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Best Florida Destinations for Families

Award-winning beaches, spectacular sunsets, wild rides: the Sunshine State has it all. Here are our picks for the best family hot spots in Florida.

By Ellen Parlapiano

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Beach with chairs
David Meardon
Courtesy of Sea World
Courtesy of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater
Dara Caudill/IslandPhotography.org
Jack Elka
Courtesy of JungleIsland.com
Courtesy7 of Busch Gardens Tampa
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Sanibel Island

Why We Love It
This Gulf Coast barrier island, where seashells and wildlife are the star attractions, is paradise for eco-adventurers. Dolphins leap in the spray of the Sanibel Thriller high-speed catamaran, a fun option for tweens (sanibelthriller.com). Bike paths wind throughout—pedal, hike or drive the iNature trail in J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge to spot gators, spoonbills and other residents, scanning smartphone codes to learn more (fws.gov/dingdarling). Watch for manatees on Tarpon Bay Explorers' guided kayak tours (tarponbayexplorers.com), then celebrate sunset at the Mucky Duck restaurant, on sister island Captiva.

Where to Stay
The Gulf-front Sundial is the largest condo resort on the island and has the most amenities—golf, tennis, kayaking, biking, a fitness center and several restaurants. Easily zip from beach to pool and back for family volleyball games and logrolling contests. Nightly rates from $179 for fully equipped one-bedroom condos (sanibelcollection.com/sundial_resort). The more sedate West Wind Inn offers simple motel-style rooms (some with kitchenettes) just steps from the beach; the pool's casual snack bar is perfect for eating in your swimsuit. Nightly rates from $149 (westwindinn.com).

Fun Side Trip
Kids on nature overload will enjoy spending a day in Fort Myers, just across the causeway. At Skatium's ice rink, admission includes rental skates on Saturday evening, which is teen night (cityftmyers.com/fmskatium). Or BYOB (in this case, board) to Fort Myers Skate Park (cityftmyers.com/skatepark).

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Orlando

Why We Love It
In theme park central, the latest is Legoland Florida, a must-do for the younger set (florida.legoland.com). Universal's Islands of Adventure Wizarding World of Harry Potter is expanding, while next door at Universal Studios a 3-D Despicable Me attraction is set to open (universalorlando.com). Disney's Hollywood Studios (a teen fave for The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Rock 'n' Roller Coaster and American Idol Experience) has updated Star Tours with 3-D effects (disneyworld.disney.go.com). And SeaWorld has a third stomach-churning coaster, the face-down Manta (seaworldparks.com/seaworld-orlando). For nature-based adventure, pedal the Cypress Canopy Cycle through the treetops (floridaecosafaris.com).

Where to Stay
The Renaissance Orlando at SeaWorld has a new water park with a tween/teen zone. Hotel guests get early entry to SeaWorld on select days and front-of-line access. Rates from $149 (renaissanceseaworld.com). Or spread out at a fully equipped villa or vacation home at Reunion Resort in nearby Kissimmee. From $220 for one-bedroom villas that sleep four (reunionresort.com).

Fun Side Trip
Take a break in Daytona Beach. Surf, Jet Ski, parasail and, of course, visit the famous speedway. Stay at Shores Resort & Spa, where you can play in the Atlantic by day and gather for s'mores at night. From $119 (shoresresort.com).

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St. Petersburg

Why We Love It
The area's calm, wide seashores consistently land on Top 10 lists. Fort De Soto Park was crowned the best family beach in America for its swimming, snorkeling, biking, kayaking and waterfront camping. Secluded Caladesi Island State Park (accessible only by ferry) has super shelling as well as dolphin sightings. And there's always action on St. Pete Beach: skimboarding, Jet Skiing and parasailing. Expect an energetic downtown scene too, including free concerts at the pier and surreal activities at the spectacular new Dalí Museum, with outdoor Avant-Garden and labyrinth (thedali.org)

Where to Stay
At the oceanfront TradeWinds Island Grand, chill in a cabana (or at the spa) while kids play at Splash Island—a floating water park on the Gulf with trampolines, slides and rockin' rafts (one-hour passes start at $16). Teen evening entertainment includes pool parties, Guitar Hero contests and glow-in-the-dark volleyball and mini golf. Rooms from $229 per night; packages available (justletgo.com). For condo living, kick back at bayfront Boca Ciega Resort & Marina, bordering the Pinellas Trail, a favorite for bicyclists and in-line skaters. Nightly rates from $99 for one-bedroom units with balconies and $119 for two-bedrooms (bocaciegacondohotel.com).

Fun Side Trip
The Greek community of Tarpon Springs (45 minutes north) has some great restaurants and bakeries; try the saganaki and baklava from Hellas. Stroll the shops and historic docks—once the sponge-fishing capital of the world—and sail with St. Nicholas Boat Line to see guys in old-fashioned wet suits and bell-shaped diving helmets snatch sponges from the ocean floor (727-942-6425).

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Seaside

Why We Love It
This adorable town along the panhandle's Emerald Coast has sugar-white sand, sherbet-colored cottages and an old-fashioned main street and a village green for gatherings. Take a kayak tour or a stand-up paddleboard lesson with a naturalist on a rare coastal dune lake; when conditions are right you can row straight into the Gulf (walcoecotours.com). Seaside's Airstream snack trailers sell smoothies, seafood and barbecue box lunches—yummy fuel for pedaling the bike paths along scenic Highway 30. The outdoor amphitheater hosts evening concerts, plays and movies.

Where to Stay
Rent a cottage with a homey porch—each one unique—and private access to community pools and the beach; from $234 for units that sleep four (cottagerentalagency.com). For a blast from the past, stay in the vintage 1950s-style Seaside Motor Courts. The old-school motel rooms have new-age amenities, like flatscreens, DVD players and complimentary Wi-Fi; nightly rates from $150 (cottagerentalagency.com).

Fun Side Trip
Plan a playdate—or two—in Destin. Thirty minutes west, this hopping town has laser tag, bungee jumping, banana boating, go-karting and the wet and wild Big Kahuna's water park (bigkahunas.com). A good lodging option is The Emerald Grande at HarborWalk Village, with a Gulf-view pool and free concerts and fireworks on the boardwalk. Rates for one-bedroom condos start at $209 (emeraldgrande.com).

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Anna Maria Island

Why We Love It
The vibe is very old-time Florida on this tiny island 40 miles south of Tampa. No high-rises, big-chain hotels or fast-food restaurants—just vintage bungalows, small-scale condos and mom-and-pop shops. Ditch the car and do like the locals by biking to bay and Gulf beaches (consider Beach Bums rentals, beachbumsami.com). At the end of the Rod & Reel Pier, fish for your own dinner or order a grouper sandwich from the landmark restaurant. Kayak with retired marine biology teacher Captain Scott to catch a glimpse of dolphins and bird rookeries (beachbumsami.com). For a splurge, try horse surfing in nearby Bradenton: Ride your new friend along the beach, then perch on his back while he trots into the water (beachhorses.com).

Where to Stay
Settle into one of the luxurious condos at Tortuga Inn Beach Resort, just steps from the pool and private beach. Two-bedroom, two-bath units that sleep six start at $270 per night/$1,448 per week (tortugainn.com). Or get cozy in one of the cute Anna Maria Beach Cottages (from studios to three-bedrooms), with eat-in kitchens, outdoor decks and the beautiful Gulf beach as backyard; nightly rates start at $156 for a studio that sleeps four (annamariabeachcottages.com).

Fun Side Trip
Head to Sarasota (a 50-minute drive away), once the Ringling Brothers' winter home, to check out historic big-top memorabilia (trains, posters and miniature three-ring model) at the Ringling Museum of Art Circus Museum (ringling.org). In nearby Venice, family members can channel their inner acrobats at Tito Gaona's Flying Trapeze Academy, run by a legendary circus performer (titogaona.com).

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Miami

Why We Love It
Miami sizzles with tropical temperatures and big-city excitement. Swim, boogie board and surf, or play volleyball on oceanfront courts. Sample spicy Cuban cuisine in Little Havana, where vendors sell tamales and empanadas. Go a little wild (really, it's okay) at Jungle Island's interactive animal shows (jungleisland.com) or snorkel your way around the reefs and shipwrecks of Biscayne National Park (biscayneunderwater.com). Stroll the car-free, open-air Lincoln Road Mall for movies, boutiques and people- and pet-watching—even the doggies are fashionistas here!

Where to Stay
In the center of trendy South Beach but set back from the lively street scene, Loews Miami Beach Hotel has an oceanfront lagoon pool, an ice cream parlor and two teen-only hideaways (one's a poolside cabana), plus free family sushi-making classes on Saturdays. Rates from $299 (loewshotels.com). Farther north, in quieter Sunny Isles Beach, try Newport Beachside Hotel & Resort. Do your own thing or join scheduled activities. Nightly rates from $125 for two-room suites (newportbeachsideresort.com).

Fun Side Trip
Island-hop through the laid-back Keys. Drive along Highway 1, stopping at The Fish House in Key Largo for stone crab and Key lime pie, and at Robbie's of Islamorada on Lower Matecumbe Key to hand-feed huge tarpon. Hawks Cay Resort on Duck Key (in the center of the island chain, about two hours in) is a good base for further exploration. It offers kiteboarding, a snorkeling lagoon, kayak races and swim-with-dolphins programs. Nightly rates from $239 (hawkscay.com).

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Fort Lauderdale

Why We Love It
The "Venice of America" has miles of meandering canals, promenades for biking and rollerblading, and water taxis to whisk you everywhere (watertaxi.com). Ride waves with EZride Surf School; individual and group lessons available (ezridesurfschool.com), or rent snorkel gear and move your flipper along the three-tiered coral reef right off shore (seaexperience.com).

Where to Stay
At Pelican Grand Beach Resort, you can splash in the ocean, pool or Lazy River tubing lagoon, then share a sundae at the ice cream parlor; nightly rates from $139 (pelicanbeach.com). The Courtyard by Marriott Fort Lauderdale Beach is set between the Atlantic and the Intercoastal Waterway; after a day at the beach or pool, trolley over to Las Olas Boulevard to get your shopping fix (cool eateries too). Nightly rates from $199 (courtyard.com/fllco).

Fun Side Trip
Skim through the Everglades on an airboat to see gators, learn about Native Americans, even camp overnight in a traditional Seminole hut—all at Billie Swamp Safari, on Big Cypress Reservation, 1.5 hours northwest (billieswamp.com).

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Tampa

Why We Love It
Multiple thrills for variety-seeking families—from theme parks to ethnic food to nature treks. Busch Gardens has extreme coasters (the new Cheetah Hunt launches from 0 to 60 mph) and awesome animal encounters (you can hand-feed kangaroos in Australia-themed Walkabout Way); buschgardens.com. Downtown, there's the festive Riverwalk (picnic at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park) and the Latin-flavored Ybor City—go here for Cuban sandwiches and Flamenco shows. Canoe along the Hillsborough River, where turtles and gators hang (canoeescape.com), or beach it up in nearby Clearwater and St. Pete.

Where to Stay
It's all sports all the time at Saddlebrook Resort, with three outdoor pools, water volleyball and basketball, and golf and tennis academies. There's also a kids' club and full-service spa. Nightly rates from $209 (saddlebrook.com). Embassy Suites Tampa-USF/Near Busch Gardens is five minutes from Busch Gardens (take the free hotel shuttle) and serves complimentary breakfast with made-to-order omelets. Rates start at $164 (embassysuites.com)

Fun Side Trip
Snorkel with manatees in their natural habitat on the Homosassa River (November-March) or the Crystal River (all year long); both are 90 minutes north. American Pro Diving guided tours leave in the early morning, when these gentle giants are most active. Premium Homosassa River tours offer more intimate encounters and include snorkeling equipment and wetsuits (americanprodiving.com).

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