A family vacation for a Florida New Year’s can be a low-cost, beachside adventure with hiking, biking and plenty of outdoor attractions. The cities and quaint oceanside towns dotting Florida’s Gulf Coast are often overlooked for their warmer weather cousins surrounding Miami and the Keys. But there’s still plenty to do in the crisp winter air from South Walton to Panama City Beach to Clearwater Beach, before ringing in the New Year.
Keep in mind that the coronavirus pandemic is still with us, although it’s hard to tell in Florida’s laidback, often maskless environment. If you decide to travel, please stay vigilant, stay masked or outdoors, and keep socially distant indoors to protect your family. Here are three spots to start your family vacation search for the best places to celebrate the arrival of the new year.
Grayton Beach, Beaches of South Walton
The Beaches of South Walton along 20 miles of Florida’s Panhandle are a mystery to anyone who has not driven Scenic 30A, the meandering route along the Gulf of Mexico. 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 Western Lake, a very rare, freshwater dune lake that draws wildlife into a salt marsh as it feeds into the Gulf. Swim or paddle board on one side of the road, then cross the dunes to bird watch, sketch the gnarled pines, or kayak on the shores of the dune lake. It’s 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, because 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, but an easy one that’s paved 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
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, rebuilt and reopened in July 2020 after a terrible fire, will probably again feature its house band, The Red Bar Jazz Band. Go in for an early dinner — the food’s casual and very tasty — to avoid the crowds. Other local clubs like Rum Runner’s Dueling Piano Bar (yes, two pianos that are fun to watch) and John Wehner’s Village Door, both in the Baytowne Wharf shopping and entertainment complex in Sandestin, are business as usual. This year, advance reservations are required to meet limited capacity guidelines.
Village Door is the only local late night scene, with a live band and DJ’s turning up the dance tunes for the Mardi Gras theme. Evening entertainment at the Village of Baytowne Wharf usually kicks off at 7 p.m. for fun, food and fireworks. In past years, families with older kids looking to stay out late can stay until the live entertainment closed down the wharf at 1 a.m.
Family-Friendly Clearwater Beach at New Year’s
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, to enjoy what happens every day.
The nightly Sunsets at Pier 60 Festival is part natural phenomenon / part show, with a large glowing disk descending over the Gulf of Mexico reflected in pools of water on the beach. This year, with masks and social distancing enforced, it’s different but still great fun.
While spectators on the sand or pier pose for selfies, others shop for crafts or watch buskers performing for tips. Since 1995, the Sunsets at Pier 60 event has hosted 25 to 50 crafters selling juried work that must be handmade and local to this part of Florida to qualify. Buskers include magicians, musicians, fire throwers and bucket drummers — many of whom travel the world performing as they go, and love returning to Clearwater Beach.
It’s all free and super kid-friendly since there’s a broad paved boardwalk and so much people-watching.
Clearwater Beach Area Nightlife
Are you wondering what you’re going to do between the afternoon (the Sunset Festival goes on from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. on winter nights) and midnight? Well, on Friday and Saturday summer evenings, the Sunset Cinema shows films out on the lawn adjacent to the pier beginning at 7 p.m. We hope they’ll extend that tradition to New Year’s, too. If not, for a post-sunset (kid-friendly) drink, slip off your shoes at Tommy’s Tiki Bar at the Hilton Clearwater Beach Resort & Spa. This is a cute barefoot place whose popularity rests on alcohol service being grandfathered in 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 seven Frenchy’s now, each with slightly different menus, and each serving 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.
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. We regret to inform you that Light It Up Clearwater, the annual New Year’s Eve fireworks spectacular, has been cancelled. Go next year; the way fireworkds are reflected in the calm Gulf is a sight to see. It’s well worth keeping the kids up for!
Art lovers can head to downtown St. Pete, a community known for its galleries. What would have been the 26th annual First Night in Downtown St. Pete New Year’s Eve celebration of the Arts has been cancelled. Head over to nearby Tampa Bay, where Busch Gardens is hosting its own New Year’s Eve celebration. By day (9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) it’s kid-focused and at night (after 6 p.m.) for adults, with thrill rides in the dark, including the spin coaster Cobra’s Curse. Music, firewards in Gwazi Park and plenty of music and fun lights up the park until 1 a.m.
The Panama City Beach Scene
Known for its sugary white sandy beaches and turquoise waters, Panama City Beach has turned the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s school breaks into family-friendly days with live entertainment, events and games. For the 2020-21 Panama City Beach Fireworks, three simultaneous fireworks shows will erupt at midnight so that crowds can distance themselves at three great viewing points. Plant your lawn chairs at Schooner’s, the Russell-Fields City Pier or the M.B. Miller County Pier for the best views.
In addition to all of the organized fun, it has one of “America’s Most Beautiful Beaches” according to Conde Nast Traveler. (You may hear this claim elsewhere along the beautiful Gulf of Mexico shorline in Florida.) According to the CVB website, “Panama City Beach’s legendary pure white sand resulted from quartz crystals washing down from the Appalachian Mountains centuries ago. Along their journey, the crystals were bleached, ground, smoothed and polished until the surf of the Gulf of Mexico deposited these millions of grains of sand on the shoreline.”
Note that Panama City Beach is chilly in the winter. Even on a rainy New Year’s, however, the weather can still be warm enough to stroll the beach and take a dip. Area hotels usually have indoor pools and some feature game rooms and media centers to keep the kids busy during bad weather.
Florida Winter Lodging Bargains
This region of Florida is generally a bargain during the week of New Year’s. For example, Priceline shows a La Quinta Inn at $78 and two-bedroom condos in the Panama City Beach area during New Year’s for as low as $86 per night.
Multi-generational travelers and families looking to spread out also have lots of options throughout Florida including Airbnb, Wyndham vacation rentals, Residence Inn or Towne Place Suites by Marriott, and Microtel Inn & Suites to name a few. You can also find discounts of up to 25% off your stay in December at beachfront locations.
Wherever you decide to celebrate New Year’s Eve this year, make it a memorable event for the kids. You can ring in 2019 at 8 p.m. or midnight, and the kids will still forever remember it being a fun family vacation for the record books.
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