PHOTOS: Tony and Mary Ann DeSantis
Key West has often been described as a party-hard city with an anything goes attitude. While that may be the case at certain times of the year, most of the time it’s a family friendly destination with Florida history you shouldn’t miss.
For those who think Key West is full of pirate wannabes, Jimmy Buffett clones, and eccentric characters, I won’t argue with you.
I hope to convince you, however, there is another side to the Conch Republic that parents are re-discovering with their children. For proof, just stop by the “sunset celebration” at Mallory Square in the heart of Key West’s tourist district, where acrobats, animal acts, musicians, portrait artists, craft exhibitors, and food vendors gather nightly.
Children ride their fathers’ shoulders for birds eye views of the performers who juggle swords, encourage cats to walk on tightropes, or do Houdini-type tricks. Every performer I saw on a recent trip invited bystanders, usually children, to be part of the act by asking them to hold props or giving them some other safe task.
Daniel Kolbe, a Key West resident for more than 20 years is raising his 9-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son in the Southernmost city. His family has many favorite places where they spend free time, and Kolbe believes it’s a great place for children.
“I think Key West’s image is changing, especially with so many families coming on cruise ships” says Kolbe, who owns Southernmost Event Photography. “Mallory Square’s celebration is good entertainment for everyone and it’s a nice place for families to walk around.”
The Kolbe children’s favorite place, however, is Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, a National Historic Landmark centered around a Civil War-era fort located near the southern tip of Key West. The family friendly beach offers plenty of sugary sand as well as a generous helping of history. Kolbe said the pirate festival in December is a particular favorite for kids of all ages.
Kolbe also recommended a visit to the Key West Aquarium, the city’s oldest attraction where children can touch and feed small sea creatures in a “touch tank.” The aquarium offers guided tours that include shark feedings and opportunities for guests to “pet” a shark.
For a look at airborne creatures, including tropical birds and 50 to 60 species of butterflies, head over to the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory, one of my favorite stops for photographing the winged masterpieces. Hundreds of butterflies soar around lush gardens in the climate-controlled, glass enclosed habitat. Another kid-friendly stop is the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center. The 6,000-foot facility features interactive and dynamic exhibits including a mock-up of Aquarius, the world’s only underwater ocean laboratory.
It’s hard not to get caught up in the legends of the sea that surround Key West. The city’s unique maritime heritage made it the richest city in the U.S. in 1860. At the Key West Shipwreck Museum, actors, films, and actual artifacts tell the story of shipwreck salvage in the Florida Keys. Other maritime adventures include Pat Croce’s Pirate Soul Museum and the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum. For spectacular views of the waters surrounding Key West, climb the 88 steps of the Key West Lighthouse Museum’s tower.
Of course, Key West is the perfect spring break destination for active families who love water sports. Plan a day to swim, snorkel, dive, paddleboard, sail, or even have a jetpack experience in the waters around Key West. My personal favorite oasis is the stunningly beautiful Bahia Honda State Park, located 37 miles from Key West on the Overseas Highway, where a day on the beach passes too quickly.
With so much to do, the little ones are sure to work up an appetite. Many restaurants offer kids menus, including El Meson de Pepe, a family-owned-and-operated Cuban restaurant, right in the heart of Mallory Square. While adults dine on the world-famous Ropa Vieja shredded beef and conch fritters Cuban style, the children may opt for cheeseburgers, shrimp or chicken fingers. Key Lime pie is Florida’s official dessert, and you’ll see many youngsters enjoying the latest frozen concoction, Key Lime Pie on a Stick. Stock Island’s Hurricane Hole offers not only a kids menu but a pirate ship playground where the little ones can stay occupied for as long as their parents will let them.
To understand just how many things there are to see and do in Key West for kids, begin your visit with a Conch Train Tour (www.conchtourtrain.com), which is free for children 12 and under. Military and senior discounts are also available. Along the route, you’ll see Key West’s many attractions that are appropriate for children of all ages and the list grows longer every year.