My list of things to do with kids in Miami grows every year. The great weather, the gorgeous beaches and amazing cultural experiences all conspire to make the Magic City one of the most kid-friendly cities in the country.
Arriving in Miami for a cruise a day or two early (or staying a few days after) extends your vacation in memorable ways for the entire family. There is so much to do that you'll likely start keeping a list for the next time you're in town to hop aboard a ship at PortMiami, the world's largest cruise port.
Visiting Miami with kids feels like you've traveled to a Caribbean nation without leaving the country. (You'll be doing that soon enough on your cruise ship.) Spanish is spoken everywhere, and many ethnic restaurants provide a taste of the islands and beyond.
Many of my favorite places have crossover appeal for little kids and their older siblings, and I like to mix outdoor with indoor activities. With prevalent afternoon storms, summer and fall are a great time for museums and shopping malls, with mornings spent on water sports, boat rides and beach outings. Get out your notebook and put these memorable Miami spots on your list.
Miami with Kids Ages 2 to 8
For this group, think about places that offer interactive activities but also quiet spots to chill out or get something to eat. Children younger than 2 can alternatively nap and be entertained from their strollers.
Animals, animals, animals. There are several places to take young children to get up close, though maybe not too personal, with animals. Zoo Miami has more than 2,000 animals and is the only sub-tropical zoo in the continental U.S. View elephants, lions, chimpanzees and lots of colorful birds in a more natural setting -- animals are separated from visitors by moats and natural barriers rather than fences or cages. There are kid zones with playgrounds and splash pads, plus tram rides, a carousel and a fun river ride. The Zoo Squad's roaming characters are also entertaining, and there are educational activities, too. The Monkey Jungle is an old-school Florida attraction, where the monkeys roam free through the 30-acre park. There’s also a parrot sanctuary and animal shows throughout the day. Zoo Miami and Monkey Jungle are southwest of the city, toward Homestead.
Crandon Park. A favorite among local families thanks to its gentle surf and excellent amenities, Crandon Park on Key Biscayne is kid-friendly with bathroom facilities, concessions, picnic sites, walking and biking trails, plus rental cabanas to use as napping and staging areas. (When you're taking children to the beach, extra thought should be given to these amenities.) The waves roll in gently so parents don't have to worry about toddlers getting knocked over. Kids learning to use skimboards will also have an easier time in the gentle surf. The 2-mile-long beach is dotted with palm trees and there's plenty of nearby parking, though get there early to grab a spot. There's a nearby roller rink and carousel, plus a playground with splash pads.
Museums. Busy hands don't need to keep to themselves at the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science. There are kid-height touch tanks and other sensory experiences at this museum dedicated to igniting interest in the wonders of science. A monthly Mini-Me Science program is tailored to children ages 4 and younger. There's also a three-level aquarium and a planetarium. The Miami Children's Museum, especially its re-creation of a couple of decks on a Carnival cruise ship, is another favorite spot that can hold the interest of young children. This is a fun way to introduce your young kids to cruising before they embark on the real thing. Let them be in control by playing with a model of a cruise ship's navigational system. The Children's Museum is in Watson Park, within sight of the cruise port, while the Frost is closer to Miami International Airport.
Miami with Tweens Ages 9 to 12
Kids in this age group may be the easiest to entertain because they can feed their independence at indoor activities and fuel their more adventurous side with older siblings and the parents on outdoor adventures. Just like you would for younger kids, make room on the schedule for downtime. There might not be anything worse on the planet than a tired and hungry 12-year-old.
Safari Edventure. Located just outside Miami in Homestead, Safari Edventure gets its name by combining adventure and education. There's so much fun in 5 acres that your kids might not realize they are learning something about animals from five continents. They will be able to hold an alligator (how Florida!), pet a sloth and look a kangaroo in the eye. Not to worry, there will be a guide close by and the animals are mostly babies that came to the park through rescue and rehabilitation efforts. A sunken rainforest garden will introduce the kids to tropical climates while the butterfly and hummingbird gardens can be a nice place to take a breather. Check out the website for times and days of feeding and specific animal encounters.
Oleta River State Park. There are miles of paved and unpaved bike trails that wind through wetlands and mangroves in Oleta River State Park in North Miami Beach. This is the state's largest urban park and can provide adventure to tweens with lots of energy. Other outdoor activities include swimming, paddling, hiking and fishing. Rent gear (plus helmets) or reserve a spot in classes or on guided tours at the BG Oleta River Outdoor Center located inside the park.
Alligator experience. Nothing says "I've been to Florida" more than stories told from a trek to the Everglades Alligator Farm. The farm is south of Homestead and not technically in the Everglades but you'd hardly know that from the terrain and the more than 2,000 alligators living there. That's just a few of the 1.3 million that inhabit freshwater lakes, canals and ponds all around the state. There are airboat rides, plus regular times to watch the gators chomp their daily meal. Time your visit to one of the three daily alligator wrestling exhibition (11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 5 p.m.).
Miami with Teenagers Ages 13 to 17
The teenagers I know don't want to hang out with the parents but also aren't really ready to be on their own in a big city. An outdoor adventure on the water is one way to let them strut their stuff. Also, many teens are into food, thanks to the Food Network, so a culinary experience will give them a memorable taste of Miami. (Not a bad thing for parents either.)
Food lovers. Take the teens to Little Havana (Calle Ocho between 12th and 17th avenues) for a taste of Cuba. Check out the colorful mural tribute to Latin icons at Guardabarranco Cafe and sample exotic ice cream flavors such as Cuban coffee and Oreo or coconut flan at Azucar Ice Cream Company. Walking tours are available for teenagers ready to spend two hours sampling food at family-owned restaurants and meeting local artists.
Speedboat cruise. Seeing Miami from the water is so different from what is experienced landside. Combine the view with speed, and teens are in for one memorable excursion on a "Miami Vice-style" high-speed tour of fancy homes and the big skyline. This Miami tour cruises along Miami Beach. Thriller Miami Speedboat Adventure is another excursion that moves fast enough to blow back their hair.
Getting outside. Kayak and paddle-board rentals are abundant throughout the area, especially near parks on the water. South Beach Kayak rents both kayaks and paddle-boards, plus they offer guided tours, including sunset excursions. Water is not their thing? Rent bicycles and head toward Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park on the tip of Key Biscayne. The lighthouse there is still operating and visitors can climb the 65-foot tower to the top for an amazing view. The village of Key Biscayne is in the middle of the 5-mile-long barrier island and has several rentals shops including Key Cycling. Get maps, helmets and locks there and make a day of it. There are plenty of places to stop for food and drinks in the village.
Fishing excursions. For your teen angler, there are many opportunities to cast a line in the waters around Miami. From deep-sea fishing for grouper aboard big boats to fishing for hard-fighting snook from a kayak in the mangroves, this is an excellent way to get to know the Sunshine State. Get Your Guide listings can help find a full-day sea charter, an inland fishing adventure or even a fishing trip that combines snorkeling, too.
Miami for Multigenerational Families
Cruise ships boast about their multigenerational appeal, and Miami can do the same. If the parents need some time on their own, the grandparents can step in and have fun, too, with help from tour guides, boat rides and Dolphins football.
Venetian Pool. Bordering Miami to the west is Coral Gables, home of the University of Miami and the historic Venetian Pool. The entire family can have fun here, splashing in the spring-fed pool that opened in 1924. This is what Floridians like to call Old Florida. There are waterfalls and grottos that look like caves in the pool built from an old rock quarry. Go when it's hot because the water is a steady 77 degrees. Children must be 38 inches tall or at least 36 months old to swim. There is a fee to use the facility.
Amusement for all. While many adults are digging the outdoor murals at Wynwood Walls, there is a nearby attraction that will speak to the entire family. FunDimension is a 15,000-square-foot facility about 3 miles from PortMiami that has laser tag, video games and a three-story playground. With an assist from 3D glasses in the eight-seat XD capsule theater, the whole crew can be transported to a fantasy world that seems just a real as the one outside. Feel the wind and rain! The Bungy Dome combines the thrills of bungee jumping with trampoline action. FunDimension is an excellent place to spend an afternoon and give the kids lots of freedom. Coffee, wine and free Wi-Fi are available for adults in need of a break.
Professional sports. Pick your sport and season and then scour the schedules for one of four professional teams that call Miami home. At any time of the year, either the Heat (basketball), Dolphins (football), Marlins (baseball) or Panthers (hockey) will be playing, with parts of their seasons overlapping. If you're lucky, they might be facing off against your favorite hometown team. On fall weekends, the University of Miami Hurricanes draw crowds for football, and British soccer great David Beckham is hoping to bring a professional soccer team to the city in 2020.
Everglades National Park. About 45 miles from Miami, an airboat ride will propel the family across the "River of Grass." The boats are loud, but you'll be wearing noise-canceling headphones. Oh, and hang on to glasses and hats. There are many companies that offer the Everglades thrill ride, including Wooten's, Tigertail, Osceola, Buffalo Tiger and Sawgrass Recreation Park. The national park itself has walking trails, many of them elevated boardwalks, which are the perfect perches from which to spy alligators in their natural habitat. At the Shark Valley entrance, stop at the visitors center to hop on tram tours or rent bikes. There is a tower that you can climb to get a bird's-eye view of the Everglades here, too.
Janet K. Keeler is a 35-year newspaper veteran and is now teaching journalism and food writing at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. She travels like a kid, which means she needs a little activity, some food and then a nap. She's dragged her own son all around the state, from Key West to Pensacola where he learned to like gumbo. On their bucket list is the annual antique map fair in Miami.