Ideas for Your Family Vacation in Fort Lauderdale
By Jodi Mailander Farrell
Once an iconic Spring Break city, Fort Lauderdale has left behind its “Where the Boys Are” past to become “Where the Families Are.”
Sun-drenched debauchery has been replaced with child-friendly waterside restaurants, resorts that cater to kids, and family-centric attractions for making memories.
Whether you’re riding bikes along the beach, hopping on a water taxi or hanging onto a swamp buggy as it bounces across the Everglades, getting around this region of South Florida is part of the fun.
Fort Lauderdale has more than seven miles of beaches along its coastline, connected by the city’s signature beachfront promenade and wavewall, and recognized by the Clean Beaches Council for being clean, safe and user-friendly.
From the South Beach Picnic Area to Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, there are staffed lifeguard towers every 200 to 400 yards. The beach at 240 S. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd. puts you in the middle of it all. Insider’s tip: A pedestrian tunnel under AIA connects Hugh Taylor Birch State Park to a quiet, secluded stretch of the beach.
For a fun beach day, head to Hollywood, just south of Fort Lauderdale, to rent bikes and peddle along the Hollywood Beach Broadwalk, at Hollywood Boulevard and AIA. The brick promenade – named one of America’s Best Beach Boardwalks by Travel + Leisure magazine – stretches nearly 2½ miles, with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and shops, outdoor cafes, hotels and a farmers market on the other. For an overview of the area’s beaches, go here.
On the Water
Fort Lauderdale’s system of canals has earned it the nickname “Venice of America.” The city’s affordable, narrated water taxi is a good way to hop on and off all day for sightseeing. The fleet of 14 boats has 15 convenient stops at beaches, the Museum of Discovery and Science and Las Olas Boulevard shops, among other places. The Water Taxi Tracker app allows visitors to see the wait time until the next boat arrives at each location.
For a more elaborate excursion, book a narrated cruise on the Jungle Queen riverboat, an operation that has plied the New River since 1935. There are 90-minute narrated trips, three-hour tours that stop on a tropical island for animal shows, and dinner cruises with all-you-can-eat buffets and live variety shows. Catch the riverboat at the Bahia Mar Yachting Center, 801 Seabreeze Blvd.
Topeekeegee Yugnee Park (TY Park for short) is a 138-acre park with nature trails and playgrounds, but it’s best known for its Castaway Island Water Park, which includes a gentle water playground for ages 5 and under, a lagoon/swimming pool with waterfall, and a big-kid water playground with dumping buckets and slides. Located at 3300 N. Park Rd. in Hollywood, it’s among the top water parks for kids in South Florida.
Bluefoot Pirate Family Adventure is an interactive pirate cruise designed for families with children of all ages on the Intracoastal Waterway. The 90-minute excursion on the “high seas” includes pirate costumes, a treasure hunt, face painting and water cannon fights. It’s based out of the Bahia Mar Yachting Center, 801 Seabreeze Blvd.
Everglades Holiday Park, at 21940 Griffin Rd., is a wildlife preserve and theme park on 29 acres of wetland just west of the city that offers 60-minute airboat rides, gator shows, animal encounters and fishing.
Take a day trip to the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, an hour-long drive west of Fort Lauderdale, to learn about the land and culture of the Seminole Indians on their 2,200-acre preserve. At the reservation’s Billie Swamp Safari, 30000 Gator Tail Trail in Clewiston, you can take a ride on a swamp buggy (an elevated four-wheeler) to see native and exotic animals, watch a snake show, sleep in a Seminole chickee hut, listen to folklore around a campfire or skim across the River of Grass in an airboat.
The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, on the reservation at 34725 W. Boundary Rd., is home to more than 180,000 artifacts and archival items, including patchwork clothing, baskets, dolls and newspapers.
Learn & Play
In downtown Fort Lauderdale, the Museum of Discovery & Science, 401 SW 2nd St., is a local favorite (and also a water taxi stop). Large aquariums provide views of fish, otters and alligators, a 50-foot Megalodon and live dig pit thrill dinosaur fans, and an interactive orange grove keeps little ones intrigued.
Stop by the Buehler Planetarium every Wednesday night, 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., for guided star-watching through powerful telescopes at the 40-foot dome facility on the Broward College campus at 111 E. Las Olas Blvd.
A 30-foot-high playground, ball-blaster arena with air cannons, climbing wall, laser maze and café are part of the play-all-day attractions at Funderdome Indoor Playground & Café in the Southport Shopping Center, 1455 SE 17th St.
The family-friendly chain Dave & Buster’s offers indoor gaming fun in Oakwood Plaza, 3000 Oakwood Blvd., in nearby Hollywood.
Laser tag and escape room enthusiasts will like Laser Quest, 2101 N. University Dr., just west of Fort Lauderdale in Sunrise.
Step back in time and introduce the kids to America’s drive-in movie tradition at Thunderbird Drive-In, 3291 W. Sunrise Blvd. A golf cart drives around to deliver snacks.
Monster Mini Golf is an indoor, glow-in-the-dark, 18-hole miniature golf course at 9533 Westview Dr. in Coral Springs, a western suburb of Fort Lauderdale. At each hole, the grim reaper, Frankenstein and other scary creatures greet players.
Retreat to tropical gardens, waterfalls and 20,000 butterflies at Butterfly World, 10 miles north of Fort Lauderdale at 3600 W. Sample Rd. in Coconut Creek. It’s the largest butterfly preserve in the world. You can hand-feed the Lorikeets!
For creatives, the Young at Art Museum, just west of downtown at 751 SW 121st Ave. in Davie, offers hands-on activities, from learning how to make origami art to constructing musical instruments from discarded objects.
Stroll and snap family selfies through the streets of nearby Hollywood, where the Downtown Hollywood Mural Project features more than two dozen street paintings by internationally-recognized artists like Kenny Scharf and local favs like the TM Sisters. Plan your route in the three-block area by using the project’s online map.
With its carnival-like atmosphere, Jaxson’s Ice Cream Parlor, 128 S. Federal Hwy., is a Dania Beach landmark, with kid faves like burgers, chicken fingers and, most importantly, old-fashioned ice cream sundaes, milkshakes and hand-dipped ice cream cones.
Mai Kai Restaurant and Polynesian Show is a historic, tiki-themed restaurant that serves Asian food and a kitschy “Islander Revue” show with dancers and musicians at 3599 N. Federal Hwy.
Every Monday night, from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., Arts Park hosts a Food Truck Invasion of about 25 food trucks at 1 Young Circle in Hollywood, a great place to bring the family and picnic.
More Family Fun
Traveling to other Florida destinations with your gang? Here are more ideas for family fun around the Sunshine State.