City Pier is so long you can walk 1,500 feet into the Gulf of Mexico.
Several local eateries serve tasty southern vittles such as the Key lime filled dunkers at Thomas’ Donut shop, ahi tacos at Finn’s Island Style Grub, and the astounding ice cream concoctions at The Yard Milkshake Bar.
Civilization on Sanibel Island dates back at least 6,000 years, when the Native American Calusa tribe ruled the West Coast barrier island. The location changed hands several times, including Spanish rule and a supposed turn as a pirates’ hangout. Today, Sanibel Island is known for being a super low-key getaway. The “Sanibel stoop” is the way residents describe shelling, a common pastime on local beaches, since numerous specimens wash up from the Caribbean Sea. Bowman’s Beach is often considered one of the finest in the United States. Unlike a lot of top-line sand patches, there aren’t any nearby resorts or houses. Much of it is bordered by woods, where a trail parallels the sand.
Several sections of the Island are protected land, including the J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, home to numerous migratory birds, loggerhead turtles, alligators, and marsh rabbits. Sanibel Island’s Periwinkle Way is where you head to grab a bite and pick up a tchotchke. Food options tend to be relaxed and brimming with seafood, such as Traders Cafe and The Island Cow — which serves a gator sausage grinder and Yeti burger.
Any family planning an Orlando vacation can drive east for about an hour and make Cocoa Beach into a day trip or bonus excursion. The town’s eponymous sandbox is impressively uncrowded and its waves have long made it a top destination for surfers and boogie boarders. The pier has views of the Atlantic Ocean, plus seafood, ice cream and shopping.
NASA’s heavy presence earned it the nickname, Space Coast. About 20 minutes away from downtown Cocoa Beach, little ones can see rockets up close at Kennedy Space Center. The enormous “Atlantis” shuttle is on display and several exhibits explain the challenges of outer space missions — like repairing satellites in zero-gravity — in a kid-friendly way.
Just down the road from the Kennedy Center, the Merritt Isolation National Wildlife Refuge has 140,000 acres of shelter for 358 species of birds and 140 types of freshwater and saltwater fish. Visitors often take kayak tours to get a peek at manatees and other hard-to-find critters.
Santa Rosa – SeasideUpdated
If the pastel cottages and eggshell white chapels of Seaside seem too quaint to be real, that was part of the plan. While the land for the “old-fashioned beach town” project was purchased in 1946, building didn’t begin in earnest until the 1970s. The town looks like such a step back in time to Norman Rockwell-era, idyllic America that it served as the set for the Jim Carrey hyper-reality movie “The Truman Show.”
If you don’t planning on living out a reality show in Seaside, it’s a fun getaway for families to visit. In addition to hanging out on the powder-white Santa Rosa Beach, there’s also surfing and canoeing to do.
On land, the clearly marked biking and hiking trails are easy to follow. Nearby artisanal stands and food trucks will likely attract your attention along the way. Local eateries like Barefoot BBQ and Slick Lips Seafood serve up down-home southern panhandle cooking. The Meltdown is known for its array of innovative grilled cheese sandwiches, including the Cuban McConnell with ham and gruyere. Frost Bites has more flavors of shaved ice than you probably imagined possible.
Travelers love Delray Beach for its distinctive mix of beach, nightlife, nature, and family-friendly activities. Three miles of the city’s east coast offers sunbathers and surfers a place to look out onto the Atlantic Ocean. Snorkelers can take a swim to see the “SS Inchulva,” a British boat sunk by hurricane winds in 1903 and now a must-see tourist destination.
Within walking distance of the beach is the hopping downtown area known for its Atlantic Avenue strip. The Silverball Museum is packed with classic pinball machines, Skee-Ball and shuffle board. Sloan’s Ice Cream scoops up fun flavors such as cinnamon stix and coffee and doughnuts (coffee ice cream with pieces of Krispy Kreme doughnuts). Plus there are several Italian restaurants, like Elisabetta’s, with kid-pleasing pasta platters.
For families who like to do a bit of easy strolling, the Morikami Museum is farther inland and filled with six authentic Japanese gardens inspired by distinct eras of design. Admission is free for children 5 and under. Sandoway Outdoor Center has nature exhibits that get the audience’s attention, such as stingray and alligator feedings, as well as a reptile room.
Developed as a “Dream City” in 1920, Hollywood Beach is celebrated as much for its artsy community as for the sandy dunes and views into the Atlantic Ocean.
In this Hollywood, four-legged members of the family get their own place to play in the sun. The Dog Beach of Hollywood is a dog park on sand where pooches can play with each other, in and out of the water.
Running parallel to the coastline, the Hollywood “Broadwalk” is packed with joggers, rollerbladers, and restaurants. The Taco Beach Shack has all the expected traditional dishes, plus more innovative takes like Korean short rib taco with kimchi slaw. A few blocks inland, Mauro’s Pizza is known for its massive, tasty slices.
For a bit of pop culture, there’s live music at the retro-styled Hollywood Beach Theatre, ArtsPark, and Art and Culture Center of Hollywood (which also has gallery exhibitions). Kids may also want to slide race at Castaway Island water park while the adults slurp down frozen margaritas.
New Smyrna BeachUpdated
Both National Geographic and Surfer Magazine have named New Smyrna a top surf town for its steady swell of waves that lap the city’s coast. Of course, if you don’t have any wave-riders in the family, there are other water sports, including scuba diving, motor boating, and fishing.
For a fun stroll on the sand, Smyrna Dunes Park has over two miles of elevated boardwalk and dogs are permitted on a section of the park. New Smyrna Town Beach is clean and family friendly.
The New Smyrna Museum of History gives visitors a look into the town’s past, including its time as a Native American settlement, a colonial “experiment,” and a longtime surf capital. The Canal Street Historic District is known for its restaurants and stores that capture recent culture. Little Drug Company, for example, serves fountain shop food like burgers and malts. The Crimson House wine bar is located in a home built in 1913 and has rocking chairs on its front porch to while away the time.
Few Florida beaches have more activities for children than Clearwater’s. Sunsets at Pier 60 is a daily festival that begins two hours before sunset and ends two hours after the sun goes down. Showcase events include jugglers, magicians, acrobats and artists making landscape paintings in minutes. Thrill-seekers can ride a giant slide or skip through a bouncy house right on the beach.
Honeymoon Island State Park is a four-mile stretch that’s a better option for visitors who want to focus on nature. Its hiking trails have numerous bird-watching opportunities and are also home to cute crawlers such as armadillos, tortoises and raccoons.
Many day cruises and boat rides offer a close-up view of the water and its inhabitants. The Calypso Queen Tropical Party Buffet Cruise is a tropical party with beautiful views of the Clearwater coastline. Encounters with Dolphins is an open boat that takes a trip out to Compass Island, where kids can hunt for treasure and collect shells.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium makes it possible to appreciate the beauty of marine life through a pane of glass. The aquarium’s most famous resident is Winter, a bottlenose dolphin who was brought to the site for rehab after being found stuck to a crab trap. The story of her and her prosthetic tail was featured in the movie “Dolphin Tale.”
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