Where to Celebrate Family New Year's Eve in Florida

A family vacation for a Florida New Year’s can be a low-cost, beachside adventure. Enjoy hiking, biking and plenty of outdoor attractions by day and join holiday festivities at night. Don’t overlook the cities and quaint oceanside towns dotting Florida’s Gulf Coast.

True, they have warmer weather competition in the small towns surrounding Miami and the Keys. But there’s still plenty to do in winter from South Walton to Panama City Beach to Clearwater Beach, before ringing in the New Year.

This illuminated beach ball on top of Celebration Tower in Panama City Beach, Florida is lowered for the New Year's Eve countdown. Photo c. Panama City Beach
This illuminated beach ball on top of Celebration Tower in Panama City Beach, Florida is lowered for the New Year’s Eve countdown. Photo c. Panama City Beach

While the pandemic is still with us, stay masked or outdoors and keep socially distant indoors to protect your family. Here are three spots to start your search for the best places to celebrate the arrival of the new year.

Find discount Florida hotels for your New Year’s or early winter escapes.

Grayton Beach, Beaches of South Walton

Kayaking off Grayton Beach. Photo c. GraytonBeach.com
Kayaking off Grayton Beach. Photo c. GraytonBeach.com

The Beaches of South Walton are a mystery to anyone who has not driven Scenic 30A, the meandering route along the Gulf of Mexico. This 20-mile stretch of Florida’s Panhandle is gorgeous. Squeaky white quartz sand beach reflects the sky to create the brightest turquoise water north of the Caribbean.

Grayton Beach is one of 16 distinct communities with its own style of beach cottage, microbrewery and barefoot cafes. The protected Grayton Beach State Park surrounds the very rare Western Lake, a salt marsh. It’s so unusual because this freshwater dune lake feeds into the saltwater Gulf of Mexico, attracting wildlife. Families love to park on one side of the road to swim or paddle board. Then, cross over the dunes to bird watch, sketch the gnarled pines, or kayak. This dune lake is heavenly.

There’s good hiking and biking for all ages in this flat region, and trails have a variety of surfaces. Scenic Highway 30A is a good starting point for your excursion. It provides access to other bike routes in Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, Grayton Beach State Park, and Point Washington State Forest. Your mountain bikers will find plenty of unpaved trails. We like the easy one that’s paved and follows Scenic Highway 30A for 18.6 miles. It covers a lot of territory through minimalls, neighborhoods and pristine state park lands. Rentals are easily found.

New Year’s Fun Along Route 30A

The Red Bar in Grayton Beach, Florida is a favorite with locals and features the house jazz band playing live on New Year’s. Photo c. MoonCreek Studios and Red Bar.

New Year’s Eve in any of South Walton’s 16 beach communities is as low key as the rest of the year. The very popular Red Bar, now known as Red Bar and Piccolo Restaurant, is the same cool place. (They recovered from a bad fire in 2020.) Count on the house band, The Red Bar Jazz Band, plus a popular local DJ to perform New Year’s Eve. Go in with kids for an early dinner — the food’s casual and very tasty — to avoid the crowds. They’re open nightly till 10pm.

For variety, try Rum Runner’s Dueling Piano Bar in Sandestin. This place is known for great music and a hot dance floor. The two pianos are fun to watch, playing with and against each other to encourage audience interaction. The barbecue lover’s John Wehner’s Village Door (with three locations) is also in Sandestin’s Baytowne Wharf shopping complex. Village Door is the only local late night scene, with a live band and DJ’s turning up the dance tunes to match the Mardi Gras theme. Drinks are free the first hour, 8:30-9:30pm by the way. Expect business as usual the New Year’s Eve. Do call ahead to check if advance reservations are required.

Families love the free nightly entertainment at the Village of Baytowne Wharf mall. On New Year’s, arrive early to enjoy the skating rink and their holiiday lights show. At 6pm, kick off the NYE fun with food, face painting, kids activities, and live music. The show on the Baytowne LIVE stage is capped off by family-friendly 8pm fireworks. Try to stay awake for the very cool light show comprising 150 choreograpehd drones that depict swimming dolphins, shooting stars and more. The public fun continues till 1am on the Events Plaza Stage with another big fireworks show at midnight. Ages 21+ after 10pm please.

Family-Friendly Clearwater Beach at New Year’s

New Year's Eve means great fireworks over the beach at Clearwater Beach, Florida
New Year’s Eve means great fireworks over the beach at Clearwater Beach, Florida

Family comes first in Clearwater Beach, located near St. Petersburg on Florida’s northwest coast. On New Year’s Eve, don’t expect too much bubbly to flow on those gorgeous, sugar sand, alcohol-free beaches. Instead, visitors and residents alike head to Pier 60, the midpoint in their six-mile beach. On New Year’s Eve, enjoy what happens every day.

The nightly Sunsets at Pier 60 Festival is part nature / part show. The glowing solar disk descending over the Gulf of Mexico is vividly reflected in pools of water on the beach. While spectators on the sand or pier pose for selfies, others shop for crafts. Since 1995, the Sunsets at Pier 60 event has hosted 25 to 50 crafters curated for their location, talent and handmade goods.

Watch buskers perform for tips throughout the evening. The pierside entertainers include magicians, musicians, fire throwers and bucket drummers. Many of these professionals travel the world performing as they go, and love returning to Clearwater Beach.

The Sunset Festival goes on from 5pm to 9pm on winter nights. It’s all free and super kid-friendly since there’s a broad paved boardwalk and so much people-watching.

Clearwater Beach Area Nightlife

Vintage photo of guests enjoying the Tiki Bar on the sand outside the Hilton Clearwater Beach Resort. Photo c. Hilton
Vintage photo of guests enjoying the Tiki Bar on the sand outside the Hilton Clearwater Beach Resort. Photo c. Hilton

Are you wondering what you’re going to do between the afternoon and midnight? Slip off your shoes and enjoy a post-sunset (kid-friendly) drink at Tommy’s Tiki Bar. The legendary watering hole at the Hilton Clearwater Beach Resort & Spa is a cute barefoot-in-the-sand place. It’s totally unique, since beachfront alcohol service was only grandfathered in here before local laws changed.

Next, it’s supper at Frenchy’s Original, the ca. 1981 outpost of the city’s most popular seafood bar. There are five Frenchy’s now, plus a motel, gift shop and seafood market. Each cafe has a slightly different menu. Sample our favorites: terrific, moderately priced, super fresh beer-battered grouper, garlic fries sprinkled with crab meat, cracked conch and more. Look for gluten-free options and a growing craft beer menu, too. Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill is the “fanciest” of these if you want to start the party early.

Storefront of Frenchy's Original Cafe dates to 1981.
Frenchy’s Original Cafe is a local landmark for its grouper fingers!

And, keep in mind, Clearwater Beach’s many restaurants will be doing a New Year’s special meal, too. With limited seating, it’s a must to book early. Light It Up Clearwater, the annual New Year’s Eve fireworks spectacular, is back. Sand Key Park will be closed to the public to stage the fireworks, so the best viewing is along the southern part of Clearwater Beach. Watch fireworks from any spot along the beach; the reflection in the calm Gulf is a sight to see. It’s well worth keeping the kids up for!

Get a discount Florida rental car here.

The Panama City Beach New Year’s Scene

Fireworks viewing from the beach at Panama City Beach, Florida.
Fireworks viewing from the beach at Panama City Beach, Florida.

Known for its sugary white sandy beaches and turquoise waters, Panama City Beach is family central. After years of spring breakers, the fall and winter school holidays are packed with kid-oriented live entertainment and games. Live music starts at 5:35pm as the sun sets. Double your fun at the 2023-24 Panama City Beach New Year’s Eve Ball Drop and Fireworks with two fireworks shows. One’s at 8pm for the young at heart. The other one erupts at midnight, allowing plenty of time for crowds to distance themselves at great viewing points.

Pier Park will be a pedestrian only zone so you can plant your lawn chairs anywhere for the best views. From So. Pier Park Drive, watch as 10,000 beach balls rain down on the crowd.

After the early fireworks, the Will Thompson Band takes the stage. Keep your eyes on Celebration Tower as the night matures. Panama City Beach is famous for its illuminated Beach Ball. The colorful 10-foot orb descends on a pole to a 10, 9, 8, 7, 6 countdown just before midnight.

Hit the Panama City Beach for New Year’s Day

In addition to all of the organized fun, Panama City Beach has been called one of “America’s Most Beautiful Beaches.” (You may hear this claim elsewhere along the beautiful Gulf of Mexico shorline in Florida.) Did you know that Panama City Beach’s legendary pure white sand is made from quartz crystals? Over eons of time and thousands of miles of travel, the crystals were bleached, ground, smoothed and polished. Today, we appreciate how the surf of the Gulf of Mexico deposited them on the shoreline for our pleasure.

Note that Panama City Beach is chilly in the winter. Even on a rainy New Year’s, however, the weather can still be warm. Some visitors stroll the beach and take a dip. Area hotels usually have indoor pools for the less hardy. Visit game rooms and media centers to keep the kids busy during bad weather.

Funky door of the famous Red Bar in Grayton Beach, Florida. Photo c. RedBar.com
Kids love the funky painted door of the famous Red Bar in Grayton Beach, Florida. Photo c. RedBar.com

Florida Winter Lodging Bargains

This region of Florida is generally a bargain during the week of New Year’s. For example, Priceline shows small hotels, not beachfront but with swimming pools, from just $69. Several sites feature bargain prices on two-bedroom condos in the Panama City Beach area during New Year’s.

Multi-generational travelers and families looking to spread out also have lots of options throughout Florida. Research Airbnb, Wyndham vacation rentals, Residence Inn or Towne Place Suites by Marriott, and Microtel Inn & Suites to name a few. Save up to 25% at Booking.com on beachfront Florida hotels for your winter vacation.

Looking for holiday light celebrations in Florida and beyond?

Wherever you decide to celebrate New Year’s Eve this year, make it a memorable event for the kids. You can ring in 2024 at 8pm or midnight and the kids will still remember it for the record books.

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