After some weeks of research and consideration, my family and I made a few treks around the southern part of Florida to visit some places I had never heard of.
How did we come up with our list? The requirement was simple – adventures had to be accessible to families from Naples. This meant that we needed to be able to get there and back in a day, and on one tank of gas. The trips needed to be family friendly. We have a two year old, and for us, that meant we needed to be back in the car by 1:30 or 2pm for naptime to avoid any type of massive meltdown.
Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium
- 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota, Florida
- Open 10am-5pm, 7 days per week, 365 days per year, including all holidays.
A little less than two hours away on Longboat Key, this amazing research lab and aquarium is a fantastic adventure for families with children of all ages. Mote Aquarium is the public outreach arm of Mote Marine Laboratory, displaying more than 100 marine species with a focus on local marine life. The Aquarium opened in 1980 on City Island in Sarasota Bay. Visitors can see otters, sharks, manatees, sea turtles, seahorses, rays, skates and invertebrates. Mote Aquarium also includes windows into Mote’s working laboratories.
Mote Marine Laboratory is one of the oldest marine research laboratories in Florida. The Lab was founded in 1955 by the famous shark lady, Dr. Eugenie Clark. Although Dr. Clark passed away last year, Mote still carries on her legacy by conducting world class marine research and educating the public about our oceans, and how we can all become better stewards of the marine environment.
The aquarium is housed in two separate buildings, and we loved that the tanks were at eye level for our toddler-aged daughter. The highlight for us was the sea turtle exhibit, which housed several sea turtles who had been rescued as a result of various circumstances. The aquarium was an indoor/outdoor environment that was completely shaded and air conditioned.
There are many programs, events, and boat tours throughout the day – and the programs at Mote Marine are fantastic. The boat tours looked particularly worthwhile and exciting, but they would have been too much to take on with a toddler. If you go, bring plenty of snacks and water bottles, and consider packing a lunch. There is an outdoor eating area with picnic tables. Additionally, Mote Marine offers a Deep Sea Diner for casual eating inside the aquarium.
For more information on Mote Marine Lab, including special events scheduled this summer, visit their website – www.mote.org.
Lion Country Safari
- 2003 Lion Country Safari Road, Loxahatchee, Florida
- Open 10am-4pm Monday through Friday and 9:30am-4:30pm Saturday and Sunday.
Located about 2 ½ hours away just west of West Palm Beach, Lion Country Safari was originally developed by a group of South African and British entrepreneurs about 40 years ago; they desired to bring the experience of an African safari and game park to Southern Florida. Today, Lion Country Safari houses about 900 animals in a drive-through preserve and exhibit area.
Along with the drive-through safari preserve area, visitors can visit a theme-park attraction area that houses other animal exhibits, a petting zoo, boat rides, a giraffe feeding area, carnival-style rides, a mini-golf area, and a large splash pad water feature for children. The theme park area also has several eateries and gift shops.
Lion Country Safari has a KOA campground on its campus, complete with cabins. For families who might enjoy spending a full day at the preserve and theme park, spending the night might make sense. Visitors we encountered who camped said they were able to hear lions roaring and other animals in the preserve in the early hours of the morning – which depending upon the ages of your children, would be a memorable experience!
Cayo Costa State Park via Captiva Cruises
- Cayo Costa State Park – west of Pine Island, accessible by boat only
- Captiva Cruises, 11401 Andy Rosse Lane, Captiva, Florida
- Open 8am-5pm, 7 days per week.
Cayo Costa is a remote barrier island located in Southwest Florida just north of Captiva and west of Pine Island. 90% of the island is uninhabited and is part of the state park; it contains 9 miles of beaches and acres of pine forests, hammocks and mangrove swamps. The island is perfect for sight fishing, snorkeling, swimming, and shelling. Miles of trails weave through the island, and the park provides primitive cabins and tent camping sites.
Captiva Cruises is a family-friendly cruise service that offers and array of trips for visitors to access Cayo Costa (as well as other barrier islands and locations in the surrounding area). They are a very family-friendly company that honors the history of Southwest Florida barrier islands and unique ecosystem of Pine Island Sound. There are so many adventure cruises from which to choose, and they have cruises that range the gambit from one hour to full-day expeditions.
We selected a cruise that left from McCarthy Marina on Captiva Island at 9 AM and took us to a private, very remote beach at Cayo Costa State Park. The boat ride took about 35 minutes, and the captain and guide on board the boat were fantastic. We learned a lot about the history of the barrier islands and state park, and we got to see some fantastic wildlife. We spent about almost two hours on Cayo Costa’s beautiful beach, which was lovely. I brought plenty of snacks and cold drinks, and I’m so thankful I did. With a toddler in tow, spending so much time on the beach can be a challenge. I’m also glad I brought our ergonomic baby carrier, as we spent some time walking the beach in search of fish (my husband brought along some fishing gear).
The beauty of this adventure was refreshing, though the heat and sun were intense. I’m thankful we went in the morning, and we were back in the air conditioning by noon. The boat had shade, but the beach was very sunny.
For more information visit www.captivacruises.com and www.floridastateparks.org/park/Cayo-Costa.