Family Fun

Never a dull moment.

Almost everything on The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel is family friendly. From learning about Calusa culture on Pine Island to attending sailing school on Captiva or a spring training baseball game, sharing memories is what vacation is all about. Of course, then there's the beach, which everyone in the family is sure to love.

Family Vacation Days on the Water

""Get out on the water with the family and explore the Fort Myers-Sanibel area on this itinerary that’s full of learning, adventure and animal encounters. "

"Paddling and Powerboating: Day 1

Paddling magazines hail The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel for its first-rate kayaking, so don't miss out. Catch the birds and other local wildlife as they and you awaken on an early-morning kayak adventure into Pine Island's aquatic preserves. Contact Gulf Coast Kayak Company for rentals and tours.

Then rent a powerboat for a half-day from Pine Island's Four Winds Marina for a family excursion to Boca Grande or Gasparilla Island to the north. Stop for fishing in the bay or Boca Grande Pass, known for its remarkable tarpon catches in summer. Dock at Uncle Henry's Marina, which can arrange golf cart rentals for exploring the island's restaurants, shops, beaches and lighthouse museum. Stop for homemade ice cream downtown at Loose Caboose.


Sea Life on Sanibel: Day 2
Adventures in Paradise’s Sea Life Encounter power-catamaran excursion is perfect for families. Learn about local marine ecology from a trained biologist, who drags a seine net to gather specimens to identify and explain. Snorkeling and shelling trips are also scheduled.

Devote the evening to water-bound luxury aboard Sanibel Harbour Resort’s 100-foot Princess yacht. Sunset cruises serve hors d'oeuvres and dinner.

Canoeing the Calusa: Day 3
Canoe or kayak part or all of the 190-mile Great Calusa Blueway, named for the Native Americans who once paddled along these shores. It takes you past Mound Key State Archaeological Site, where the shell mounds and canal systems of the Calusa remain, and Lovers Key State Park (known for its family-friendly beaches) with food concessions to provide the makings of an impromptu picnic.

Rent your vessel at Estero River Outfitters on U.S. 41 or Lovers Key State Park. To tour Mound Key without paddling, contact the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa.

Manatees and Sails: Day 4 add-on
Consider a sail aboard New Moon on Captiva Island, which holds sailing classes for children and families, as does Offshore Sailing School at South Seas Resort."

Best Bets for Family Fun

"Kid-friendly activities take many forms: Watch manatees and alligators in the wild, learn about inventors and ride a miniature train."

Fun with Food
For breakfast, kids love the Belgian waffles at Island Cow on Sanibel Island. Keep the kids entertained watching boat traffic and enjoy fresh seafood at Snug Harbor at Fort Myers Beach or the Waterfront Restaurant on Pine Island.

For a relaxed atmosphere, try the local favorite McGregor Café in Fort Myers or Doc's Beach House in Bonita Springs. Or watch the sunset at Lynn Hall Memorial Park at Fort Myers Beach, play on the playground and enjoy dinner at a sidewalk café in Times Square. At the Loose Caboose in Boca Grande, the whole family will appreciate the famous ice cream.

Museums, Theater and the Library
Learn about the early locals at downtown Fort Myers’ Southwest Florida Museum of History. Also on view are an authentic pioneer “Cracker House" and a 1929 Pullman rail car. Creativity and innovation will be sparked at the Edison & Ford Winter Estate, Fort Myers, where tours explore the lives of the two great inventors.

To learn about an amazing variety of shells, the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum on Sanibel Island is the place. Lee County’s Calusa Nature Center & Planetarium offers a variety of educational programs for young and old. The Broadway Palm Dinner Theater offers children’s shows and professional productions that kids of all ages will enjoy. Or check in at the Sanibel Public Library for kids’ programs, an aquarium, puzzles, games and its own shell collection.

Parks, Beaches and Life-Sized Dinosaurs
Head to Lakes Regional Park in Fort Myers and ride the miniature train, then splash in the interactive fountains, climb the wall, rent a paddle boat, bike the paved paths (on-site rentals) and have a picnic. Next door to the park, you can putt around at Castle Golf.

At The Shell Factory & Nature Park in North Fort Myers, ride bumper boats and see life-sized dinosaur models and cool animals. At Lovers Key State Park, watch birds fishing for breakfast. The park offers weekly kid camps on cast-netting, birding, fishing and beach habitat.

After seeing endangered manatees at Manatee Park in Fort Myers, let the kids run off energy at the playground. Rent bikes of all sizes from Sanibel Island’s numerous concessions, then bike the 4-mile or 2-mile loop at the J.N. “Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Hike the Shell Mound Trail and follow its boardwalk into the mangroves, keeping an eye out for sunbathing alligators.

Souvenirs and Surf Shops
Take home an inexpensive treasure from the sea at the various shell shops located around town (try She Sells Sea Shells, Sanibel; The Shell Factory & Nature Park, North Fort Myers. If it’s choices you want, try the Edison Mall in Fort Myers. With lots to look at and a variety of dining options, shopping at Times Square on Fort Myers Beach is a good bet too. Teens especially will enjoy checking out the surf shops.

To learn more about fun-for-all-ages attractions in Lee County and the surrounding areas, visit the Southwest Florida Attractions Association website.

Indoor Fun for Families

Need a break from the sun? Visit the home of an inventor, shop at the funky Shell Factory or learn about manatees.

Here on the Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel, residents often welcome rainy days because they are so rare. And because they give us an opportunity to take the kids to those indoor museums and attractions they've been asking to visit. These suggestions also work for days when you're ready to get out of the sun.

Estates and Shopping Malls
Meet Lee County's most famous forefathers at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates complex, where tours with historical interpreters and audio tours provide entertaining history lessons. The museum holds many of Edison's 1,000 patented inventions, along with the Model T his friend and neighbor Henry Ford gave him.

The afternoon calls for shopping, either at the inventor's namesake Edison Mall, indoors with some 160 stores, or at the fun and funky Shell Factory, where stuffed African animals and a video arcade rank high on the kid barometer.

Museums
Fort Myers’ Imaginarium Hands-On Museum & Aquarium gives free rein to children's natural curiosity. Whether they're walking through a thunderstorm or forecasting the weather, taking part in Hands-On Fun shows or visiting the three Sea-to-See Marine Touch Tanks, they're learning and loving it.

Follow it up with a history lesson at nearby Southwest Florida Museum of History, where cowboys and Indians and sabertooths will pique their interest in the past. You can also step aboard a 1929 private Pullman railcar and peek inside a Cracker house.

Proceed to the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, where a special hands-on room appeals to youngsters, and older visitors can look at 34 exhibits with shells from around the world.

Aquariums, Skating and More
Explore the marine heritage of shrimping town Fort Myers Beach at Ostego Bay Marine Science Center. Here kids can peer into aquariums, touch a shark's skin and learn about endangered manatees and loggerhead turtles. Stop at one of the many inexpensive family-friendly restaurants where fresh local shrimp is the specialty.

For fun in the afternoon, head south to Estero for a cool time at Germain Arena’s ice-skating rink. There's also a roller rink, and in season (October through April), professional hockey at night.

If you’re lucky enough to schedule this island visit on a Monday, head up the road to Captiva Island for the wacky NAScrab Races at 'Tween Waters Inn’s Crow's Nest Lounge. The early show at 6 p.m. (starring local hermit crabs) is geared toward families.

Educational Family Fun

"Children's museums, a family dinner theater and an inventor's workshop keep kids and parents entertained."

Our son Aaron (now a teenager) was born in Lee County, and before he had even started school, we began an educational tour of the county’s educational kids’ attractions, with trips to the Imaginarium Hands-On Museum & Aquarium and the boardwalk nature trail at Six Mile Slough, among others.

With his first-grade Tiger Cubs den, we visited Calusa Nature Center & Planetarium to pet snakes and hike trails. His fourth-grade history project took our family to the Southwest Florida Museum of History in downtown Fort Myers to research local cow hunting legend Jake Summerlin and the Cracker lifestyle. In fifth grade, I chaperoned Aaron’s class on a tour of Ostego Bay Marine Science Center in Fort Myers Beach.

Between the area’s city streets and nature paths, Aaron gained lots of firsthand, hands-on wisdom.

Adventures
For urban sophistication in neighborly, kid-favorable settings, we head to Fort Myers and its sister city across the bridge, Cape Coral. As a toddler, Aaron got his first lesson on weather when he walked through a thunderstorm and sat through a hurricane at the Imaginarium. And stayed perfectly dry!

In the history department, we toured the Cracker House at the Southwest Florida Museum of History and learned that the term “cracker" referred to the snap of cow hunters' whips and that tin roofs reflected the sun’s heat to keep homes cool.

Electricity surges through lessons at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates, where tours offer insights into the lives of two geniuses who lived side-by-side. Aaron’s favorite lessons: Thomas Edison held 1,093 patents, and Henry Ford used local Spanish moss to stuff his early car seats.

Downtown Fort Myers’ renovated circa-1908 Arcade Theater provides a pint-size measure of cultural stimulation and theater savvy with its Saturday Lunch Box Theatre during March and April. The Broadway Palm Dinner Theater entertains the family with such classics as “Hans Brinker” and matinee buffets loaded with kid delicacies.

Nature Quests
Decaying mangrove leaves are the baby food of the estuary. The sea robin – a fish with fins, spikes, legs and even wings – looks like some kind of weird animal experiment gone awry. And blue crabs have an internal “pause button" they push when they’re stressed out. These were a few of the lessons we learned aboard an eco-tour in Fort Myers Beach as the naturalist handed around an odd assortment of creatures he had pulled from the floor of Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve.

Tidbits of information we’ve gleaned on our nature quest across Lee County:
On Sanibel Island, we learned that barnacles eat with their toes, gopher tortoises munch at the turtle grass “salad bar" and scallops have 100 eyes. (Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation Beach Walk & Talk, seasonal)

Snakes have smooth and silky – not slimy! – skin. You should always pet a snake in a head-to-tail direction. (Calusa Nature Center & Planetarium)

Stone crab fishermen remove only the claws, which regenerate. A stone crab goes through four sets of claws in a lifetime. (Ostego Bay Marine Science Center)

Annual Events on The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel

"Festivals, fairs and other events fill the calendar all year long on The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel. Here are just a few of the highlights. "

Bonita Springs National Art Festival– Two mid-month weekends in January and March fill Bonita Springs Promenade al fresco shopping center with fine art. More than 200 artists from around the world sell their paintings, glass, jewelry, clay works, photography, sculpture and more. 239-495-8989, www.artinusa.com/bonita

Edison Festival of Light – From January 30 to February 21, Fort Myers celebrates the birthday of its most illustrious historical figure, Thomas A. Edison. Edison, who spent winters in a home he built on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River, invented the light bulb, so it's fitting that the month culminates with a lighted night parade. Invention competitions, crafts shows and a 5K run are all part of the fun. 239-334-2999, www.edisonfestival.org

ArtFest Fort Myers– Each February, Fort Myers' free, two-day arts celebration fills downtown with the first-class artwork of more than 200 artists from across the country. Enjoy live entertainment, a high school art competition and children's art activities. 239-768-3602, www.artfestfortmyers.com

Southwest Florida and Lee County Fair – Come to a good old-fashioned county fair with midway rides and agricultural exhibits at North Fort Myers' Lee Civic Center grounds. It runs for 10 days starting at the end of February. 239-543-8368, www.leeciviccenter.com

Sanibel Shell Fair & Show – For 73 years, folks have gathered on Sanibel Island to celebrate its bounty of seashells. The Shell Fair features shell displays and crafts, food and entertainment for three days in early March. 239-472-2155, www.sanibelcommunityhouse.net

Fort Myers Beach Shrimp Festival & Parade – Four days of festivities in March pay homage to Fort Myers Beach's harvest of sweet, pink shrimp. It's an event that's been around for more than 50 years. The local Lions Club boils up 1,000 pounds of shrimp for the 40,000 people who attend. Other activities: a 5K run, parade and the crowning of the Shrimp Queen. 239-463-9738, www.fortmyersbeachshrimpfestival.com

MangoMania, Pine Island’s Tropical Fruit Fair– Mangos are the name of the game for two juicy days in mid-July as fans go crazy for mango preserves, smoothies, bread, cookies – you name it. Also includes live music, kids’ activities and rides. 239-283-0888, www.floridascreativecoast.com

""Ding"" Darling Days – Sanibel Island's J.N. ""Ding"" Darling National Wildlife Refuge hosts a week-long birding and eco-festival in October. On Sunday Family Fun Day, which kicks off the week, everything is free, including narrated tram refuge tours, hot dogs, beverages and wildlife presentations. 239-472-1100, www.dingdarlingdays.com

American Sandsculpting Championship Festival– Fort Myers Beach hosts this major competition during five days in November. Watch the Master Sculptors Competition, and take part in an amateurs’ contest. Music and beach barbecues keep the free, 24-year-old event lively. 866-916-SAND, www.sandfestival.com

CoCoNut Festival– In Cape Coral, November means ""party"" for one entire weekend at Sun Splash Festival Grounds. Lively up yourself in tropical mode with national musical acts, gymnastics entertainment, carnival rides, tropical food, contests, coconut crafts, fireworks and more. 239-573-3121, www.cocofest.com

Edison & Ford Winter Estates Holiday Nights – The famous estates get electrified with a million twinkling lights for much of December, and local musical groups perform nightly. More than 30,000 annual visitors enjoy this 30-plus-year-old Fort Myers tradition. 239-334-7419, www.efwefla.org/hh.asp"

Paddling with Kids

"When it comes to kayaking or canoeing, kids pick up the skills and excitement as if its second nature. Head out on a family adventure on the Great Calusa Blueway. '

An osprey rises from the waves clenching a silvery fish in its talons and squawking a warning to would-be thieves. Manatees rise to the surface to snort for air. Pelicans fly in a V-formation, while two dolphins glide alongside the kayak like unofficial escorts and goodwill ambassadors.

Within its 190 miles, the Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail winds through the habitats of hundreds of birds and fascinating sea creatures. There’s no better way to get close to the wildlife of The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel than by kayak or canoe.

Here are a few stretches of the Blueway that are best suited to families and wildlife viewing.

Delightful Dolphins
Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve at Fort Myers Beach is New York City for dolphins. On a good day, kayakers and canoeists can paddle through the water thick with the intelligent mammals and watch them flip fish to one another, frolic with their babies and perform unsolicited leaps.

For a fun day of family paddling, rent from the Lovers Key State Park concession and launch bayside. Paddle south through New Pass, into the park’s estuary and past Dog Beach, where pets often swim up to greet you. Enjoy a picnic lunch on the beach at Lovers Key, then head northward to the aquatic preserve and circle back to the launch site.

For the Birds
Big pink birds that look like they eat with spoons and trees that walk on tiptoes: The sights along J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge’s Tarpon Bay and Commodore Creek Trail on Sanibel Island are wondrous and other-worldly.

Take a two-hour, naturalist-led tour or head out on your own with rentals from Tarpon Bay Explorers, the refuge’s official recreation concession. The easy, still-water paddle takes you past rookeries and through arching tunnels of mangroves, trees that seem to stand on long legs in estuaries where pink-colored roseate spoonbills often feed.

Holy Sea Cow!
A winter paddling excursion at Manatee Park in east Fort Myers begins with watching the blimp-shaped namesake creatures surface for air with their young in the warm waters of Yankee Canal. By then, the kids are psyched but maybe still a little intimidated to jump in a kayak and ply the waters of the Orange River, where manatees congregate beginning in November.

The guide who leads the kayak clinics, however, points out that sightings are a special treat, and the animals are docile. If you’re lucky, one may swim under your kayak to scratch its back (but no touching is allowed). On-land and in-water lessons teach the basics of the easy sport, and then it’s off upriver to see the birds, fish and, if you’re lucky, manatees that call this waterway home. When there are youngsters along on the clinic, the instructor often incorporates games to assist the teaching process and hands out a kit with nature games and coloring books.

Magic Mullet
Like finned popcorn, the mullet of Matlacha Pass Aquatic Preserve at Pine Island burst from the water in powerful leaps. Several theories try to explain why they do this, and you’ll hear about them on a three-hour guided tour with Gulf Coast Kayak.
You can also rent there and head out on your own, with get-out-and-stretch breaks at the colorful seafood restaurants and art galleries set right on the water. Families with their own kayaks can launch at Matlacha Park, also a good spot for a picnic lunch.

Celebrate Paddling
The annual Calusa Blueway Paddling Festival, held throughout Lee County in late October, is a perfect way to introduce kids to the watery world of paddle sports. Besides demonstrations and clinics, the week-long festival features a photo contest with a youth division, community festivals with kids’ activities, kayak fishing tournaments and lots more."

Natural Fun for Kids

"Cool wildlife. Watery touch tank encounters. Exciting sea life cruises. The Fort Myers Sanibel area is full of all-natural ways to fascinate kids. "

Nature + fun = healthy kids. Modern research proves that getting children outdoors hedges against obesity, diabetes, attention-deficit disorder and other growing problems among our youth today. The Fort Myers Sanibel area provides a giant dose of the prescription for keeping kids nature-healthy with its “medicine cabinet” full of green and eco-based activities.

Here are some tried-and-true ways to engage even the most nature-blasé and electronics-plugged-in kids:

Creature Meet-and-Greet
Meet creatures from bugs to gators up close in the exhibits and on the trails at Calusa Nature Center & Planetarium in Fort Myers. The Insectarium is crawling with live bugs. Kids can even dress up like an insect. There are also snake feedings, baby gators and live turtles inside the nature center. Outside, the trails take you to a butterfly house, aviary, touch tank and an area with a bobcat and foxes

Playing Hooky
If your kids think they don’t like school, they’ve gotta try Sanibel Sea School. Here kids learn about the marine environment and ecology by exploring beaches and estuaries for a hands-on “touch, feel and understand” experience that will put them at the head of their class. For its Nature & Sealife Cruises, Tarpon Bay Explorers on Sanibel Island boats passengers into bird rookeries and finishes with a touch tank encounter.

Shell Factory Fascination
Pan for fossils and cool rocks, feed nectar to lorikeets, explore hands-on exhibits in the eco-lab, and visit, pet and feed animals at the Shell Factory and Nature Park in North Fort Myers – part wildlife experience, part amusement park.

Beach Scavenger Hunt
Challenge kids to turn up conch shells, egg cases, crab holes, sea stars, turtle grass, clams and more on the miles of white sand spread throughout The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel. Programs offered by Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation and Adventures in Paradise help them identify their beach and inshore findings.

I Spy Wildlife
Start with a visit to the new eco-friendly, interactive visitors center at Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve in Fort Myers before heading out on the boardwalk trails to see how many birds and other creatures they can spot. Need help identifying? Volunteers lead 90-minute guided walks daily and often bring along a spotting scope for zeroing in on bald eagles and gators. Also in Fort Myers, Manatee Park’s “Eye on Nature” self-guided activity is a hit with families – kids receive a magnifying glass upon completion.

Geo-Caching Cool
Older kids like the gadgetry and techie feel of geo-caching, where hikers follow GPS points to find small planted treasures and replace them with others. There’s booty to be found throughout the county, including some of the barrier islands. Lee County Parks & Recreation facilities also feature many caches waiting to be found – a permit is required to place a cache in a Lee County park

J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge has an “earth-cache” program – national public lands do not allow introducing non-natural treasures, so it uses other clues and rewards. You can download it and other established geo-caches throughout the region at www.geocaching.com.

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