1/7 Florida road trips from Miami to Key West: 160 miles
Fun in Miami
Florida road trips almost have to include the iconic Florida Keys – the string of low-slung islands that curls down from the main body of the state like a pretty tail. But before you set off, linger in Miami – a city which, for all its reputation as an unabashed party zone, has plenty of family entertainment. Miami Children’s Museum alone has 14 different galleries.
Explore the Keys
From Miami, follow US Route 1 south until it becomes the ‘Overseas Highway’ – the 128-mile road that links the Keys, flitting over bridges and causeways. Key Largo, the northernmost of the islands, has immediate appeal in the form of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, a protected area where you can go on a 90-minute snorkelling jaunt, or embark on a glass-bottom-boat “safari” in search of the sea turtles that reside in the area.
The journey south becomes increasingly picturesque – especially at islets such as Conch Key and Little Duck Key. And the prize at the end, Key West, is no less appealing. Here, the likes of Smathers Beach and Rest Beach are safe for kids, and the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center brings the local ecosystem vividly to life with touch screens and film presentations. Key West Airport offers flights back to Miami.
2/7 Florida road trips from Miami to Naples: 121 miles
Miami’s famous South Beach is as much an inviting enclave for families as it is for the joggers and volleyball players who pound its sands. But one of the great joys of southern Florida’s swaggering city is that you can quickly escape its orbit and enter the wilderness.
US Route 41 runs west from the ocean and, within 20 miles, reaches the Everglades – the fabled wetlands where alligators doze at roadsides, crocodiles glide in soupy waters and (elusive) panthers skulk in the shadows. Some of the region is protected as Everglades National Park, and most of it is open to operators who run trips that show off its sharp-toothed reptiles to enthralled children.
Marco Island, 30 miles west of Everglades City, is the point where the focus shifts from snap-jawed beasts to the gentle waves of the Gulf coast. Here, Tigertail Beach Park is a lovely seafront strip where white dunes frame a lagoon, ideal for a quiet afternoon. This could act as a precursor to Naples – an elegant town, 20 miles further north, where the wildlife theme can be extended via a search for dolphins. Pure Naples specialises in “Dolphin Watch” cruises on the Gordon River inlet, where these magical mammals leap, soar and splash.
3/7 Florida road trips from Naples to Sarasota: 118 miles
Cruise the Coast
Florida’s Gulf coast can be a very different proposition from its Atlantic rival. Certainly, a quieter ambience plays out in southerly Naples – where Vanderbilt Beach is a splendid spot for families to watch seabirds swooping, or to fill a bucket with seashells. US Route 41 shadows the shoreline as it ebbs north – and 43 miles of it will bring you to Fort Myers, another photogenic town.
Adjacent Sanibel is calm encapsulated. This 12-mile barrier isle is linked to the mainland by a three-mile causeway (which has several pull-off points where cameras can be aimed at the scenery). Once you have crossed the gap, you find a haven laced with cycle paths. Bikes are welcome in the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, a wetland area that plays host to 272 species of bird.
Some 75 miles north of Fort Myers on Route 41, Sarasota also basks in the sun. Here, Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium is a fine attraction for kids – fitted with touch pools swirling with marine animals, and a large shark tank where the greatest of fish move with magnificent menace.
4/7 Florida road trips from Fort Myers to Tampa: 127 miles
Follow the Coast
Fort Myers is a prime starting point for a road trip, due to the presence of Southwest Florida International Airport, which receives flights from several US cities (including Orlando) – meaning you can start a holiday adventure here without having to drive from Miami.
This can leave more time to explore the Gulf coast – which throws out some of its most beautiful sections in the 100 or so miles north of Fort Myers. A left turn off Route 41 for Sarasota and Bradenton will carry you onto State Road 789, and the barrier islands which flirt with the mainland here. Lido Key and Longboat Key are delightful, but Anna Maria Island is truly special. Anna Maria Beach, on its south-west shore, is another fine family-friendly spot.
Bradenton, directly to the east (back on the mainland), also has much to entertain young visitors. Local operators offer horse rides along – and into the waters of – Palma Sola Bay. Equally, the South Florida Museum, is another great family attraction in the heart of the town.
Return to Route 41 in Bradenton, and you are on the fast track north to Tampa (45 miles) – where the Busch Gardens theme park delivers thrill rides galore for older children.
5/7 Florida road trips from St Petersburg to Fort Walton Beach: 462 miles
For families keen to forge out beyond the usual routes, the north-west shoulder of Florida is the state’s area of mystery – a region where fewer tourists venture. Tampa’s neighbour St Petersburg is a viable start-point – an attractive town where you can idle next to the water in Vinoy Park. Nearby, Clearwater also makes for a lovely start to a holiday. It’s home to Caladesi Island State Park, another idyllic barrier isle on the Gulf.
Some 45 miles north along US Route 19, Weeki Wachee Springs State Park is Florida at its most kitsch. And a further 80 miles north, Cedar Key is a complete contrast, a fishing town where you can rent kayaks, and paddle sheltered waters awash with egrets and pelicans.
Try Somewhere New
If you have the appetite, you can ignore the beaten path entirely. Panama City Beach sits 259 miles from Cedar Key – via US 19 and Route 98 – but rewards families who make the trip with the slides and pools of Shipwreck Island Water Park. Some 56 miles west along the Gulf, Fort Walton Beach also charms with attractions like the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park.
6/7 Florida road trips from Orlando to Crystal River: 120 miles
Orlando is an obvious focal point for a family break in Florida, its siren call heard by kids all over the planet. Walt Disney World Resort is a fantasy collection of theme parks and waterparks. And Universal Orlando Resort is the home of The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter.
Find Your Calm Along Route 441
But a stay in this city of excitement can also be combined with a road trip into a tranquil side of Florida. Take the winding Route 441 north-west, and you quickly enter the realm of lakes that – contrary to popular perception – frame Orlando . The road meanders past Lakes Eustis, Harris and Griffin before, 80 miles later, depositing you in Ocala – where children can fly between trees and past cliff faces on zip lines and canopy tours, or ride horses along the forested Ocala Trail.
If you pick up State Road 40 in Ocala, and follow it 40 miles west, you reach the Gulf coast at Crystal River. Chief attraction here is the opportunity to swim with manatees – those docile aquatic mammals also known as sea cows. Operators specialise in boat tours of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge which let intrigued visitors climb into the water and snorkel next to these gentle creatures.
7/7 Florida road trips from Orlando to Miami: 240 miles
Florida’s three most celebrated tourist cities – Orlando, Miami and Fort Lauderdale – are relatively close-knit, and a family road trip between them is a highly plausible prospect. Further child-friendly fun can be found at Orlando’s many theme parks.
Fort Lauderdale is a swift 213 miles to the south-east, along the express toll road Florida’s Turnpike. This is very much a city that faces the ocean. Families can explore the three-mile length of Hollywood Beach on foot or by cycling along boardwalk on multi-person bikes.
Elsewhere, the Young At Art Museum, just west of the city in Davie boasts five exhibition spaces aimed at youngsters. And from Wynwood Walls and Little Havana to its legendary beaches, Miami – just 30 miles south of Fort Lauderdale – needs little or no introduction.