By Donna Carter
Always something new. Always a fresh twist on perennial favourites. That’s how the Sunshine State maintains its prominence among the world’s family holiday spots. In addition to its enviable natural assets and a litany of established attractions, families can always count on lots of new and exciting things to see and do. While Florida relies heavily on the attributes that have made it famous, including its renowned theme parks, stunning beaches, warm blue waters and year-round sunshine, every year it continues to increase its unrivalled abundance of entertainment options.
Universal Orlando Resort
Orlando’s mighty theme parks never stop pushing the envelope with innovative additions designed to delight and entertain. A season never passes without the creation of new and enticing features. Walt Disney World recently expanded its Fantasyland to include new rides and attractions while Universal Studios has introduced several new rides including the re-animation of one of its most popular – The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman. Busch Gardens is building a thrilling new ride called Falcon’s Fury featuring a “drop tower” where riders take a 102-metre face-down, heart-stopping plunge.
Just 45 minutes south of the theme park capital of the world, on the site of the former Cypress Gardens, LEGOLAND opened in late 2011 featuring 10 different “lands,” more than 50 rides, hundreds of captivating LEGO models and the recent addition of a family-friendly water park. Located at Plant City between Tampa and Orlando, the newly expanded Dinosaur World contains everything dinosaur. Reminiscent of the Jurassic Park movie, its features include oodles of life-size dinosaur replicas, educational components and the chance to participate in fossil digs. This fun attraction stimulates the minds and curiosity of adults and children alike. Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex
Look Up, Look Way Up
However, Florida’s family fun destinations are certainly not limited to the Orlando area’s collection of theme parks. On the mid-Atlantic coast, the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) has added a groundbreaking feature – the new US $100 million home of the Space Shuttle Atlantis. This priceless spacecraft travelled more than 200 million kilometres in space before being retired. The 8361-square metre attraction, launched in July 2013, is a significant addition to the KSC overall where every member of the family can enter the rapturous world of space travel, astronauts, hands-on exhibits and simulated space exploration.
Lee County CVB
Of course family vacationing in Florida is not all about what’s new. There’s plenty of good stuff that has stood the test of time and some of it is purely a gift of Nature. A remarkable 1,320 kilometres of sun-bathed coastline – most of it sandy beaches – provides oodles of no-cost family fun. With shallow, emerald-tinged waters and a wide sand shoreline, Fodor’s named Clearwater Beach one of the best in the country in 2009. Further north, there is truly no more beautiful stretch of white sand shoreline than along the Panhandle’s Emerald Coast. For shelling, no place beats Sanibel Island for gathering dozens of varieties of mollusks and the Florida Keys are essentially one big sandbox. Daytona Beach is the only one in the state where cars are allowed to drive on the sand. A multi-million-dollar beautification project has turned Fort Lauderdale’s 11-kilometre stretch of beachfront into one of the prettiest in the state.
While Florida’s beaches are a hard act to follow, its plethora of family-friendly, land-based entertainment runs the gamut of fun things to see and do. Eco adventures have emerged as a big attraction and among the many popular venues is the Clearwater Marine Aquarium where visitors can see Winter, the world’s only bionic dolphin who lost her tail in a crab trap, was rescued and fitted with a prosthetic. Winter earns top billing in several shows daily, in addition to shark-feeding demonstrations.
There are endless opportunities statewide for families to canoe and kayak the Sunshine State’s more than 16,000 kilometres of rivers and streams including those found throughout the famous Florida Everglades. Also capitalizing on the great outdoors, parents and kids can spend a night in an authentic chickee hut on the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation west of Fort Lauderdale. At the new St. Augustine Pirate Museum families can embark on a hunt for a genuine 17th-century treasure chest – the only authentic one in the world. Fort Lauderdale’s Museum of Discovery and Science, gives young explorers the chance to go on a simulated ride to Mars. At the Museum of Arts & Sciences in Daytona Beach families can ogle a mammoth, prehistoric skeleton of a giant ground sloth before proceeding to the facility’s new children’s wing where kids can spend several hours of fun, games and physical challenges.
Representing the Sunshine State’s enormous diversity is a genuine dude ranch. Situated in the centre of the state an hour south of Orlando, the 688-hectare Westgate River Ranch offers a unique western experience with horseback riding, live rodeo, hay rides, cookouts and for overnight stays guests can bunk in cabins, cottages or villas. Family fun of a different nature can be had at the Florida Caverns State Park west of Tallahassee. This is the only park in the state to offer guided cave tours to the public where visitors see awesome mineral formations of stalagmites and stalactites hanging like big icicles from the roof of the caves. In addition, the park is also popular for fishing, horseback riding, camping, canoeing and boating.
The Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg
For Art’s Sake
One of the most anticipated additions to Florida’s entertainment landscape was the January 2011 opening of the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg. Housing the only collection of the renowned surrealist’s works outside his home country of Spain, the glass-domed structure is a masterpiece unto itself. With tours and lectures for adults and a roster of fun, kid-oriented programs, the Dali is indeed a family-friendly museum.
There’s an old saying, “if you’re not moving forward you’re falling back,” which is a theory Florida seems to understand. The Dali Museum, the Space Shuttle Atlantis and many other recent additions are representative of the Sunshine State’s commitment to keeping things fresh and maintaining its place as the world’s most popular family vacation destination.