Arriving in Heaven at Palm Beach, Florida - My Family Travels

Think Palm Beach is only for lounging around? There are many Palm Beach County attractions to please the active family year-round and, in summer, this upscale beach town becomes a family bargain.

We approached our first trip to the Palm Beaches of Florida a few years ago with some trepidation. At the time, descriptions of Palm Beach sounded rather like a heavenly waiting room for those who were — um — waiting for heaven. Well, we were wrong.

Many people are familiar with the established resorts of Palm Beach. We've been impressed with each of them, and touch on their highlights below. They have plenty of services and facilities to keep kids and parents happy – at least for a while.

Like most families, we need to get off property and explore a bit, if only for a change of scenery. Fortunately, over numerous trips, we've found that Palm Beach County has plenty of attractions that offer visitors a little bit of south Florida – outside the palace gates.

Palm Beach County Natural Attractions

The 500-acre John D. MacArthur Beach State Park (561/624-6950) on Singer Island is not your everyday "picnic tables and barbecue" state park. MacArthur Park offers a sweeping, secluded beach accessible only to park visitors, with unique beachcombing treasures, coupled with a subtropical, coastal habitat that's a cross between spooky and adventurous.

There are dozens of funky tree and plant species, such as gumbo-limbo, strangler figs and three types of mangroves, that represent south Florida as it used to be. Grab some brochures in the nature center and hit the short trails through the forests so your kids can identify butterflies, poisonous plants and huge spiders. Bring a towel and swim, snorkel, fish – or just wander the natural beach. And if you're visiting between May and August, be sure to call in advance to make a reservation for a guided, nighttime sea turtle walk.

The Park also features a small nature center with worthwhile educational exhibits on the south Florida habitat. Park rangers give talks and brief tours of the local plant and animal community, highlighting the indigenous species of fish, fowl and furry creatures, some of which are housed in the center. On our first visit, I watched in amazement (OK–horror) as our daughter Maddy (then 51/2) gleefully played with a six-foot, non-venomous snake – under a ranger's supervision. Given the same opportunity on our last visit, our son Jamie (6) declined. So did I.

Remember: it's hot. Bring water, bug spray, cover-ups and sunscreen.
10900 State Road A1A, North Palm Beach (Singer Island), Florida 33408. The park is open daily from 8am – sundown. Admission is $4.00 per car.

The non-profit, non-touristy Busch Wildlife Sanctuary (561/575-3399) in Jupiter provides medical and rehabilitative care to over 4,000 sick, injured and orphaned wild animals each year. After their stay at the Sanctuary, the animals are returned to their natural south Florida habitat.

Although visitors are not permitted in the hospital itself, the outdoor cages (yes, it's a bit zoo-like) showcase an impressive variety of animals undergoing rehab. All manner of Florida wildlife – snakes, owls and others birds of prey, alligators, bobcats, panthers, turtles – are on display, often in settings that allow nearly intimate contact. (Jamie was a little freaked out at the panther staring at him only three feet away.) The complimentary visitor's guide provides interesting facts about the various species. The Sanctuary's small size makes it very manageable – it's a terrific one- to two-hour diversion for adults and kids.
2500 Jupiter Park Drive, Jupiter, Florida 33458. The Sanctuary is open 10am – 4:30pm, Monday through Saturday. Admission is free (donations are suggested).

Palm Beach Water Fun Beyond the Beach

Strap on a set of headphones (for the noise), hang on to your kid and sit back as you slide across the Everglades on a Loxahatchee Everglades Airboat Tour(800/683-5873; 561/482-6107) in Boca Raton. Spot osprey and turtles and laugh at goofy looking waterfowl that saunter across floating vegetation. And prepare to get close to alligators. Sometimes really close.

This diversion is best suited to kids who can deal with heat and noise. Maddy found it to be terribly noisy and far too uncomfortable one torrid June morning, despite the headphones and breezy ride. On the other hand, Jamie was unfazed by his trip in mid-August.

Regardless, be sure to plan this outing early in the day to avoid the oppressive heat. Don't forget to slather on the bug spray and sunscreen. And bring water!
15490 Loxahatchee Road, Boca Raton, Florida 33076. Tours are seven days a week, 9:30am – 4pm. A one hour tour is $44/adult, $22/child ages 6-12, $8/child 5 and under.

For a touristy-type of adventure, try a 75-minute musical tour aboard the DivaDuck(561/844-4188), an amphibious vehicle, which cruises the Intracoastal Waterway through West Palm Beach and Palm Beach's restored neighborhoods. Guests often catch a glimpse of wildlife, including manatees, turtles, and dolphins.
931 Village Blvd. Suite 905-371, West Palm Beach, Florida 33409. DivaDuck departs from CityPlace four times daily, six days a week (closed Wednesdays.) The tour is $23/adult or child >15, $15/child ages 5-15, $5/child under 5.

Zoo & Wildlife Bring Nature Back to Palm Beach

We're not really zoo people, but the old-Florida style Palm Beach Zoo at Dreher Park (561/547-9453) is worth a stop. Home to over 1400 animals, some of its landscaped habitats include Tiger Falls, an aviary, a black bear habitat, and presentations of various cultures, plants, and animals. Kids can splash around in the interactive fountain, too. 1301 Summit Blvd. West Palm Beach, Florida, 33405. Open Daily 9am- 5pm. $16.95/adult, $11.95/child ages 3-12, and $14.95 for seniors 60 and up.

As an alternative, you may want to check out Lion Country Safari(561/793-1084) in Loxahatchee past West Palm Beach, America's first cage-less zoo. The 500-acre wildlife preserve is home to more than 900 animals from around the world.

Our kids enjoyed it – to a point. They thought it was cool when they unstrapped their seat belts to view the animals as we crawled through the park in our rental car. They laughed at the monkeys' antics and the lions that nearly nuzzled the windows. But we severely tried their patience by moving at our leisurely adult pace.

Suggestions: go in the morning when the lions are fed – a real photo op! And rent a car (rag tops not permitted!) or SUV that allows your small kids to stay seated since it gets very tiring kneeling. Our kids just gave up after about 45 minutes. Also, rent the cassette or CD so you can listen to the play-by-play narrative (hard to tell the players without a scorecard, so to speak).

We didn't stick around for the on-site animal exhibits and carnival-like offerings. Our resort pool was calling.
2003 Lion Country Safari Road, Loxahatchee, Florida 33470. Open daily 10am to 5:30pm. Admission is $26.50 per adult, $19.50 for children ages 3-9, and $23.50 for seniors 65 and up. Children under 3 are free.

Palm Beach Indoor & Rainy Day Fun Activities

Take a break from the heat and head to the air-conditioned Playmobil Fun Park (800/351-8697; 561/691-9880), a 17,000-square-foot, indoor "park" in Palm Beach Gardens. Kids and parents put the German toy maker's products to test in a variety of hands-on demonstration areas. This is one of two Fun Parks in the U.S. (the other is in an Orlando mall). The others are in France, Germany, Malta, and Greece.

Did I mention there's a large retail shop attached, selling every Playmobil product known to man? Fortunately, the prices are reasonable.
8031 North Military Trail, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida 33410. Open daily 10am – 6pm. Admission is $1.

The South Florida Science Museum (561/832-1988) has many kid-friendly scientific exhibits, along with a planetarium, aquarium, observatory and miniature golf course. Kids can learn about Florida's animal and plant life on the outdoor "science trail." With new exhibits opening through out the year, there's a surprise around every corner of the trail. The museum also runs weekend programs for parents and kids.
4801 Dreher Trail North, West Palm Beach, Florida 33405. Open daily. Admission is $11.95/adult, $8.95 for children ages 3-12, and free for children under 3.  Other shows and attractions for an additional admission fee.

If it's Thursday, Clematis by Night (561/822-1515) in downtown West Palm Beach is a must. There are free concerts every Thursday evening near Centennial Fountain on café-lined Clematis Street, a car-free plaza paved with multi-colored geysers that dance to the rhythm of the music. Maddy joined dozens of kids in swim suits and had a ball chasing the liquid fireworks. In addition, there are craft and food vendors. Well worth it.
Free concerts 6:00 – 9:00pm every Thursday.

Sugar Sands Park (561/347-3900) in nearby Boca Raton sports a three-story, interactive science playground that ranks among the best in the universe–at least according to Maddy.  Prior to its inception, the Park's design committee asked elementary school kids to imagine and draw their fantasy playground. Thanks to the kids, your tikes now can crawl through a 15-foot wooden human head, slither over the ribs of a giant mastodon, scamper through a space shuttle complete with transporter, "race the animals" with engineered light sensors that simulate the speed of an elephant or cheetah, use muscle power to push pistons that turn an engine and try to outwit magic-eye cameras that signal concealed water spouts to ambush passersby. Just try to peel your kids away from here! Since our last visit, the park has added an in-line hockey rink and hands-on science museum geared to kids ages 3-12.
300 S. Military Trail (south of Palmetto Park Rd.), Boca Raton, Florida 33486. Open 8am – sundown daily. Admission to the park is free and and the science museum is $5 per person. Most of the playground is handicapped-accessible.

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