1. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Generations of South Floridians have headed down to Pennekamp for a visit with Florida nature that’s both exciting and accessible. At mile marker 102.5 in Key Largo, it’s one of the first places you hit when you arrive in the Keys – it’s possible to do as a day trip from Fort Lauderdale. But a full weekend is definitely worth your time as well.
Any park that has “coral reef” right there in the name isn’t exactly hiding the main attraction. The park and adjacent Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary offer almost 180 nautical square miles of coral reefs. Regular dive tours leave from the park. And if not everybody is scuba-certified, no problem – the park’s snorkeling tours offer just as much up-close contact with undersea nature. People who prefer to stay out of the water altogether might also want to try the glass-bottom boat tour.
While Pennekamp visitors might first cast their gaze towards the ocean, the park’s shoreline is also worth exploring. The park rents kayaks and canoes in singles and doubles as well as stand-up paddleboards. With those, you can explore the park’s 50 miles of mangrove trails. Mangroves are where much of the sea life that you see on the reef starts out, and they’re also a great place for spotting birds.
It seems hard to believe when you’re standing in the middle of the state park, surrounded by mangrove and looking out to sea, that you’re also right in the middle of Key Largo. But one of the best bits of a visit to Pennekamp is that after a fun-but-tiring day on the water, you can be at dinner or back at the hotel in minutes. The waterfront, family-friendly Hampton Inn sits just half a mile south of the park’s entrance, while the Key Largo Bay Marriott Beach Resort is a mile north. And this stretch of Overseas Highway is filled with family-friendly dining options for the end of a long, fun day on the water. pennekamppark.com
2. Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex
Theme parks: yay or nay? It’s one of the many tough questions parents and caregivers have had to contend with since parks began reopening amid COVID-19. On one hand, giving kids a sense of normalcy and fun is so important now. On the other hand, though the big parks have gone to great lengths to put in new safety and cleaning protocols, it’s completely understandable if grownups are still nervous.
Amid all this, NASA’s portion of the Central Florida tourism ecosystem might be worth a look. It’s got the excitement and wonder kids want. But it’s not quite a theme park, and it’s a place where you can avoid the long lines and associated theme park themes that you might not be feeling so comfortable with right now. The Complex is now opening with limited daily attendance – if you do go, you’ll want to book ahead. It has also instituted temperature screening of all guests upon entry as one of its safety measures. Several attractions, including the bus tours of launch pads and other facilities, are also temporarily halted.
But even with some things being done quite differently or not at all, this remains one of the most fun and interesting destinations in Florida for kids and adults. One of the best parts is the zone dedicated to the 30-year history of the space shuttle. It includes a number of interactive activities, films and the space shuttle Atlantis in person. We won’t spoil it for you, but we will say this – if you haven’t been, the first time you see Atlantis, it’s quite a reveal. NASA history isn’t all that’s on offer here, either. There’s also a great deal devoted to the present and history of space travel, including new spacecraft now being developed and tested by Boeing, SpaceX and Blue Origin. Kids can also explore Mars or the International Space Station and learn about the work being done there.
The Space Coast offers plenty of great accommodation options and gorgeous beaches, particularly in the Cocoa Beach/Merritt Island area. Budget-friendly options are also available on the mainland just west of Cape Canaveral in Titusville. kennedyspacecenter.com
3. Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo
If you can’t stay socially distanced on a horse, well, we’re not quite sure how you can stay socially distanced. This longtime Central Florida favorite, located about an hour south of Orlando in Polk County, is set up like an old-time cowboy town – albeit one with all the modern amenities. Guests can go horseback riding, visit the petting zoo or “adventure park,” fish, ride bikes (rentals are available if you don’t bring your own) or on Saturday nights, attend the weekly rodeo. Some events and activities are scaled back or suspended – when this story was written, the rodeo was going on with social distancing, but the “Saturday Night Street Party” was not. The swamp buggy and airboat rides were running, as were the archery, trap and skeet shooting ranges. The saloon and Westgate Smokehouse Grill were closed. If there’s a particular event or activity you’ve got your heart set on trying, it’s worth checking before booking.
Another great thing about River Ranch is the diversity of accommodation options. If you want your dude ranch vacation to be a bit more rustic, they offer tent campsites. There’s also an RV park and several glamping options including platform tents (they set up the tent before you get there) and “luxe teepees.” You can also stay in the resort’s lodge or a lodge cabin.
Is everything at River Ranch exactly as it was before? Not quite. But with so many distancing-friendly activities to choose from, it still offers a fun getaway that appeals to a diverse number of kid and grownup interests. westgateresorts.com