LEE COUNTY, FL -- Families are likely to run out of time before running out of things to do at The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel in southwest Florida. Traditionally, the most popular attractions throughout the area have been its miles of unspoiled beaches, award - winning state parks and wildlife preserves. In addition to experiencing wildlife, shells and birds along the shores of Sanibel, Captiva, Cayo Costa and other barrier islands, there is much to experience by land and water. And almost everything on Th e Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel is family - friendly. From learning about Calusa Indian culture on Pine Island to attending sailing school or a spring training baseball game, sharing time together is what vacation is all about.
What families will not find: crowded theme parks with endless lines and admissions fees that break the budget. Not here.
What they will find: 50 miles of sandy beaches covered in seashells, blue skies, warm Gulf waters, islands to explore, waterways to paddle, sandcastles to build and wildlife to view in natural habitats. Educational experiences that are fun include the area's natural and historical attractions, which make for memorable bonding experiences for the entire family.
A few not-to-be-missed family experiences that a re unique to The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel include:
Start a (really great) shell collection
Wandering beautiful beaches in search of sea treasures is a favorite pastime here. Before they know it, visitors are doing the “Sanibel Stoop” in search of the area’s most popular shells. Families may take a shelling cruise or charter with a captain who knows where to find the best shells. Another treasure is the Bailey-Matthews Shell National Museum on Sanibel Island. With ties to the Smithsonian Institution, this museum is a must for shell enthusiasts. Shells from southwest Florida are displayed along with huge and rare specimens from all over the world. The museum also has a prized collection of Sailors’ Valentines. Kids (and their parents) enjoy the po pular undersea - inspired interactive children’s section. Visit www.shellmuseum.org
CROW Education Center, Sanibel Island
Located at the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW), the Education Center is a 4,800-square-foot facility that shows how injured animals are admitted, diagnosed, cared for and released. CROW is a teaching hospital and visitor education center dedicated to saving wildlife through state-of-the-art veterinary care, research, education and conservation medicine. Under the hospital director and full-time veterinarians, CROW’s staff provides the highest quality medical care to all of their patients. CROW veterinarians and staff treat more than 200 animal species with 3,500 patients each year. Visitors enjoy a self - guided tour about the life-cycle of patients from the time they are admitted until their ultimate re-release into the wild. Critter cams link visitors to the wildlife and a Wonders of Wildlife show is presented at 11 a.m. daily. Visit www.crowclinic.org/education/visitor-education-center or call 239-472-3644.
Explore this tropical paradise by water! Treat the family to a tour of some of the area’s islands. Captiva Cruises (www.captivacruises.com) on Captiva Island takes visitors for lunch and exploring on Useppa and Cabbage Key. The Tropic Star (www.tropicstarcruises.com) on Pine Island has trips to remote Cayo Costa. The island is mainly a state park with wide, unspoiled white-sand beaches, rustic cabins and tent campsites, along with outstanding bird and other wildlife to watch. Water taxis are available for island tours and boats are available to rent for those who want a nautical adventure.
Learn about marine habitats
The Sanibel Sea School on Sanibel Island is dedicated to teaching children and adults about marine ecosystems using the setting of the barrier island habitats of Sanibel and Captiva as an opportunity to touch, feel and understand. Through their experience, students gain an intimate perspective of the ocean, its inhabitants and the tightly woven fabric of our global environment. The program includes all the elements of a marine ecosystem: animals, people, plants, land, ocean and weather. Contact the school for information and schedules for adult and children's programs. Visit www.sanibelseaschool.org or call 239-472-8585.
The Great Calusa Blueway, with nearly 190 miles of clearly marked waterways and trails, provides a chance to explore the area' s back bays and estuaries. Here, visitors experience wildlife viewing at its best. Guided tours are available or paddlers may explore on their own as they go through aquatic preserves, wildlife refuges, creeks, bayous, rivers and mangrove forests. Many of the trails follow the course charted some 2,000 years ago by the area's earliest residents, the Calusa Indians. Recognized as among the best U.S. kayaking destinations by both Paddler and Canoe & Kayak magazines, the waterway provides outings that last a few hours to week-long adventures. To enhance the paddling experience, the trail utilizes Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates. Key points are marked along the trail to aid in navigation and detailed maps are available. Paddlers may stay in accommodations along the way or camp at the Koreshan State Historic site, Cayo Costa State Park or Caloosahatchee Regional Park. Bring your own craft or rent from local outfitters. For information, detailed maps and GPS coordinates, visit www.calusablueway.com.
J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge
One of the most popular paddling trails is located at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island. The more than 6,400-acre refuge was listed among the nation’s Top 10 bird watching spots by Dick Hutto, host of the PBS series BirdWatch. Besides exotic birds, other wildlife species such as manatees, alligators, gopher tortoises and river otters may be seen throughout the refuge. Visitors can explore the refuge on foot or bicycle, by car or tram tour, paddleboard or boat tour. For families, the new Wildlife Education Boardwalk features replicated animal tracks and scat samples and a two-story observation deck. Wildlife Drive is closed Fridays (to give the wildlife a rest!), but Indigo Trail, which leads to the wildlife boardwalk, and Tarpon Bay Recreation Area are open. Visit www.fw s.gov/dingdarling or call 239-472-1100.
Take time for turtles
For visitors lucky enough to be in the area from May to October, there is an opportunity to witness 300-pound nesting loggerhead sea turtles lay about 100 eggs each. The two-inch long hatchlings will make the dangerous journey from their protected underground nests to the Gulf of Mexico. For information on viewing these fascinating and endangered creatures, visit www.turtletime.org.
Take a tour back in time
Take a step back in time at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates. Tour the 20-acre riverfront estate, complete with laboratory, experimental gardens, rare antique automobiles and other memorabilia from the genius inventor. A delightful blend of scientific fact and personal anecdotes will fascinate children and adults alike. Next door, Henry Ford’s winter estate features antique vehicles on display. Visit www.edisonfordwinterestates.org or call 239-334-7419.
The ultimate sandcastle
The intricate sculptures at the 30th Annual American Sandsculpting Championship Festival Nov. 18-27, 2016, take “playing in the sand” to a whole new level. Sponsored by the Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce, this popular event attracts more than 40,000 visitors each year. The public is invited to view this open-air gallery of sand creations that bear little resemblance to those you created as a kid! Watch sculptors from around the world use more than 1,000 tons of sand to turn Fort Myers Beach into a temporary art gallery. Participate in special events all week as competitors battle it out for the number one spot. Visit www.fmbsandsculpting.com for schedule or call 239-454-7500.
Offshore Sailing School has taught more than 130,000 adults and their families to sail or hone their sailing skills since Olympian and America’s Cup sailor, Steve Colgate, founded it in 1964. The school packages its courses with accommodations at South Seas Island Resort on Captiva Island and the Pink Shell Beach Resort & Marina on Fort Myers Beach. Flexible programs for families allow kids to sail free with their parents with lots of time for enjoying the beach and area attractions. For information, call 888-454-7015 or 239-454-1700 or visit www.offshoresailing.com.
More reasons for families to visit The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel:
- The Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation offers more than 1,800 acres of wildlife habitat and freshwater wetlands. The facility includes 4-1/2 miles of nature trails, along with a native plant nursery, nature center and gift shop. Visit www.sccf.org.
- The Children's Learning Lab at the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum is a major attraction for visitors of all ages. Features of the learning lab include a variety of touch activiti es and interactive displays, educational puzzles and games and a live shell tank. Each day on the hour, the museum shows a 30 - minute video that explores the world of mollusks, discussing their habits and habitats. Visitors also enjoy an 11:30 a.m. and 3 p. m. daily live tank demonstration with mollusks. Visit www.shellmuseum.org.
- Take a cruise to an island or meet wildlife up close! Captiva Cruises sails to Cabbage Key (think “Cheeseburger in Paradise”), Useppa Island, Boca Grande and Cayo Costa State Park. Special dolphin, wildlife, sunset, shelling and sailing tours are also available. Visit www.captivacruises.com.
Fort Myers Beach
- Eco-attractions on Estero Island include Matanzas Pass Wilderness Preserve with 56 acres of unspoiled live oak hammock and 4,000 feet of mangrove shoreline along Estero Bay, as well as an elevated boardwalk, a canoe landing and viewing deck. The archaeologically significant Mound Key in Estero Bay is accessible only by boat. Visit www.floridastateparks.org/moundkey.
- Visitors will not want to miss a chance to experience old Florida at the Mound House where Estero Island's oldest standing structure sits on an ancient Calusa Indian mound . Through archaeology and history, 2,000 years of island life are revealed in a variety of tours and educational programs. Situated on Estero Bay, the site is accessible by boat and motor traffic and visitors are encouraged to picnic on the park grounds and enjoy the beautiful view. For details on tour times and educational programs, visit http://www.moundhouse.org.
- Just south of Fort Myers Beach, Lovers Key State Park is one of the area’s most pristine parks. For the price of admission, a beautiful beach, scenic boardwalk, and picnic areas are available to visitors. The Travel Channel ranked this park's beach fourth in the state of Florida. Visit www.floridastateparks.org/loverskey.
- Manatee Park features three observation decks for viewing the endangered West Indian Manatee in their non - captive aquatic habitat when the Gulf water dips below 70° F, typically from November through March. Visitors also enjoy a butterfly garden, facilities for year-round picnicking, fishing, canoeing and kayaking. Visit www.leeparks.org/pdf/Manatee_park_trifold.pdf
- Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve is a 2,000-acre wetland ecosystem featuring a mile-long boardwalk. Naturalist-led walks and self-guided tours are offered throughout the year. Visit www.sloughpreserve.org.
- The Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium features three miles of hiking trails and nature exhibits with 100 species ranging from eagles to rattlesnakes. In addition, the facility offers educational programs, lectures, laser light shows, field trips and guided tours throughout the year. Recently added: a new Exotic Room housing exotic species from around the world including a green iguana, spiny-tailed iguana, boa constrictor, reticulated python, Burmese python, and rainbow boa. Some new native species that have come to stay at the nature center are a cottontail rabbit and black racer snake, with plans for more to come. Visit www.calusanature.org.
- Visitors surround themselves with thousands of butterflies at The Butterfly Estates. Located in the downtown Fort Myers river district, the attraction includes a botanical garden and butterfly habitat with cascading waterfalls, lush tropical nectar plants and butterflies that delight guests with their astounding beauty. Visit www.thebutterflyestates.com.
- Imaginarium Science Center is a fun-filled, interactive learning center that encourages visitors of all ages to explore the principles of science, the mysteries of the humanities and the geographical region. Visitors experience a hurricane-simulator, fossil dig, a puppet theatre and a marine touch tank. Visit www.imaginariumfortmyers.com.
- Mike Greenwell’s Bat-A-Ball and Family Fun Park Owned by former Boston Red Sox left fielder, Mike Greenwell, the park offers go cart tracks, miniature golf, batting cages, an arcade and a paint ball field. For more information, visit www.greenwellsfamilyfunpark.com.
- Spend a day at Sun Splash Family Water Park, splashing, sliding and soaking up the fun at the largest water park in Southwest Florida! Sun Splash offers over 14 acres of attractions ranging from a lazy river and Tot Spot to high speed flumes. Bring your family for a day of fun! Open seasonally March-September. Visit www.SunSplashWaterpark.com.
North Fort Myers
- Take a ride on the wild side at Babcock Wilderness Adventures. Visitors experience the Telegraph Cypress Swamp and scenic woods on a 90 - minute swamp bugg y tour. View native wildlife, including panthers, alligators, deer, wild turkey, Florida cracker cattle and boars. Learn about native flora and fauna. Daily tours are available by reservation only. Visit www.babcockwilderness.com.
- The Shell Factory and Nature Park has something for everyone, including more than 5 million shells and shell-related gifts. Billed as the world's largest collection of rare shells, corals, sponges and fossils, this unique attract ion also features an aviary, miniature golf, a video arcade, food court, bumper boats and cars, a zip line and souvenirs galore. For complete list of events, visit www.shellfactory.com.
- Visitors to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, southeast of Bonita Springs, find a gentle, pristine wilderness that dates back more than 500 years. A 2.25-mile boardwalk meanders through pine flatwoods, wet prairie, around a marsh and finally into the largest old growth Bald Cypress forest in North America. These impressive trees, relatives of the redwood, tower 130 feet into the sky and have a girth of 25 feet. Their massive branches are draped with mosses, lichens, bromeliads and ferns. The forest is also home to hund reds of alligators, otters, white - tailed deer and red - bellied turtles. A wide variety of wading birds, songbirds, and raptors can be seen throughout the year. Photo opportunities are available at every turn of the boardwalk trail. Visit www.corkscrew.audubon.org/.
- Established in 1936, Everglades Wonder Gardens , is one of the last survivors of Florida's golden age of roadside attractions. A place for visitors to enjoy a botanical jungle filled with birds and reptiles and to see Florida’s wildlife in an intimate way, something that modern parks cannot provide. It includes a butterfly garden, Pink Flamingos and a swinging bridge that takes visitors right over an alligator pond. Visit www.evergladeswondergardens.com.
For kids only!
Many area resorts have creative children’s programs that give mom and dad some time off. Programs provide daytime and evening activities led by qualified counselors.
Westin Cape Coral Resort at Marina Village, Cape Coral
- This newly renovated property boasts a prime waterfront location within the prestigious Tarpon Point community overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, the Caloosahatchee River and San Carlos Bay. The resort features 263 oversized rooms with family-friendly features such as in-room full-size kitchens, washer and dryers, screened-in terraces with sweeping water views and Heavenly Cribs upon request. The resort also offers amenities the whole family will enjoy such as a lagoon-style pool, full-service marina with water sports, kayak rentals, complimentary bike rentals, clay tennis courts, sightseeing cruises, world - class fishing, a nature trail, as well as a complimentary water taxi directly to Fort Myers Beach. In addition, the resort's Westin Kid Club sessions are available for full day (9 a.m.–4 p.m.) for $70 per child, including lunch, and half day (9 a.m.–noon/1 p.m.–4 p.m.) for $40 per child. Parent and child activities are also available. A Discovery Room welcomes younger guests with a refreshing and bright colored space, containing crafting tables, easels and bean bags. Personalized to the age and interests of each child, a typical day includes anything from bike riding, to painting and postcard sending as well as locally-inspired activities like a visit to nearby nature trails and butterfly garden or geocaching to explore the Cape Coral region. Visit www.westincapecoral.com.
Casa Ybel Resort, Sanibel Island
- Travel and Leisure Family magazine has rated Casa Ybel one of North America’ s Top 20 Family Resorts. Enveloped by lush tropical landscaping and breathtaking views of the Gulf of Mexico, Casa Ybel Resort is perfect for an extended family vacation. Guests are steps from a 14-mile stretch of pristine, white-sand , shell-studded beach. The beachside, Olympic-size swimming pool is the heart of the resort’s year-round outdoor playground. Included among the activities are tennis, biking, basketball, volleyball, shuffleboard bocce, boating, fishing, golf privileges and a kiddie pool.
- The Casa Kids Camp is offered Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. for children ages 4-11. Lunch is included in the camp and there is a theme for each day. The cost is $45. In addition to the Casa Kids Club, the resort offers activities and crafts for children of all ages and designed for family fun: tie-dye, jewelry making, sand dollar painting and other beach-related crafts which range in price from $5-$20. For information and reservations, visit www.casaybelresort.com or call 239-472-3145.
South Seas Island Resort, Captiva Island
- Located at the northern end of Captiva Island and framed by the tranquil blue waters of the Pine Island Sound and the Gulf of Mexico, this iconic 330-acre resort village is situated on a wildlife preserve and features two-and-a-half miles of beaches with world-class shelling. This unique setting allows guests to enjoy the natural beauty of Captiva while relaxing in one of Parents Magazine's Top 10 Beach Resorts for Families.
- For the adventurous, South Seas offers a wide variety of waters ports and recreational activities. Guests learn to sail through America's No. 1 sailing school, Colgate Offshore Sailing School. Fish the surrounding waters and enjoy the warm Gulf of Mexico by renting kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, waverunners and powerboats. Skully's Family Interactive Center is home to Little Matey's Discovery Cove, Activities Galley and Skully's Arcade, providing activities for toddlers to teens. Swimtastic offers swim lessons for all ages and day camps for children ages 4-5. For children ages 6-13, Sanibel Sea School, a non-profit organization, takes guests on tours to learn about the eco-system that makes Captiva so special. For information, visit www.southseas.com or call 239-472-5111.
Pink Shell Beach Resort & Marina, Fort Myers Beach
- The Pink Shell features a broad range of recreational activities, spacious and luxurious accommodations, beach and pool side dining, meeting facilities and a specialized children's program, Sparky's Kidds Kampp®. The adult-supervised children and youth program is designed to offer fun, kid-friendly activities, while providing parents with free time to enjoy spa treatments, sailing with Offshore Sailing School, wave runner outings or an afternoon of fishing. Children ages 4-12 are encouraged to participate in activities that include lunch, crafts, nature walks, themed games, exploring an d more. Kids have the opportunity to learn about the local flora and fauna and scan the shoreline for dolphins. Program is available Tuesday 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Wednesday 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Saturday 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Cost: $35 per child per session. Call 239-463-6181 or visit www.pinkshell.com.
The Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa, Bonita Springs
- As the closest full-service resort to Southwest International Airport (RSW) , the natural setting of the hotel provides everything needed for a family vacation destination on the Gulf Coast. The 454 - room property offers a secluded island for resort guests with expansive beach, pavilion and beach chairs, eco-adventures and kayaking tours, three resort pools including a n adventure pool with a 140 - foot corkscrew water slide and cabanas, world-class Stillwater Spa with 18 treatment rooms, beauty salon and fitness center, water activities, eight restaurants and lounges including Corkscrew pool bar, Tarpon Bay seafood restaurant and Cool Beans coffee bar and 18-hole championship Raptor Bay golf course.
- At the resort’s Camp Coconut, kids ages 3-12 spend days having fun: going on a shark tooth hunt, contests in the pools, water balloon toss, arts and crafts and much more. Kids also learn about the flora, fauna and native Calusa Indians who lived in this part of Florida. Kids not only create special memories of their vacation, but parents save 50 percent on a second room just for the kids. For prices, times and reservation s, call 239-444-1234 or visit www.coconutpoint.hyatt.com For information on planning a family vacation to The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel, visit www.FortMyersSanibel.com.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel in southwest Florida includes: Sanibel Island, Captiva Island, Fort Myers Beach, Fort Myers, Bonita Springs, Estero, Cape Coral, Pine Island, Boca Grande & Outer islands, North Fort Myers, Lehigh Acres. Family and children images available upon request.