How to Have a Memorable Family Vacation in Northeast Florida
By Janet K. Keeler
Northeast Florida is a draw for families searching for vacation fun. The best of the area is easily reached by major highway and airport, which makes it convenient for travel from just about everywhere.
Beaches and attractions are the hallmark here, and are a big building block in making those family memories. Stuff the beach bag with essentials, make sure the camera is full charged, then head out to some of the state’s most legendary beaches. They are great perches from which to watch the Atlantic Ocean waves crash on shore or witness the sunrise if you and your family are early birds.
The far northeast region is called the First Coast and you could interpret that in a few ways. St. Augustine, established in 1565, is the oldest city in the United States. Other firsts? Jacksonville is the state’s largest in population and landmass. Plus, the region is the first area that travelers reach when they cross the Georgia border on Interstate 95.
There are natural wonders, history and some big-city attractions to keep a family busy in northeast Florida.
Here are 15 ideas to get your family travel plans started:
1. A visit to the old city. Tell your kids that some people believe the first meal between European settlers and Native Americans happened in St. Augustine, not Plymouth, Mass. They ate lots of shellfish for that first Thanksgiving dinner and not so much turkey. St. Augustine is dripping in history but a family trip here doesn’t have to be like school. Roam the 320-year-old Castillo de San Marcos, and then consider a visit to Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Who wouldn’t want to see a shrunken head or two? A hop-on-hop-off trolley cruises by the highlights.
2. Let there be Lighthouse. It’s not likely that travelers will know that Florida has 29 lighthouses, though they might recognize one of the most picturesque. The barber-pole striped St. Augustine Lighthouse, built in 1874, can be seen from miles away and you and the family can get an up-close look by climbing the 219 stairs to the top. Then walk outside the still-working lighthouse (there’s a sturdy guard rail) and get the best, if not windiest, view of the area. (Kids have to be 44 inches tall to make the upward trek.) There are lots of activities, including scavenger hunts, plus visitors can check out the restored 1876 keeper’s quarters, which is now a museum. Scheduled tours include a ghost romp and nighttime walk, suitable for kids in fourth grade and higher.
3. Let’s go fly a kite. It tends to be windy on the east coast of Florida, which means it’s a great area to fly a kite. There are lots of kite shops along the beaches and this kite-flying tutorial has some great tips to help you help your kids keep a classic diamond kite aloft. There are a number of kite festivals and if your family’s travel dates match theirs, you should check them out. It’s a sight to behold when the sky above the beach is loaded with colorful kites. There are kite festivals at New Smyrna Beach, St. Augustine, Cocoa Beach and Cape Canaveral, among others.
4. Cycle the beach. There’s something magical about Cocoa Beach and it’s not just because the mega surf shop, Ron Jon, is located here. Ron Jon is day trip itself and your kids will have a blast scouring the huge store that’s open 24/7/365. Check out the website for information on surf competitions and lessons for all ages. Come for Ron Jon, but stay to ride your bikes on the beach. The sand on the wide beach is so hard-packed that bicycle riders can cruise for miles along the Atlantic coast. It’s a true Florida experience and one fit for all ages.
5. Up a lazy river. Explorer Ponce De Leon first mapped the St. Johns River and its journey to the ocean. If you’re looking for a laid-back experience with the family, board the luxury paddle-wheeler Barbara Lee. There are several excursions available on the river ship including lunch and dinner cruises. It’s a bit of a quiet experience and one that will appeal to families who want to really unwind in nature for a few hours. Bring along coloring books, a deck of cards or maybe travel Yahtzee to play as the world floats by.
6. Get their motors running. Tickets for the Daytona 500 might be too rich for your blood and the event too loud for the kids’ ears but you can all see what the fuss is about on a tour of the Daytona International Speedway complex. Your little speed demons can take tram tours of the 500-acre facility, see the most current Daytona 500 winning car and check out the Motorsports Hall of Fame. The best memory might be the photo you take of Junior posing on the Gatorade Victory Lane podium.
7. Piers are for more than fishing. And the Daytona Beach Boardwalk & Pier is proof of that. Concerts, thrill rides, shops, food (Eat at Joe’s Crab Shack!), arcade games and nightly fireworks from Memorial Day to Labor Day are the stuff of summer vacations. Plus, there are concerts at the Daytona Beach Bandshell, north of the boardwalk, on Fridays in the summer and other nights through the year. Oh, and the kids can fish, too.
8. The suite life on Amelia Island. Parents and kids alike can luxuriate at the Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island. There are the usual kids’ beach activities including eating ooey-gooey s’mores during a nighttime beachfront bonfire. A kiddie pool provides gentle fun and if you’ve got a kid who wants to live the glamorous life, the ritzy Ritz Kids program is for them.
9. Building castles in the sand, for real. There’s some technique for transforming soft sand into formidable fortresses. Sand sculpting is a big deal in Florida and your family will have a blast learning how to make one suitable for competition. These video tips for sandcastle construction from an award-winning sand sculptor will set you on your way. Maybe this vacation will kick off the annual family sandcastle throw-down tradition.
10. An out-of-this-world time. The history of U.S. space travel is intertwined with Florida’s story, especially along the Space Coast. Kids will have a blast at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral where the visitor center recently marked 50 years. Among the must-do activities are the Shuttle Launch Experience, the Astronaut Training Simulators and touring the facility with a real-life astronaut. The family will be entertained and inspired and if you time your trip right, they might just get to see a rocket launch.
11. A funkier side of Florida. Flagler Beach is so family friendly that you’ll be putting this funky, laidback beach on your regular vacation repertoire. Why? Because the beach is wide, it boasts easy access and there are many restaurants where you can get a taste of Florida coastal cuisine. A classic wooden pier is fun for fishing and people watching, especially when the people are surfers below trying to catch some Atlantic Ocean waves. Bring a cooler, wide umbrellas, the boogie boards and plenty of sunscreen. Flagler Beach is the definition of a Florida family vacation.
12. The family that camps together. There are dozens of campgrounds in the Ocala National Forest, south of Gainesville, that range from full-service sites to primitive walk-in tent camping. The area also has a few rental cabins for large families. All require reservations. The Ocala National Forest is the southernmost forest in the U.S. and has more than 600 lakes, rivers and springs. Family-friendly activities include swimming, snorkeling, kayaking and canoeing, plus hiking on the many trails.
13. How sweet it is. Don’t tell the dentist, but Sweet Pete’s candy shop in Jacksonville is on your list of must-stops. (There’s one in Key West, too.) Besides all manner of candy, the shop holds classes in taffy pulling, truffle making, soda bottling and more. There’s even a marshmallow-making class perfect for kids 4 and older. This is one sweet place. A tour of the candy factory might have you thinking about Willy Wonka. Maybe you’ll want to have a family movie night back at the beach house.
14. It’s a park. It’s an adventure. Friday is family night at Adventure Landing in Jacksonville Beach. Included in the price of admission on Fridays are unlimited laser tag and mini-golf plus a pizza for four. That’s in addition to arcades and rides. When the weather is warm, and it’s Florida so that’s most of the time, Shipwreck Island Waterpark is open with slides and the Little St. Johns River lazy float ride.
15. Family fun in the big city. The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens has enough goings on to keep a family busy all day. There are more than 1,000 plants and 2,000 animals (that’s some flora and fauna!) to check out. Plus special exhibits throughout the year, such as a manatee festival and something called Dinosauria, keep regulars coming back. The Museum of Science & History (locals call in MOSH) features animals native to Florida plus a walk through the human body. It house the area’s only planetarium. Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park is especially friendly to little ones. While the adults love the coastal park for surfing, the splash park is a draw for families and is open Memorial Day to Labor Day. There are also 20 miles of hiking trails, a lake for fishing and paddling, plus camping sites for RVs and tents. Cabins, too.