When it comes to the ideal family destination, Florida takes the cake.
It’s ground zero for fun – a magical, beach-lined palm-sprinkled fantasyland seemingly made for kids. Where else can they visit lands of make-believe, laugh at Goofy, embrace Cinderella, gasp at alligators, marvel at space launches, collect prehistoric shark teeth and admire authentic pirate treasures – all on a single trip? It’s no wonder wide-eyed kids, and their adult counterparts, consider Florida the most whimsical place on Earth.
And nowhere rolls out the red carpet for kids as spectacularly as the Sunshine State. They set the gold standard for family hospitality. Here’s what you need to know about traveling in Florida as a family.
There’s an endless list of great things to do with kids in Florida © martinedoucet / Getty Images
Is Florida good for kids?
In two words: “Heck, yeah!”
Kids won’t whine, “I’m bored”, in Florida. Look in any direction and there’s something to do: Gator mini-golf, driving army tanks, airboating through sawgrass and mangrove swamps of the Everglades, monster truck rides through citrus groves, glass-bottom boat rides, deep sea fishing… The possibilities for fun are virtually endless.
If kids designed their perfect world, it’d probably look a lot like Florida. Kids love it here, and, with an endless bounty of family-focused amenities, so do their parents and guardians. Baby-changing stations are everywhere, as are stroller and locker rentals. You’ll also find plenty of travel apps and QR codes designed to make life easier, or perhaps more difficult… depending on how tech-savvy you (or your kids) are.
A visit to Disney’s Magic Kingdom is an essential family experience in Florida © Roberto Machado Noa / LightRocket via Getty Images
1. Hit the exciting theme parks in Orlando
Crowned the “Theme Park Capital of the World”, Orlando’s bullseye for most vacationing families – and with countless activity add-ons within a two-hour drive, it’s the ideal hub. Even the airport monorail teases kids’ imaginations, eliciting priceless sighs, giggles and squeals of joy before they reach the baggage carousel.
For rugrats, target Disney’s Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, SeaWorld, and Legoland, all featuring boundless eye candy they’ll gobble up. To crowbar tweens and teens from their smartphones, head to Universal Studios, Gatorland, Epcot and Hollywood Studios for slightly more grown-up fun. (Universal’s great fun for all ages.)
Busch Gardens in nearby Tampa (2-hour drive from Orlando) is also a blast, often offering great discounts.
2. Feed the kids’ need for speed with racing and classic cars
If your kids thirst for speed, treat them to an “All Access Ticket” at Daytona International Speedway, about an hour’s drive from Orlando near Daytona Beach. They’ll enjoy a behind-the-scenes look at the famous racetrack, along with some amazing photo-ops.
Car buffs idle away hours at Dezerland Auto Museum in Orlando, getting up-close-and-personal with over 2000 custom and classic roadsters – including many famous movie cars.
Planning tip: Pay a few extra dollars for the “VIP” tour and score the chance to sit in select cars (including Batmobiles) for exciting photo-ops!
3. Have a blast exploring the Space Coast
Just an hour from Orlando, Kennedy Space Center offers kids an awe-inspiring glimpse into galaxies beyond. Tour the grounds to see launch pads, spacecraft and rockets, and climb aboard a space shuttle simulator to get a taste of what it’s like to be an astronaut. If you’re really lucky, you might even witness a launch or meet a real astronaut!
A glass-bottom boat ride in Sliver Springs State Park is an adventure perfect for pre-teen kids © Photointoto / Shutterstock
4. Get back to nature with wildlife tours
Hop aboard a 35-ft pontoon boat at St John’s River Eco Tours for a real-life two-hour Jungle Cruise adventure. Alligators, turtles, armadillos, owls and otters are just a handful of the many creatures you might encounter along the way.
The glass-bottom boats that have been cruising the Silver River at Silver Springs State Park since the 1870s might have once welcomed pioneers and cowboys. Kids will fawn ogling the smorgasbord of underwater life, deep caverns… and mysterious Greek statues. Tarzan films and the Sea Hunt TV series were filmed here too. Watch overhead for monkeys, a rare sighting in Florida!
Kids love big, cuddly-looking manatees, and at Blue Spring State Park there’s so many they literally roll over themselves as though performing acrobatics. Stop at nearby De Leon Springs State Park and cook up some kooky, all-you-can-eat, pancake creations on tabletop grills at Old Sugar Mill Pancake House – but get there early (and bring a change of clothes!).
5. Search for buried treasure
What kid wouldn’t enjoy scavenging for silver, gold and pirate loot along Florida’s famed Treasure Coast? Check out the bounties at Mel Fisher’s Treasure Museum in Sebastian, then rent a metal detector and sifter from the gift shop to scour nearby beaches for your own riches. Ask for advice on finding prehistoric shark teeth, too – another common find. Cool treasures from ancient Spanish galleons are also displayed at McLarty Treasure Museum, just a few minutes away.
Factor in some rest days by the pool too – the whole family will appreciate it © Tetra images RF / Getty Images
Planning tips: booking and packing
Sticking to timetables is a fairy-tale dream so try to keep itineraries flexible. Set reasonable goals – you can’t possibly do everything in one trip! If you’re planning multiple days at theme parks, schedule rest days to relax by the hotel pool and recharge. The kids’ll appreciate it too.
Check online deals for advance tickets (Best of Orlando is a great source) and search out multi-park discounts (such as Disney park combos, or SeaWorld with Busch Gardens).
Children under 3 are free at most theme parks, those aged 3 to 9 pay reduced rates (usually on the honor system, without proof-of-age required). Express (queue-jumping) passes cost a bit more, but the time and sanity they preserve make them worth every penny.
Wear comfy shoes and pack hats, sunblock, plenty of water, and ponchos (they come in handy for water rides too!) – heat, sun and sudden downpours are part of Florida life. Save money by bringing your own water (use refillable bottles at water stations) and snacks (theme parks allow food items that don’t require heating). Stroller rentals are available at most major attractions, but it’s still often a long hike from the parking lot! (If bringing your own, a lightweight, collapsible version is best.)
If your trip’s centered around Orlando’s theme parks, consider skipping a car rental and book a hotel that offers free shuttle services, or take an Uber instead. You’ll save a fortune on parking, too.
It’s best to set a daily budget before setting out as the kids are likely to want to buy and do everything, and prepare to have the time of your lives!