Fun and Learning in Florida! (page 2)
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Florida is a family vacation playground, but the state is also steeped in centuries of history, a wide variety of vibrant ethnic groups and a wealth of astounding natural beauty. The northern part of Florida is more Southern in its mannerisms and culture, South Florida is a terrific hodge-podge of Latin verve and laid-back beach lovers, and everywhere are outstanding parks and recreation opportunities (the state parks are some of the best in the U.S. – a yearly pass is highly recommended.) Whether you're looking for arts, science, natural beauty or history, the Sunshine State just might be your ticket for a great family vacation. Here are the top 20 must-sees for family fun and learning:
1) Everglades National Park & Big Cypress National Preserve – The Everglades is 1.5 million acres of subtropical freshwater marshland that dominates South Florida. It’s the second-largest US national park after Yellowstone; take a guided canoe tour to see the best of it. Big Cypress is on the northern end of the Everglades and is easily accessible from the Oasis Visitor Center on US 41, the Tamiami Trail highway from Miami to Tampa.
2) Miami Festivals – Festival action never stops in multicultural Miami. In March, the traditional Cuban heart of the city is filled for the Calle Ocho Festival (where you may get to join the world’s largest conga line.) The Miami Children’s Museum sponsors a popular Children’s Film Festival in May, and in June the nation’s largest black heritage festival, the Miami/Bahamas Goombay Festival, kicks off in nearby Coconut Grove. In November the Miami Book Fair International celebrates literary delights and has a Children’s Alley, and the Junior Orange Bowl festival is stuffed with arts and sports events in late fall and into January.
3) NASA Kennedy Space Center – Visit NASA’s space shuttle launch and landing facilities at Cape Canaveral, gawk at the giant Saturn rocket, check out space flight in a simulator and sign up to meet a real astronaut!
4) Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park – This is the Cross Creek home of the author of The Yearling. Rawlings’ Cracker farmhouse near Gainesville is exactly as she left it, complete with her typewriter on the front porch as though she’d just stepped away to tend to nearby orange groves and chickens.
5) Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) – Tons of interactive exhibits, an IMAX theater and planetarium make this Tampa attraction possibly the best science-related museum in Florida.
6) City of St. Augustine – The oldest European city in the US, St. Augustine was founded by the Spanish in 1565 and is one of the few US cities with centuries of history (its downtown is a National Historic District.) The Castillo de San Marcos fort is built of local coquina shells to withstand cannon balls, and the Park Rangers wear Spanish colonial uniforms. Don’t miss the Spanish Quarter living history village, the Lightner Museum’s decorative arts, the Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse and the spectacular annual Christmas lighting displays.
7) National Naval Aviation Museum – Pensacola is home to many of the US Navy’s flight training bases, so it makes sense that this well-designed museum is located here. Every sort of aircraft that can fly off of a ship is featured, plus flight simulators, a theater and part of the legendary Cubi Point Officer’s Club, transported from its original home in the Philippines. The Navy’s Blue Angels demonstration team also stages air shows right over the Pensacola Naval Air Station.
8) See the Manatees – In the winter months (roughly November to March, but especially in January and February) Florida’s unique aquatic marine mammals cluster in the consistently warmer waters on Florida’s western coast, mostly at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Manatees also gather at Blue Springs State Park near the state’s eastern coast.
9) Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki – This excellent museum of Seminole culture is about one hour west of Fort Lauderdale, and includes audiovisual exhibits, a living village, rare artifacts and a one-mile boardwalk around the property.
10) Salvador Dali Museum – The world’s largest private collection of the artist’s often-unusual works, it spans Dali’s creative output from 1914-1970 and is located in downtown St. Petersburg. There are hands-on children’s workshops every Saturday.
11) Biscayne National Park – You have to get on a glass-bottom boat or don snorkel/scuba gear and fins to see this park just south of Miami, because it’s underwater. Reserve early for the daily guided tours of colorful marine life (like sea turtles and dolphins,) visible shipwrecks and the living coral reef. Family Fun Fest includes free public activities on the second Sunday of every month, January through May.
12) Ringling Museum of the American Circus– Housed in the over-the-top elaborate Ca’ d’Zan Ringling winter residence in Sarasota, the museum includes thousands of vintage circus artifacts and colorful circus wagons, plus a complete miniature replica circus from 1919-1938, with eight tents, 800 animals and a 59-car train.
13) Shells on Sanibel and Captiva – They actually like hurricanes here; the unique geographic layout of the southwest Florida islands results in truly amazing shelling opportunities after a storm. Explore the sea’s treasures at Sanibel’s Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, which also has a Children’s Learning Lab with live shells. A large part of Sanibel is protected via the J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge; there are numerous foot and bike trails, plus kayak and canoe routes for young Robinson Crusoes.
14) Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City – One of the oldest areas in Tampa, Ybor City was the center of the Florida cigar-making industry in the early 1900s, and it still has a very strong Spanish and Cuban flavor. Opened in 1905, the flagship Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City is a local landmark serving a wide variety of traditional Latin cuisine. They also have live flamenco shows twice nightly except Sunday. There is a children’s menu.
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