From thrilling theme parks to natural wonders, there’s a lot to see and do in the Sunshine State. These are our picks for the best Florida family vacations.
Little acrobats and wannabe clowns will love spending time in this city on the Gulf of Mexico, the onetime winter quarters of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. Circus co-owner John Ringling’s former estate is now the Ringling museum complex, where kids can walk a (ground-level) tightrope, stuff themselves into a clown car, and marvel at the 44,000-piece Howard Bros. Circus Model. Payne Park is home to a super-cool circus-themed playground, and circus legend, Tito Gaona, even offers trapeze lessons in the nearby city of Venice.
At Old Florida–style attraction Sarasota Jungle Gardens, visitors can feed flamingoes and watch reptile and exotic bird shows. Kids can frolic among the banyan trees in the Children’s Rainforest Garden at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens and meet beloved manatees Hugh and Buffett at Mote Aquarium. And once you spend time on the powdery white sands of Siesta Beach, it’s easy to see why this stretch of Sarasota shoreline has twice topped Dr. Beach’s list of the best beaches in the United States.
Recommended Hotel: The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota
You might have heard of a little something called Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opening at Walt Disney World’s Hollywood Studios in August 2019. And while that’s definitely noteworthy, it’s not the only new thing families should check out in this Central Florida vacation hub. SeaWorld Orlando recently opened Sesame Street Land, where kids can visit Oscar’s trash can, meet Elmo and Cookie Monster, and ride a Super Grover–themed rollercoaster. Universal Orlando has the new Harry Potter–themed rollercoaster Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, while LEGOLAND Florida debuted its new LEGO Movie World in spring 2019.
Beyond the theme parks, Orlando Science Center offers hands-on exhibits where kids can learn about dinosaurs and engineering concepts. The Orlando Art Museum offers family tours, preschool programs, and other kid-friendly activities. And a pedal-powered swan boat ride at Lake Eola Park is always a crowd pleaser when visiting Orlando.
Recommended Hotel: Margaritaville Resort Orlando
3. St. Augustine
Considered America’s oldest city, St. Augustine is naturally rich with history. But it isn’t the dry, textbook variety. Instead, kids can watch a historic weapons demonstration at 17th-century Fort Castillo de San Marcos, take a sip from the supposedly age-defying spring at the Fountain of Youth Archeological Park, and stop by the somewhat kitschy but still fun Oldest Wooden School House Historic Museum & Gardens.
Climb the 219 steps to the top of the circa-1874 St. Augustine Lighthouse for sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean and Matanzas River, along with a lesson in old-school light-keeping. Then head to the nearby St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park, where you’ll find every living species of crocodilian (including albino alligators), plus birds, reptiles, and other animals. When you need a breather, take a horse-drawn carriage or trolley tour of the historic downtown area, where there’s a candy store or ice cream shop at seemingly every turn.
Recommended Hotel: DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel St. Augustine Historic District
4. St. Petersburg
This west coast Florida city used to draw a decidedly older crowd. (It was cheekily known as “God’s waiting room” in the past.) But in recent years it’s become an interesting spot for a family vacation. St. Pete’s walkable downtown area is home to approachable art museums like the Dali Museum, which showcases the Spanish artist’s unique masterpieces and offers Little Surrealists Tours for families, and the James Museum, which displays a vibrant collection of western and wildlife art. For older kids, the kaleidoscopic glass works at the Chihuly Collection are the stuff of Instagram dreams, while demonstrations across the street at the Morean Glass Studio show how those kinds of pieces are made.
The whole family can catch a Tampa Bay Rays baseball game or a Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer match at the teams’ downtown stadiums. Parks located alongside Tampa Bay offer playgrounds, waterfront walking trails, scenic views, and lots of space for running around. When it’s time to refuel, head to spots like local chain Oak & Stone, which offers pizza for the kids and a wall of Florida craft beers for mom and dad that can be sampled by the ounce using an RFID bracelet.
Recommended Hotel: The Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort and Golf Club
Key West gets a lot of attention in the Florida Keys. But Marathon is another good option for families. The 10-mile-long island in the middle of the Keys is the site of spots like the Turtle Hospital, where visitors can take a guided tour of the facility and help feed its permanent residents, and the Dolphin Research Center, where families can observe dolphin and sea lion behavior sessions or arrange for a Family Dolphin Splash to get up close and personal with the marine mammals.
Head to Crane Point Hammock Museum & Nature Trail to observe birds, butterflies, and other wildlife from the trail that winds through the tropical hardwood grove. Or book a kayak tour, fishing charter, or snorkeling excursion to explore the local waters. A number of family-friendly resorts call Marathon home, offering kids’ clubs, swimming pools, and all kinds of activities on land and sea.
Recommended Hotel: Tranquility Bay Beach House Resort
Miami isn’t just for fashionistas or Internet hipsters. It’s also a great place for a family getaway thanks to attractions like the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science, which features six floors of exhibits, a 500,000-gallon aquarium, and planetarium, and the Miami Children’s Museum, where kids can have hands-on fun in the Construction Zone, Castle of Dreams, and other exhibit areas.
Families can take a monorail ride or safari tram tour to check out some of the 3,000 animals at Zoo Miami, the only subtropical zoo in the continental United States. Let the teens snap selfies at the colorful Wynwood Walls outdoor street-art display or among the stylish Art Deco buildings in South Beach. There are also lots of nearby options for families interested in a beach day along the Atlantic Ocean or looking to explore Everglades National Park.
Recommended Hotel: Fontainebleau Miami Beach
7. Amelia Island
On Amelia Island in northeast Florida, families can opt to stay at a property located along its 13 miles of beaches or choose accommodations in the heart of historic downtown Fernandina Beach. You can’t go wrong with either choice, and no matter where you stay it’s easy to get to spots like 1,400-acre Fort Clinch State Park, home to a Civil War–era fort, and the Pirate Playground, which was designed for children of all abilities.
Boat cruises and kayak tours take families out onto the Amelia River and other waterways, offering information about the local shrimping industry and the area’s history. A guided horseback ride on the beach or a carriage ride through downtown are other fun ways to see the island. You can tee off at both regulation and mini golf courses or see how fast you are on the flippers at the Fernandina Beach Pinball Museum, where daily admission includes unlimited play.
Recommended Hotel: Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort
8. Vero Beach
You don’t have to go to Orlando to experience a little Disney magic. The waterfront Disney’s Vero Beach Resort on Florida’s Atlantic coast offers breakfast with Goofy and a Mickey-shaped pool, along with a nine-hole mini golf course, evening campfires, and activity programs for kids and teens.
While in Vero Beach, explore sites like the Environmental Learning Center, which features a children’s learning and play area complete with fairy houses, plus a 145-gallon touch tank. Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, the first national wildlife refuge created in the United States, is home to its namesake birds, as well as hundreds of other animal species, including river otters, sea turtles, and alligators. Take an airboat ride through the marshes, snorkel the shallow-water Breconshire wreck, or visit the McKee Botanical Garden, which recently opened an imaginative children’s area. And the city’s Sweet Kiss Ice Cream shop was named the Best Ice Cream Parlor in America in 2018.
Recommended Hotel: Disney’s Vero Beach Resort
9. Sanibel Island
For a laidback escape, head to this barrier island in Southwest Florida that’s more than 65 percent conservation land. That includes spots like J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, where families can hike, paddle, or even travel by car on its Wildlife Drive to spy resident wildlife like alligators and roseate spoonbills. Bicycles are a popular mode of transport on Sanibel Island, where folks spend hours combing through the shells that wash up on its Gulf of Mexico beaches because of Sanibel’s east-west orientation.
To learn more about what you found on the sand, visit the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, which displays impressive specimens from both the island and around the world. Families can get insight on the animal care provided by Sanibel’s Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife by spending time at its Visitor Education Center or taking a guided “Wildlife Walk” through its hospital. And a stop at Pinocchio’s is a must, where every ice cream cone is playfully topped with an animal cracker, a tradition for more than 20 years.
Recommended Hotel: Casa Ybel Resort
10. Santa Rosa Beach
Santa Rosa Beach is one of the 16 neighborhoods that make up the South Walton area on the Florida Panhandle, which is known for its 26 miles of sugar-sand beaches. In addition to enjoying gorgeous beach days, families vacationing here can head to sites like 15,407-acre Point Washington State Forest, where they can hike, bike, or horseback ride, and Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, which was named for its white quartz sand dunes. (Forty percent of South Walton’s land is preserved.) South Walton is also home to 15 rare coastal dune lakes that visitors can explore by kayak or standup paddleboard.
Outfitters like Big Daddy’s Bike Shop can help families get out on the 18.6-mile Timpoochee Trail, which parallels Scenic Highway 30A and takes riders into area communities like Grayton Beach and Seaside, the latter of which was named to the 10 Best Family Beaches for 2019. Families can also hire a sandcastle coach through Beach Sand Sculptures to teach them how to build masterpieces on the beach.
Recommended Hotel: WaterColor Inn & Resort
Beth Luberecki is a Florida-based freelance writer who writes about travel, business, and lifestyle topics for a variety of publications and websites. She enjoys exploring destinations close to home and farther afield with her husband and tween-age daughter. Visit her website at bethluberecki.com or find her on Instagram at @bethluberecki.