by Mary Welch
WaterColor Inn & Resorts, nestled on nearly 500 acres of sugar-white sand beach, offers Florida sun and fun at its best — especially if you have kids. The resort, named by “Travel and Leisure” magazine as one of the top 400-family vacation resorts, is surrounded by 1,400 linear feet of Gulf of Mexico beachfront and pine forests alongside Western Lake, the state’s second-largest naturally occurring coastal dune lake.
Like so many resorts on the Gulf of Mexico, the WaterColor Inn at Santa Rosa Beach offers an exclusive hotel as well as cottage, home and condo rentals that are available for even a single night as well as for the entire summer. Regardless of your housing choice, WaterColor offers an enjoyable, safe and relaxing vacation for all ages. Unlike so many other resorts, the WaterColor Inn & Resort balances the needs of both families and adults so that kids can run and play with abandon and adults can enjoy the sun, adult beverages and the amenities without being disturbed by the screams of “Marco Polo.”
Such balance is due to the carefully planned layout by famed architect David Rockwell. The resort’s lobby leads to an adult-only pool, one of six pools on the property (including a kiddie pool located at the BeachClub and a water geyser play area at Camp WaterColor) that is serviced by the restaurant for food and drinks. An adjacent boardwalk leads directly to the beach, a long stretch of 1,400 square feet of fine, white-powder sand and blue seas. One can walk for miles along the beach and in the fall and winter months, only see a few people. In the summer, the beach is full of families, sand buckets, beach chairs and flying Frisbees.
There are “two” WaterColor Inn & Resorts. The first one basically starts with school vacation at the end of May and goes through the start of school, around mid-September. This is when the resort is at its family best with families renting out the houses and condos, sometimes with more than one family. In the summer, the resort is crackling with children riding bikes, partaking in a variety of activities planned for children such as those offered at Camp WaterColor, Family Movie Night, Father/Son Football, Beach Bonfires and Mommy and Me Teas. As a local family eating at the resort’s restaurant told us, “In the summer, this place is crawling with kids.”
Family activities noticeably slow down during the fall, winter and early spring months. The resort admits it gets more weddings and couples booking during these months but that is not to say that the children’s activities are closed down. The camps still operate, but on a more limited schedule.
The beauty of a resort like WaterColor is that it allows for as much activity or relaxation as desired. Bike riding is popular (and two bikes come with each reservation) as well as canoeing or kayaking on Western Lake, playing soccer or volleyball, or working out in the fitness center.
You’ll find family-relaxation activities such as miniature-golf and outlet shopping in the immediate area as well as in the popular resort town of Seaside next to Watercolor, and in Destin, a short-drive away.
Our Editor Loves
- 500 waterfront acres
- Kids' program includes specialty workshops
- Tween & Teen Lounge
- Water Sports
- Children Programs
- Family Room 5+
- Free Wi-Fi
- Kids' Pool
- Onsite Dining
Find the Best Price for Your Stay
There are three accommodation choices: the resort's Inn, WaterColor Beach Homes and WaterSound Beach Vacation Rentals. The 60-room Inn offers deluxe accommodations designed by David Rockwell, each overlooking the Gulf of Mexico and donning a pair of Adirondack chairs on the patio (and on the first floor, a private outdoor cabana shower). The freshly decorated beachfront rooms bring the outdoors in, mere footsteps from the sand. From the soft linens to the spa-inspired toiletries, every well-appointed room offers a relaxing and comfortable seaside oasis.
The inn has the charm and intimacy of a B&B with 60 rooms, all of which face the beach and have beachfront porches or balconies. The rooms are quite large and have a really fabulously comfortable king-size bed and linens as well as a queen-size sleeper sofa. Wi-Fi is complimentary. Delicious chocolate-chip cookies are delivered nightly with turndown service. Even though it is quite large, the room is easy to keep neat as it has several wicker baskets that are perfect for neatly stowing clothes as well as toys and -- our favorite feature -- a row of pegs that run in the hall and bedroom allowing for a quick pick-up of clothes. None of the rooms at the hotel have a bathtub, so if that is a necessity, then you will have a problem.
WaterColor Vacation Homes
WaterColor Vacation homes are 141 homes ranging from one-bedroom condos to six-bedroom homes all of which are located on the 499-acre resort and must be booked through the resort. During the summer there is a minimum stay of five or seven days (depending on the owner) although one- or two-day stays may be booked during down times. All have washers and dryers.
Water Color vacation-home guests have the same rights and amenities as the inn's guests, including 24-hour guest service and check-in center onsite, concierge service, bikes (one per bedroom), resort-charging privileges, kid activities at kids camp, WaterColor Workout Facility after 1 p.m., kayaking on Western Lake, private boat-ride on Western Lake, Family movie night (seasonal), beach bonfire (seasonal), YOLO boarding discounts, access to the exclusive Sharks Tooth Golf Club, deals at Camp Creek and Origins Golf Clubs, DVD's from the WaterColor Inn, access to Kids Night Out, a discount on beach set-ups daily, and discounts at Fish Out of Water Breakfast as well as at the WaterColor spa. Prices vary based on the size of the house and season.
The WaterSound Beach Vacation Homes
The WaterSound Beach Vacation homes is a community of condos and one- to seven-bedroom beach homes located about five miles down 30-A. The community has its own amenities including a pool, a daily beach service offering chairs and umbrellas, as well as a Puttering Park and yacht pond. Guests of WaterSound Beach Vacation Rentals get access to the members-only WaterSound Beach Club, which features a 7,000-square-foot, zero-entry pool with fluid lines mirroring the natural shapes of surrounding dune lakes. An adjacent full-service restaurant, featuring an exhibition kitchen and indoor/outdoor terrace dining, is also popular.
At WaterColor Inn & Resort, the question is not what the kids can do, but rather, what can the kids not do? The summer is the best time for families at WaterColor. By all accounts the homes are full of children of all ages and the staff, a friendly and helpful bunch, is geared to accommodating the needs of all ages. Guests have full access to the hotel's private membership club’s amenities. These include private golf and beach club access; complimentary bicycle use; kayak, canoe, pontoon boat, and discounted stand-up paddleboard rentals; and access to beach bonfire services, that even includes fixings for S’mores!
Camp WaterColor offers a variety of age-appropriate activities and is available to children ages 3 and up (potty-trained is the deciding admission factor). Morning sessions run from 9 a.m. to noon (includes lunch) and afternoon sessions are from noon until 3 p.m. Full-day sessions are also available. The younger kids generally stay at the resort participating in themed activities such as: Treasure Hunters (be a pirate and search for buried treasure), Around the World (explore different cultures through exciting crafts and games), Nifty Nature (a wildlife adventure through the natural habitat, including fishing, hiking or kayaking), Weird Science (experiment with science including making lava-flowing volcanoes and learn a few magic tricks), and Artsy All Day (get creative). While the older ones tend to have off-site activities such as miniature-golfing or visiting some of the local attractions such as Ripley's Believe It or Not in Panama City Beach, Gulf World Marine Park in Panama City, and Big Kahula's Water Park in Destin.
Kids' Activities Outside of Camp WaterColor
For those who don't want to be in camp, there are activities that don't require a reservation and take place at Camp WaterColor, including sand art, make your own hula-hoop, stepping-stones, airbrush tattoos and tie-dye T-shirts. The weekly schedule of events is posted so that parents can easily sign kids up. Or if you want something less organized, go to any one of the six parks, bring a bat and a ball and have a game of pick-up baseball.
Interestingly, there is a large room off the inn's lobby with two computers, DVDs and lots of games. In the summer, you will see children curled up in chairs playing checkers, chess, and board games together.
Kids Night Out
A fun alternative to a traditional babysitter is KNO (Kids Night Out), which offers kids a chance to enjoy various activities while parents have some adult time. Dinner is provided as well as crafts, games, and singing and roasting marshmallows around the campfire. Reservations are required for all scheduled activities.
Of course, water is what every kid wants and there are plenty of water-based activities besides swimming in the pools. For instance, there are kayaking tours at the Boat House as well as YOLO boarding. YOLO stands for "You Only Live Once," and is a locally made paddleboard that you stand on while paddling gently through the water. In addition, there is Kids Beach, which is typically a three-hour program for several children. Fun items such as surfboards, boogie boards and other beach toys are available. Lessons are also available for surfing.
For those who want a break from the water, bike riding is a popular activity and the many quiet streets and cul du sacs in the resort make for safe and easy bike riding. There is also a walking-and-bike-path that goes by the lake and to the local Starbucks about two miles from the resort. The only warning is that it is very easy to get lost riding around. Like most subdivisions, all the streets look alike and while there are signs pointing to the resort or the tennis court, it can be a bit confusing. Fine, we spent half-an-hour trying to get back to the resort and we were at most two-winding blocks away. But, if you're in no hurry, that's not a problem -- you'll eventually will find your way back.
Golf and Tennis
There are three adjacent golf courses: Camp Creek, a Tom Fazio 18-hole, par-72 course; a Davis Love III-designed, six-regulation hole course; and Shark's Tooth Golf Course, an 18-hole, par-72 course designed by Greg Norman. The resort also has tennis courts for those who prefer to bounce a ball off a racquet.
Spa and Fitness Center
For those who want some pampering, the spa will fit your needs. Especially popular is a mother-daughter pedicures. There is also a fitness center and numerous exercise classes offered, including Yoga and Pilates.
Eating at WaterColor may be a bit challenging for families staying at the hotel. While you'll have a small refrigerator and a coffee maker in your room, you will not find a microwave. However, the staff will microwave your food for you if asked. There are three onsite dining options as well as in-room service and, frankly, they could be better for families. Again, most of the families are housed in homes with full kitchens but those who opt for the inn have limited options.
The Beach Club Grille
The best family offerings are at the Beach Club Grille, where you can order typical kid fare like a hot dog, grilled-cheese sandwich, ham-and-cheese sandwich, or a hamburger. The hours are 11 a.m. until sunset, which might be a bit early for families wanting a quick, relatively inexpensive kid-friendly meal.
The Gathering Spot
The next option is the Gathering Spot and Sushi Bar, which is located to the right of the main lobby with access to the adult pool. The Gathering Spot is well named and serves as the place to have a drink, sushi or a more casual meal. Popular happy hours with discounted sushi rolls and drinks help to entice a crowd.
For those who don't want to eat in the more formal AAA-rated Fish Out of Water, The Gathering Spot is the only option after dark. And, for families, that's not saying a lot. The only menu choices for children are mac-and-cheese, a cheeseburger, and tonkatsu-pork cutlet, which is a panko-crusted pork cutlet served with steamed rice and shredded cabbage; judging by the reaction of the 8-year-old girl at the next table, the tonkatsu pork chop is a must-miss. The resort had just changed its menu and had taken off the exceptional chicken fingers (according to our neighboring young diner). Still the options are limited and standard fare with little or no vegetables or fruits.
Fish Out of Water
The resort's signature restaurant, Fish Out of Water, features a variety of local produce and a coastal cuisine served in an expansive casual room with a patio overlooking the gulf. Serving both breakfast and dinner, this restaurant is suited better for older children who appreciate more than a hamburger or for a parent's night out.
Again, most families tend not to stay at the inn but for those who do, onsite dining may be a concern.
Planning & Tips
All About the Extras
The vast majority of the families who come and stay in the homes or condos travel by car, so they bring their own shovels, pails, goggles, tennis racquets and other vacation necessities. There are shops on the premises as well as nearby restaurants, grocery stores and stores for every need. There is a Publix grocery store across the street from the property, convenient for quick supplies, as well as a children's hospital.
The Art of Smart Timing
The resort is seasonal with lower rates in the fall and winter months, so there are deals to be had. For instance, there are discounts if you are a Florida resident, a member of the military or government, or want to stay mid-week. There are also various promotional stays that you can find out more about on their website. The resort also offers several holiday options and activities.
Most drive via 30-A, northwest Florida's main road that goes right by the resort. For those looking for some driving perspective, the resort is 306 miles from Atlanta; 297 from Birmingham, Ala., 517 from Memphis, 485 from Nashville and 278 from New Orleans.
For those flying, the Northwest Florida Beach International Airport near Panama City is about a half-hour drive from the resort. Another option is the Northwest Florida Regional Airport near Ft. Walton Beach, about a 45-minute drive. Pensacola Regional Airport is about 90-minutes west of Santa Rosa.
Bicycles are nice to motor around the resort but a vehicle would be needed to explore off-property.
For Mom and Dad
Need a little alone time? Well, you don't have to go far from home as the resort's signature restaurant; Fish Out of Water is one of the most romantic dining spots in Northwest Florida. Whether you want a specialty drink, appetizers from the raw bar or superb cuisine, Fish Out of Water is your place. Top it off with an after-dinner drink by the outdoor fire pit.