Explore Florida for adventure close to home

People who live in other places save for years to take their family on a vacation in Florida. Aren't we lucky that we can hop in the car and drive to some great kid-friendly vacation spots right here in our state?

Sure there's Mickey Mouse and Shamu to see, but there's more to Florida than the theme parks. Let's take a ride around the state with some help from the experts, parents like you.

"I've probably been to every key city in Florida," said Jennifer Butler, managing director of business development for AAA Auto Club South and an Odessa mother of five. "You have basically everything here. The only things you don't are mountains or snow."

Pack your bags, grab some snacks, go potty one more time, and let's hit the road. First stop, St. Augustine. According to Yahoo Maps, it's about 196 miles from Tampa International Airport to the city where Ponce de Leon discovered the fountain of youth. Butler said the fountain itself is kind of a disappointment, but other attractions aren't.

"It's definitely a very family oriented place," she said, "you can walk the whole city so you don't have to get in and out of the car."

Butler said her kids always get a kick out of the fort at Castillo de San Marcos, (nps.gov/casa) built in 1672 to protect and defend Spain's land in the New World.

"Kids are interested in forts. It's got the guns and that stuff," Butler said. "It's one of those touchy-feely forts. You can play there and pretend you were in the middle of a fight." Admission to the fort is $6 for adults; children 15 and younger are free.

A bed and breakfast is a good way to feel at home in the city. Many of the bed and breakfasts are kid-friendly and have adjoining rooms. (bedandbreakfast.com)

For a sugar high, Butler suggests walking around town and watching a taffy pull or fudge making. Check out the Ripley's Believe it Or Not Museum and the slightly hokey (and slightly scary) ghost tours as well.

Leaving the quaint and bizarre behind, time to head back into the car and south to the Space Coast. According to Yahoo Maps, it's about 133 miles from TIA to the Kennedy Space Center. (kennedyspacecenter.com)

"Whenever we have guests, that's a place they always want to see," said Elena Cano, a St. Petersburg mother of three. "It's just not something you see every day, and I think that's what appeals to kids." Admission to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor's Complex is $38 for adults and $28 for children ages 3-11. Cano said her kids like when the astronauts come out and talk to guests, telling about their space experiences. Her visitors have also enjoyed seeing the shuttle, either in the assembly building or on the launch pad.

To turn a trip to the Space Coast into an overnight getaway, AAA's Butler suggests staying at the Ron Jon Cape Caribe Resort (ronjonresort.com). It's between Port Canaveral and Cocoa Beach, just off the Beachline Expressway. The Web site boasts all sorts of activities for kids, including a lazy river, water slide, and of course, the beach. Butler says the restaurants are also kid friendly.

Or if it's a city instead of science you prefer, lets go back to Yahoo Maps. It's about 282 miles from TIA to Miami.

For the best family value, Butler recommends renting a condo, but many of the activities in the city aren't cheap.

Miami's South Beach isn't an adults-only playground, said St. Petersburg mother of three Stephanie Dyer, who started taking her children with her when she visited a college friend. "There are things where you can take your kids all over the place," she said.

The family's favorite breakfast spot is the Front Porch Café inside the Penguin Hotel (www.penguinhotel.com). "You can sit right on the sidewalk under an umbrella, and it's not very touristy," Dyer said.

The family fuels itself with food for a day in the sun, renting umbrellas, chairs and other beach gear so they don't have to drag it from home. "The beaches are deep and white and beautiful," Dyer said. "We like to just spend all of our time outside."

For some shallow water fun, the Dyers often head to Oleta River State Park on Biscayne Bay in nearby North Miami (floridastateparks.org/oletariver). "We rented kayaks and we kayaked all over, down the river and into the bay," Dyer said, "it's just a nice, relaxing day."

In the evenings, they like to head to the Lincoln Road Pedestrian Mall (www.lincolnroad.org) for food, street performers and fun. "It's an outdoor strolling mall," Dyer said.

Leave the city life behind and head as far south as you can get to the Florida Keys. It's about 429 miles from TIA to Key West, but moms say you don't have to go all the way to Key West to have a great time. If you do, make sure to take the obligatory family photo at the southernmost point in the United States. AAA's Butler recommends touring Key West on the Conch Tour Train, (conchtourtrain.com). Adults are $26, kids are $14 and there is a discount for buying tickets online. Kids will also long remember the amazing street performers who come out at sunset.

Back toward the mainland is Islamorada, (81 miles from Key West and 340 miles from TIA), a favorite place of the Ferrazano family of Clearwater. Jennifer Ferrazano, the mom of a 3-year-old son has been going there with her family for almost three decades. "It's just part of my life to go there," she said. "I wouldn't want to replace it." Each year, the family rents a house or condo on the island.

"It's nice to have a house, the bedrooms, a kitchen," she said. "When I get somewhere, I'm a nester. I like to make things comfortable."

Butler recommends staying at Holiday Isle Beach Resort and Marina (holidayisle.com) because of the places to eat on the sand and the boardwalk into the waterway.

Water activities such as boating, swimming and fishing are faves of the Ferrazanos. "You just go and relax and take things at a slower pace and recharge," she said.

When the family wants more activity, they head to Robbie's (robbies.com) to feed the fish. Dozens of tarpon gather by the docks each day waiting for excited kids to feed them. "You throw the fish in the water and the tarpon just jump out of the water," Ferrazano said.

Key Largo is about 323 miles from Tampa. There, Butler recommends heading to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (pennekamppark.com). "It's a beachy, snorkel, boat rental kind of place," Butler said.

The final stop on our family-friendly vacation tour around our state are the islands of Sanibel and Captiva. Captiva is off the coast of Fort Myers and about 170 miles from TIA. Butler recommends staying at the South Seas Island Resort (southseas.com), completely rebuilt after Hurricane Charley ripped it apart in 2004. The islands of Sanibel and Captiva are known for great shelling. Take the kids to the Bubble Room for a meal (bubbleroomrestaurant.com). There is no shortage of things to take in, including the elf room, clown décor galore, an aquarium and much more. Make sure to save room for dessert, because the pieces of cake are bigger than most kid's heads. Besides, a family vacation is the opportune time to bend the rules.

This story appeared in the May/June issue of Go Momma magazine.

Explore Florida for adventure close to home 06/01/09 [Last modified: Monday, June 1, 2009 11:26am]

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