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Beyond the Sea: Port Mini-Breaks
Families | Couples | Seniors
Fort Lauderdale: Families

Why You Need to Spend Three Days Here: Once upon a time, it would have been difficult to walk along Fort Lauderdale's beaches without covering the eyes of a young child, but the days of "Girls Gone Wild" on the public sands have long passed. Now you are more likely to see families just like yours enjoying the sunshine, taking advantage of the beautiful weather and delighting in the resorts and attractions that have graced the area in recent years.

Family venues have become the norm in Greater Fort Lauderdale, whether it's the multitude of canal-side dining spots with menus for kids or the beachfront mega-resorts that cater to families, with kids' clubs, playgrounds, children's pools and other amenities.

Amazing Freebies Worth Pursuing: For free fun, check out the trails at the Anne Kolb Nature Center, visit the arts and entertainment district on the Downtown A & E Trolley, tour the Old Dillard Museum, watch the fishing boats come in with the catch of the day, enjoy the in-line skaters and street theater on the Hollywood Broadwalk, wander the Swap Shop indoor/outdoor flea market, walk along the marina docks to look at the boats, gaze at the mega-yachts along the Intracoastal Waterway or see a real, live alligator at one of the parks.

Home Away From Home:
Choosing a hotel or resort in Greater Fort Lauderdale isn't hard; it just depends on the time of year and your budget. There are a couple of highly lauded beachfront family spots that generally range from moderate to pricey.

Marriott's Harbor Beach Resort: This full-service beachfront property has all of the trappings you expect at a family resort, including a kids' club for children (ages 5 to 12), tennis courts, lagoon pool, playground and a European spa, plus beach sports, toys and plenty of activities for both the folks and the kids. Expect hula-hoop contests, table tennis, shuffleboard and beach volleyball.

Lago Mar: Almost all of the units in this sprawling beachfront resort are suites with kitchens, making it ideal for families on vacation. Its location, on a private beach in an upscale neighborhood, is central to everything. The resort has a beachfront playground and lots of family-centric activities, including beach volleyball, giant outdoor chess, shuffleboard, golf putting and swimming in a lagoon-style pool.

Sheraton Yankee Clipper: Located beachfront with nearly 500 rooms, the hotel has a "sports deck," which features everything from hopscotch to shuffleboard. It's a high-rise hotel with plenty of activities for families, and it includes in-room coffee makers and high-speed Internet (for a daily fee). An active kids' program rounds out the amenities package.

Holiday Inn Fort Lauderdale: Near the beach and reasonably priced, this hotel offers free, in-room Wi-Fi.

Day One
After your arrival, get yourself a retal car at the airport, and head to your hotel. You'll want a bit of time to settle in and take advantage of the amenities your hotel provides. If you aren't right on a beach, rest up and head for one of the fabulous beach areas near your lodging. One of the nice things about Fort Lauderdale is that you can do a lot or a little and still have a wonderful family vacation.

Later in the day, head over to Hollywood Beach for a walk along the Broadwalk and dinner at Dave and Buster's, a family restaurant with arcade games aplenty. Mom and Dad can relax while the kids play, or play along. Menu items run from cheeseburgers to char-grilled salmon, plus several chicken and seafood dishes. The place includes state-of-the-art virtual-reality machines, arcade games and midway games with prizes. By the end of the evening, everyone should be tired enough to go back and rest up for an early morning and a busy day.

Day Two
Get up early, and set out for the Billie Swamp Safari, where you can learn about the land and culture of the Seminole Indians. There, you'll be able to take an airboat ride, walk the swamp trail, paddle a canoe or ride a Swamp Buggy -- a customized, elevated four-wheeler designed for the best (and safest) viewing -- around alligators.

When it starts getting too hot, somewhere around 11:30 or noon, head back to Fort Lauderdale, park in a downtown garage, and grab lunch at the Las Olas Riverfront, where you'll find several eateries that include a pizza place and Papaya Gyro, where you can order hot dogs, hamburgers, falafel and more. After lunch, head to the Museum of Discovery and Science, and spend the rest of the day exploring such exhibits as Florida Ecoscapes and Living in the Everglades, watching IMAX movies and enjoying the air-conditioning.

If the kids are older, walking around Las Olas Boulevard and the Riverwalk is great fun, especially for teens who love to shop. Or, a trip on a riverfront cruise might be in order; luxury yachts take you through the waterways and canals of the downtown area. You can catch one on the Las Olas Riverfront.

The Jungle Queen Riverboat has been a Fort Lauderdale institution for 60 years. It leaves promptly at 6 p.m. every night from the Bahia Mar docks and heads to a little island for an all-you-can-eat dinner of barbecued shrimp and ribs. Entertainment is provided, and the trip lasts four hours. Older kids will love the experience; the little ones will fall asleep on the peaceful trip back to the dock. Reservations are recommended; call 954-462-5596, and if it's a weekend day (Friday, Saturday or Sunday), call before noon.

An alternative is to head back to your hotel and rest up before going to Tarks Clam Stand in Dania, where there's a kids' menu for the under-10's. Then have a thrill ride at Boomers, an amusement park with a wooden rollercoaster that reaches speeds up to 55 miles per hour. You can also play "bumper boats," try your hand at mini-golf or climb a rock wall. The park is open late every night.

Day Three
After a busy night, this is a perfect day to just enjoy the beach during the morning hours and set off at lunchtime for some excitement.

You're going west, to the edge of the Everglades, so have lunch at Stevie B's Rib Cafe in Weston, where you can happily munch on Chicago-style barbecue before heading to Sawgrass Recreation Park. There you can rent a boat, go fishing and visit the live alligators, reptiles and birds of prey. There's an 18th-century Native American village to explore and more airboat tours through the Everglades. Afterward, go to one of the largest indoor/outdoor swap meets in North America, The Swap Shop, featuring entertainment, food, great shopping and live circus acts, too!

An alternate schedule for kids who love the beach (and moms and dads who would love some alone time) is to take advantage of the Funky Fish Kids Day, a kind of day-camp for kids, ages 4 to 17. Its primary location is at the Villas by the Sea Resort in Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, but there are other locations, too. The day package is from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and includes snorkeling lessons, fishing, boating, scuba camp and other activities, based on your child's desires. There's an overnight camp, as well, if Mom and Dad need some alone time.

A third alternative is spending a tranquil afternoon at Butterfly World, the largest butterfly farm and research facility of its kind, located about 10 miles north of Fort Lauderdale in Coconut Creek. Kids will love the tropical gardens and waterfalls, where thousands of butterflies and hummingbirds fly. There's an insectarium too, with exhibits of all sorts of squiggly things. If you choose this activity, stop for lunch first at Fisherman's Wharf in Pompano Beach, situated on one of the longest fishing piers on the East Coast.

For supper, go back downtown, and take the kids to the Ugly Tuna Saloona on the New River. Think ultra-casual, pretty views of the boats and the water and a motto that kids love: "Fresh fish, ugly owners." And then, if you happen to be spending the last night of your mini-break on a Wednesday, Friday or Saturday night, go to the Buehler Planetarium and Observatory on the campus of Broward County Community College for some stargazing (free entry on these evenings) before you pack up and head for home.

--by San Diego-based Jana Jones, Cruise Critic contributor.

Photo appears courtesy of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau.
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