When it comes to vacationing as a family, there are few places better than the state of Florida with its beautiful beaches, lovely weather, and endless entertainment. Especially when you consider the Panhandle region. Located in a slice of heaven between Pensacola and Tallahassee, Panama City boasts over 300 days of annual sunshine and no shortage of options to keep your kids amused.
Part of Florida’s “Emerald Coast,” this region features 27 miles of white sand beaches and turquoise Gulf of Mexico waters. Though the area is generally sunny and pleasant year-round, consider visiting between May and October for the warmest air and water without the throngs of college kids on spring break. If you don’t do well in the heat, avoid July and August as high temperatures can be in the 90s. Along with lovely beaches, Panama City sports a wide array of activities that will appeal to children from water parks and swimming with dolphins to laser tag and giant mazes. So, without further ado, here are a few favorite options.
For Outdoor Adventures
Does it get any better than skimming across the rivers, marshland, and backwaters of Panama City on an airboat, all while spotting alligators, bald eagles, and dolphins? Not for a kid! Airboat Adventures has this covered in their one-hour tour that is appropriate for ages two and up. Added bonus—the company is veteran owned and operated.
For those days you need a low-key option to let the kids unwind, St. Andrews State Park is worth a visit, particularly during the pleasant temperatures of early fall. This undeveloped land sits between the Gulf of Mexico and St. Andrews Bay with five ecological landscapes and one and a half miles of beach to explore. Pack a picnic and take advantage of swimming, snorkeling, and fishing. The park is also light on your wallet, costing just $8 per vehicle to enter.
For families with anglers, Panama City is a tremendous destination to go fishing. Cast off a line from one of the many piers, or charter a deep-water fishing boat on the Gulf of Mexico. Check out the Visit Panama City Beach directory to learn how to plan an outing and where to go to catch everything from mahi-mahi and grouper to marlin, tuna, and even a shark.
Sporting 2,900 acres of nature devoted to restoring and protecting Florida wetlands, the Conservation Park is an excellent way to connect your kids with the outdoors in Panama City. Twenty-four miles of unpaved trails and a network of boardwalks promise a tranquil day of exploration. Picnic areas, pavilions, and restrooms are available as well. Furthering the calm vibe, bicycles are encouraged but motorized vehicles are not allowed.
For Educational Experiences
ZooWorld is home to a huge array of exotic animals including giraffes and lions. Plus, they offer special activities to get up close and personal. On the warm and fuzzy front, kids can pet a sloth and snuggle a lemur, while the more adventurous can hold a baby alligator or even feed more than 80 fully-grown gators.
Making science fun, WonderWorks Children’s Museum is a must for your list of things to do in Panama City with kids—especially kids that are into STEM-related activities. There are over 100 exhibits and virtual and physical challenges like a four-story interactive fun lab and an indoor ropes course. Adding to the kid-friendly vibe is the museum itself, which from the outside looks like it’s upside down.
Get up close and personal to marine life at Gulf World Marine Park. Kids can feed stingrays, interact with sea lions, and discover animal therapy for those with special needs. If you have the time, there are one-day camps where children ages 7 to 11 can go behind-the-scenes to assist in dolphin training sessions and meet all the animals that call Gulf World home. Don’t miss the Feathers and Friends Show where a variety of rescued birds, reptiles, cats, and dogs show off their skills with opportunities for audience interaction.
Focused on helping kids learn by doing, the Science & Discovery Center children’s museum features a Medical Arena where young ones can drive an ambulance and view x-rays. There is also a Glowroom with a life-size Litezilla display, as well as an Air and Space area to build rockets or drive a flight simulator. The live reptile exhibit and outdoor USS Discovery pirate ship are not to be missed.
For Beating the Heat
When you’re looking to cut loose in the water, be sure to check out Sunshine Watersports. They offer banana boat rides that are sure to keep the little ones grinning and jet ski rentals that older kids will love. Keep in mind, operating a jet ski in Florida requires a boat safety card and anyone under age 18 must have a signed waiver from a parent or guardian. Excursions to Shell Island involve a walking tour of the island and snorkeling for sand dollars with the chance for dolphin encounters. Parasailing offers a birds-eye view of Panama City, but be aware that it can be costly with pricing that starts at $65.00 per person.
Discover the strange, weird, and bizarre side of life inside Ripley’s Believe It or Not Odditorium. It houses hundreds of fun, curious exhibits like shrunken heads and a giant set of shark teeth. Kid-friendly experiences like a 3D movie with interactive gaming, the Impossible Laser Race, and Ripley’s Marvelous Mirror Maze means there is something for all ages.
Hitting the waterpark could be considered a requirement when visiting Panama City with kids and Shipwreck Island, with three million gallons of water fun spread over 15 acres, does it right. Open early May through Labor Day; check out their signature ride, “The Great Shipwreck,” where you zip line off a pirate ship into a deep pool. Young kids will love the Tadpole Hole, while the 65-foot high Tree Top waterslide will keep the older crew thrilled.
For Good Ole Fashioned Fun
Boasting two 18-hole mini-golf courses, Coconut Creek Family Fun Park takes this classic family activity to a new level with waterfalls, caves, and fun animal statues. The best part? Kids age five and under play free! There is also a giant, football field-sized maze for you to solve individually, or in teams, with observation decks to keep an eye on the kids.
13. Pier Park
A giant outdoor complex with over 100 stores and all manner of restaurants and family favorites like laser tag—if you’re looking for things to do in Panama City with kids, Pier Park is a good place to start. On the off chance it’s raining, there’s also a Grand IMAX theater and a Dave and Buster’s that features all the arcade games your kid could ever want. Plus, seasonal events like a family-friendly Mardi Gras festival will keep everyone entertained. When it’s time to eat, the likes of Red Robin and Smoothie King are just some of the many options from which to choose.
Take a ride on an 85-foot pirate ship that is all about the kiddos. During the two-hour cruise, pirate fun includes firing the kid cannon, swabbing the deck, reading a treasure map, and discovering loot. There are even water gun fights! Along with the music, games, and dancing, you can expect to see dolphins, pelicans, and other local wildlife. Parents can kick back too, sipping on rum punch and margaritas.
When the kids feel a need for speed, take them over to Indy Speedway with its wild Sling Shot ride that will blast riders 300 feet straight up in the air at 100 mph. The Indy Speedway is also home to the NASA-inspired Vomatron (a spinning-capsule ride) as well as a 480-foot outdoor go-kart track. Even the little ones can get involved with two-seat go-karts allowing them to ride along with their parents.
Where to Stay in Panama City with Kids
Between the full hookup pull-through RV sites and park models available for rent, Sun Outdoors is ready to accommodate your next trip to Panama City with kids. Amenities include bathrooms, showers, cable TV, and internet access. Did I mention the pair of heated pools and hot tub? You can keep the kids occupied on the playground, basketball court, riding rental bikes, or playing volleyball. Plus, furry family members are welcome too.
Day Trip from Panama City with Kids
Apalachicola and Saint George Island
If you’re looking to change up the scenery during your family trip to Panama City, check out the sleepy town of Apalachicola. Located about an hour and fifteen minutes outside Panama City, Apalachicola is part of Florida’s “Forgotten Coast,” aptly named for its largely undeveloped, low-key vibe.
The downtown is home to cute boutiques, art galleries, and all the fresh seafood you can handle. Head another 15 minutes down the road and you’ll end up on Saint George Island. This barrier island is a 28-mile-long strip of sand with quiet beaches and just the right number of ice cream shops to keep the kiddos happy.
Niel and his wife, Sarah, are the parents of three tiny humans aged 9, 9 and 10. They keep things crazy on trips—whether its to the beach for building sandcastles, or the mountains for family ski trips. Niel looks forward to teaching his kids how to surf in New Hampshire, as well as the ancient art of hiking in the woods in shorts and a T-shirt, only to camp for the night and wake up in the morning surrounded by snow.
Photo credit in order of appearance: Christian Hinkle, Adobe Stock – Allouphoto, Pixabay, Elaine Bernadine, Anna Tarazevich, Panama City Sun Outdoors