There's one thing both kids and adults love about the sea: dolphins. Hop aboard Dolphin Safari's six-passenger boat for a chance to see them in the wild. Along the way, you'll come across other sea life like manatees, sea turtles and stingrays. Toss some pineapple in the water and watch the tropical fish go crazy. You'll usually spot at least one pod of playful dolphins frolicking on the open water. Friendly and curious creatures, they'll swim near the boat for photo-ops. The trip also includes 45 minutes of snorkeling in the reefs, and equipment is included. Parents can hop in the shallow water first while kids stay on the boat snacking on fruit and Rice Krispies Treats before they join mom and dad with fun-noodles and life jackets. Book the afternoon tour, and you'll wrap up your time on the water with a colorful Key West sunset.
What kid doesn't love a train? The Conch Tour Train makes a lot of top 10 lists, and for good reason. Their bright yellow trains have been winding the shady streets of Old Town since 1958. The tour is an easy way to get acquainted with the entire island and its history, especially if you have children in tow. Plus kids 12 and under ride for free. Their knowledgeable "engineers" will give you an overview of the historic district, covering 100 points of interest such as the Harry S. Truman Little White House, Southernmost Point, the conch-style architecture and more. They also provide an entertaining commentary on the legends of the city like Robert the haunted doll, who lives at Fort East Martello.
The stories of the 400 shipwrecks along the Florida Keys are told with all the bells and whistles at this part-museum, part theme-park attraction. Visitors are greeted with a 15-minute live storytelling presentation before touring the museum. There are some actual artifacts from the 17th and 18th century (while others are just for show), as well as video presentations, audio recordings, and a 64-pound silver bar that families can lift up. Most people head to the 65-foot lookout tower for stunning views of the island and surrounding waters where ships met their final resting place. For those interested in seeing more real treasure from other shipwrecks, be sure to check out the Mel Fisher Museum.
When the museum admissions and snorkeling tours start to add up, free options are always the way to go--especially when the kids can learn a thing or two. The Eco-Discovery Center provides a look into the ecosystems of the Florida Keys. Just a step away from Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, exhibits include an interactive satellite map of the Keys, a replica of the Aquarius underwater ocean laboratory and an underwater video camera used for monitoring the health of a coral reef. The real star is the Living Reef exhibit, which includes a 2,500-gallon reef tank teeming with living corals and tropical fish. Stop into the Center's theater to catch "Reflections of the Florida Keys," a short film on the diverse ecosystem of the Florida Keys by renowned filmmaker Bob Talbot.
A common misconception travelers have when planning a trip to Key West is that there will be sparkling white-sand beaches everywhere. In fact, they are few and far between. Fort Zachary Taylor is one of the exceptions with its well-maintained, sandy beach dotted with chairs, umbrellas and water sports rentals. Completed in 1866, the fort played important roles in the Civil War and Spanish-American War, and visitors can tour the National Historic Landmark at 11 a.m. daily. The three-story brick fortress once held the largest collection of Civil War cannons in the U.S. (many of which are still there). The 54-acre state park is also home to several nature trails and a stunning coral reef for snorkelers. Have a family picnic with grub from their beachfront café complete with ice cream. Fishing is permitted in certain areas.
Watch your children's eyes open in wonder, as you step into this garden filled with swirling butterflies, colorful birds, bright koi fish, pink flamingos and turtles. At any time, 1200 to 2,000 of these winged beauties reside in the conservatory, and if one chooses to land on you, it's a sign of good luck. You'll wind up staying longer than planned, so parents can take a breather on a butterfly-shaped bench. Photo ops abound; try to get a close-up of the camera-shy Blue Morpho. The entrance to the conservatory offers children a wealth of learning opportunities about the life cycle and behavior of these stunning insects. Cocoons labeled with the species names are on display in the glass-enclosed pupae room toward the rear. As you leave, pick up some nature-themed games and puzzles for all ages in the gift shop.
Not far from Duval Street in Old Town Key West is Higgs Beach, a popular spot to soak in some rays and take a dip in the shallow water. Amenities include tennis courts, volleyball courts, children's playground and a dog park, and White Street Pier extends far past the sand for stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean. (The end of the pier is also a great spot for kids to toss bread in the water for the fish.) Tropical Water Sports, a beach concessionaire, offers a broad array of beach accessories for rent including beach chairs, umbrellas, kayaks and paddle-boards. If you're feeling peckish, check out Salute on the Beach, a lovely seaside bar and restaurant.
Fishing in Key West is a lot of fun, but it certainly isn't cheap. Private charters, which charge approximately $600 per group for a half-day tour (excluding gratuities), may not be ideal for families with young children. Gulfstream Fishing has the solution with a six-hour deep sea excursion at prices of $65 for adults and $38 for children under 12. Best of all the wee ones (under five) are free. This includes parking, bait and license; add $5 for rod rental. Their 58-foot Gulfstream IV party boat comes equipped with an air-conditioned cabin, restrooms and snack bar. Anglers can haul in grouper, snapper, mackerel, kingfish, tuna and sharks. The mates will become your best friends, as they help you bait your hook, gaff your catch and clean your fish. (Don't forget to tip.) Head straight to a local restaurant and have it cooked up for dinner.
Sunset Watersports has it all. Families can go snorkeling, kayaking, windsurfing, parasailing or jet skiing. Have a group of kids who can't agree on what they want to do? Check out the company's "Do it All" package, which offers six hours out on the water jumping from one sport to the next--perfect for kids with short attention spans. Activities like snorkeling, wave runners, kayaks and paddleboats are great for all ages, and the young ones will especially love the inflatable slides, banana boat rides and water trampoline. The package includes a picnic-style lunch of grilled pork, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, potato salad and chips. At the end of the day, the bar opens for free beer. If you'd rather cool down with a frozen cocktail, they also have those for sale. Hop aboard to do it all from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Tickets are $139.
You'll spot the Key West Aquarium off Mallory Square by the distinctive great white shark bursting from the top of its façade. Built between 1932 and 1934, it's one of Florida's oldest aquariums. While on the small side, the facility offers children the opportunity to touch and hold living starfish, sea cucumbers, horseshoe crabs and conchs. The long building is lined with tanks that showcase other critters that populate the Florida Keys like eels, lobster, seahorses and glowing jellyfish. You'll also spot alligators, stingrays and rescued sea turtles on view.