For Kids Only (Mostly)
Welcome to the land where cypress trees have knees and giant pink birds are called spoonbills because they’re born with spoons at the end of their beaks. Why? To scoop up their shrimp soup, of course!
Here you can pick a grapefruit right off the tree for your breakfast. But don’t try to eat the sea oats. Way too scratchy. If you’re particularly brave and adventurous, you can have a delicious alligator taco and a plate of fried frog legs for lunch. Yum!
Did you know that this is the only place in America where the Indians actually won the war against the United States? The Seminole tribe never surrendered. Many Seminoles still live in chickee houses with palmetto frond roofs, and they love to welcome visitors to their reservation.
We like to call this place where we live Paradise. For one thing, it’s a known fact that we have the best beaches in the world for sandcastle building. Mind-boggling creatures live in the reserves, preserves, nature conservancies, state parks and national parks. And wait till you see what goes on in the Naples Zoo. And, of course, you can see alligators practically eyeball to eyeball. But that is most definitely not all. There are so, so many other things you can do here with your kids. Just look!
Watch a Butterfly Be Born
Imagine watching a new butterfly pop out of its cocoon and try to stretch out its soggy wings for the first time. Sit still near the flowers while they fly all around you. Maybe one will land on your nose! Visit the butterfly garden at Naples Botanical Garden, Butterfly Estates in downtown Fort Myers and Manatee Park, also in Fort Myers.
SUP stands for Stand Up Paddling, and it’s soooo much fun. Lots easier than boogey boarding and surfing, once you learn to balance. You just stand and steer with a long pole. So easy a first grader can do it. Big kids: If you’re serious about Supping, a great place to start is XtremeLife Sports in Fort Myers. xtremelifesports.com, (239) 222-0709.
Dolphins in the Wild
Isn’t it amazing? You don’t need a theme park to see dolphins jumping and playing around here. When they’re chasing a school of fish, they zoom so fast you’d think they’re on jet skis. Sometimes they get curious and follow your boat, or swim upside down right beside it to get a closer look at the humans.
Want to be a dolphin researcher? Hop aboard the Dolphin Explorer, a real research boat at the Marco River Marina. The researchers keep track of more than 200 dolphins, and guess how they recognize them? By the shape and markings on their dorsal fins! If you’re the first to discover a new member of the pod, you get to name it anything you want. dolphin-study.com. (239) 642-6899.
Hey, Red Sox Fans!
There’s a brand new baseball stadium in town, and it’s so exactly like Fenway Park in Boston that even though its real name is JetBlue Park, they’re calling it Fenway South. Come see the Red Sox at spring training in March. bostonredsox.com.
What? You’re a Minnesota Twins fan? No prob. This great team has spring training here too. Both teams start working out in February and fans can get in to watch. And that’s not all. You can see our own hometown team, the Fort Myers Miracle, play all summer long. minnesotatwins.com, minorleaguebaseball.com.
Largest Conch Shell in the Universe?
If you stand at the base of the ginormous pink conch shell at the Shell Factory and Nature Park, you might feel like a tiny ant. It’s fake, of course, but inside the Shell Factory they say they have the most real shells for sale in the entire universe. They also have sponges, fossils, sea creature specimens and everything you can imagine made out of shells. Like key rings, wind chimes, jewelry boxes and bologna sandwiches. Just kidding about that last one. Outside there are bumper boats, miniature golf, a game arcade, a natural history museum, an animal park and aviary, an eco-lab and a petting zoo. Whew! And it’s all free. shellfactory.com, (239) 995-2141.
Learn to Hang Glide
(Sorry moms and grandmas, but you knew they would find out about this anyway).
If you’re at least 12 years old and 4-feet 8-inches tall, you can go tandem hang-gliding above the Gulf of Mexico. Tandem means an instructor is right there with you. Check it out at the Lover’s Key Bait Shop & Marina on Fort Myers Beach. paradisehanggliding.com,
Mini Golf: The Weirder, the Better
At Castle Golf in Fort Myers you play through a medieval castle, over a drawbridge, past strange-looking gargoyles and who knows what else. If you’d rather play in deepest, darkest Africa, head for Congo River Golf in Bonita Springs, Jungle Golf on Fort Myers Beach or Coral Cay in Naples.
Pirates! Treasure! Pillaging and Plundering!
Dastardly pirates once plied the seas around Fort Myers and the barrier islands, pillaging and plundering and burying treasure. Some say the treasure is still out there. Grab your eye-patch and board the Pieces of Eight Spanish Galleon for a fun pirate-themed cruise along the shoreline of Fort Myers Beach. There’s grog and grub, pirate maps, pirate face painting and some treasure, too. piecesofeight.com, (239) 765-7272.
Well, it’s not exactly a pirate ship, but why not grab the parents, grandparents, and any sisters and brothers who are not too annoying and take a family yacht-sailing class? A yacht is more practical than a Spanish galleon anyway. Some programs let you sleep aboard while you learn. How cool is that? Florida Sailing and Cruising School, flsailandcruiseschool.com, (239) 656-1339. Offshore Sailing School, offshoresailing.com, (239) 454-1700.
Ice Hockey. Seriously.
What would you name a professional hockey team whose home base is practically in the middle of the Everglades? Right! The Everblades! Come see the action on ice from October to April at Germain Arena in Estero. You can also go skating, take lessons or join a youth hockey team. floridaeverblades.com (239) 948-7825.
Thomas Edison Invented WHAT?
Thomas Edison, America’s greatest inventor, hated cold winters, so he built a house and laboratory under some palm trees here in Southwest Florida. Of course everybody knows he invented the light bulb, but who knew he invented wax paper, the record player, telephone, X-ray machine and more than 100 other things? And get this: His mom had to take him out of school when he was seven years old because the teacher said he was too stupid to learn anything.
He loved to play practical jokes on people. Once somebody complained that his steak was too chewy, so the next time the man came to dinner Mr. Edison cut up a piece of old leather and grilled it up. What a crazy guy. Right outside his laboratory is the biggest banyan tree on the continent, and in the museum you can see the Model T Ford that was a present from his best friend and next-door neighbor, Henry Ford. edisonfordwinterestates.org, (239)334-7419.
Dollars on the Wall
Bring a dollar bill to write your name on and tape to the wall on Cabbage Key, the coolest island in Southwest Florida to visit for a giant cheeseburger with fries. Not to mention Key lime pie with whipped cream on top. You can only get there by boat, which, of course, is half the fun. We’re guessing there are 27 bazillion one-dollar bills stuck on the walls and ceilings. Please count them and let us know for sure. When money falls off the wall, it goes to help needy children. cabbagekey.com, (239) 283-2278.
Coolest Souvenir Places
When it comes to souvenirs, what floats your boat? A shark’s tooth necklace? A real coconut you can mail as a postcard? How about a giant gummy-gator or a cuddly stuffed sea turtle? If you didn’t get enough souvenirs at the Shell Factory, head straight for Tin City in Naples, which also has a cookie store, an ice cream shop and restaurants. Fort Myers Beach has every souvenir you can imagine, especially around Times Square near the pier. When you get tired of shopping, grab a snack and watch the singers, dancers and unicycle riders put on a free show. One of my personal favorite souvenir shops is at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, which this month opens its super-fab new Nature Center. conservancy.org. 239-262-0304.
Not the card game, silly. If you’re under 16, or go on a charter boat, you don’t need a Florida fishing license. It’s easy to find a great fishing guide, since we have so very many of them here. Catch-and-release is the way to go, unless of course, you’re fishing for your dinner. Did you know that many restaurant and hotel chefs will cook up your catch and serve it to you right in the restaurant?
An Ordinary Museum. Not.
You can hardly find a more awesome museum just for kids than the stupendous, crazy-fun Imaginarium Hands On Museum and Aquarium in Fort Myers. Unless it’s the unbelievable, astounding, mind-blowing place called C’mon, the brand new Golisano Children’s Museum in Naples. You won’t believe your eyes and ears. The scientific experiments! The alien planets! The swamp creatures! The 3-D movies! The hurricanes! They’re supposed to be children’s museums, but who are they kidding? The grownups are having a blast and laughing themselves silly. cmon.org,
(239) 514-0084. imaginariumfortmyers.com, (239) 321-7420.
If you like trains, you’ll love the Lionel Train Museum at the old Naples Depot, where only grownups have to pay to get in. Inside, watch the model train chugging around the tracks, then go outside and ride the mini-train, pulled by a real diesel locomotive, and behind the museum are an old red caboose and a 1947 Club Car. Call for schedules. (239) 262-1776.
More Trains, a Fort and Prehistoric Sea Dinosaurs
At the Southwest Florida Museum of History there’s a fancy private railroad car to explore. Then you can check out the Civil War fort, World War II weapons, an awesome old red fire engine, and two prehistoric sea dinosaurs called Basilosaurus and Megalodon. swflmuseumofhistory.com. (239) 321-7430.
If you still haven’t had enough of trains, how about a hilarious murder mystery dinner on board the Seminole Gulf Railway? You get to be the detective and figure out the clues. Check it out at semgulf.com, (239) 275-8487.
Cowabunga! It’s a Manatee!
Why are these gentle, slow-moving sea creatures most affectionately called sea cows? Because, well, they’re kind of bulky and cow-like. And they eat sea grass. Manatees need warm water or they will die, so they look for sheltered places near the shore to spend the winter. The warm water near power plants is their very favorite. That’s why they love Manatee Park: It’s right across from the Florida Power & Light power plant.
Junior Ranger Badge
Another great place to see manatees up close is the boardwalk of the Oasis Visitor Center at the Big Cypress National Preserve. While you’re there, sign up to become an official Junior Ranger. Just do some of the awesome adventures and get your badge. nps.gov/bicy, (239) 695-1201.
A Totally Outrageous Restaurant
If you happen to get hungry while you’re on Captiva Island, go straight to the Bubble Room. It’s so much fun just looking around that you might forget to eat. Here are some of the things you’ll see: Superman’s telephone booth. Waiters dressed up like Bubble Scouts, whatever that is. Santa’s Workshop. A Yellow Brick Road. A 7-foot-tall Mickey Mouse. (Some mouse.) Anyway, the food is OK, but the place is Outrageous with a capital O. Have fun looking at the website: bubbleroomrestaurant.com.
How is it possible to drive deep into mucky mud holes in the Everglades and not even get stuck? Swamp buggies with airplane tires! You can’t just go to the swamp buggy store and buy one. Every one is homemade and they’re totally outrageous. They’re made from parts of Jeeps, military trucks, ATVs, big old pickup trucks—even motorcycles and boats. Not to mention deer antlers and other cool stuff. The original pioneers built them to get around in the swamp. These days, biologists use them for research, but mostly they’re for adventure.
Kids ride free with Captain Steve’s Swamp Buggy Adventures in the Big Cypress Preserve (south of Naples). Also, check out Babcock Wilderness Adventures (north of Fort Myers), where your whole family can fit into one giant swamp buggy. babcockwilderness.com, (800) 500-5583. captainstevesswampbuggyadventures.com, (877) 871-5386.
Far-Away Galaxies and an Insectarium
First of all, what might an insectarium be? Right: a place for creepy crawlies! You can visit one at the Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium. The “Planetarium” part is where the far-away galaxies come in. Future astronomers and astronauts can learn about NASA programs, black holes, the Milky Way, and other celestial things. Under the dome, the night sky is so spectacular you might forget to breathe.
The Calusa Nature Center also has laser shows, a thousand-gallon touch tank filled with interesting creatures, and lots more. calusanature.org, (239) 275-3435.
Oh dear, we’re out of space and there are still more than 11 gazillion places to go and things to do here in Paradise. Well, while I’m putting together the rest of the list, you might as well get started.
Gulfshore Life travel editor Karen T. Bartlett is working on her current book, A Kid’s Guide to Naples, Florida.