Florida Family Attractions
Billie's Swamp Safari
Located amid 2,200 acres of the Big Cypress Reservation, Billie's Swamp Safari provides access to the wetlands and hardwood hammocks owned by the Seminole tribe. Swamp buggy tours and airboat rides delve into the wilderness, where alligators, wild hogs, and roseate spoonbills share the grounds with exotic imports such as Asian water buffalo and African antelope. Frog legs, gator nuggets, and American fare are on the menu at the Swamp Café. Also on site: interactive "swamp critter" shows and a boardwalk nature trail. Overnight stays are available in native chickee huts (thatched roof buildings that call to mind Tiki huts).
Busch Gardens Africa
When locals want major amusement-park thrills, they bypass Disney for the big coasters of Busch Gardens Africa in Tampa. The theme park melds high-octane rides with kid-friendly shows and wildlife habitats like the Serengeti Plain and the Myombe gorilla and chimpanzee reserve. Over 21? Make a complimentary reservation at the Brewmaster's Club to sample Anheuser-Busch beers.
Kids won’t even know they’re learning when they explore the interactive exhibits and special displays providing hands-on education at G.Wiz. With nearly 100 diversions, the museum will easily keep your young ones busy most of the day.
John and Mable Ringling Circus Museums
The kids probably won’t appreciate the art museum or the grandness of the Ringlings’ winter home, but they will love the circus and clown museums that document a century of the “Greatest Show on Earth.”
Kennedy Space Center
NASA's Florida launch headquarters sit within a wildlife refuge eight times the size of Manhattan and encompass the history of space travel, that "giant leap for mankind." Meet an astronaut, visit the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, and get a taste for space flight in the shuttle launch simulator. Space films screen daily in two IMAX theaters. Tours visit the International Space Station Center, the 60-foot launch observation gantry overlooking the two shuttle pads, and a facility containing a Saturn V rocket. Still, nothing can compare to lucking into seeing one of the live shuttle launches; plan now as the program ends in fall 2010. Launch dates are listed on the Kennedy Space Center's website, but schedules are subject to change at a moment's notice, so don't plan your whole vacation around a shuttle takeoff.
Lion Country Safari
When it opened in 1967, Lion Country Safari was the first drive-through safari park in the United States. Still a top draw, the Palm Beach County park's 4-mile loop leads vehicles (no convertibles!) past white rhinos, zebras, lions, giraffes, wildebeest, and hundreds of other jungle animals. The adjacent Safari World amusement park has a Ferris wheel, petting zoo, mini-golf course, shops, reptile displays, and giraffe feeding. Extend the safari experience with a stay at the KOA Campground next door, where roaring lions can be heard at night.
Miami Children's Museum
Best for pre-school and elementary-age kids, the interactive Miami Children's Museum promotes education and self-expression through 14 eye-popping galleries. Ocean Odyssey has a 900-gallon, two-tank aquarium where kids can see coral reef fish; the Safety Zone allows kids to step into the shoes (and uniforms) of firefighters and police officers; the World Music Studio is a hands-on melody-making space. Traveling exhibitions featuring icons like the Blue Man Group or Clifford, the Big Red Dog drop in for a few months at a time – check the website for information on current exhibitions.
Want to know what lurks in the water? This marine biology lab introduces visitors to the creatures that inhabit Sarasota Bay and the Gulf of Mexico: dolphins, manatees, sea turtles, and even sharks. Splurge on the combination ticket for entry into the aquarium and an eco-tour of Sarasota Bay, which includes a touch tank the kids will love.
Myakka River State Park
A 12-mile section of one of the state's two Florida legislature-designated "Wild and Scenic Rivers," flows through Myakka River State Park, about 20 miles east of downtown Sarasota. On-site canoe and kayak rentals provide river access through the marshy feeding grounds of eagles, cranes, ospreys, and a seriously hefty alligator population (don't worry, it's safe – gators, which aren't typically aggressive, tend to ignore people altogether). The family-friendly park also contains a smorgasbord of other outdoor activities, from camping, biking, and fishing to scenic boat cruises and hiking trails. An 85-foot long canopy walkway, which can be reached via a spur trail off of the Boylston Nature Trail, runs through the treetops of oaks and palms.
Sarasota Jungle Gardens
This 70-year-old zoo gives visitors the chance to eye gators and crocs up-close and even feed flamingos. There are daily reptile and bird shows and a kiddy play area with a tree house.
Close-up views of orcas, dolphins, penguins, and manatees await at this theme park devoted to the life aquatic. In 2009, the Manta roller coaster – ridden horizontally, face down – upped the adrenaline factor. SeaWorld opened the separate 59-acre Aquatica water park in spring 2008, with a signature waterslide that speeds through a dolphin habitat. For the ultimate interactive adventure, splurge on conservation-minded Discovery Cove, the reservations-required, all-inclusive tropical park where you can swim with dolphins, snorkel on an artificial coral reef, and wade into a stingray-filled lagoon; attendance is limited to 1,000 people per day, so book at least two months in advance to guarantee entrance, especially during summer trips or holidays (www.discoverycove.com).
Fifteen major-league baseball teams hit the fields in March to prep for their upcoming season with exhibition games that are open to the public, with price ranges varying by stadium from about $10 to $40. Venues are scattered along both coasts, between the Orlando area (the Atlanta Braves) and Fort Myers (the Boston Red Sox). Six teams are clustered in the Tampa Bay area alone, from Lakeland to Sarasota, and its sites boast the most years as spring training destinations – nearly 100 years in the case of Tampa and St. Petersburg.
Although it lives in Disney's shadow, Universal Studios is worth a twirl, especially for visitors with older kids – or none at all – in tow. Hit the coasters at Islands of Adventure for adult-sized thrills; visit Universal Studios for movie-themed rides like Revenge of the Mummy and a behind-the-scenes look at a working studio. The park's profile got a major boost in June 2010 when it unveiled The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a theme park within a theme park at Islands of Adventure.
Walt Disney World
Experience the fantasy of the Magic Kingdom, the international flair of Epcot
Center, the safari style of Animal Kingdom, or the movie-making magic of
Disney-MGM Studios. Two Disney-run water parks, Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard
Beach, provide respite from Central Florida's humidity. It's worth splurging to
stay on-site to avoid the crunch of Orlando traffic; complimentary airport
pickup and extended park hours are added bonuses. See our Walt Disney World Travel Guide.
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Alex Schechter Assistant Editor
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