The aptly nicknamed “Sunshine State” – a land of orange groves, everglades, pelicans, Key lime pie and miles of gorgeous, sugary sands – is a great place for a family holiday. Within Florida’s borders you’ll find bucket-list attractions that range from NASA’s space centre to Disney’s Magic Kingdom, while the mild climate makes the state prime beach territory all year round.
From the new Rough Guide to Florida, here are some of our tips for making the most of Florida with kids. Combined, these activities should fill a two week trip, with plenty of beach stops en route – check out our list of the top 10 beaches in Florida for the best.
1. Go back in time at the Pirate & Treasure Museum
The wildly entertaining Pirate & Treasure Museum in St Augustine opens a window into the golden age of piracy with a combination of interactive exhibits and precious original documents and artefacts. This high-tech tribute to the buccaneers of the Caribbean is packed with pirate memorabilia, and you even get the chance to fire a cannon (electronically). Kids will love the treasure-hunt.
2. Meet dolphins in the Florida Keys
For narrated behaviour sessions and educational presentations on these remarkable – and still barely understood – mammals, head to the Dolphin Research Center. This reserve in the Florida Keys provides a home to 23 dolphins and other sea mammals that cannot be re-released into the wild. Dolphins here also participate in therapeutic programmes for people with disabilities and recovering soldiers, displaying exceptional patience and gentleness from their residence in a natural seawater lagoon.
3. Spot alligators in the Everglades
Seeing alligators lazing in the sun a few feet away is well worth the long drive out. The “keepers of the Everglades”, alligators are visible throughout the national park, particularly along the Anhinga Trail during the winter, where they’re often splayed out looking like plastic props. They’re notoriously lazy, but give them a wide berth, as they can be extremely swift if provoked.
4. Hit the beach on Sanibel Island
The most family-friendly Gulf coast island has sandy beaches, fun restaurants and lots of colourful shells to collect. Despite being mobbed by tourists in high season, Sanibel also manages to retain much of its old Florida charm and boasts plenty of enticing attractions away from the sands including a wildlife refuge and some interesting museums.
5. Catch a circus performance in Sarasota
America’s circus capital hosts touring companies in spring and autumn, and it’s well worth catching a performance if you’re here during the season. The Walker Bros Circus is one of the most fun while you can catch the community’s youth performers, from 10- to 17-years-old, at Sailor Circus.
6. Meet Mickey at Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando
The theme-park capital of the universe is actually geared more to older teenagers and adults, but Disney’s Magic Kingdom is a dream for younger kids. This is the Disney park everyone imagines, the signature Cinderella’s Castle towering over it all and the emphasis is on fantasy and fun. Make an effort to see Wishes, held just before the park closes. Of all the imaginative efforts to create an aura of fantasy, this simple but stunning twelve-minute fireworks display is the most magical of them all.
7. Get scientific at the Kennedy Space Center
Budding scientists and sci-fi geeks of all ages will love this absorbing introduction to NASA and the space programme, within sight of the launchpads on nearby Merritt Island. It’s justifiably the biggest draw in the region, with bus tours, exhibits and wildly entertaining simulations – from IMAX movies to a space shuttle launch simulation.
8. Visit Coral Castle
These quirky coral-rock sculptures are one of the essential stops in the Everglades and are guaranteed to amaze small kids. Remarkably, the fantastic creations are the work of just one man – the enigmatic Edward Leedskalnin. It is thought that the castle was intended as a love nest to woo back his errant sweetheart. No one ever saw the secretive Leedskalnin at work, or knows how, alone, he could have loaded 1100 tonnes of rock onto the rail-mounted truck that brought the pieces here in 1936.