When our little California family got invited to a friend's wedding in Key Largo, we hesitated to RSVP. Our daughter was just 15 months old, and though we typically jump at any chance for a vacation, we didn't know whether we could justify cross-country flights with enough things to do that would keep our child—and us—happy to be away from home.
We needn't have worried. Say what you will about Florida, but it can be heaven for little ones. We checked our car seat with our luggage, rented a safe sedan, and set off on a road trip that started in Key Largo and meandered thereafter to all of the state's attractions and towns that we thought would capture our toddler's heart.
If you're thinking of taking your young child to Florida, feel free to copy our itinerary, which, I can assure you, will create sheer joy for your child, memories that'll last your family a lifetime, and even a little parental pampering.
Head straight to Key Largo after you break free from the airport. Its easy pace, aquamarine views, and Caribbean breezes will relax all of you. Those factors, plus a pretty-near-perfect climate, also soothe any jitters you might have about having flown your little one so far from home.
We stayed at the Hilton Key Largo Resort, which has its own tropical beach. Our daughter had fun feeling the sand under her feet and taking her first steps in the Atlantic. As for our king-bed guestroom, it was spacious enough that, even with our daughter's stuff strewn everywhere (plus the crib the staff sent up), it didn't feel cramped.
The Hilton is a full-fledged resort with three good spots to eat—including one out on the beach—so there's no need to pack into the car to go get food. But if you do feel like venturing out for a casual breakfast, stop in at Mrs. Mac's Kitchen, a local favorite known for hearty breakfasts, kitschy decor, and friendly service.
Sure, Key West is a bit of a rum-soaked party town, but it's also packed with activities to delight a little one. Ours appreciated everything we tried, from the Conch Tour Train that choo-choos around Key West's colorful center to the Key West Aquarium, where she befriended a wise old turtle.
The sheer volume of old-time tchotchkes kept her eyes and mind busy at the Shipwreck Treasure Museum. She also loved being on the water—we took one of Fury Water Adventures' glass-bottom boats in the morning and one of Schooner Appledore's sunset cruises in the evening; both were unforgettable moments for our family.
The Lighthouse Court Hotel, walking distance from everything we wanted to explore, was also just the right pace for us. Breakfast is included, and there's a swimming pool, friendly staffers, and attractive decor. Another plus: It's across from the Ernest Hemingway Home, which was fascinating to me for the literary history and just as fascinating to my daughter for the herd of roaming six-toed cats.
Our favorite meals were at Rum Barrel, where we had a casual lunch; and at Blue Heaven, which is a touch upscale but also a touch quirky and outdoorsy, making it a good option for getting a nice dinner with your child along.
Related: 10 Best Beach Towns in Florida
Once you've lounged on the beach enough to have sufficiently unwound, explore the treasures along the spectacular Overseas Highway, a 128-mile stretch of bridges and islands that'll eventually land you in Key West.
This drive is on many a bucket list, and though your car-seat-bound passenger obviously won't see the panoramic views, you can make stops that amp up his or her excitement level. At Robbie's in Islamorada, for example, park your little one in a high chair with a full view of the ocean, swarming pelicans, and massive tarpons being fed by children. There's a decent kids' menu, so order off that, eat, and then stroll the craft booths and walk the docks to see the animals closer up.
Other stops on your way down the highway might include Marathon's new Aquarium Encounters where touch tanks, shark feedings, and 200,000 gallons filled with tropical species will captivate your child; or the Turtle Hospital, also in Marathon, where you'll meet loggerhead, hawksbill, and highly endangered Kemp's ridley turtles.
The Everglades is a vastly underrated national park. We were amazed by how many animals we saw—at least as many as if we'd gone to the zoo for the day—and by the flat, all-the-way-to-the-horizon vistas that rival what you'd see in an African safari.
While we walked the Anhinga Trail, which seems built for strollers, a passionate ranger told us about all the wildlife we were seeing—from the hordes of alligators (most stay below the paved trail but you'll still want to watch your child closely) to the sunning turtles and egrets, herons, and anhingas. He also taught us that Everglades National Park isn't exactly a stretch of land—it's more a very wide, slow-moving river making its way to the Atlantic Ocean—and that its wetlands are in dire need of more protection.
The Gumbo Limbo Trail is also extremely stroller-friendly, though more forested and less teeming with life. (But we did spot an owl calling out to its mate in broad daylight.)
There's really no better place in Florida than the Everglades to take a child if you'd like to nurture a budding love for nature.
No trip to Florida with anyone under the age of 13 is complete without at least one day at Disney World. (We focused on Magic Kingdom, but Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and any of Orlando's other theme parks are also worth your time.)
Having never taken our 15-month-old to anything like Disney before, we wondered whether a theme park would overwhelm her, and whether there'd be enough attractions suited to a wee one's sensibilities. Boy, were there ever. We went on as many of the kiddie rides as we could, plus the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean. But the biggest hits were It's a Small World, the Enchanted Tiki Room, the Carousel of Progress, and the incomparable Electrical Parade. Our fearless one also loved the fireworks and the costumed characters, though I've heard that those can be scary for some.
If you're wondering whether a theme park visit is right for your child, keep in mind that at Disney World, admission is free for ages 2 and younger, so even if you have to leave early, it's worth a try. I saw hundreds of babies there, older and younger than my daughter, and the vast majority of them looked like they were having the time of their life. Just rent one of the park's strollers ($15, or bring your own), use FastPass wisely, and know that there's a Baby Care Center right off Main Street, and you'll be set up for an experience to remember.
Orlando Beyond the Theme Parks
Contrary to popular belief, Orlando isn't all theme parks. It's also a city like any other (and also a bit unlike any other). "As our theme parks continue to expand at record pace," says Mark Jaronski, a spokesperson for the city, "so do the number of retail, dining, and nighttime entertainment offerings."
One of those evening offerings is a whimsical show called La Nouba, perhaps Cirque du Soleil's most child-friendly production anywhere (its circus tent is within the Disney World Resort). Admission is free for young children, so we braved the 90-minute performance and were glad we did. There were a couple of loud moments when I had to cover her ears, but otherwise the experience was fabulous: She was completely transfixed by the wild costumes, Olympic-caliber acrobats, classically trained clowns, powerful singers, and live orchestra.
Another Orlando show ideal for an audience of tots happens at WonderWorks, a great attraction whose facade is built to look like a fancy mansion plopped upside down. The Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner Show spotlights an energetic entertainer who cracks up kids and adults. Admission includes all-you-can-eat pizza—and all-you-can-drink beer and wine.
Since there's no way any parent could do all of the above without having a serious hankering for a massage or at least a manicure, my husband and I found a small place in town simply called The Spa and took turns hanging out with our daughter (Princeton Park is a half-mile away) while the other got a rejuvenating rubdown courtesy of some capable hands.
If you can, stay at the Villas of Grand Cypress, ranked as the # 1 hotel in Orlando by TripAdvisor. The service is exceptional but low-key, the lodgings are like having your own private house—it's nice not to share walls when there's the distinct possibility of a wailing baby on either side—and there's wildlife all around. When your little one stares out the window, lots of birds will stare right back.
Orlando is also home to the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens and the brand-new Crayola Experience. And it's near Dinosaur World and the Kennedy Space Center, among many other kid-friendly attractions.
We didn't stay long in Miami, mainly using it as a jumping-off point for the Everglades and Orlando. We did, however, spend two nights at Angler's in South Beach, a stylish boutique hotel that's set back from the party scene and has a swimming pool perfect for a dip with your little one. It's a Kimpton property, so the staffers are experts at tending to their youngest guests. Our daughter got a free backpack filled with age-appropriate toys and treats as a welcome gift, and we could have gotten a "pet" goldfish in our room if we'd asked for one, though we didn't.
There are indeed fabulous things to do with a young child in Miami—the beaches, of course; the zoo; the Children's Museum; Jungle Island; and dinner at Monty's in Coconut Grove, where kids dance to live music.
Related: Florida's Best Hidden Beaches
Tips for Bringing a Young Child to Florida
The tips for bringing a young child to Florida don't differ much from tips for bringing a young child to any warm-weather destination with lots to do, but they bear repeating.
Apparel: Aside from what you'd normally pack for your child for any trip, throw in sunhats, sunglasses, and bathing suits or swim diapers. When you head out for the day, pack layers for your little one and yourself—Florida is often toasty, but our Disney World day actually ended up in the low 50s. I'd brought bundle-up clothes for our daughter, but my husband and I, both wearing shorts, shivered as we awaited the shuttle back to our hotel.
Food and drink: Always have lots for your child to drink, whether water or milk, and plenty of bottles or sippy cups. Pack more snacks than you think you'll need—those squeezy food pouches from brands like Plum and Sprout were our saving grace. As for restaurants, look for ones where kids eat free, or request an extra plate and share whatever you order with your high-chair-contained companion. If you're a breastfeeding mama who prefers a cover (my favorite for traveling was from Bebe Au Lait), pack it in your daypack and pull it out whenever needed—no one ever gave me a second glance.
Equipment and gear: Bring or rent a car seat, of course, but don't forget sunscreen, a small umbrella stroller, and lots of distractions—favorite books and toys, a sticker book, crayons—for the plane ride. And get yourself a decent backpack that can carry everything you'll need for a full day out with your little one.
Whatever happens, just go with the flow. Schedules have a way of getting mucked up on trips like this, especially if you're hopping time zones, and that's okay. If your child falls asleep on Key West's Conch Train, as ours did, just go with it. A nap is a nap. You can reestablish things when you get home. In the meantime, these memory-making moments are all worth it.
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(Photo: Baby on Beach via Shutterstock)