Family Vacations to the Florida Keys

Key West's Duval Street, Key West, Florida
Key West's Duval Street (courtesy, Florida Keys TDC)

The Florida Keys Travel Tips

  • Snorkel and dive colorful coral reefs teeming with fish.
  • Swim with dolphins, learn about turtles, and look for Key deer.
  • Celebrate the sunset at Mallory Square.
  • Discover pirate legends and get an eyeful of real pirate booty.

The Florida Keys, a 120-mile-long chain of islands that demarks the most southerly part of the continental U.S., lures boaters, divers, and snorkelers with its turquoise waters, bountiful coral reefs, and sportfishing. The area's plentiful wildlife is another boon for vacationing families, who'll be able to check fish, dolphins, turtles, and even deer off their lists.

Beach lovers will find some of the region's best sands at the state parks that line the Keys—no small boast for a beach-blessed place like Florida. Key Largo's John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park occupies more than 100 square miles of coast, with its coral reefs beginning three to eightmiles offshore. Along with glass-bottom boat tours, the park offers snorkeling outings with onboard lessons for beginners. From Cannon Beach, you can swim to the ruins of a Spanish shipwreck submerged 100 feet offshore. More beaches, along with beautiful coral reefs, are what draw visitors to Big Pine Key's Bahia Honda State Park, 37 miles north of Key West. Sandspur is the largest beach here, Loggerhead is the shallowest and best for little kids, and Calusa is the smallest.

The Lower Keys provide verdant cover for the endangered Key deer at the National Key Deer Refuge, 12,200 acres of mostly shrub wetlands and wetland marshes, with about 2,300 acres of upland forests. Almost extinct in the 1980s, Key deer now number about 800 and can be seen throughout the refuge. Slow down as you drive through here on your way to Key West and keep your eyes peeled for these lovable animals.

Marathon, about halfway down the Keys, is home to several worthwhile wildlife attractions. At the Dolphin Research Center, enjoy close encounters with one of the Keys' most popular residents. Tots as young as three can get a flippershake and a wet kiss while standing on the dock, and five- to 12-year-olds (accompanied by a parent) as well as adults can get in the water with these friendly critters. The Turtle Hospital rehabilitates and releases sick and injured loggerhead, green, hawksbill, and Kemp's Ridley turtles. Visit the recovering patients and see permanent residents such as Bubbles, whose flipper was ripped off by a motorboat. At Islamorada's Theater of the Sea, a marine-life park, watch dolphin, sea lion, and parrot shows followed by a guided tour of the marine exhibits.

Also in Marathon, 63-acre Crane Point's attractions are best for young children. They can explore a natural history museum, tour a wild-bird refuge, and dress up in pirate clothes at the Children's Museum.

For more on the region's pirates, visit Key West's Pirate Soul, a museum dedicated to the exploits of these ship-hijacking scallywags. (The Keys were a pirate haven in the 16th and 17th centuries as ships and explorers carried riches and bounty to and from the New World.) The museum's booty includes Blackbeard's blunderbuss, cannonballs, and the original journal from Captain Kidd's last voyage.

If the kids tire of walking, board Key West's Conch Tour Train, a 90-minute, narrated drive-by of famed spots including Ernest Hemingway's home and President Harry Truman's Little White House. Be sure to hit Mallory Square for the nightly Sunset Celebration that starts about two hours before sunset. Magicians, jugglers, sword swallowers, and guitarists are just some of the performers who turn the place into a street party each night. The lively gathering, complete with T-shirt and jewelry vendors and lots of tourists, lasts until shortly after sundown.

Tip: The Key West Express ferries passengers to the U.S.'s southernmost city in about 3.5 hours from Fort Myers Beach and Marco Island.

Recommended Side Trips: Miami, Fort Myers Beach, Marco Island, Everglades National Park's resident family expert Candyce Stapen has written the book on family travel, having authored some 1,400 travel articles and 27 books, 26 of them on family travel. She is the winner of the 2004 "Caribbean Travel Writer of the Year for North America" award and a three-time winner of the Society of American Travel Writers' Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism award. Her articles have appeared in publications including Nick Jr , FamilyFun , Parents , Better Homes & Gardens , Conde Nast Traveler , National Geographic Traveler , and the Family Travel Network , among others. Her book, the National Geographic Guide to Caribbean Family Vacations is available from

Published: 3 Oct 2007 | Last Updated: 17 Aug 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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