A Fort Lauderdale Family Vacation

By Lisa Tucker McElroy

My eight-year-old daughter and I were dying to escape the rainy Philadelphia weather and travel to a warm and sunny beach for a mini family vacation.  Our destination?  Fort Lauderdale, a gem of a spot for family vacations in South Florida. 

No, Fort Lauderdale isn’t just for spring breakers anymore – in fact, several years ago, the city council passed an ordinance outlawing alcohol on the beach and all of the college partiers have flown the coop.  That makes the white sand beaches of Fort Lauderdale prime territory for family vacations – and that’s not all!  In our five days in the “Venice of the Americas” (so-called because of its many man-made canals), we discovered tons of family-friendly activities, restaurants, and hotels.

Great Hotel Options

We stayed right on the beach at the Marriott Harbor Beach Hotel.  Although lots of hotels in Fort Lauderdale will tell you that they are oceanfront, most of them are actually across a major road from the white sand and waves.  Not so with the Marriott – you can walk out the back door and right into the ocean, making its location one of the best in the city.  Our room was large and comfortable with an oceanfront balcony – we almost felt like we were on a cruise ship!

We signed up for the Family Escape package, so my daughter ate free as long as an adult was with her.  Good thing – energized by the sunshine and outdoors time, she ate about three times as much as I did, stealing most of the fruit and Eggs Benedict from the deluxe breakfast buffet and ordering three courses at dinner.  What made her so hungry?  She loved the Marriott’s Beach Buddies program, where she spent hours doing crafts, playing beach games, and watching “dive in” movies while I relaxed by the pool.  When I hit the beach for a tan, she built castles and bodysurfed in the gentle waves.  And while I snoozed on a beach chair, she got a hair wrap and ate homemade chocolate chip cookies poolside.  Paradise for kids!  www.marriottharborbeach.com

We heard from other Fort Lauderdale families that the Pelican Grand Beach Resort was also a good bet.  It was also right on the beach, although on the other end of the city, and it had a lazy river that kids raved about.  Some other moms told me that they loved the veranda and the rockers looking out over the beach, while their kids couldn’t get enough of the Emporium, an old-fashioned on-site ice cream parlor.  www.pelicanbeach.com

For suite living, the news is good – Homewood Suites, Hilton’s brand of suite hotels for executives and families, is opening a brand-new property in Fort Lauderdale in the fall of 2009.  What’s nice about Homewood Suites is that you get a full kitchen, a living room, and even separate bedrooms for the kids.  They include a full breakfast, free Internet, and even dinner on weeknights.  It’s a great deal and a comfortable stay.  http://homewoodsuites1.hilton.com

Family Friendly Activities

Although we knew that Fort Lauderdale would make for a great family vacation, we were pleasantly surprised by the large number of fun activities: most outdoors, but some indoors for the couple of hours each afternoon when it typically rains.  We started with the Fort Lauderdale Duck Tours.  The “Duck Diva” (an opera singer turned tour guide) quizzed us about Fort Lauderdale trivia while pointing out city highlights like Las Olas Boulevard, the art museum, and the incredible mansions of the rich and famous (including Leonard Nimoy and Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s).  www.fortlauderdaleducktours.com.  After laughing and quacking our way through the streets and canals of the city, we hit the beach, where we snorkeled and built sand castles with the powdery white sand. 

On day two, we decided to try out some of Fort Lauderdale’s many educational activities.  Abby loved Butterfly World – she couldn’t get enough of the free flying butterflies (over ten thousand of them!) and the brightly colored birds.  She spent a good amount of time reading about the life cycle of the butterflies, so I felt good about taking away some learning, to boot. www.butterflyworld.com.    

At Wannado City, a gigantic indoor theme park that lets kids experience various careers, I couldn’t pull her away – I ended up taking advantage of the facility’s drop-off option:  they put a tracking device on her and gave me a pager to take with me while I shopped in the nearby mall.  While I took in the bargains, Abby tried out gold mining, news writing, manicuring, and lawyering in the incredible realistic mine, newsroom, beauty salon, and courthouse on site – and she didn’t even get to the 20 or so other “career” options in the four hours she was there. www.wannadocity.com

Finally, at the Museum of Discovery and Science, Abby was mesmerized by the largest coral reef in captivity, while I enjoyed the 11,000-foot nature trail. http://www.mods.org

That night, we headed to Land Shark Stadium to catch a Florida Marlins game. www.floridamarlins.com. We got really into the spirit of Florida sporting, so much so that the next day we hit Xtreme Indoor Karting, where Abby spun around the half-mile asphalt track. http://www.xtremeindoorkarting.com.  We finished up our trip with a visit to the International Swimming Hall of Fame, where we learned about African-American and woman swimmers.  http://www.ishof.org.

Good Eats

Fort Lauderdale was full of typically family-friendly chain restaurants, like PF Chang’s and Cheescake Factory.  But we also enjoyed some local favorites.  My personal pick?  The Mai Kai, the biggest tiki hut you’ve ever seen with an atmosphere that hasn’t changed in the fifty or so years since it opened.  We chowed down on the giant Pupu platters and cheered our way through the dinner show of Polynesian dancers.  www.maikai.com.

At Jaxson’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor, Abby gulped down a grilled cheese sandwich so that I’d let her have one of the enormous ice cream sundaes, all made with homemade ice cream.  Like the Mai Kai, this place is a Ft. Lauderdale institution; it’s been family owned for over 50 years, and counting.  It’s styled like an old-fashioned general store, but this isn’t a put on – it’s the real deal.  While Abby begged for one of the kitchen sink specials (a sundae served in a real one!), we settled for the still way-too-big-to-finish peanut butter sundaes.  www.jaxsonsicecream.com.

For a special night out, we had flatbread pizza and barbecue at Smith & Jones, a casual rocking roadhouse on Las Olas Boulevard, the street in Ft. Lauderdale for shopping and strolling.  We closed the night down with the live music at Smith and Jones, and even eight-year-old Abby got into the groove.  http://www.smithandjones.us.

If You Go:

  • Think winter escape.  The nicest months in Ft. Lauderdale are November through March; in spring and summer, you’ll have rain and humidity.
  • Bring your wallet.  Las Olas Boulevard offers incredible boutique shopping opportunities, and the small town feel of this terrific street will make you want to stroll along for a full day.
  • Grease up.  The sun is hot and direct in South Florida; you’ll want to coat the kids in sunscreen several times a day.
  • Sail the ocean blue.  Aloha Water Sports at the Marriott rents banana boats and offers parasailing adventures.  Several other outfits offer snorkeling, scuba, and catamaran cruises.
  • Plan to spend at least four days.  We found that Fort Lauderdale offered so much to do that we wanted to extend our trip.

Lisa Tucker McElroy is an attorney, writer, law professor, and mom. Lisa is the author of nine children's books, and she regularly publishes articles and essays about travel, marriage, parenting and family in national magazines such as Parenting, Mary Engelbreit’s Home Companion, FamilyFun, Cooking with Paula Deen, and Golf Vacations. She lives in the Philadelphia area with her husband and two travel-loving daughters.

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