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Animals, Airboats & Sundaes: Family-Friendly Adventures in Miami

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While Miami may not be the first U.S. city that comes to mind when you think of family-friendly activities, it has many hotels, museums, activities, and ice cream parlors suitable for all ages. Contributing writer Margot Black visited with her family and found a variety of activities and interesting sights—including airboat rides, a children’s museum, and an incredible ice cream sundae. 

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Miami is dynamic, charming, and colorful—and it truly has to be seen to be believed. I was surprised when I discovered that my husband Rob, who hails from Argentina, had never been there. It was time for him and our eight-year-old son to experience this charismatic corner of America, so I was determined to create a memorable and magical family-friendly itinerary.

Miami is mainly a Latino city; 70 percent of its population is Hispanic, and Cuban-Americans comprise over half of the city’s population. But it wasn’t just my husband that I wanted to educate and entertain, I also wanted my kid to see how wonderfully diverse our country is outside of LA.

We loved the photogenic vibrancy of every place we visited, and my husband was delighted that people spoke Spanish everywhere. It was beautiful, and he was truly immersed in the culture. We even got to see my grandmother’s old apartment, which was a treasured family moment.

Hanging Poolside in a Cabana

Our base camp was the Loews Hotel in Miami located on South Beach. Although the words “South Beach” and “family-friendly” don’t seem as if they should go together, the Loews is top-of-the-line family-friendly, and their facilities and happy staff made it easy for us all to enjoy our stay here.

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The pool area is large, and there was easy access to the beach. We had expansive views of the ocean from our suite, and could see palm trees and blue skies for miles and miles.

At the hotel’s recently renovated Preston’s Market restaurant they offered a fun, tiny kids-level breakfast buffet, which my son loved. He returned many times to fill his plate and we encouraged him to be independent and explore all the food possibilities.

Since it was vacation time, we also enjoyed a visit to SoBe Scoops, the hotel’s voluminous ice cream parlor and candy store for a crazy sugar overload and devoured their magnificent ice cream sundaes.

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Thankfully, I’d factored in a whole day to linger at the hotel so that we could enjoy one of their eight poolside air-conditioned cabanas. Loews calls them SOAK Cabanas because you get to “Soak Up Some Luxury” on your own deck with the aid of a personal concierge service. They comfortably seat six people, so the three of us had lots of room to hang out. They feature a full bathroom with a shower, flat-screen TV, an iPod docking station, iPad, and minibar. We relaxed as a family and it was wonderful to have a day where we didn’t have to get in the car or be anywhere in particular by a certain time.

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My favorite aspect of the hotel was that it gave my husband and me precious adult time. While energetic counselors entertained our son at their Kid’s Club, which offers fun beach and Wii activities, my husband and I were able to have a rare date, and enjoy an early evening walk on the beach.

A Taste of Versailles

One of my favorite attractions about Miami is the food. I wanted to take my husband for lunch at Versailles, which is something of an institution here. It is billed as the “world’s most famous Cuban restaurant” so I figured it was important for him, and my son, to sample the cuisine.

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This colorful eatery opened its doors in 1971 and quickly became the gathering place and unofficial town square for Miami’s Cuban exiles. It has a lively Latin vibe and we loved it from the moment we drove up and saw the original bright red retro signage.

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We were recommended the Cuban sampler dishes, The Criollo (plates of yellow rice and black beans), Ropa Vieja (shredded beef in a tomato sauce), fried pork chunks, ham croquette, sweet plantains, and a Cuban tamale, while The Classic Sampler introduced us to Picadillo, their ground beef and vegetable speciality. We covered all the bases and ate enough food to sink Cuba. It was delicious!

Visiting the Everglades

I couldn’t visit Miami without taking my son to the Everglades, which is actually a very shallow, slow-moving river. We learned that in some places it is just inches deep and 50 miles wide. Sometimes it’s called The River of Grass, forming as water from Lake Okeechobee, then moving onto the southern Florida plains, finally ending up in the Gulf of Mexico. It flows at the amazingly slow rate of 2,000 feet per day, or about one mile every two and half days. Although with the tropical heat, nothing moves too fast in this part of the world.

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The Everglades is also home to around 40 species of mammals, hundreds of species of colorful birds, and an array of reptiles and amphibians, including crocodiles and alligators. We saw a few. If you’ve never seen an alligator in its natural habitat, you’re missing a rare thrill.

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We booked a tram tour with Shark Valley, which was the easiest and most joyful way to see the sights. We had planned on doing a bike tour as well but arrived too close to midday (arrive early!). It was just too hot for us to put in that kind of physical activity. We loved the tram because it taught us so much. We learned a lot from our guide about the environment and got to see nature up close. Halfway through the tour we stopped at a 45-foot-high observation deck, and were able to enjoy the 20-mile panoramic view of the Everglades.

Our Airboat Experience

Our most spectacular Everglades family highlight was an airboat trip with Buffalo Tigers Airboat Tours. It is a native Indian Miccosukee family-owned and operated company, and an authentic educational delight. The tours were originally founded by the leader of the Buffalo Tiger Family, William Buffalo Tiger, (in 1980) with just one hovercraft.

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We couldn’t stop laughing as we flew along the Everglades through the tall grasses, swatting bugs, and gulping for humid air. Seeing so many powerful toothsome beasts up close was truly stunning. The alligators came so close we could have touched them…but didn’t.

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It was the only time in his life I haven’t allowed my son to put his hands in the water or swing his feet overboard while on a boat. Our well-informed native guide stopped at Tree Island, where we walked on a nature trail and saw Buffalo’s ancestral home. It was a great experience.

Sugar Overload

We have a family tradition of having Sundaes on Sundays and couldn’t have picked a better place than dinner at the Sugar Factory Restaurant in Miami, where we indulged in some stunning family-friendly (but not so waistline-friendly) sundaes.

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This included….wait for it…the spectacular King Kong Sundae, which features 24 scoops of ice cream covered with hot fudge, caramel and strawberry sauce, sliced bananas, toasted marshmallows, Reese’s Pieces, chocolate chip cookies, crushed waffle cones, gummy bears, white chocolate strawberry shavings, and toasted walnuts with whipped cream and giant lollipops and sparklers on top! It was a crazy fun, insane, vacation treat.

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My husband and I also enjoyed a couple of lovely signature cocktails, including a raspberry watermelon mojito. I would definitely recommend this restaurant as a top pick for a fun family celebration.

Animal Magic and a Bucket of Shrimp

On day three we spent a few hours at Jungle Island, which has been a family-friendly Miami attraction for 80 years. The flamingo lake was featured in the opening credits of the TV show Miami Vice and it’s not just flamingos that bring in the crowds; we loved the parrots, tigers, squirrel monkeys, penguins, and orangutans. We also watched the Winged Wonders show, which features an amazing Andean condor and the beautiful stunt-performing macaws.

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A highlight for us was a VIP Safari 90-minute walking tour with a guide, where we were thrilled to have hands-on interactions with lemurs, the Australian red kangaroos, a porcupine, and the Aldabra tortoises. I can now say that I’ve cradled a lemur—that’s another item taken off my bucket list! This was perhaps the most interactive zoo experience our family has ever experienced.

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We also went behind the scenes to see their animal clinic, which was truly special. My tip for this trip would be to arrive at least ten minutes early for your tour and to wear comfortable, casual clothes, as you’ll be moving around a lot.

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Jungle Island also has a wonderful beach area and water park called Parrot Cove, which offers free admission to park visitors. There is a giant inflatable platform on the ocean for kids to play on, while adults can enjoy views of Biscayne Bay and Downtown Miami while having a cooling drink.

We ate a hearty lunch at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., which is a good kid-friendly choice. It’s a chain based upon the shrimping company featured in the film Forrest Gump, and the atmosphere is so much fun. Frankly, you really can’t go wrong with a giant bucket of shrimp for everyone to enjoy.

An Explosion of Color

We then paid a visit to Miami Children’s Museum (next door to Jungle Island), and it’s as fun as it sounds. As a mom it was an important stop for me because I always want to feel as if my kid has learned new things when we leave home. Family travel is all about balance, so the ice cream sundaes are spectacular, but so are the things that broaden my son’s world view. We enjoyed their cruise ship exhibit and learned how these giant ships are built, and their Ocean Odyssey features one of the most unique living marine tanks in South Florida. This 900-gallon marine tank displays three different underwater environments that are unique to South Florida. The museum also has lots of activities for kids under five, an outside play area, and an educational gift shop.

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We ended our trip with a final family dinner at Joeys, a lively Italian cafe with white marble tables that was bustling with both locals and tourists. The restaurant is light and airy with a sunny expansive patio.

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We were told to try their pizzas, and we couldn’t get enough of their Diavola pizza with spicy salami, and my husband raved about his La Gustosa with Italian sausage, mushrooms, and Gorgonzola cheese. I loved the caprese salad, and the relaxed vibe was a perfect note upon which to end our trip.

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A nice touch here is that it’s located in the graffiti art neighborhood, Wynwood Walls, which is a feast for the eyes. What was once a warehouse district full of decrepit buildings is now a place for artists to showcase stunning works and is an extraordinary way to experience street art. There are galleries, coffee shops, and of course restaurants, such as Joeys, which also features street art on its walls. We couldn’t get enough of this vibrant district.

For more information about family-friendly activities and destinations from Margot Black, check out:

Text and images by Margot Black for PeterGreenberg.com

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