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When it’s time to get away with the family for some fun and sun, Canadian families are thinking more and more of California and Florida. These States are easy to get to and offer a wide variety of things to see and do to keep kids entertained and parents inspired. Our readers’ poll showed that time at the beach is the number one family favourite followed closely by taking a cruise. Cultural/educational events scored well, followed by road trips. (Surprisingly, theme parks, camping and hiking scored very low in our poll.) Whatever you choose to do for the family vacation, California and Florida have a lot to offer. Sharing these great States with your family will be a rewarding and memorable experience.
The Disney resorts rank as the top attractions for families in America. These expansive properties comprise many theme parks, accommodation, restaurants and shops with a variety of entertainment for all ages.
In this edition of Spotlight, we’re focusing on family-friendly things to see and do beyond the famous theme parks of Florida and California.
- Florida is surrounded by water on three sides with long stretches of beaches along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts. Some of the best beaches are just 90 minutes away from Orlando on the Gulf of Mexico where the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area boasts 35 miles of white-sand beaches and fun activities like dolphin-spotting, shelling, and Captain Memo’s Pirate Cruise. A one hour drive east of Orlando brings you to the Atlantic white sand beaches of the Space Coast and Cocoa Beach.
- California’s 450 beaches range from sandy to rocky with cooler sea temperatures than Florida (75F/23C in the summer). Beach playgrounds are popular with families at Santa Monica, Santa Barbara, Ventura and others where swing sets and playground equipment are set up along the sand. Board walks for cycling and roller blading are also popular. California is a leader in surf beaches including those at Malibu, Huntington Beach and Santa Cruz while the best beaches for sunbathing are located from San Diego to Santa Cruz.
A natural addition to any beach vacation is a visit to discover what lives beneath the waves.
The Florida Aquarium, Tampa Bay – One of the best in the country. Here you can swim with the fishes, watch the penguin promenade, celebrate the year of the frog and learn about coral reefs. Also an important centre for research and conservation.
SeaWorld, Orlando – We’ve included this educational theme park since it made Parents Magazine top ten list of aquariums in the United States. The Penquin Encounter was chosen as the standout feature. Here you take a moving walkway for excellent views of these popular birds.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium – This educational facility is dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation and release of animals notably River Otters, Dolphins and Sea Turtles. On your visit, take the Sea Life Safari Eco-Boat Tour which runs three times a day.
Monterey Aquarium – Home to one of the most diverse marine ecosystems in the world and one of the U.S.A.’s top family attractions. 26 species of marine mammals live in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, situated in a very scenic part of Northern California.
San Francisco Aquarium of the Bay – Learn about the ecology and marine life of San Francisco Bay as you walk through 300 feet of under water tunnels. Walk with sharks, touch bat rays and learn about the conservation of San Francisco Bay. Situated on the Embarcadero, adjacent to Fisherman’s Wharf, near Pier 39, and close to the cruise ship pier
The Aquarium of the Pacific, Long Beach – World class aquarium focusing on the wonders of the Pacific Ocean. Visit the interactive Shark Lagoon, hand feed lorikeet birds, join a Behind-the-Scenes tour and watch Monsters of the Abyss, a film with 3-D technology and digital animation that explores the deep ocean.
Always a family favourite, you’ll find zoos dotted throughout these States. Here are some of the best.
Lowry Park Zoo, Tampa, Florida, has 1900+ animals and is considered one of the best in Florida.
The Palm Beach Zoo at Dreher park, West Palm Beach, Florida, is a 23 acre zoological park with 1500+ animals in tropical habitats.
Brevard Zoo, Melbourne, Florida, focuses on conservation and interactive educational experiences for kids and adults including animal feeding and wild encounters. A miniature train runs through part of the park.
San Diego Zoo, situated in Balboa Park, is a world famous for research and conservation. It is home to over 4,000 rare and endangered animals including the famous pandas. The Wild Animal Park is an expansive wildlife sanctuary that is home to more than 3,500 animals. The climate in San Diego is ideal for growing most of the plants these animals need.
Los Angeles Zoo, situated in Griffith Park, the largest natural municipal park in the United States. 113 acres is devoted to the zoo which has 1,200 animals and is a leader in efforts to save the California Condor.
San Francisco Zoo, situated on the Great Highway, next to the Pacific Ocean, is the largest zoo in Northern California with 1,000+ animals including a rare white tiger. The children’s zoo is specially geared for younger visitors.
Cultural/Educational Family Activities
Today’s museums, visitors centres and historic sights have become interactive and educational making it more fun for the whole family. Consider visiting these favourites.
Everglades National Park in Southern Florida – You’ll find saw grass marshes, mangrove forests and extensive wetlands. This natural area is perfect for eco tours, air boating, kayaking and canoeing. Guides lead tours, day and evening, to discover wildlife including flamingoes, alligators and even the Florida panther.
Amelia Island – This barrier island in the northeast, near Jacksonville, has evolved into a family friendly destination. Families can enjoy quality time together on river cruises, nature centre programs, fly fishing, kayaking, hiking the self guided nature trails, horseback riding, exploring the wildlife on a Segway Personal Transporter Safari, and of course, spending time on the gorgeous beaches. Enjoy combing for seashells, hunting for shark teeth, or observing sea turtles in their natural habitat. Visit 19th century Fort Clinch where guides re-enact the stories of its history. In historic downtown Fernandina Beach, families can take a horse-drawn carriage ride while listening to an oral history of the city’s historic district. Many hotels offer programs and accommodations catered specifically to families and children.
Kennedy Space Centre – Only 45 minutes away from Orlando, plan a full day to explore NASA’s launch headquarters, located on a huge island wildlife refuge. At the Visitor Complex you’ll find amazing exhibits and inspiring shows about the past, present and future of the space program. If visiting during a peak period it can be crowded, especially on a cold day. Best visited in non-peak periods.
California Science Centre, Los Angeles – The West Coast’s largest hands-on science center includes a Fun Lab where kids enjoy activities and online science games. Several permanent and rotating galleries plus an IMAX theatre.
National Parks – Discover California’s natural beauty in the National Park Service areas found throughout the State. Here visitors find a wide variety of adventures from historical and cultural experiences to natural wonders. The National Park Service maintains a total of 23 different units in California including nine National Parks. See the Giant Redwoods at Redwood National Park, visit the Victorian home of John Muir, noted author and preservationist at the John Muir National Historic Site or see the cascading waterfalls of famous Yosemite National Park, one of the first wilderness parks in the United States.
The legendary Queen Mary – Tour this historic liner, docked in Long Beach. On the Behind the Scenes Guided Tour or self guided tours, you’ll learn about the ship’s history as a transatlantic liner and World War II troopship. Visit the first-class swimming pool, a popular spot for ghost sightings which is part of the Ghosts & Legends show. Spend the night in an original First Class Stateroom or dine in one of the restaurants. The Sunday brunch is said to be the best in Southern California.
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