Florida With Kids

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From high-speed rollercoasters to adventures in alligators to sunset shows to rival no other to rocket launches, Florida has something to offer every member of the family. Established as a state in 1845, Florida has blossomed from an agricultural bread basket to a tourism magnet. Nicknamed the Sunshine State because of its warm, tropical temperatures, Florida’s weather, scenery and attractions makes it the kid-friendly capital of the United States.  But if you are not a mouse-lover, not to worry, Florida has much more to offer than high-speed amusement rides.  Cape Canaveral offers the chance for kids to learn about the space program, and watch a rocket launch.  Miami offers excellent beaches and, in the nearby Everglades National Park, the chance to hike, bike or boat near alligators.  Further south, the Florida Keys offer families a laid-back retreat you would never guess you could get in Florida.  Key West has its own quirkiness and independent spirit that even kids can appreciate. but if you are on the amusement park trail, you’ve come to the right place…Orlando is not only filled with amusement parks (Walt Disney World Resort has four, Universal Studios has two, SeaWorld has three), but they each have their own unique theme.

 

Miami & the Everglades:

Miami is known for its hot mix of cultures and art deco buildings. The kids got a feel for it while drinking guarapo in Little Havana and chewing some sugar cane and tapas on Espanola Way. Watching men play dominoes in Domino Park in Little Havana is also lots of fun for kids.  They loved the outdoor cafes and pedestrian areas. And of course, South Beach was a big hit with all of us.  Gorgeous white sand and plenty of beach toys and activities.  Warning: Some parts of South Beach can get a little R-rated, so be sure to check with locals before you pull up a beach mat.  Most people don’t think about nature when they think of Miami, but it’s lurking nearby. So we headed to Jungle Island to meet some local alien residents…spider monkeys, orangutans and ligers then on to Everglades National Park to get nose to snout with Florida’s most famous resident…alligators.  We all loved taking the tram through this swampy park and hiking along the path finding alligators, but the kids especially liked the adrenaline pumping fun of the air-boat ride at Coopertown.  If you have a sound sensitive child, you may want to bring some ear plugs!

Palm Beach:

Although Miami Beach is an international lure for the fashionistas of the world, just north of Miami is Palm Beach which has been attracting the rich and famous for centuries and what better place to experience it than at The Breakers, a resort first opened in 1896 and still visited by stars from all over the world. Here, the kids perfected their boogie boarding skills, learned to golf at one of the best golf schools in the nation and learned about local wildlife and the environment.  At night we made an excursion north to Loggerhead Marinelife Center to watch one of the area’s most famous animals, sea turtles, come ashore to lay their eggs. The kids loved seeing the big, bumbly creature lumbering up onto the beach and building a giant hole to lay eggs. They even got to help the turtle fill the hole back in before she left. A great lesson for the whole family in animal conservation!

The Florida Keys:

Next, we headed south on the Over the Ocean Highway to the Florida Keys.  Key Largo was our first stop. It has some interesting attractions, like an underwater hotel. A bit further south, at Islamorada, at the Theatre of the Sea the kids are thrilled to swim with sea lions. You can also take boat rides with dolphins, swim with dolphins, watch a bird show and more. Then we continued down the chain of keys to the very tip, Key West.  Closer to Cuba than Miami, the atmosphere in Key West is decidedly quirky. This free-spirited attitude makes for some great kid-friendly museums about pirates, treasure hunters and writers and the nearby reef offers great snorkeling! The kids loved counting the six-toed cats at the Hemingway Home and Museum. Ernest Hemingway spent a couple decades writing, amongst other things, here in Key West.  We all loved hearing the we-can-do-it tales of famous treasure hunter Mel Fisher who spent decades searching for the Atocha, which many said was a fairy tale…until he finally found it. What a great lesson for the kids…don’t worry about what everyone else thinks, just stick with it and you can make your dreams come true! The kids were determined to get the block of gold, which you can touch and hold, out of its plexiglass case at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum.

Orlando and the Space Coast:

No trip to Florida with kids would be complete without a visit to the city that holds more theme parks per capita than anywhere in the world, Orlando.  With so much amusement it’s hard to choose where to go, but we managed to narrow it down to a couple of Disney parks, SeaWorld and Universal Studios. So here’s the run down of the major parks…There are 8 major theme parks and 5 huge water parks plus a multitude of smaller scale attractions ranging from haunted houses to animal attractions to hands-on museums. The three major players in the orlando area…Universal, Disney and Seaworld.  Universal operates two parks….Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. The studios offer exciting 3-D rides that incoporate movie themes; Islands of Adventure offers more of the big thrill rides, but also has whimsical Dr. Seuss area for the kids in all of us. Walt Disney World Resort has four theme parks and two huge water parks: Disney’s Magic Kingdom,EpcotDisney’s Hollywood Studios and Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Disney’s Blizzard Beach and Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon. Disney’s Magic Kingdom is home to Mickey and Minnie Mouse and has traditional rides like Peter Pan, Pirates of the Caribbean and of course “it’s a small world”. Epcot offers a trip around the world in…well…80 minutes or less depending on how fast you’re moving.  The attractions represent different countries from around the world with an additional focus and science and the future. Disney’s Hollywood Studios offers big thrill rides with movie themes. If you really want to get wild, visit Disney’s Animal Kingdom where you can take safaris past live animals like lions and elephants, climb Mt. Everest by rollercoaster and travel back to the time of the dinosaurs.  Not to be out done in the water category, SeaWorld Orlando has three parks: SeaWorldDiscovery Cove and Aquatica by SeaWorld.  SeaWorld combines animal shows with educational exhibits and unique interactive animal experiences. Discovery Cove offers snorkeling with rays, swimming with dolphins and hand-feeding exotic birds with little or no wait times and crowds.  Aquatica is a amusement park in the water…high-speed water slides in all shapes and sizes, including some that jet through animal exhibits like fish tanks and dolphin enclosures, and fun, interactive water playgrounds.

But this part of Florida is not limited to amusement parks.  Just about an hour east of Orland is Cape Canaveral, home to Kennedy Space Center .  Here we were all fascinated to learn about NASA’s Space program, ride a simulated shuttle, see real space crafts and see an actual shuttle launch. The kids enjoyed having lunch with a real astronaut and asking him questions about his many journeys into space.  And there’s much more to do along the Space Coast. We liked learning to surf and kayaking with manatees with Space Coast Kayaking. The manatees actually pushed our kayaks around…the kids loved it!

Family Friendly Hotels in Florida

Florida has great options for families from small boutique hotels, to condo hotels to luxurious resorts. Here’s where we stayed.

– Crest Hotel Suites, Miami – Built in 1939, this hotel retains the charm of the art deco movement and is only 1/2 a block from Miami Beach and lots of South Beach’s pedestrian areas

– The Banyan Resort, Key West – Nestled in six 19th century homes, their spacious suites with full kitchen are great for families

– Coconut Palm Inn, Key Largo – Spacious suites and beautiful white sand beaches make this a perfect choice for families with kids

– The Breakers, Palm Beach – A storied history, tons of kids activities incuding a world famous golf school, kids club, upscale restaurants with play areas in view or restaurants that have tidepools built right into the bars, makes this an ideal resort for families.

– Nick Hotel, Orlando – OK Sponge Bob and Slime…need we say more?  With a huge water playground complete with daily slimings and poolside contests and Nickelodeon characters making appearances throughout the hotel, why even go to a theme park?

– Ron Jon Cape Caribe Resort, Space Coast – With Orlando just 45 minutes away and Kennedy Space Center practically next door, this resort boasts an ideal beachfront location!  Add in spacious suites, playgrouonds, mini-golf and water slides and you’ve got one great family resort!

Getting to Florida

Florida has lots of cities and thus lots of airports.  The most popular entry points are Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando.  Southwest Airlines has hubs in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, and therefore offers lots of daily flights from around the U.S. and great rates. Amtrak has train service to Orlando and Miami from the northeast coast: Boston, New York, Washington D.C. and more. Miami, and to a smaller scale Orlando, is a major departure point for cruises to the Bahamas, Caribbean and further abroad.  Royal Caribbean offers great family cruises with a focus on adventure with on-board rock climbing walls, ice skating rinks, swimming pools and more, exciting on-shore excursions like snorkeling with sting rays and climbing waterfalls and fun theme nights for kids like pirate night.

Getting Around Florida

Florida has a very well maintained highway system and driving seems to be the best way to get around.  There is train service between Orlando and Miami via Amtrak and Greyhound offers bus service throughout the state.



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