If you’re going to Florida, check out these ideas for fun, family-friendly things to do with kids in The Florida Keys & The Everglades.
If you’ve been reading along lately, you know that my family recently took an epic vacation to Florida. I’ve already written about the fun things we did in Tampa, but that was only the first half of our trip. The second half was spent down south in the Florida Keys and the Everglades. Today I’m sharing our favorite things we did with our kids during that part of our trip.
I have to start by saying that I wouldn’t necessarily recommend going out of your way to plan a trip to Southern Florida with small kids. A lot of the big attractions are things like snorkeling, kayaking, scuba diving, boating, and other things that weren’t super conducive to life with a squirmy one-year-old and four-year-old. But, we knew that before we went, and we accepted the fact that there were some things we just wouldn’t be able to do on this visit. And we were okay with that. In some ways, traveling with kids is fun because it forces me to look for things to do that I wouldn’t ever have seen if I was just traveling with adults. So, if you’re going to be in the area (like we were) and are looking for family-friendly things to do, here are some fun ideas:
Things to do with kids in the Florida Keys
Unless you are flying directly into Key West (which is super expensive), you will have to drive on the overseas highway, and that’s okay because it’s BEAUTIFUL. Okay, not the highway itself (although it is a pretty cool engineering feat), but the views from it. We drove out onto the Keys as the sun was setting, and I so wished I had a canvas and paint (and the ability to actually use them) to capture the colors and textures of the view. I had a camera, but that wasn’t enough. I wanted to delve into the paint and analyze the colors until I found just the right shade to capture the iridescence of the sunlight on the water. It was magical.
This small bakery on Duval Street in Key West was awesome! We went there our first evening in Key West, and although the kitchen was closed so we couldn’t get the sandwiches we had hoped to buy, we bought some amazing half-off pastries. Little Man picked a Nutella beignet, and my husband and I both picked out various croissants…coconut raspberry, cinnamon apple, and ham and cheese. Because it was the end of the day and they were half off, they were so cheap and still so good!
We watched the sunset our first night out by a big old coast guard ship (U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Ingham Maritime Museum). During the day you can take tours of it, which would have been neat if the boys were a little older, but we just looked at the outside. Little Brother was super interested in the ship and kept repeating “BIG BOAT!” over and over while pointing at it. To be fair, he was right. It was REALLY big. More than the ship itself, though, the area around it was a great spot to see the sunset. Most people go to Mallory Square (see below), but if you want to avoid the crowds and have an equally good view, this is the place.
Our first day in Key West, we just did grocery shopping, beach/pool time at our resort, and dinner on Duval Street. I realized quickly that I needed more of a plan for day two (mornings are when my husband was at a conference for work, so I had the boys on my own). I had read about a little aquarium-type place online that was free, so we decided to check it out.
It was pretty small, but it was a good activity to get us out of the hotel. It was essentially two rooms of large dioramas, a mock submarine with videos showing the life at different depths of the ocean, a video (that we only watched the first few minutes of because the boys were restless) and a few smallish aquarium tanks.
The two workers there were super kind and friendly to the boys. The guy at the entrance talked to Will and gave him a scavenger hunt (we love scavenger hunts!) to do as we looked at the exhibits, which made it so much more fun than just walking around. He also gave him a stool to carry around and stand on so that he could see better. The other worker we talked to was feeding the fish in the aquariums. She told us all about the fish in the tanks, and some of the interesting aquatic features of the area (like how coral grows) and the preservation efforts they are undertaking. I’m not sure I would have spent a lot of money to visit it, but for something free, I thought it was great.
After the eco-discovery center, we headed out to Smathers beach. It was GREAT! It was huge, had free parking, and the water was really nice. It did have some of the sea grass that is common in the area, but it didn’t bother me. Fun fact: did you know that most of the beaches in the Keys are man made? This article explains why.
In any case, we had a great time the rest of the morning building and wrecking sand structures, making an aqueduct that Little Man loved pouring water in and watching it race back to the ocean, and splashing around. The boys also learned what happens if you leave food out on the beach blanket! Hello, birds!
We went to this beach briefly in the afternoon one day and then again the next morning. It was smaller, but nice. It had free parking, restrooms, showers, and a shaded playground that my boys enjoyed. We didn’t spend a lot of time here, but if you’re looking to beach hop, this one is worth checking out.
One of the key attractions I’d read about on Key West was watching the sunset at Mallory Square. There are street performers and musicians, so it’s kind of a fun atmosphere, but it was also ridiculously crowded. For the actual sunset viewing, I actually preferred the previous night when we watched it down by the coast guard ship. I’m glad we went to Mallory Square once because it was fun to be a part of the hubbub and street performers and such, but I don’t think I would have gone again.
We just happened upon this place (it’s right on Higgs Beach), but it was awesome. It’s an old fort from the Civil War that was partially destroyed/dismantled, and now the Garden Club has turned it into a botanical garden. I didn’t know quite what to expect, but it was free and got good reviews online, so we checked it out. I was pleasantly surprised by how much we enjoyed it, even the boys. The plants were beautiful, the fort was interesting, and the boys loved searching for lizards and watching the wild chickens. (Random fact: there are tons of wild chickens and roosters that roam around the island. I’m not sure why, but it was kind of entertaining.)
We drove out of the Keys for most of that afternoon, and we were all hot and tired. We took a quick stop at Robbie’s marina in Islamadora where you can pay a few bucks to get a bucket of bait and feed the tarpon that hover around the dock there. They are HUGE fish and really cool to watch. Little Brother loved it, but Little Man was super nervous about the whole thing (as I would have expected from the two of them). There were also a bunch of pelicans around hoping to snatch some fish away from the tarpon. They were pretty bold and made me a little nervous, too actually. They’re pretty big birds! Busy and touristy, but unique enough and cheap enough that I thought it was a worthwhile half-hour stop (we needed a break from the car anyway).
That was the end of our time in the Keys, but our trip wasn’t over. We had ONE more day before we flew home, and we spent it in the Everglades.
Things to do with kids in the Everglades
Before I get to the Everglades, I have to mention one restaurant we ate at in Florida City (which is just a few miles outside of the Everglades, and is where we stayed the night). We found Sonny’s BBQ on Yelp, and other than Little Man’s massive meltdown in the parking lot before we went in (can you say end-of-vacation-exhaustion?), we had a great experience. The food was really high quality and really reasonably priced ($7-15 per plate depending on what you got). They had a kids menu, but we just ordered a side of Mac n Cheese for less than $3.00 (and it was good homemade stuff, not just microwaved from a box), and the boys shared that and ate off our plates, too. favorite meal I ate on the trip!
Ernest Coe Visitor’s Center
We stopped at the visitor’s center before entering the park because I wanted to check with the rangers about trails they would recommend for toddlers and to ask about the mosquito situation. I had read that the mosquitoes are really bad this time of year, so I packed long sleeves and long pants for everyone that day…and bug spray. It was supposed to be a really hot day again, so I didn’t know if the long sleeves were really necessary, but talking to the rangers made me decide to keep everyone covered. They told me about several short, paved trails, so those are the ones we did.
The visitor’s center itself had some good exhibits and info, too. The boys enjoyed looking at the dioramas and touching the hand-on exhibits. We didn’t spend long here, but it was worth a quick stop. I wish I had thought of this beforehand, but they have a junior ranger program for the Everglades, like the one we did when we went to Dinosaur National Monument. I think Little Man would have enjoyed it. Oops. You can pick one up from the visitor center or print it yourself at home.
On our drive to our first trail, we saw our first alligator just relaxing on the side of the road. Cool! We learned at the visitor’s center that the easiest way to tell the difference between a crocodile and an alligator is by their color: alligators are really dark (almost black), and crocodiles are more of the stereotypical green color. This guy was definitely a gator.
The Anhinga Trail is essentially a marsh that they built boardwalks over. Part of the trail was closed, including the part with the big observation tower, so that was disappointing, but it was still a nice (albeit HOT) walk. We didn’t see a lot of wildlife other than some interesting bugs, like these gigantic grasshoppers, which Little Brother loved! He could have watched them all day. Apparently, the wildlife viewing is better in the winter when the water level is lower (add it to the list of reasons to visit Florida in the winter).
The next trail we did (it started from the same parking lot as the first) was more of a shaded, jungle-like trail through what is called a “hammock”. It was really pretty, but the mosquitoes were bad, so we ended up walking/running really fast through the second half of it.
This was another short trail through the marshes and up to an overlook platform. It was interesting to learn about the topography of the area from the interpretive plaques…and the mosquitoes weren’t as bad, so I was grateful for that. As we walked, we would occasionally hear snorting noises that I can only guess were alligators and crocodiles that were out of view. It would have made me nervous, but we were on boardwalks above the marsh the whole time.
This was our last trail of the morning (our boys were getting too tired and hot…and so were we). It was another jungle-type trail, so we didn’t actually complete it because we passed some people who kindly warned us that the mosquitoes were really bad up ahead. No thank you. But, the part we did walk was actually my favorite hike of the day. The vegetation was really dense and I felt like I was really in the jungle.
We never really saw any wildlife on our hikes, but we did see several water birds and another alligator in the water as we were driving. I decided that the best way to see alligators was just to stop whenever we saw other cars stopped and to figure out what they were looking at.
After we left the Everglades, we drove up to Miami (we flew home from there the next day). Before we left Florida, we wanted to go to the beach one last time. We headed for Crandon Beach in Miami because it was supposedly really family-friendly. We didn’t really think about the fact that it was Memorial Day weekend, so the traffic and beach were a complete madhouse, but we had a good time. (*Not fun fact: Florida, and especially Miami, has TONS of toll roads. Be prepared to shell out extra cash to get pretty much anywhere, especially if you’re relying on Google Maps to navigate you.) Still, it really was a good way to finish off the trip.
Whew! Just writing all that makes me tired all over again. Just like with Tampa, I learned that Florida really is a better destination for the winter months (cooler, better wildlife viewing, fewer mosquitoes), but I’m so glad we were able to go on this vacation. We had a great time exploring a different part of the country, and I loved watching my boys really discover the joys of the beach.
All that beach time was a great introduction to summer, and now we’re ready to party for the next few months!
If you’ve been to Florida, are there any things I missed?
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