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Exploring Southwest Florida: 5 Kid-Friendly Wildlife Experiences for Your Family Vacation

Updated: May 5


Young girl with a surfboard at the beach

Southwest Florida is our happy place. The palm trees beckon, their playful fronds whispering from a distance, “Come sit with me and listen to the breeze in the warm Florida sun.” Every chance we get, we heed that call.


palm tree frond

The pace is a bit slower on the Gulf Coast; the atmosphere a bit more tropical. Everything feels so bright and lush and inviting. Beaches on the Gulf – mostly devoid of waves - are perfect for waders, and their fine sand is a soft landing for teetering toddlers. And nothing beats the sunsets! I have seen the sun set over the caldera in Santorini and on the shores of Waikiki Beach, and although those landscapes were breathtaking, Florida sunsets are absolutely spectacular! It’s as though God painted the sky with a brush dipped in violets, lavenders, corals, buttercups, and mandarins, dotting it with marshmallows for good measure. I will never get enough of those sunsets.


sunset landscape

LOOKING BACK


I lived there once, nearly two decades ago. Cities that are now the fastest growing in the state were merely up-and-coming then. We had senior citizens out and about in the winter and college kids partying at the beach in spring. When the snowbird season ended, and the students went back to school, the area seemed to close up shop and go to bed early. Never mind all of the locals, young families, and twenty-something go-getters that remained, looking for something to do.

 

After the housing market crashed (before the rest of the country), Southwest Florida made a comeback (also before the rest of the country). This time, with so many foreclosed properties and abandoned second homes on the market, investors and visionaries began scooping up real estate. They wanted things to do, too, so they created them. When COVID lockdowns plagued world economies, Southwest Florida’s neon “open” sign was on. Restaurants that once closed at 6 pm in the summer rebranded. It was the place to be and they’d be fools to miss out!

 

Florida has not stopped growing since. Even Category 5 Hurricane Ian could not stop the rush (although it certainly threw a wrench in some plans). This area has been invigorated not only as a place to live as a full or part-time resident, but also as a place to vacation. There is truly something for everyone here, including every person in your family.  


panoramic landscape of a sunset

VACATION PLANNING CHALLENGES


Saying that there is something for everyone may sound too good to be true, especially when you are planning a vacation for a family of 4, 5, or 6. Different age groups, attention spans, and interests can make it difficult to even decide where to go! Perhaps you have a destination in mind that will be the path of least resistance to the highest proportion of people in your troop. You'll plan a “good enough” vacation that will induce the fewest headaches, even if it is completely uninspiring. Sure, mom and dad may have big ideas about what kinds of memories their family will make on this trip, but there is fantasy and then there is reality. You’ll be lucky if all your kids smile in the same family photo!


I am of the mindset that you shouldn’t have to settle. You work hard and sacrifice to save so that you can share this precious time with your children. Your reward should be beautiful and exciting memories for everyone involved.


What you need on your itinerary is at least one unique experience.



MAKING MEMORIES


You may have some questions, such as:


What makes an experience “unique”?


And perhaps more importantly, how will it benefit my family?


A creative travel consultant could curate a selection of experiences for you to choose from that would likely qualify as unique. Alternatively, you could scour You Tube or Trip Advisor or Viator, on the hunt for some cool excursions, but that implies that you already have an idea of what kind of excursion would be cool.


But, what if you are starting from scratch?


DEFINING “UNIQUE”


So, let’s first define “unique”. According to the dictionary, this word can be as great as “having no like or equal; unparalleled and incomparable,” or as simple as “not typical; unusual.”


To identify what is atypical, you should familiarize yourself with what is the norm for any given destination.


If you were going to Paris, you’d probably swing by the Eiffel Tower.


You’d tour the Colosseum in Rome.


Who wouldn’t take pictures in front of the Pyramids in Egypt?


You’d admire the views from the top of the Empire State Building or Freedom Tower in New York City.


Now, ask any family what they did on their Florida vacation, and they will probably answer with one (or more) of the following:


1.     We went to Disney World.

2.     We went to Universal, Sea World, Legoland, or Busch Gardens.

3.     We went to the beach.

4.     The kids loved the pool.

5.     We ate a lot of seafood.


I highly recommend all of the above, but since everyone is doing that, it isn’t exactly unique. And there are a number of reasons why that list isn’t for everyone:


1.     Disney World is expensive. It’s also exhausting.

girl standing in ocean at dusk

2.     See #1.

3.     If you live anywhere on the East Coast, West Coast, Gulf Coast, or on the Great Lakes, the beach isn’t a novel experience worth a plane ride and hotel bill to experience. Yes, it’s warmer than New Jersey in winter, but you can go to the Jersey Shore in a few months and have your kids ignore you there. No need to travel 1,000 miles from home for the beach alone!

4.     The Best Western down the street has a pool and costs $89 a night.

5.     You have a shellfish allergy.


While I do love Mickey Mouse with all my heart, there is so much more to Florida than the Magic Kingdom. And that list doesn’t start and end at the beach either.


We are seeking something new, something different, something interesting, and something memorable.


BENEFITS OF UNIQUE EXPERIENCES


Other than the memories you’ll make together, what are some advantages of opting for an atypical excursion from your daily beach routine?


·        Decrease everyone’s screen time.

·        Get a little exercise.

·        Learn something new.

·        Appreciate the environment and culture of your destination.

·        Contribute to small businesses and the local economy.

·        Expand your kid’s horizons.

·        Instagram-worthy photos.

·        Take a family picture with an unexpected backdrop.

·        Remember exactly where you were when that picture was taken.

·        Give your kids an exciting story to tell about their vacation.

·        Spend time together.

·        Laugh at an inside joke that is created in the moment.

·        Help your little ones overcome a fear or a challenge.

·        Inspire your children to try new things.

·        Figure out what interests your teenagers.

·        Find a new hobby.


boy with pet lizard on his face



SWFL UNIQUE ENCOUNTERS


Have I got an idea for you!

 

A-N-I-M-A-L-S

 

You read that right. What could be better than time spent with new, (sometimes) furry friends? It’s a great way to learn about a species, immerse yourself in a local habitat, or support a conservation effort. And barring any severe allergies, how many kids don’t like animals?


The following list has been ripped from the SWFL headlines of #BestTripEver!


We’re counting down:


 


alligator in the water

Every time we’ve been to Babcock, we’ve had a different experience. In the dry season, we’ve witnessed alligator bridge, with, I kid you not, like a hundred gators chillaxing. In the wet season, see who can spot the most gators in the water. You’ll also feed wild pigs, pet a baby gator, and learn all about the history, vegetation, and the multiple ecosystems present on your 90-minute swamp buggy eco tour with an entertaining guide (who always welcomes questions). Go early in the day when the animals are the most active, and after, stop for lunch at the Gator Shack Restaurant on the property. You can get an enormous amount of delicious, home-cooked specialties for a reasonable price. If they happen to be serving pulled pork the day you’re there, don’t miss out! 

 


girl holding baby alligator at Babcock Ranch

Who is this activity appropriate for?

 

Little kids, big kids, and teenagers. The little ones will love the pigs and petting the gator; the big kids will be on the lookout for Florida panthers and other wildlife; and even the teenagers will be engaged at alligator bridge. Adults will like learning the history of the region, and seniors enjoy the slow pace of the tour.






 

On the other hand, it may be a difficult tour with toddlers or infants. You are basically on a school bus with no windows. If you have a squirmy kid (doesn’t that describe most of them?), you may spend more time trying to keep them in the bus than noticing what’s going on outside of it.


dozens of alligators in the water and on land in Florida

Side note:


The entrance to Babcock Ranch Eco Tours can be a bit confusing. It is not in the planned development by the same name, and even when you think you’ve found it, you might second-guess yourself. But trust us, it’s there! Also, be aware that tours do not operate during thunderstorms.


wild pigs

Up the uniqueness factor!


Babcock also offers specialty tours on certain days, including one for photographers, as well as an evening tour.



4. Meet Geoffrey!


woman feeding a giraffe

Okay, it won’t be the Toys ‘R Us giraffe, but it will be a giraffe, and that’s all that matters to this giraffe-lover! The Naples Zoo is an easily navigated, compact zoo where you can feed a giraffe 3 pieces of lettuce for $5. When it’s your turn, you (and your husband, or kids, or entire extended family) can walk right up to the big guy (or gal) and give him a treat! Whichever friendly giraffe is in front of you is there because he wants to be; when he loses interest or feels full, feeding time is over. So, pay attention to the feeding times posted on the website and try to get there early!


The rest of the zoo is a joy to explore, especially the Expedition Cruise around the primate habitats. This is a 15–20-minute boat cruise that is included with your ticket price. You can take the cruise as many times as you’d like (so long as you wait in line each time).


Don't miss the orangutans (mostly ladies) who love to put on a show and the lions that are super active and vocal. They also have ROUS’s (capybaras), a never-ending Burmese python, and of course, alligators!


giraffe eating from a girl's hand



Who is this activity appropriate for?


Like any zoo, this one is perfect for all ages.


Side note:


The alligator habitat was closed during our last visit, since they were building a bridge over it! If it is open when you visit, be sure to check the daily schedule for the alligator feeding times.


Up the uniqueness factor!


Stop by the photo hut to purchase and take home professional pictures of your giraffe encounter!






 


white tiger

I feel I need to preface this:


These folks are not related to Tiger King or Carole Baskin!


They have a wonderful operation in Sarasota, Florida where you can get (fairly) close to tigers and other animals, without it being dangerous for any of you. For a small donation, you can also feed a tiger, which is a humbling experience (those teeth!). They have a variety of adorable bears, beautiful birds, and a little petting zoo as well. Definitely stay for the afternoon show! You’ll see some enormous tigers and learn more about this sanctuary.


girl looking through an animal cage at the zoo

Who is this activity appropriate for?


Like the zoo, there is something for everyone here. However, do keep in mind that there are no ADA accessible restrooms.


Up the uniqueness factor!


If you are a yoga-loving family, check the schedule for Wild Yoga classes. You can connect with your breath and with a fox, lemurs, and even tigers!


 




When the water is chilly, these big sea cows (a relative of the elephant) travel to the warm runoff waters of an electrical plant in North Fort Myers. (Winter is the best time to visit.) You can try to spot them in the canal for free (only pay for parking, $2/hour or $5/day), bring your own non-motorized vessel and use the launch, or rent a paddleboard, canoe, or kayak (single or tandem) for two hours.


man and two little boys kayaking

Then paddle down the river, looking for wildlife. They may come right up to your boat (don’t touch!) or dive underneath you. If you’re lucky, you’ll see them emerge from the water to pull leaves off of low branches. They look like giant, brown, moving boulders in the water, and you’ll start to spot them based on the ripples their flipper makes. You may even spot some turtles sunning themselves during your paddle time, and if you’re extra lucky, an alligator on the banks of the river!


man and woman with manatee statue

Who is this activity appropriate for?

 

The free viewing platforms are great for everyone. Most can be reached by an ADA accessible path, making it easy to navigate with strollers as well. There is a lot of informational signage, restrooms, and a gift shop. As for the water activities, life vests are available for all participants, but I’d recommend that you stick with kids who can swim. Although I’ve personally never seen a canoe overturned by a manatee, anything is possible. Make sure there is an adult present in any boat though, because rowing back upriver can be a daunting task!



Up the uniqueness factor!


Take a 2-hour guided kayak tour. Complimentary photos will be taken throughout the experience.

 

 

1. Swimming with Dolphins 


dolphin

Dolphins are everywhere in the Gulf, the rivers, and even the canals. If your family is anything like my family (and everyone I have ever met), seeing a dolphin leap from the ocean, unexpectedly, has you carrying on like a teeny bopper in front of Elvis. If you are a frequent boater, you’ve probably seen them jumping through yours or someone else’s wake. But have you ever joined them in the water? You should. You totally should. You’ll learn not to move your arms so much, just your legs. You’ll be introduced to their various personalities. You’ll do tricks together and be pulled through the water. Maybe one 800-lb dolphin will even “kick” you with his flipper, causing you to shout in surprise, and so he kisses you to apologize. (Or do these things only happen to me?) Regardless, it is the kind of experience that you and your kids will remember forever.

 

Who is this activity appropriate for?

 

Swimmers. You’ll have to wear a life vest, but you also must be comfortable not treading water with your arms. Some places have minimum age requirements, so be sure to check.


view of a canal in Cape Coral Florida

Side note:


You can find different experiences all over Florida, and the prices vary greatly. It is by far the most expensive activity on this list, so for something more affordable, consider a kayak or boat tour instead. They can’t guarantee you’ll see a dolphin, but they’ll take you where dolphins are most often seen.

 

Up the uniqueness factor!


How? This is as unique as you’re going to get!


 

BONUS TIP


The best part about this list is that they can all be done on the same trip! You can even swim with dolphins down in Key West on this trip to SWFL. Imagine that!


Sign up for our newsletter to learn about more unique experiences around the world. And be sure to visit us on social media so you can share your favorite #AnimalEncounters with us!


Happy travels!

 


A BLURB ABOUT US

 

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Go Farther Travel customizes epic vacations for busy people. Very few people are as busy as parents! You already juggle play dates, sports practices, full time jobs, grocery shopping, and date nights; adding vacation planning to the mix can feel overwhelming. Even going on vacation can be stressful as you manage picky eaters, bickering siblings, and Google directions. Our goal is to take the stress out of travel by researching, planning, coordinating, booking, and presenting every detail of your epic vacation via our easy-to-use mobile app. We also offer Tried-And-True itineraries, complete with information about these activities and others, accommodations, schedules, and more, so you can book this trip for yourself.


palm trees with sunset

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I live is Southeast Florida! I have some friends in southwest Florida, and I'm gonna mention these fun ideas!

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