Pensacola: Beyond the Beach - My Family Travels

Pensacola's still in hurricane recovery mode, but it's close, it's sunny, and it's a top spring break value. Read on…

Long known for its stunning white quartz sand beaches, Pensacola had a rough time in 2004 thanks to Hurricanes Ivan and Dennis and suffered again, to a lesser extent, with 2005’s infamous Katrina. While recovery efforts continue in full swing, the Pensacola Bay Area still has plenty to offer a vacationing family – beyond the battered but beautiful beach.

As a veteran visitor of Washington, D.C.’s two air and space museums, I was thoroughly impressed by Pensacola’s National Museum of Naval Aviation (800/327-5002). There are more than 170 restored aircraft, plus equipment, artifacts and memorabilia spanning ninety years of U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard aviation history.

Families can tour the interior space of an aircraft carrier, find out what its like to launch from a carrier and experience a Desert Storm strike mission through a motion-based flight simulator. The Flight Adventure Deck’s series of interactive displays teaches schoolchildren about the science behind flight. Kids also can fly a remote-controlled Navy trainer in a wind tunnel, see and feel forces that enable planes stay aloft and fly an F/A-18 Hornet in one of several reality flight simulators. Already the third largest aviation museum in the world, plans include another 120,000-square-feet of exhibition space in 2006. (Museum admission is free; tours with a personal touch by retired military are offered four times a day; open daily 9am-5pm.)

If you are fortunate enough to visit between March and September, catch the Navy’s Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Team practicing one of their formal air shows. Watching six F/A-18 Hornets fly in tight formation and maneuver stunts at speeds of up to 700 mph is truly impressive! Practices are held (weather permitting) at 8:30am every Tuesday and Wednesday. Admission is free and there are bleachers adjacent to the National Museum of Aviation for those wishing to observe the 45-minute “emceed” practice. Be sure to arrive early to get a seat. On Wednesdays, Blue Angel pilots may even sign autographs following practice.

Consider taking a walking tour of Historic Pensacola Village (850/595-5985)a group of furnished period houses and museums with ten interpreted sites designed to teach about life in West Florida, spanning the time of the earliest Spanish explorers to the 1920’s. Of particular interest to the kids is the Museum of Commerce, designed to represent a downtown Pensacola streetscape between the years 1860 to 1930, including scaled-down reproductions of actual business storefronts during this time. The wood-planked sidewalk, carriages, trolley and 1920’s gas station feel like a movie set.


The T.T. Wentworth Jr. Florida State Museum is a favorite for its Discovery Gallery with hands-on exhibits and play area that includes a small Spanish galleon, a trading post and a Creole cottage, in addition to some odd collections on display (look for the petrified cat). Historic Pensacola Village is open weekdays from 10am-4pm; admission is $6 for adults and $2.50 for children 4-16.

The Hilton Garden Inn (866/916-2999) in Pensacola Beach, just 20 minutes from the Pensacola airport, is a great lodging choice for families. Two-years-young, this 183-room resort sits on a beautiful beach and has three pools: a zero-entry pool ideal for kids, an indoor heated pool and an adults-only pool for those looking for a little peace and quiet. All rooms have a small refrigerator and microwave, and the H2O Grill serves a bountiful breakfast buffet plus lunch and dinner in its sunny dining room overlooking the beach. Rates at the Hilton Garden Inn start at $89 per night in the low season (November through February).

Between Memorial Day and Labor Day (and some holidays), the Hilton offers a complimentary children’s program for ages 5 to 12. In addition to the usual beach and pool activities and a craft or movie in the heat of midday, there is a weekend evening program that includes dinner and an activity (6-10pm, $20 per child; $10 each additional).

On The Horizon

After getting slammed by two hurricane seasons, the Pensacola Bay Area is deeply entrenched in recovery efforts. A beach replenishment project to replace more than 2.3 million cubic yards of sand was begun in the late summer 2005 and brought an abundance of shells, so beachcombers should be in luck. In May 2006, Pensacola will be host to the world’s largest artificial reef when it sinks the retired aircraft carrier, the USS Oriskany. This future fishing and diving hot spot will be located 22 miles from the Pensacola pass.

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