Family adventure guide: 8 incredible experiences on Florida’s Sports Coast
We all have different feelings about traveling right now. When you’re ready, we hope you feel safe, inspired, and excited to explore Florida’s Sports Coast.
Florida has long been one of the world’s most family-friendly vacation destinations — but crowded beaches and theme parks might not feel like the ideal places to spend a holiday right now. So where can a family go for an active, fun, and socially distanced vacation in the Sunshine State?
Break out the Florida map and put your finger north of Tampa and west of Orlando. Spilling into the warm waters of the Gulf, Florida’s Sports Coast is outdoor-adventure central. There are hidden beaches, clear Gulf of Mexico waters, wetlands teeming with wildlife, and plenty of woodlands for exploring. And the Sports Coast’s #GetBacktoAdventure campaign is designed to help travelers discover the many ways to enjoy a safe vacation, one both immersed in nature and naturally socially distanced — all while discovering new adventures in the great outdoors. For families looking to get out on the water, into the woods, or even up in the air, Florida’s Sports Coast calls.
Your task? Clear the calendar, load up the Airstream, and set the GPS to one or all of the activities listed below. Whatever you choose, Florida’s Sports Coast will help you and your family #GetBacktoAdventure.
Note: Some of the sites and businesses listed below may not currently be operating as described due to safety guidelines. Please contact all locations prior to visiting.
You probably don’t believe in unicorns. And you definitely don’t believe they can fly. But once you and the kids get to know Laska the Flying Unicorn, you might just change your tune. She’s the world’s only certified, unicorn-shaped hot air balloon, and she’s a real cutie: smiling, a little chubby, with a rainbow mane and a silver horn. She even has her own Instagram feed.
You can find Laska — her name is the Czech word for love and affection — at American Balloons, where she’s ready to pose for the ultimate family selfie. (Her unique shape means she can only fly with one passenger at a time, so going for a ride isn’t an option for families.) You and your kids will thrill at seeing her lift off and delight as she floats gently over the landscape. And you’ll certainly never forget your first giant inflatable unicorn encounter.
Imagine leading your family through the treetops of a dense jungle, up rope ladders, across swinging bridges, and along whirring ziplines. You don’t have to go all the way to Central America to find a ropes course adventure like this — at TreeHoppers Aerial Adventure Park, kids and parents can test their skills and discover new abilities on eight different ropes and aerial courses.
Wee adventurers can try out the Little Lemurs course, built especially for kids ages 1 to 6. From there, courses increase in difficulty from yellow to double-black, all involving a series of platforms connected by cables, ladders, wooden and rope bridges, and ziplines. Young kids can build self-confidence on easy to medium-difficulty courses, while teens can tackle the black and double-black courses once they’ve mastered the others. A fun, safe, and exciting three-hour session at TreeHoppers means family bonding, pushing boundaries, and defying gravity.
Gliding across the calm waters of the Gulf of Mexico or a quiet canal on a SUP (stand-up paddleboard) looks like it might be too challenging for young kids. But with their lighter weights and lower centers of gravity, kids often take to SUPing quicker than adults do! A few hours or a whole day spent with rental SUPs can make for a great adventure, with plenty of laughs — and likely a few splashes — as everyone gets the hang of it.
Smaller kids can sit on the front end of a SUP and let parents do the paddling, while older kids will likely prefer their own board. SUPs are available at marinas all along the Sports Coast, but Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park is hard to beat with its mangrove-lined waterways, salt marshes, and private inlets — and onsite rentals.
O Captain! My Captain! Book a private fishing charter for you and the kids, and let an experienced angler take you where the fish are biting, bait your hooks, and help with casting tips. With any luck, there will even be fish for your trusty captain to fillet for you!
Whether you choose to ply the Gulf of Mexico or the calm mangrove flats of the Sports Coast’s backwaters, a private charter takes all the fuss and guesswork out of planning a trip. From fishing licenses to bait, tackle, and, of course, expert knowledge of the best areas for angling, your captain takes care of it all so you and your family can focus on fun and fishing. Check the fishing and charters page of the Sports Coast website for purveyors up and down the shore.
The freedom to motor through the close-in waters of the Gulf, anchor near barrier islands, and fish, swim, and snorkel at your own pace — that’s what a self-piloted pontoon boat rental can offer you and your family. These easy-to-navigate boats require minimal boating experience and are perfect for casual cruising along the shallow waters of the coast. Watch for dolphins, manatees, sea turtles, and rays, and jump off the side wherever the water looks inviting. Anchor just off a remote beach and search for seashells, build a sandcastle, or spread out a picnic lunch.
Reachable only by boat, Anclote Key Preserve State Park is a favorite destination for Sports Coast boaters, with unspoiled beaches, a historic lighthouse, and picnic facilities. Windsong Charters & Boat Rentals can set you and your crew up with a pontoon and suggest routes and destinations through residential channels or sheltered Gulf waters. They also rent more traditional paddlecraft, like kayaks and canoes.
The season may be short, but the rewards are sweet. Florida’s Sports Coast is home to some of the best waters for bay scallops, and for 10 days every July, amateur scallop hunters can take home up to two gallons per day of these prized mollusks.
To start your scallop hunt, you’ll need a mask, snorkel and fins, a mesh bag, a requisite red-and-white diver-down flag, and a saltwater fishing license. Some of the seagrass beds that provide habitat for scallops are located right offshore, but you’ll want to hire a boat with a local fishing charter captain to take you right to the best scalloping spots and show you how it’s done.
Note: This is an activity best suited to families with older kids and teens. Check the Florida’s Sports Coast scalloping page for more info, plus some tasty recipes.
For big, bouncy fun on the water, head to The Lift Adventure Park, where a huge inflatable aqua-jungle gym tempts kids ages 7 and up to run, slip, swing, slide, and climb across a slippery agility course. Half the fun is falling in, of course, and the spring-fed lake waters of northern Pasco County’s SunWest Park couldn’t be more inviting.
Kids and teens looking for more of a challenge can tack on a wakeboarding session and learn to stay upright, catch a wave, and even jump and spin while being towed by a cable. The park also offers SUP and kayak rentals, a swimming beach, and volleyball.
For a real taste of adventure and getting away from it all, intrepid families can go off-grid by spending one or more nights at a primitive campsite in one of the pristine wilderness areas within Florida’s Sports Coast. Primitive camping means no frills — getting to most campsites involves a walk of 2-3 miles and facilities are minimal, often just a firepit, a grill, and a picnic table. Some sites even require that you bring in your own water. But the payoff? Glorious privacy, with just the soothing sounds of nature to lull you to sleep after you’ve spent the evening roasting marshmallows and stargazing.
Primitive campsites can be found at Withlacoochee River Park, Anclote Key Preserve State Park, and both Crews Lake and Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Parks. For families who want to rough it a little less, several parks offer more developed tent campsites and cabins. After all, there’s no one way to #GetBacktoAdventure.