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For a sun-soaked trip with the fam, look no further than Florida. The Sunshine State is brimming with fun things for kids to do -- here are our 10 fave cities.
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Where to Stay: Hawaiian Inn $
What to Do: Daytona Beach is home to NASCAR and the Daytona International Speedway, a 480-acre motorsport complex that plays host to car and motorcycle racing eight weekends every summer. Burning rubber not your thing? Round up the kids and play in the jet fountains at Sun Splash Park, ride the ferris wheel together along Main Street Pier, or sign up for family surf lessons at Pure Life Surf School. When it's time to cool off, head indoors to the Museum of Arts & Sciences -- the display of old trains alone are worth the price of admission.
Where to Stay: Hawks Cay Resort $$$
What to Do: Expect to clock a ton of time on the pristine beaches of this island -- it's by far the area's most popular pastime. When you're not splashing around in the water, though, be sure to check out the local wildlife. There's excellent bird watching, and deep-sea fishing charters will take you and older kids into the Gulf of Mexico. Or, stay on shore and visit Dolphin Connection, where you can have a supervised meet-and-greet with cetacean friends, either from the dock ($60 per person) or in the water ($175 to $325).
Courtesy of Flamingo Gardens
Where to Stay: Bahia Mar $
What to Do: Fort Lauderdale is proof that hip destinations can also be family friendly. There are all sorts of museums that cater to the younger set, most notably the Museum of Discovery & Science in downtown; Butterfly World in Coconut Creek; and the Young at Art Children's Museum in Davie, which offers lots of hands-on projects for kids aged 3-8. But this being Florida, there's also no shortage of fun things to do outside. We recommend hopping on an airboat and whizzing through the Sawgrass Recreation Park in the Everglades, or admiring the 83 species of critters -- from alligators to otters to, yes, flamingoes -- that call Flamingo Gardens home.
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Where to Stay: The Point $$
What to Do: Walt Disney World. OK, now that we've gotten that out of the way, it's worth noting that Orlando has way more to offer than mouse ears. Besides Disney and its recently reimagined Fantasyland, there are sprawling theme parks like Universal Orlando Resort and SeaWorld Parks and Resorts Orlando. If you need a day to recover from the roller coasters, take the crew on a paddle boat or gondola ride at Lake Eola Park, or go swimming in Wekiwa River at nearby Wekiwa Springs State Park.
Courtesy of Playmobil Fun Park
Where to Stay: The Breakers $$
What to Do: Once you've unload the suitcases, head straight to the Palm Beach Zoo, home to 1,400 animals and one very colorful carousel. Cool off afterwards in the fountains at Calypso Bay Water Park, or hit the family-friendly (read: flat) hiking trails at the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge outside of Boynton Beach. Another popular spot for kids? Playmobil Fun Park, which is essentially an oversized toy store where wee ones can play with all sorts of Playmobil goodies.
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Where to Stay: Portofino Island Resort $$
What to Do: This westernmost big city in Florida is steeped in history, flush with sugar-white beaches, and home to the gravity-defying Blue Angels. On your itinerary? A visit to the National Naval Aviation Museum, which houses said Blue Angels; shopping along Portofino Boardwalk; a stop by historic (and huge) Fort Pickens; and strolling along the 16 miles of beaches in nearby Perdido Key. We're especially fond of Perdido Key State Park, Big Lagoon State Park, and Johnson Beach.
SANIBEL AND CAPTIVA ISLANDS
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Where to Stay: Casa Ybel Resort $$$ and Sundial Beach & Golf Resort $$$
What to Do: Part of the beauty of staying in the sun-kissed Sanibel and Captiva Islands is that its most popular pastime -- hunting for seashells -- won't cost you a dime. Once you and the kiddos have filled your buckets with cockles and conches, head to the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum to learn more about your treasures. Or continue the outdoor fun at the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, a favorite spot to watch migrating birds. But bring your hiking shoes -- the road is closed for repaving all summer.
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Where to Stay: Captiva Beach Resort $$
What to Do: You'll need at least a week to hit all of the family-friendly spots in this vibrant coastal city. Start at GWIZ, the science and technology museum that's loaded with cool hands-on exhibits for inquiring minds. Next, head over to the Mote Marine Laboratory, which has a huge touch tank and a special seahorse conservation lab, or feed flamingoes at the 10-acre Sarasota Jungle Gardens. Earmark a whole day for the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art -- there's an art museum, circus museum, learning center, 56-room mansion and historic theatre on site. (But don't worry -- the grounds are stroller-friendly.)
Where to Stay: Island Sun Inn $
What to Do: Grab a bucket and help your kids comb the sand at Caspersen Beach Park for beach glass, seashells, and sharks' teeth. (Yep, you read that right.) Afterward, take the family on a leisurely bike ride on the Legacy Trail, a paved converted rail trail that runs all the way north to Sarasota. When you're ready to get out of the sun, catch a kid-friendly show at the Venice Theatre, home to one of the largest community theater programs in the country.
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Where to Stay: Vero Beach Hotel & Spa $$
What to Do: Hit the silky white beaches and see firsthand why this area is called South Florida's "Treasure Coast." In between sandcastle competitions, marvel at the lush subtropical flowers blooming at McKee Botanical Garden. Let older kids stay up a little past their bedtime and go on a nighttime turtle walk at the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, one of the state's best places to learn about endangered loggerhead sea turtles. There, you can watch turtle hatchlings make their way into the ocean. Expect lots of mosquitoes, so bring bug spray.
TAMPA / ST. PETERSBURG
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Where to Stay: Innisbrook $$$
What to Do: Kids of all ages love the roller coasters and water rides at the African-themed Busch Gardens, the older of the two Busch Gardens theme parks. Other popular attractions in the greater Tampa/St. Pete area include the Adventure Island water park, the Museum of Science and Industry (aka, MOSI), Glazer Children's Museum and the Lowry Park Zoo, which has more than 2,000 animals overall. For more offbeat adventures, try Dinosaur World, which features 150 lifelike and life-sized models of dinosaurs, as well as a museum of authentic dinosaur fossils; Airheads, an indoor trampoline park; and AstroSkate and Family Fun Center, an old-school skating rink.
For more information about Florida in general, check out VisitFlorida.org, the official web site of the Florida Tourism Industry Marketing Corporation.