This Family Attractions In The Florida Keys post was facilitated by complimentary passes and courtesy car rental but thoughts are my own.
Winters seem endless in Minnesota. Our family looks forward to a Florida keys vacation every year to escape the cold. I’d love to share our ten favorite family attractions in the Florida keys. These Florida vacation destinations are sure to be a hit for families of all ages!
We flew from Minnesota to Florida and loaned a beautiful 2019 Mitsubishi Outlander SEL to drive from Miami south through the Florida Keys. Your family can enjoy the vast ocean views while driving over many, long bridges as you travel from key to key. One is seven miles long and connects Knight’s Key in the Middle Keys to Little Duck Key in the Lower Keys! (Make sure your kids have a potty break!)
After a day of trekking through airports with two young kids, I was grateful for the electric tailgate on our 2019 Mitsubishi Outlander SEL. With the simple push of a button I was ready to load our luggage in the back and begin our trip to the land of palm trees and warm breezes.
Traveling with young kids means accounting for car seats. You can either haul it through the airport and red tag it at the gate, check it for free with most airlines, or rent a car seat through your vehicle rental agent. We made sure our 2019 Mitsubishi Outlander SEL could fit a car seat comfortably for both of our girls with enough room for our luggage in the back.
We easily connected our iPhones via bluetooth in our 2019 Mitsubishi Outlander SEL and in an instant we had access to our personal collection of road trip tunes and the GPS navigation apps that we were already accustomed to in our phone. This worked so much better than our previous car loans. Travel tip: Load your destination addresses in your phone before you travel so you’re ready to roll from the airport.
We’ve discovered many fun family attractions in the Florida keys as we traveled from Miami to Key West. Here’s a few of our top favorites.
1. Grassy Key : Dolphin Research Center
There’s no doubt you’ve arrived at the Dolphin Research Center. Just watch for the giant dolphin sign out front. There’s plenty of parking for guests.
The welcome center was completed shortly after hurricane Irma thanks to a generous grant and is a beautiful addition to the facility. We were so relieved to hear that they had survived hurricane Irma with minor damage and all of the animals remained safe.
Be sure to ask friendly staff about their guided guest dolphin encounters. The entry wall explains the mission of the founders of the Dolphin Research Center to provide a safe forever home for their dolphin family.
Trainers work with the dolphins daily for both enrichment and healthcare. Here a trainer prepares Gypsy and Pandora to receive a drink of fresh water.
Guests at the Dolphin Research Center are welcome to enjoy many dolphin encounter opportunities. Here, guests are in the water meeting several of the young, female dolphins. They seemed to be having as much fun as the guests!
The dolphins are divided into groups throughout the facility with the young females in the front area, adult females in one area, and adult males in another. This keeps breeding controlled so they’re able to create a diverse genetic group. Some of these beautiful dolphins are direct family of the famous dolphin, Flipper! They’re also able to conduct research which helps them better care for dolphins both in captivity and in the wild around the world. Whether they are testing breath rates, maternal sound patterns or the cognitive ability to decipher complex games, the goal of the Dolphin Research Center is to help and care for these beautiful mammals of the sea.
You’ll also find a family of sea lions at the Dolphin Research Center.
The founders were compassionate to many species of sea life and took the opportunity to rescue these beautiful creatures as well.
My family has come to truly love this Florida attraction. Our first visit to the Dolphin Research Center was several years ago when our daughter was just a baby.
We were welcome to wander the walkways and listen to several educational programs throughout the day or just sit and relax on a bench in the shade while these peaceful creatures swam by to say hello with their eye peaking back at us.
At this visit we were given the special opportunity to give the young, female dolphins an “ice party”. Since dolphins drink fresh water they love eating ice as a special treat.
We enjoyed lunch at shaded picnic table near the bird exhibit and then ended our visit to the Dolphin Research Center with a stop at their kid-friendly water splash pad. The girls had a blast dancing among the spraying water fountains and loved activating the sea creature sound buttons. Dad, Grandma and Papa relaxed in the shaded, nearby cabana. I wandered among the dolphins for a while longer before we set off for the beach.
Travel Tip: Keep sand out of your vehicle by packing a sock filled with baby powder at the beach. Lightly wipe down feet and legs to remove any loose sand before you load up at the end of a fun day in the sun.
It took some time to get used to the keyless button start on the 2019 Mitsubishi Outlander SEL we loaned for our Florida Keys trip.
Travel Tip: Be sure to keep your key fob safe while enjoying a day at the beach. Try wrapping it in a disposable baby diaper in your beach bag for a sure way to keep strangers from snooping further.
2. Marathon Key : Sombrero Beach
After a morning exploring at the Dolphin Research Center we enjoyed the afternoon at nearby Sombrero Beach on Marathon Key. Although this beach took a significant hit during hurricane Irma, they’ve worked hard to recover this family-friendly beach in the Florida keys. There’s plenty of parking right near the beach access. It has a small playground area for kids. There are several public restrooms which are easily accessible as well. Although the day we visited was busy we had no trouble finding a spot to sit in the sand and enjoy the warm waves. I loved how shallow the initial entry to the beach was for our young kids. Keep an eye out for jelly fish along the shore and in the water.
For our next family adventure in Florida we set off in our 2019 Mitsubishi Outlander SEL to visit Aquarium Encounters in Marathon, Florida.
We were excited that our family of six could travel together to travel on busy Overseas Highway, US 1. Leg room was a bit tight and there wasn’t much space in the back if someone were to have a large stroller or extra bags of any size.
3. Marathon : Aquarium Encounters
Aquarium Encounters in Marathon, Florida is an exceptional Florida attraction for all ages. It’s located just down the road from the Dolphin Research Center which could be combined into a single day’s visit if you were traveling through the area. Both of these Florida family adventures are so fun and educational I’d highly suggest giving each at least half a day to enjoy.
I’d recommend starting your visit at Aquarium Encounters in the Florida Keys by doing a brief, but informative tour with one of the biologists. Although the aquarium grounds are somewhat small there’s plenty to see and explore, especially for families who don’t see sea life every day!
Once you’ve finished the guided overview of the aquarium you can go back and explore each section on your own time and truly enjoy the hands-on experiences.
This spunky little one-month old stingray was one of my favorites. It lives in the nursery touch tank.
Another favorite spot for my young girls was the touch tank with the giant star fish. My three year old declared “it’s fake mom” when she felt it. When I pointed out the tiny feet moving under it she wasn’t sure what to think. My nine year old was fascinated by the sea hare that quite honestly felt like a big booger. My daughter still laughs about touching it.
Although the front portion of Aquarium Encounters features several hands-on attractions, the back area has two large tanks for viewing sharks, puffer fish, rays and more spectacular fish around an underwater coral reef.
The tanks can be viewed from below or above giving a unique perspective.
If you’d like to get up close and personal with the coral reef fish sign up for their guided encounters! We watched two young children dive into the reef tank and jump with joy among the brightly colored fish. They were preparing to feed the sharks in the tank nearby!
We saw spectacular sea life and learned about how they impact the local Florida environment, like this lionfish which doesn’t have a natural predator.
In addition to the friends we met with fins, Aquarium Encounters also featured educational sessions on several other creatures native to the Florida area such as this alligator and a friendly family of tortoises who enjoyed a snack of veggies fed by the guests.
The stingray touch tank was a favorite for all. The window on the side was perfect for viewing by my far less brave three year old.
Although she did find the courage to feed the stingrays with daddy’s help. (This is offered for a small fee.)
Another guest encounter offered is feeding the tank of nurse sharks. We were able to watch as this brave boy fed and even pet these calm sharks. It was fascinating to see the sharks respond almost as trained dogs to the trainer who provided colored shapes to the sharks in the tank to notify them of who’s turn it was to eat next.
We observed another educational session on the floating walkway where they fed smaller sharks and the beautifully colored parrot fish (they have blue lips!).
After a full afternoon of aquarium fun we relaxed on the shade covered picnic tables and watched the girls dig for a shark tooth which they were allowed to take home. They have a food building nearby if you’re in need of a snack or even an ice cream treat. If you’re finished with your tour at Aquarium Encounters, head down the road on Overseas Highway, US 1 to Sweet Savannah’s and get some amazing homemade ice cream!
Our final destination as we traveled down through the Florida Keys was Key West, Florida. If you’re looking to escape a frigid Minnesota winter, head to Key West weather! Sunny skies and 70-80 degrees is simply splendid. Here are some of the best things to do in Key West for families and couples.
4. Key West for Families : Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory
If you’re going to Key West with kids and looking for what to do in key west, make your first stop the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory.
Start in the learning center where you’ll learn about butterfly identification, as well as information about their anatomy and a look at the amazing Monarch migration. Peak at the live caterpillars eating plants and preparing for their transformation into butterflies.
Then walk through beautiful sanctuary and enjoy a peaceful walk through the temperature controlled garden where they raise and care for several beautiful species of butterflies.
In addition to the spectacular butterflies, you’ll also see several small birds, two flamingos, turtles and a variety of tropical plants and beautiful flowers. Shop the gift shop before you leave. My girls loved picking out something special to remember our visit to the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory.
5. Key West for Families : Free Fun
There are plenty of free things to do in Key West, Florida as well. Take the kids on a walk along the boardwalk by the marinas and look at the tall ships. You’ll find many boats that book ocean excursions here. Book an evening sail to experience a front row seat to the beautiful sunset. Peak into the ocean to see the huge tarpon fish or watch them be fed at the dock just outside of Conch Republic Seafood Company. If you’d like to explore further, take the free bus (or Conch Train for a fee) on a tour through Old Town. Stop to see:
- The Splash Pad (just before Fort Zachary Taylor beach area – the beach is not free)
- Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
- Get your picture at the Southernmost Point
6. Key West for Families : Smathers Beach
We ended our time at Smathers beach in Key West. I think it’s one of the best beaches in Florida keys for families. You have some distance to walk along the shore, build sand castles. There’s public restrooms and an outdoor shower to wash off.
This is another great place to watch the sunset in Key West and there’s plenty of room for parking right along the main road heading out of town.
If you’re heading home from Key West driving Overseas Highway, US 1 at night, be prepared to stop for construction. Pulling out into traffic on this incredibly busy road was easy with sport mode on our 2019 Mitsubishi Outlander SEL. I also appreciated the blind spot warning which appeared on the side mirrors when cars were attempting to pass.
7. Key West for Couples: Mallory Square Sunset Celebration
We were grateful for two nights in Key West, Florida for just my husband and I. My favorite spot is the Mallory Square Key West sunset celebration. This is a free viewing of the setting sun from a prime location at the southernmost key in Florida.
If you want a prime spot to view the sunset you’ll want to arrive about a half hour early or more. You’ll also be able to enjoy local entertainers as they perform various tricks and talents. There’s a row of art and food vendors as if you need a snack while you wait.
When the sunset is done you’ll likely be ready for dinner, like the rest of the crowd. There’s so many great places to eat in Key West, Florida. We found our way beyond the crowds, but still somewhat near Mallory Square, and just off of Duval street, to Smokin’ Tuna Saloon. With so many options in Key West, you’re sure to find a spot to enjoy both good food and music. Wander your way to any number of various adventures on Duval street to finish your evening in Key West, Florida.
8. Key West for Couples : Lodging & Dining
When we wanted to find lodging we started by searching VRBO Key West, Florida. We hoped to find a Key West bed & breakfast instead of the incredibly expensive oceanfront hotels. You’ll likely want to find hotels near Duval street in Old Town Key West, where all the action happens. Be sure to reserve early if you want a place to stay in the peak months. We were grateful to find an affordable room at the Garden House, a quaint, island bed and breakfast. It was the perfect walking distance from Duval, Mallory Square and the quieter marina area. Several years ago we stayed at the Cypress House in the same neighborhood and loved it as well.
The hotel manager and his friendly dog greeted us upon arrival and provided help with parking which was available right next door. This is a huge benefit as you’ll want to walk everywhere you go in Key West; parking is difficult to find. The room was tidy and everything we needed for a short stay. I appreciated a soak in the heated pool at the end of a long day of walking and exploring. The best perk of our stay was the hot breakfast served in the morning. Looking for a good, local spot to eat? Ask your hotel manager.
If you don’t have breakfast included in your stay, I’d suggest Pepe’s. We’ve enjoyed a few meals here and never been disappointed. It’s located in a quieter neighborhood a bit further from Duval. If you’re looking for more unique art, nice quality gifts and fewer tourist traps, I’d suggest this area of town which is also more family friendly.
9. Key West for Couples : Music & Nightlife
Of course Key West is known for it’s nightlife and we found ourselves enjoying several little spots along Duval on our night out without the kids. We especially enjoyed the bar at Mangoes which had a lovely outdoor bar with nice atmosphere. My husband had the best moscow mule here and I enjoyed some sushi.
Walk down Duval at meal time to hear any number of great musicians in every genre. If you’re wanting to find the most popular tourist attractions, check out Captain Tony’s, Margaritaville and Sloppy Joes in Key West. My husband hopes to check out First Flight Brewery (the southernmost microbrewery) on our next visit.
If you’re looking for a fun musical duo, be sure to look up Island Time Steel Drum Band. These two split their time between Minnesota and Key West, Florida and put on a great show. We found them at the Schooner Wharf Bar not far from Pepe’s!
Key West Bucket List
There’s still so many fun family adventures that I’d love to experience on our next trip to Key West, Florida. Here’s just a few on our bucket list:
- Key West Aquarium
- Sunset Cruise or Sail
- Tropic Cinema Key West
- Ripley’s Believe it or Not
- Shipwreck Treasure Museum
- Any sort of ocean adventure!
10. Big Pine Key : National Key Deer Refuge
After so many amazing adventures, we took a day to relax in Big Pine Key where my parents stay for the winter months. It’s unique because it’s home to the National Key Deer Refuge. Make a stop at the Blue Hole for a unique little Florida park that kids enjoy. This unique watering hole used to be a limestone quarry. Today fresh water is layered over the salt water making it a popular place with the local key deer, alligators, fish, and iguanas.
The key deer on Big Pine Key are a subspecies of the white tailed deer we see in Minnesota but much smaller in size. You’ll find them wandering most roads so the speed limit drops to 30mph or less. They enforce the speed limit strictly to protect the endangered species so slow down even if you’re just traveling through Big Pine Key.
If you’re staying on one of the many Florida keys, be sure to take the opportunity to kayak or canoe in one of the canals. We were sad to see examples of the devastation of hurricane Irma first hand. The once lush mangroves were bare and dead along this canal. We explored further back into the mangroves and found that many places were growing with new green leaves. It’s encouraging to see life being planted everywhere as residents replace palm trees and landscaping
Looking for a place to eat with your family while exploring Big Pine Key? Consider No Name Pub for a great pizza in a unique atmosphere. (We were excited when we “found” No Name Pub on our first visit.) From there take a walk to the bridge connecting Big Pine Key and No Name Key and look for ocean life.
We saw a manatee, a shark, several stingrays, dolphins, pelicans and countless fish. This is a popular spot for fishing as well! A kind fisherman let my daughter give it a try and she caught three bait fish. We loved visiting the bridge to see what we might find each day. The ocean itself is an endless adventure for our Minnesota family.
We can’t wait to visit the Florida keys again!
Interested in more information about the 2019 Mitsubishi Outlander SEL we drove in Florida? Check them out on Twitter: @MitsuCars, Facebook: @Mitsubishi, or Instagram: @MitsubishiMotors.
Disclosure: My family received a 2019 Mitsubishi Outlander SEL vehicle loan, admission at the Dolphin Research Center and Aquarium Encounters in exchange for my time sharing our memories. All thoughts and opinions are my own.