Despite its relatively high cost of living and vacationing, Naples is as family welcoming as cities come in Florida. A number of attractions that are either designed especially for kids or are attractive to all ages bring families to the region in great numbers.
In the first category, the Golisano Children’s Museum of Naples and adjacent Sun-N-Fun Lagoon Water Park are the newest additions to the family scene. Other, quintessential nature attractions such as Big Cypress National Preserve fascinate families with intriguing wildlife, hands-on interpretative centers and hiking, biking and paddling opportunities.
Then, of course, there are those oversized sand boxes to excite families – gorgeous white sand beaches with facilities that range from a fishing pier to playgrounds and a duck pond.
Within this list, your family will discover a full range of educational and just plain fun attractions and activities to keep even the hardest to please members of the family engaged and entertained. The list covers the breadth of the Naples region from the Everglades wilderness expanse in the southeast to the very heart of the city. For a fun and complete guide to Naples for families, look for the new, colorful A (mostly) Kids’ Guide to Naples, Marco Island & the Everglades guidebook by local author Karen T. Bartlett.
The Conservancy's Nature Center, which underwent a major up-design in recent years, comprises an indoor and outdoor complex with many facets. The Dalton Discovery Center is an interactive museum where visitors can explore the eco system of Southwest Florida. It houses more than 100 live animals and hands on exhibits for all ages. Situated on the Gordon River, the Nature Center offers interpretive boat cruises and kayak rentals. Nature trails also explore local ecology. A greenway project connects with nearby Naples Zoo and other parks. Birds and other local fauna come here to recover from injuries, and guests can peek into the nursery and see birds on-the-mend. A theater and seasonal programs complete the Conservancy's education mission.
Nationally accredited, the Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens is one of the best attractions in the city. Celebrated by locals and travelers, this 52-acre park features exotic creatures such as panthers, alligators, leopards, bears and lions. Guests pay one rate to enjoy lively multimedia animal shows and feedings and a boat cruise to the primate island to see monkeys and lemurs. For its size, it boasts some superlative exhibits. The Black Bear Hammock, for instance, is the largest such accredited exhibit east of the Mississippi. The grounds are attractively maintained with the lush vegetation of the zoo's once-called Caribbean Gardens. Play areas amuse toddlers. To take in all the sights and shows requires about four hours.
Recognized as one of the best beaches in the US, the sandy shore at Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park is all-natural and devoid of the high rises and development of most of the other local beaches. A nature trail leads to an observation tower at the beach's north end. Fishermen head to the pass to hook into fish being flushed out of the Cocohatchee River. This is a popular park, but you can usually find parking in one of the many lots if you arrive early enough. The park posts a sign on the road leading to it when it is full, but there's another parking lot less than a quarter mile away if you don't mind walking. Picnic areas have grills, restrooms and showers.
The Environmental Learning Center at the reserve does a stellar job of interpreting the habitat of the estuary in a modern, state-of-the-art facility. The first floor holds a gallery that hosts changing exhibits of wildlife art in addition to its gift shop and an impressive, inviting gallery of interactive exhibits that include a 2,000-gallon aquarium built into roots of a recreated mangrove tree, plus a touch tank and beautifully executed exhibits. Upstairs, explore the Naples area's timeline and visit a Cracker shack to listen to human history. Then take the bridge to a short nature trail on the other side of Henderson Creek. The center also hosts guided walks, kayak tours and other education programming.
Lowdermilk Park holds the most full-service facilities of any Gulf of Mexico beach in the Naples area, making it a good fit for families with children. They can gather for picnics in one of the two gazebo pavilions that the park rents out, go check out the duck pond, play on the two playgrounds and enjoy the calm and safe waters here away from any rushing pass waters. Other facilities include sand volleyball courts, restrooms and showers, handicap access and beach wheelchairs and a food concession stand. Its close proximity to the downtown area adds to its convenience for visitors of all ages.
For nature lovers traveling on a budget, it doesn't get any better than the land and water trails of Big Cypress National Preserve. This behemoth freshwater neighbor to Everglades National Park covers more than 700,000 acres and is home to such rare creatures as the Florida panther, Florida manatee and all the alligators you've ever cared to see. Begin your explorations at the new free Big Cypress Swamp Welcome Center. Its boardwalk trail lets you spy on manatees in the waters and anhingas in the trees. Inside, listen to the sounds of pig frogs, limpkins, thunder and rain and other 'Glades music. Drive Loop Road for the best wildlife sightings and stop at the free Oasis Visitor Center to learn more about the environment and free ranger programs.
While visiting museums is not a typical activity for visitors to Naples, Florida, this one is a must-see for those interested in the multi-textured bygones of Collier County. Impressive indoor vignettes and an outdoor historical park take you through eras of prehistoric animals and peoples, Spanish exploration, Seminole Indians and Seminole Wars, pioneer settlement, logging, the building of Tamiami Trail, pineapple farming, fishing, World War II and modern development and tourism. Highlights include a logging locomotive, vintage swamp buggy, recreated Seminole village and war fort and early homes. One of the latter contains a taxidermy collection of local fish, birds and other wildlife.
While Naples is famous for its pristine beaches, the city also has flourishing wetlands such as the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary - known for its ancient cypress forest and colony of nesting American woodstorks. The Audubon facility is also the gateway for the South Florida Birding Trail, part of the Great Florida Birding & Wildlife Trail. Save an afternoon to meander down the park's 2.25-mile boardwalk, which is interpreted with educational signs that lead visitors along a self-guided tour. The walkway allows guests to travel through a wet prairie, landmark cypress trees, pine uplands and a marsh as they observe the native wildlife.
Located adjacent to Golisano Children's Museum of Naples (CMON) in North Collier Regional Park, it provides a get-wet, splashy sequel to a museum visit. The family can kick back in the lazy river or wage water pistol war, dare the five steep 38 foot slides, swim in the dive and lap pool or snooze on the sand beach. The little ones love the Turtle Cove Pool, where they can play with others their size - ages 5 to 12 - amid colorful fountains and showers. A concession operation sells food, ice cream, sunscreen, swim diapers and other pool and beach necessities.
A microcosm of Naples culture and nature in pint-sized stature, C'MON opened in 2012 in a park setting in North Naples. The Naples Trolley is the centerpiece as you enter the 30,000 square-foot hall of the colorful ship-shaped building. Inside the trolley, kids get their picture taken for a driver's license and punch buttons to go virtually to some of the museum's 12 different galleries. Behind it, a mammoth, very real-looking banyan tree has its 350 branches filled with stuffed animal toys. Inside, kids can step into a virtual pond and watch the fish flit away and water plants grow. The Journey through the Everglades exhibit's boardwalk winds up into the tree and overlooks the mangrove maze of pods with hands-on learning experiences. As visitors make the journey, lighting and sound effects mimic spending a day in the moody environment. At the Beach, kids can fish with poles and magnetic bait, then identify the fish they caught. Indoor and outdoor exhibits sneakily teach kids about the environment. There's even a space for teens and changing exhibits that appeal to adults.