Florida needs no introduction – it’s the southern US state of year-round sunshine where theme parks were good as invented and natural attractions abound. Florida is easy-going and even easier to visit, now families can apply online for an ESTA (Electronic System Travel Authorisation) before travel to the US – don’t forget kids under 16 need their own ESTA.
But there’s a lot more to family holidays in Florida than white-knuckle rides and Cinderella’s Castle.
Direct flights from London to Orlando and Miami year-round.
December temperatures in Orlando are between 17°C and 21°C.
Orlando has more theme parks than any other US city, and Disney World is Florida’s largest single employer.
The Florida Keys
The Florida Keys have a Caribbean climate. There are up to seven direct flights from Miami to the Bahamas daily; flight time is 55 minutes.
Everglades National Park
The Everglades National Park is the largest sub-tropical wilderness in the US and covers over 6,000km² in the south of Florida.
Florida’s Gulf Coast has 10 of the US’s top 25 beaches, including Clearwater, Siesta Beach and Barefoot Beach in Bonita Springs.
Florida’s 2,170km coastline is the second-longest in the US (after Alaska), and it’s the only state to have shores on both the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic.
Where to go
Family-friendly Florida is packed with holiday accommodation, from all-inclusive and theme-park resorts in Orlando to beautiful, beachy estates on the Gulf Coast, and luxury hotels along the waterfront in Miami. Self-catering is good value right across the state, and many larger resorts offer independent villas, apartments and family suites.
With more theme parks than any other US city, some of the state’s largest designer outlet malls, immense resort hotels and endless chain restaurants, Orlando is Florida’s family-holiday capital.
Disney World, Blizzard Beach, Epcot Centre, Sea World and Universal Studios are all based in Orlando.
Kissimmee is at the heart of theme parks and family hotels.
The beautiful beaches and resorts at St Augustine are perfect for families, and just over an hour from Orlando if you want a more balanced holiday.
The warm, sunny beaches and pretty towns along the Gulf of Mexico are a very different holiday experience from Orlando. Watersports, cute seaside resorts, museums and galleries, excellent family restaurants and stunning clear-blue seas are the main attractions here. A week in Orlando and a week on the Gulf is a popular combination for UK families, and works well if you have teenagers and younger kids.
Gulf Coast islands like Sanibel and Captiva are ideal for laid-back beach holidays with babies and toddlers.
Clearwater is a lively seaside town with incredible beaches – Clearwater Beach is number three in the US’s top five best beaches.
St Petersburg is called the ‘Sunshine City’ and has lots going on for older kids and teenagers. And it’s just half -an-hour from Clearwater’s beaches.
Naples is the city for sailing and dolphin-spotting. Nearby Bonita Springs is a pretty resort town for families, and home to excellent Barefoot Beach, where you’ll find one of the largest gopher tortoise preserves in south-west Florida.
Naples is less than 40 minutes drive from the western edge of the Everglades National Park.
Alpha city Miami is thrilling to visit and packed with sights, from Little Havana to South Beach. It’s big and bold, so not the choice for a simple, sand-between-your-toes holiday. But teenagers love the energy, fantastic and fascinating places to eat, amazing galleries and museums, historic districts and sheer colour of Miami. If you’re thinking of a two-base Florida break with older kids, put Miami last or you’ll never drag them away.
Take a guided city tour, it’s the best way to see lots if you’re passing through.
Spend a day on South Beach – it’s a legend – but try Bal Harbour Beach for pure white sands and no crowds, or North Shore Open Space Park for huge green areas and walking trails on the sand. It’s regularly voted Miami’s best city beach.
The mysterious and lovely Florida Keys are a good choice for easygoing outdoor adventure, world-class watersports and Caribbean weather. Not every Key is ideal for families, so choosing a base and visiting the others is the best way to work a holiday here.
Key Largo is a lot of fun for kids, with several attractions and superb outdoor activities (on and off the water). It’s also right on the edge of the Everglades, has the US’s only living coral reef and is one of the state’s top scuba diving areas. Family hotels range from international brand resorts to quaint and local here, and it’s the northernmost Key, so closest to Miami.
Gorgeous Islamorada is a string of little islands with the most beautiful white-sand beaches on the Keys. Just over an hour’s drive from Miami, the area has a mix of luxurious waterfront resorts, heritage self-catering and cute family guesthouses and small hotels.
Key West is the southerly Key and most colourful by far. There are few beaches, but deep-sea fishing is the stuff of legend (one of the reasons Hemingway had a home here) and the pretty town couldn’t be more charming and friendly. Not the best place to stay for families, but wonderful to visit even if just for a day – it’s a little more than an hour from Islamorada and you get to drive across the stunning Seven Mile Bridge.
What to do
Disney World, Orlando
The jury’s always out on the world’s most famous theme park: kids either love it or they’re disappointed after all the hype. Cut down on the latter by booking ahead for rides and experiences, as the queues can seem endless.
If you don’t have an issue with the concept, this is one of the best Orlando all-rounders. The Dolphin Nursery is enchanting.
Blizzard Beach, Orlando
Orlando is packed with waterparks, but this one is exceptional. Expect to go more than once.
Everglades National Park
You can dip into the edges, explore by car or be guided by experts on boats and trains – it’s all spectacular, strange and unforgettable for youngsters.
About as close as you can get to everything marine, from penguins to dolphins via dozens of other sea creatures. The Seaquarium conservation-centred and the team are amazing with kids.
The Dali Museum, St Petersburg
World-class collection of the artist’s work, awe-inspiring building and a superb programme of family activities and events with surreal themes – naturally.
Key West Shipwreck Museum
Not in the same league as the Orlando offerings but very well done, lots of interesting things to see and do and very interactive.
A cageless environment with surprisingly big wildlife, considering. The zoo is very safe and well managed, and regularly has the cutest babies in residence.
Pérez Art Museum Miami
This award-winning art gallery and exhibition space has events year-round and the building alone is worth a visit.
You’ll get about as close to these prehistoric beasts as you want to, but the keepers aren’t so cautious, and alligator-wrestling is just one bold performance here.
Educational value for kids
Visit Little Havana for Viernes Culturales on the last Friday of every month between 7pm and 11pm. This wildly colourful and exciting district goes into overdrive, with everything from music and dance to street food, theatre, performance and art – it’s a very family-friendly celebration and kids fit right in.
Take the two-hour train journey through the Everglades’ Shark Valley.
The Gulf Coast beaches are made for watersports, and you’ll easy find beginners’ courses for kids as young as five.
Visit Wynwood Walls, Miami’s permanent (but constantly evolving) street-art exhibition in the city’s Wynwood District.
Take the glass-bottomed boat tour of the US’s only living coral barrier reef, in Key Largo.
The Loggerhead Marinelife Center on Juno Beach is dedicated to rehabilitating injured turtles and returning them to the wild.
Getting around with kids in Florida
Hire a car to travel around outside cities. Downtown Orlando and city-centre Miami have excellent public transport. If you’re planning to stay in more than one area, domestic flights connect most of Florida’s cities. And you really can’t get about the Keys without driving.