Family Fun Abounds in Florida Keys
FLORIDA KEYS — From swimming with dolphins to meeting wild birds or celebrating the sunset, the Florida Keys & Key West offer an array of activities to captivate the young and young at heart on land, air and sea.
The depths of the sea can be discovered at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, at mile marker (MM) 102.5 in Key Largo. The nation’s first underwater preserve, the park can be explored by glass-bottom boat or on scuba diving or snorkeling excursions. www.pennekamppark.com.
Visitors interact year-round with gentle, curious Atlantic bottlenose dolphins at several centers throughout the Middle and Upper Keys. The Dolphin Connection at Hawk’s Cay Resort, MM 61 on Duck Key, offers supervised dolphin-contact programs just steps away from resort accommodations. www.hawkscay.com.
Dolphin Research Center at MM 59 on Grassy Key is a teaching and research facility with fun-filled interactive programs including painting with a dolphin and becoming a trainer for a day. The facility also features a water recreation “sprayground” for families. Visitors can initiate whale, manatee and dolphin sounds while splashing through sprays of water that shoot out of marine and island-themed figures including a super-size dolphin tail. www.dolphins.org.
Dolphin Cove, MM 101.9, and Dolphins Plus, 31 Corrine Place in Key Largo, offer structured as well as natural dolphin swim and wading programs for kids as young as 3 years old. www.dolphinscove.com and www.dolphinsplus.com.
Bird lovers can visit the Laura Quinn Wild Bird Sanctuary, a bird rehabilitation facility located in Tavernier at MM 93.6. The Upper Keys landmark is home to more than 100 ill, injured or orphaned wild birds, all housed in a natural setting on more than five acres. The main attraction is a daily pelican feeding, set for 3:30 p.m., that typically draws hundreds of wild pelicans hungry for fish. www.fkwbc.org.
Islamorada’s lush 17-acre tropical oasis, Theater of the Sea at MM 84.5, features a variety of fish and marine life, native birds, colorful and personable parrots, sea turtles, crocodiles and exotic plants. General admission includes live performances by dolphins, sea lions and parrots, a guided tour of marine-life exhibits and a glass-bottom boat tour of the facility’s natural saltwater lagoon. Theater of the Sea also hosts swim programs with dolphins, stingrays and sea lions. www.theaterofthesea.com.
Feeding the tarpon at Robbie’s Marina, MM 77.5 in Islamorada, could be billed as the most cost-effective visitor attraction in the Keys. Visitors pay just $1 for dock access and $3 for a pail of baitfish to hand-feed the tarpon, popular Keys gamefish that hang around on an almost year-round basis. Robbie’s also offers small powerboats and kayaks for rent, and a party fishing boat for comfortably priced reef fishing off Islamorada, known as the Sport-Fishing Capital of the World. www.robbies.com.
Families can find fun at Crane Point Hammock, MM 50.5, a 63-acre environmental and archaeological preserve in the Middle Keys. Attractions include the Adderley House, built in 1906 by a Bahamian immigrant, a touch tank that features sea urchins and starfish, a large lagoon with nurse sharks and tropical fish, nature trails and the Marathon Wild Bird Center for injured and orphaned birds. www.cranepoint.net.
Kids of all ages can try spotting Key deer, an endangered species that lives only in the Lower Keys. These shy, appealing creatures are about the size of a large dog and can be found grazing all around Big Pine Key, especially during early morning hours and around dusk. To learn more about Key deer and other native species, visit the National Key Deer Refuge Visitor Center, located a quarter-mile north of the traffic light on Key Deer Boulevard in the Big Pine Key Shopping Plaza. www.fws.gov/nationalkeydeer.
Families in the southernmost city should visit the Key West Aquarium at 1 Whitehead St. Opened in 1934, the aquarium was one of the first family-friendly attractions in the Keys. Today, it’s home to grouper, moray eels, barracuda, tropical fish, tarpon, sharks, parrotfish and more. A touch tank features small sea creatures that children can touch and feed. Guided tours of the aquarium include shark feeding and even an opportunity for guests to touch or “pet” a shark. www.keywestaquarium.com.
Next door to the aquarium stands the Key West Shipwreck Museum, where history comes to life with re-creations of the salvage and wrecking era through live actors, film and artifacts from the wreck of the Isaac Allerton, which sank off the Keys in 1856. The business of salvaging goods from ships wrecked on Florida Keys reefs made Key West the richest U.S. city per capita in the mid-1800s. Wrecking master “Asa Tift” guides guests through the museum, explaining the unique industry, and invites them to climb the facility’s 65-foot lookout tower. www.shipwreckhistoreum.com.
The Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory, 1316 Duval St., is a wonderland housing thousands of tropical plants and hundreds of the delicate creatures known as “flowers of the sky.” The state-of-the-art solarium and nature exhibit — one of only three major butterfly facilities in Florida — features a 5,000-square-foot glass-domed tropical butterfly habitat. www.keywestbutterfly.com.
The Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center, 33 East Quay Road, is a 6,400-square-foot facility that showcases natural wonders both on land and underwater. Highlights include a walk-through version of the Aquarius Undersea Lab, a manned underwater research habitat located off Key Largo, and interactive exhibits that spotlight the Keys’ diverse environments. A 2,500-gallon living reef tanks with living corals and tropical fish completes the experience. www.floridakeys.noaa.gov/eco_discovery.html.
Also in Key West, the free nightly sunset celebration at Mallory Square draws hundreds of people to experience an island tradition featuring street performers and vendors. Adults and kids gather on the waterfront square to applaud tightrope walkers, jugglers and animal acts striving to top a more captivating performer — the fiery sun settling into the Gulf of Mexico. www.sunsetcelebration.org.
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