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Fort Lauderdale for Families

Fort Lauderdale for Families

Fort Lauderdale is a short getaway from the New York City area, with several direct flight options to this wonderful Florida city, allowing you to dip your toes in the ocean within just a few hours--or board a pirate ship, ride an air boat in the Everglades, or watch mermaids swim underwater while you sip a cocktail. Fort Lauderdale has a little something for everyone, and many fun things for families with kids. Here's how my family recently spent four days visiting Fort Lauderdale.

Day 1 in Fort Lauderdale

The water taxi in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida
Water Taxi

We began our trip by exploring the area via the Water Taxi. This water taxi service has been taking locals and tourists through the Intracoastal Waterway through Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood for more than 20 years. Its fleet consists of 19 different types of boats that shuttle you through a total of 22 different stops (if you take them all). You can hop on and off at any of the stops to explore, then continue your journey when’re you’re ready to see the next port.

We parked our car in the free parking deck across from Flip Flops restaurant, where we grabbed a delicious and moderately priced casual lunch before walking through the restaurant to the dock where we caught our water taxi. The taxi ride includes tour guides who provide great narration, pointing out celebrity homes, mansion, and yachts. Space is limited, but they accommodated collapsible strollers with no problem. Although we never had to wait for a water taxi, occasionally the boats are full and you will have to wait for the next one. Our favorite stop was The Shops & Restaurants at Las Olas, where we browsed through art galleries, did a little shopping, and splurged on sweets at Kilwins candy store. Overall, the boat is a little pricey but we made a whole day of it, so it was worth it. Be sure to bring a sunhat, sunscreen, and a camera.

Fort Lauderdale-By-The-Sea

After spending the day sightseeing and boat hopping, we drove to Fort Lauderdale-By-The-Sea for some shell collecting and saw a gorgeous sunset. The charming town encompasses just 1.5 square miles and is part of the "Gold Coast" in Broward County, between Fort Lauderdale and Pompano Beach. We spent most of our time in the center of the town, where an open plaza features giant Lego bricks and a super-sized Connect Four game for kids to play with as well as lots of benches to relax on and shops to browse.

The beach itself has powder-soft sand and lots of little shells my daughter loved collecting. There is also a pier extending from the shore out into the ocean, but there is a $2 cost per head to access this, so we opted to enjoy what was free. This is a very colorful, adorable area of Fort Lauderdale.

Related: Discover all the best things to do with kids closer to home.
 

Day 2 in Fort Lauderdale

Bluefoot Pirate Adventures in Fort Lauderdale

Flamingo Gardens

The following day, we began our morning by driving out to Davie, FL, to explore Flamingo Gardens. This gorgeous wildlife sanctuary is home to permanently injured and non-releasable Florida wildlife. This sanctuary has alligators, bobcats, panthers, otters, eagles, peacocks, and flamingos. Flamingo Pond was one of our favorite areas in the park, home to vibrant Caribbean flamingo. Their habitat is a lagoon surrounded by lush vegetation.  We also loved watching the playful otters swim and climb around their playful habitat, which included a slide, picnic table, and chairs. The highlight was probably the 25,000-square-foot free-flight aviary house. This atrium allowed us to walk freely among 250 different birds, all contained within a lush, swampy, cypress forest. We spent a long time in here watching the birds and discovering unusual vegetation. There is a garden tour available via shuttle, which we did not do, though it is included in admission. The facility is stroller accessible. Bring sunscreen, bug spray and a hat.

Southport Raw Bar

After Flamingo Gardens we grabbed a bite at Southport Raw Bar. This restaurant boasts it's the oldest raw bar in Fort Lauderdale and sells more oysters than anyone else. We sat dockside and loved the oysters as much as the view. They also had a nice children's menu.

Bluefoot Pirate Adventures

Of all things we did in Fort Lauderdale, this was probably our favorite. Bluefoot Pirate Adventures is a swashbuckling good time for any family with young children. Upon arrival our 5-year-old daughter picked out a pink bandana, eye patch, and plastic sword, and then was allowed to rummage through a trunk to finalize her costume with a smock and belts. Once dressed, the adventure crew painted her face, and then we were ready to board. This adventure takes place in the Intracoastal Waterway, where you discover that your ship's key to its treasure chest has been taken by Barnacle Bill. Mate Cannonball KiKi, along with Captain Sparrow, help lead the kids through an interactive adventure, including squirting Barnacle Bill as he rides by in his smaller boat and celebrating once they captured the key. The treasure chest held goodie bags for all the kids.

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There were lots of other activities on the boat, such as limbo and exploring the ship itself. Parents tended to sit in the back and kids toward the front as they immersed themselves in the fun, although parents can engage as much or as little as they want, especially if a child is shy. The only downside to this adventure is my daughter has now changed her name to Mermaid Crystal and seems to only respond when I call her by this newfound name.

Mai-Kai Restaurant and Polynesian Show

For dinner we went to the iconic Polynesian restaurant Mai-Kai. At this legendary restaurant you can dine on fine Polynesian cuisine while being entertained by a show. It is also rumored to have the best tropical drink menu anywhere in the world. Since I don't drink alcohol, my daughter and I tried some non-alcoholic mocktails, which were delicious. The rest of our party enjoyed the “real” drinks and agreed they may be the best tropical drinks they’ve ever tasted.

We sat in the bar area, even though this is not where the show is held. However, we walked through the show area and stood long enough to see some incredible hula dancing and a sword dancer swallowing fire. We made our way to the back of the restaurant where the doors open to incredible gardens. The gardens are free to walk through and filled with Tiki dolls, tropical plants, waterfalls, and lots of fun, kitschy charm. You can't help but have a good time here. The best part was we went on Wednesday, which happens to be when there is a half-price Happy Hour on all drinks from 5-7, free sushi and gyoza, and live music. Show up early, as it gets crowded quickly!
 

Day 3 in Fort Lauderdale

An airboat ride through the Everglades

Everglades Tours Airboat Rides

Of course, while in Florida we had to experience the Everglades, and based on what locals recommended, we picked Everglades Tours. This is part of Sawgrass Recreational Park. One ticket offers airboat rides through the Everglades with up-close sightings of alligators as well as access to the park, which you can enjoy either before or after your boat tour. We explored the park after the boat and saw alligators, snakes, lizards, a Florida panther, black leopards, a bobcat, and about 15 other species of animals. We watched two shows, a large alligator feeding and a chance for my daughter to hold a baby alligator.  You truly feel the excitement and learn some history of Florida’s everglades while spending time here. I left with a deeper respect for these remarkable species and the endangered, fragile environment where they reside.


Day 4 in Fort Lauderdale

Mermaids at the Wreck Bar in Fort Lauderdale

Pompano Beach

We spent our final day at Pompano Beach. Pompano Beach recently underwent a redevelopment process to revitalize its beachfront and historic downtown. The pristine white sand beaches now match the new pier and fun playgrounds line the beaches. There is a 1,000-foot-long municipal fishing pier, which is great to walk on and/or fish from, and we took advantage of the many beachside playgrounds. Another bonus about this beach is you can park right up along it, so there’s no schlepping through long parking lots with all of your beach gear.

Wreck Bar Mermaids

That evening we went to B Ocean Hotel & Resort in downtown Fort Lauderdale to enjoy their free nightly mermaid show. Inside their lobby is Wreck Bar, which has underwater views of the outdoor swimming pool. The windows are located behind the bar, so patrons and tourists all gather around for the shows on Fridays and Saturdays at 6:30 & 9:30pm. The 6:30 show is child appropriate, while the 9:30 show is for adults only. My daughter was in complete awe when she saw the mermaids swimming around. Their costumes were exquisite and they definitely had talent as they kept their eyes open underwater and waved at the patrons.

We’ll definitely be back to visit Fort Lauderdale. I suspect the Bluefoot Pirate Adventures and Wreck Bar Mermaids will be at the top of our list!

RELATED: Download our guide to the top kid-friendly day trips around the New York City metro region