BY GINA BIRCH
FORT MYERS LOCAL EXPERT
Does the term ‘family vacation’ produce feelings of excitement or anxiety, or perhaps something in between? The logistics of these getaways can require a bit of effort, from where to stay and eat, to what to do. Thankfully the Fort Myers area has the ‘what to do’ question more than covered.
The beautiful beaches are an easy choice to accommodate any age range in your family. But if you want something other than salt water to cool off in, Sun Splash Family Water Park will do the trick. There are slides with great speed and large drops, as well as a relaxing river to float along.
If you want a little education mixed in with your fun, walk through the preserves at the Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium, where you'll spot reptiles and other native creatures.
There are a number of ‘one stop shop’ kind of places too, where families can interact with animals, participate in educational activities, and also enjoy sports and games. At these places, everyone is a kid, no matter what your ID says.
These 10Best family-friendly activities are sure to entertain the little guys while still pleasing the big ones too.
Certain times of the year, it's faster and easier to maneuver by bicycle on Sanibel Island than by car, and it's more fun too. Billy's Bike Rentals is loaded with options to take care of everyone in your family, even those who haven't learned to ride yet. Besides individual bikes and bicycles built for two, there are covered surreys so the entire family can share in the peddling. Grab a map and off you go to explore island highlights like the historic lighthouse and the world-renowned Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Be sure to take a break at a beach access for a refreshing dip or some shelling. The surreys have room for bags in case you do a little shopping or want to pack a picnic.
Recommended for Things to Do with Kids because: Rent a surrey or individual bike and explore all that Sanibel Island has to offer, and on your own time table.
Gina's expert tip: If you're staying on the island, "Billy" can deliver your bike.
The Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium in Fort Myers make learning fun. Spanning over 100 acres with elevated boardwalks and a museum, this interactive education center allows families to get up close and personal with some of Florida's native creatures, including snakes and alligators. There's also a stunning butterfly aviary and the Audubon Aviary, which houses permanently injured birds of prey like hawks, bald eagles and owls. The planetarium offers an exciting celestial experience for all ages. There are stargazing programs and nighttime laser light shows, the show featuring the music of Pink Floyd being among the most popular. If you happen to be in town for Halloween, the Haunted Walk through the dark swampy trails is sure to get your adrenaline up.
Recommended for Things to Do with Kids because: A great place to get in touch with Florida's nature during the day, while enjoying laser light and planetary shows at night.
Gina's expert tip: Ask about discounts for students and seniors.
FORT MYERS BEACH
Photo courtesy of Pieces of Eight Pirate Cruise
Get ready for some swashbuckling action with pirates the likes of Captain Jack, Peg Leg Meg and Pick Pocket Pete, aboard the Pieces of Eight Pirate Cruise in Estero Bay. Your adventure begins at Salty Sam's Marina, just before the big bridge to Fort Myers Beach, where you can dine at Parrot Key or Bootleggers. The 65-foot Spanish Galleon-style ship sells snack food and has a full bar; after all what respectable pirate takes to the seas without rum for mom and dad? The ship sails at different times starting at 9 am and going until 8 pm depending on the day of the week and time of year. You can upgrade your ticket to include pirate paraphernalia such as eye patches, swords, water pistols, hats and more. It's a fun and festive way to see the Fort Myers waterways.
Recommended for Things to Do with Kids because: The 90-minute cruise aboard a 65-foot Spanish Galleon-style boat is highlighted by the antics of a band of swashbuckling pirates. It's a cheeky good time.
Gina's expert tip: There is an adults only cruise on Friday nights where the humor can get a little naughty
HeadPinz is a one-stop shop for family entertainment. This 48 thousand square foot entertainment complex is centered on bowling; three unique rooms totaling 28 lanes and a killer sound system. However, the first thing to catch one's attention is the Game Zone, lit up like Las Vegas. Purchase a Passport to Fun Card, play as many of the popular arcade games as you can, then cash in your points for prizes. Kids and adults both like the ropes course, suspended above the Game Zone and JukinBox, with its lighted dance floor. Laser Tag is so popular that the wait for a 15-minute session is sometimes more than an hour. HeadPinz is also famous for its 48-inch pizzas and a sports bar where mom and dad can escape while the kids play.
Recommended for Things to Do with Kids because: This locally owned spot is massive, with arcade games, bowling, a ropes course, laser tag, dining and more.
Gina's expert tip: The private bowling lanes, restaurant and ample space make HeadPinz a good location to host a party
If you're looking for a day of 'Old Florida' fun, you'll find it at the Shell Factory and Nature Center. The Nature Center is full of exotic and native animals from camels and zebras to alligators and hissing cockroaches. Kids will enjoy the petting zoo and butterfly garden too. The Fun Park features a host of water activities such as bumper and paddle boats. There is even a zip line across the lake. You can test your skills on the miniature golf course or on the many arcade games. There's no need to leave the property when you've worked up a good appetite, thanks to the popular Captain Fishbones restaurant, serving local cuisine. The Shell Factory is also one of the best places to shop for authentic Florida souvenirs.
Recommended for Things to Do with Kids because: An 'Old Florida' spot with shopping and dining, a Nature Park featuring exotic animals and a Fun Park with boats, mini-golf and a zip line.
Gina's expert tip: The attraction is currently undergoing renovations that include a space for live musical and theatrical productions.
Walking the 2.5 miles of paved and unpaved paths at Lakes Park is free but if you have a few extra dollars there are boat and bike rentals too. The small water park is free for kids to cool off and concessions are available. Check out the Miniature Railroad offering a 15-minute ride past a small scale village. Hurricane Irma took a toll but you'll still see exotic vegetation and the occasional alligator in the 158 acres of freshwater quarry lakes; fishing is allowed. On your walk or ride, you'll spot birds like the Ibis and Heron, enjoy the fragrance garden, a seasonal community garden and rest in the gazebo or the many covered picnic areas. The park is also home to many cultural and music festivals and a seasonal Farmers Market on Friday mornings. Be sure to check the park's calendar for events.
Recommended for Things to Do with Kids because: This outdoor nature park offers a watery playground, biking, boating and plenty of space for picnics and play.
Gina's expert tip: There is a second entrance from Summerlin Road, for foot and bike traffic only.
The IMAG History & Science Center is an incredible museum meets aquarium hands-on experience, that promises to entertain and even inspire creativity. Here, children and their adult companions enjoy diverse diversions like running through rainstorms, experiencing tropical storm force winds and reporting about it on the museum TV screen. The museum's exhibits also include the Dino Dig where kids look for real fossils, the Sporty Science Arena to test your physical skills and Tiny Town for kids under twelve. Outside, you'll find the Fisheye Lagoon where you can feed sea creatures and learn about marine life. You can even feel some of the resident reptiles, mammals and fish in designated touch tanks and during programs. There is always something creative going on at the IMAG History & Science Center.
Recommended for Things to Do with Kids because: One of the areas most comprehensive hands-on museums with touch tanks, TV weather sets, wind machines and more, to educate and entertain families.
Gina's expert tip: Parking is free.
Photo courtesy of Mike Greenwell's
Gator Mike's, formerly, Mike Greenwell's Family Fun Park, is ideal for the active and competitive family. Great for kids of all ages with action like go-cart racing, paintball and miniature golf. However, the signature activity is the batting cage. Eight different cages pitch balls with speeds ranging from 30-75, including both slow and fast pitch softball. Don't worry about packing your gear, everything you need is available for cheap rent. Greenwell's has dozens of arcade games inside and a dock outside where you can feed the fish and turtles. Add to the list a sports bar and a gift shop and you have one well-rounded place for family fun.
Recommended for Things to Do with Kids because: Owned by the former Boston Red Sox slugger Mike Greenwell, enjoy activities from batting cages and paintball, to mini golf and arcade games.
Gina's expert tip: Check the website for updates on special holiday and seasonal celebrations all year long
There is so much water in the Fort Myers area but there is only one, true water park. Explore more than fourteen acres of water slides, pools and activities at Sun Splash Family Water Park. Kids go crazy for the adrenaline pumping speed slides and others that allow you to free fall through a five-and-a-half story drop. If that's too much excitement, grab a float and peacefully bob down the Main Stream River Ride. There is a Tot Spot for the little ones and plenty of chairs for mom and dad to stretch out in the sun. Food and concessions are available and lots of special deals are offered throughout the summer so be sure to check the events calendar online. The water park typically closes at the end of October through February but the site is still used for carnivals and food and music events.
Recommended for Things to Do with Kids because: It's the only true water park in the area with thrilling slides, lazy floats and lots of fun in the sun.
Gina's expert tip: The park closes late fall, through the winter season.
Fort Myers Beach is perhaps the most popular place for families to explore. A day at the beach provides an endless amount of things to do, from parasailing and jet skiing to shelling and building sand castles, to simply relaxing. The gently sloping shores and light waves make it a safe swimming spot for little tykes, and with seven miles of shoreline, they'll have lots of room to run around and play. Lynn Hall Park is in the heart of beach activities, including dining and shopping. If you prefer nature trails and more peace and quiet, try Bowditch Park at the north end of the island. You'll find the award-winning Lovers Key State Park at the south end of the island and a reliable trolley system to transport you to all.
Recommended for Things to Do with Kids because: Fort Myers beach offers water sports, sunning, shelling and swimming, along with lovely natural parks and preserves.
Gina's expert tip: Take a trolley to explore each end of the beach, and all that lies in between