Florida for Kids – Sun & Sand Castles
No trip to Florida would be complete without a stop at one of our famous beaches. If you’re not a native Floridian, you should know we have two very different coasts — the Gulf on the west and the Atlantic on the east. One side is cold and rough with darker water while the other is a perfect shade of turquoise with soft, light sand. Clearly, I have a bias toward the latter, the Gulf of Mexico. I grew up and still live much closer to that side of the state so if I were to pick up and go to the beach, it would be in that area. Since that is the coast I know, that is the coast I will brag on about.
As a kid, I didn’t realize how lucky we were. I meet people from the world over who have never stepped foot onto a beach or seen the ocean. I could go every day if I wanted to. I’ve had a couple of summers where more time was spent on the coast in the sand or water than back at home. I appreciate that time just a little bit more.
So, of course, summer time is one of the best times to be there, especially with kids. It’s free or very low cost, they play outside in the nice air and get some sun and there is plenty to keep them busy. All of these beaches are within a reasonable driving distance from Tampa. If you happen to stay in Orlando, you’re much closer to the Atlantic but if you have the time for a 2-2.5 hour drive, try out this side of the state. Grab your sunscreen (SPF 50!), some towels and a beach umbrella and let’s go.
Gulf Coast Favorites
This is a large swath of coastline and I’d be here for weeks if I tried to point out all of the great spots. I’ll start the area with Reddington Beach, stopping north at Honeymoon Island. In between, there are at least a dozen big public areas to park, some with bathrooms and showers, some with playgrounds and volleyball nets.
Reddington & Indian Rocks
Reddington Beach is your average gulf beach. The water is nice, the sand is good and there is plenty around. I wouldn’t make a special trip just to get here. Keep in mind I’ve been to these beaches for 31 years and counting so I may be a little picky when it comes to where I lay my towel.
Just the slightest bit north is Indian Rocks and Indian Shores, depending on which area you find parking. While the beaches are good, nothing spectacular, I will stop here just to visit the Kooky Coconut. This is a very small shop with ice cream and amazing tacos. It’s often packed and you’ll be waiting a little bit to eat. But trust me, worth the wait.
North of that is Sand Key. This area is very low key and laid back. While beautiful, skip it with the kids. The crowd is often older and not so much into rowdy and loud noises.
Clearwater Beach & Honeymoon Island State Park
Head north on the bridge and you hit Clearwater Beach. So I love my gulf beaches, really I do. But Clearwater Beach has to be one of my least favorite areas. The sand is mainly shells and I always find a lot of trash around the public areas. Parking in their lots is a nightmare. BUT if you decide to make the stop, there is plenty of good things to do.
While you’re here:
- Stop by Pier 60 for fun little knick knacks and a snack. There are nearly always “buskers” around to put on a show. They’re street performers and your kid(s) will absolutely enjoy them. They play music, magic, fire breathing. Captain Jack Sparrow hangs out there too.
- Clearwater Aquarium is just a mile or two away. This is where you can see Winter from A Dolphin Tale and see her and that famous tail.
- Captain Memo’s Pirate Cruise. You can’t mention Clearwater Beach for kids without bringing Captain Memo in to it. Really, it is a must if you have time in your schedule. Read up on their website for dates, details and prices. The cost is reasonable for what you get.
Finally, beyond Clearwater, there is Honeymoon Island. Technically, Caledesi Island comes before that but you can only reach it by boat, which I do not have, so I can’t really tell you much about that. But! Honeymoon Island is a beautiful place. This is a Florida State Park and you will have to pay to get in but I believe it is less than $10 per car. Thanks to its state park status, the wildlife is much more abundant. If you have a child (or yourself) into that, definitely swing by here.
While you’re here:
- Take a break from the water and hike the short trail. You’ll see many birds and get a feel for what Florida looked like long ago.
- Across from the sandy parts of the beach, there is a neat little Visitor’s Center building. Come by here and learn about everything around you. It’s fun to take the shells you find in the sand here. Identify them and see what they looked like before you got to them.
St. Pete Area
Directly south of Clearwater is the city of St Petersburg. If you are heading to that area of the coast and looking for something more to do than lounge or make sand castles, stop here rather than north in the Clearwater area.
This is a great spot for families. John’s Pass features a big boardwalk with plenty to see and do. There is more to it than your kitschy beach tourist shops, you’ll find some nice stores to peruse. There is good food at the plentiful restaurants. You may be tempted to stop at Bubba Gump’s based on the name alone (I did once), but if you haven’t been here before, it’s overpriced generic seafood. Right across the road is where the actual beach sits, called Madeira Beach.
While you’re here:
- Take a dolphin cruise. There are at least half a dozen companies on the pier that will take you out on a wild dolphin spotting cruise. A very cool experience, especially for young ones.
- The Royal Cruise Pirate Ship. Similar to the one you’ll find in Clearwater Beach, but a tad less famous and a tad pricier.
Keep heading south and you will reach Treasure Island. No, not that Treasure Island but a fun little spot nonetheless. It’s not the most exciting place for families so you can cruise right on down to St. Pete Beach proper.
St. Pete Beach/Pass-A-Grille
The southern half of this area, Pass-A-Grille, is a historic spot. You’ll find the famous pink Don CeSar’s Hotel. If you’re not looking to spend $400+ a night, it’s still worth a passing drive. It’s a pretty building. While the beaches on St. Pete are nice (they’re my usual go to when I don’t wanna go far), you should also know big hotels line the shores. Not that it makes it ugly or anything but you will see lines of cabanas and pools out by the water. Just, don’t get in them. Most employees will just tell you to leave if you’re not a guest but some aren’t so friendly. There’s an iconic giant inflatable water slide on the sand outside of TradeWinds Resort. You can see it from waaaay down the beach.
This area is kind of cool to wander around in if you have a curious kiddo. Past all the tourist and adult fun stuff, the island comes to an end but you can walk to the next one just north of it. There are little tide pools depending on what time of day you go. Hermit crabs and coquina shells line the sand. Coguina are small, closed shells with a critter inside that you can’t see. Sometimes, there will be enough coquina together that you can hear them digging into the sand as the shells clink against each other. Definitely cool.
There are a couple of public parking areas but it’s most convenient to find a spot at the ~official~ St. Pete Beach. Head farther south to Pass-A-Grille for more options. The food is much more reasonably priced as well.
While you’re here:
- Have lunch on the beach at Paradise Grill on Pass-A-Grille beach.
- Take a shuttle boat ride to Shell Key Preserve. Lots of wildlife, particularly birds, here on the island. It’s only accessible by boat — either your own or the shuttle.
- Spend the night at Fort De Soto. Beyond Shell Key is Fort De Soto Park. You can camp on the beach or just visit for the day. While not the prettiest spot, I almost always see dolphins here.
Anna Maria Island/Holmes Beach/Bradenton Beach
This area is one of the more popular spots on the coast and I could probably give you a halfway decent tour of the place. Technically, Holmes Beach and Bradenton Beach are on Anna Maria Island. If someone asks where you’re headed, usually the answer is Anna Maria, not the more specific beach names. The island is located off the Gulf coast, west of Bradenton. If you can find Tampa on a map, follow the coast line of the bay down to the Gulf and there you will find the island.
The main public parking area for Holmes Beach is directly across from a stop light. With that being the case, this area is often very busy and finding a parking spot isn’t always so simple. Just past the parking lot lies the sandy coastline, behind a small strip building with bathrooms and showers, some beach gear shops and a little (kinda pricey) cafe. Beyond that, a little playground for kids and volleyball nets. While the area is often busy, this stretch of beach is fairly wide and doesn’t feel so crowded.
If you can’t find a spot to park in the lot, you can try your luck on the nearby public streets. You’ll see signs notifying you of public beach access where a lot have maybe a dozen spots. Just remember you have to walk in the sand to get to the playground and volleyball area, all through sand. It’s not as fun as it sounds. If you have your own food and toys and entertainment, skip the main beach and settle in closer to your parking spot.
To get to Bradenton Beach, sometimes called Cortez or Coquina Beach, hang a left at the stop light in front of Holmes Beach public parking. There is really just one main road to go north and south on the island. It’s tough to get lost. Down here you’ll find a bigger strip of public parking with far less facilities. No cafes, no beach shops and no playgrounds nearby. You’re very close to small shops and restaurants so all is not lost if you do get hungry. There are picnic tables all over so you can eat without getting sand all over your food.
I haven’t had a lot of difficulty finding parking here but it depends on when you visit. Of course things get busier during the summer time. Everyone here knows this is the spot to bring your kiddos on break.
All around the island, the water is often fairly clear. It’s better on some days than others, of course but its not uncommon to find some dolphins and stingrays swimming around you. Bring a snorkel and some fins and go find something. There are plenty of spots to rent kayaks and paddle boards to explore farther out.
While you’re here:
- Stop by Two Scoops for some ice cream. Located on the northeast side of the island.
- Pick up some deliciously fresh sea food at Rod & Reel, a tad north of Two Scoops
- While you’re there, try your hand at fishing off the docks. You can rent a reel and buy bait there.
Directly south of Anna Maria sits Long Boat Key. A short bridge connects the two but they are very different areas. Most of Long Boat is residential housing. Like big residential housing. When people say they want a big, beautiful beach house, this is what they mean. You won’t find public parking lots and playgrounds here. The only public parking areas will be down marked streets, just look for the blue and white wooden “BEACH ACCESS” signs. Most of them will have a few spots. You may find showers here right before you hit the sand, but you may not. Definitely no concessions or bathrooms.
Longboat Key is where you come for a quieter experience. I’ve had the beach nearly to myself on more than one occasion. If you’re looking for a more low key and relaxing beach day, this is the place. The water is equally gorgeous as Anna Maria and the sand so very white .It’s a good place for sandcastles and a picnic.
While you’re here:
- Honestly, there is not a lot to choose from when it comes to family dining. Pick up some food on the way and lay out a blanket in the sand. Trust me, it’s much cheaper.
- If you do feel like you need some restaurant food, try Drydock Waterfront Grill on the southernmost tip of the key.
- Though if you are going that far, you may as well head in to St. Armond’s Circle, just a mile or two past that. Tons of shopping and food there.
Siesta Key is the end all, be all of Gulf beaches. As of 2017, the beach is rated #1 in the US and #5 in the world. It is consistently on top 10 lists for all kinds of publications. Stop by for a day and you’ll easily understand how. The sand, called sugar sand, is soft and white. Throughout the year, the beach is home to sand sculpting competitions, the biggest being the Crystal Classic each November. Stop by then and you’ll see some amazing creations but you won’t get the best experience on the beach itself. That’s a pretty busy time to go.
While you’re here:
- If you have an adventurous family, take a ride on jetskis or go parasailing. You’ll see so much more than you would sitting in the sand (as beautiful as it is).
- Bring some shovels. There are plenty of shark’s teeth to be found hidden in the sand along with nice shells. Plenty of treasures to take home.
- Stop by Solorzano’s for a pie. They have all kinds of pizzas and pasta to choose from.
There are more great beaches on the Gulf coast. You can continue on farther south to Naples or Marco Island. The areas above are consistently tourist friendly and sure to be a blast for kids and adults alike.