Up north, when temperatures drop and leaves put on their golden autumn colors, a southern migration begins. The first frost hits, and people start making escape plans to visit Florida's warm winter wonderland, where shovels pour sand into buckets rather than push snow off sidewalks.
Heat-seeking family and friends come in waves -- Thanksgiving, holidays, winter break or special occasions such as birthdays, reunions and anniversaries. They arrive with overstuffed suitcases, eager to trade their puffy down coats and insulated boots for cotton t-shirts and flip-flops. Their excitement is contagious, and quality time together is precious. Grandparents caress babies, while aunts and uncles connect with new generations that bear a sweet resemblance to their own.
Sometimes just being together is enough, but after a few days someone inevitably gets an itch to discover Florida's magic. To keep the pack intact with multigeneration activities, consider the following ideas to make everyone happy and create memorable experiences.
Water is the great equalizer. Everybody from toddlers to teens can find something fun in a pool or at the beach. Like lemmings to the sea, kids of all ages are drawn to the shore to dig their toes into the sand and conquer the waves. All the beach amenities -- boardwalks, arcades, food stands and gift shops can make the seaside a place for frequent visits.
A stroll on the beach can inspire wanderers to pick up a colorful shell or uniquely twisted piece of driftwood that becomes a washed ashore treasure destined to be displayed as art or the centerpiece of family craft projects. Florida's prime destination for discriminating shell seekers is Sanibel Island, a 15-mile stretch of beach that harbors 250 types of seashells. After you pluck your share of shells, head to Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum to learn about the collection in your plastic bucket and its role in history, commerce, art and religion. Or if your clan is more inspired by the sand, visit Florida's many sand-sculpting contests, where artists create masterpieces from water, determination and sugar-soft sand (See sandsculptingevents.com for events near you).
It's safe to say that active families don't run out of things to do in Florida, especially with dozens of amusement parks from Busch Gardens to Disney World. The state is flush with sun-kissed activities, thanks to state parks that encourage hiking and camping as well as companies that accommodate whims to kayaking, snorkeling, fishish, jet skiing, paddle boarding, zip lining and biking along the beach and more. Florida is also home to 1,000 golf courses and mini-golf courses with themes of pirates, tiki, Vikings and dinosaurs, where parents pray the youngest player scores his first hole-in-one.
But when you're juggling multiple generational needs and different skill levels, you might want to opt for entertainment that lets the pros do the heavy lifting. Florida's unique answer to this quandary is Major League Baseball's spring training. Known as the Florida Grapefruit League, preseason warm-ups for 15 MLB teams offer a festive opportunity to assess rookies in your favorite club or witness Hall of Famers at the end of their career in a sports venue that's less expensive and more relaxed than the major leagues (See floridagrapefruitleague.com for team schedules and game locations).
Once visitors get their first glimpse of Florida's tropical foliage, endless beaches and unforgettable sunsets, they're often compelled to investigate the indigenous wildlife that inhabits this seemingly exotic land. They want to meet the beasts that swim in the seas, crawl on their bellies through sands and soar into the baby- blue skies.
A good day trip for creature-curious families is the Jacksonville Zoo (See jacksonvillezoo.org). Many note that it doesn't feel like a zoo with its 117 acres of landscaped exhibits and plush gardens that subtly showcase 2,000 animals and 1,000 plants. For a close-up and personal experience with Neptune's children, some families enjoy a dolphin experience, where they touch, feed and even swim with this intriguing sea mammal (See locations in the Keys, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach). Manatee siting excursions are also popular in places such as Crystal River, Orange City, Apollo Beach, Titusville and Fort Myers. And a trip to the Sunshine State wouldn't be complete without joining a sea turtle eco-tour and feeding at Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach.
Inside many of us is a hidden pirate waiting for the right moment to unleash inhibitions and rattle our swords. For centuries, Florida's coastline has attracted scallywags from around the globe seeking fortune and adventure. To relive the region's buccaneer past, visit St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum (thepiratemuseum.com) and Key West Shipwreck Treasure Museum (keywestshipwreck.com). If gentler mythical figures are more your style, go to Weeki Wachee Springs State Park (weekiwachee.com), a magical city north of Tampa that's filled with live mermaids who perform underwater shows amid tropical fish and coral.