When people think about a kids-focused, family Florida vacation, Disney is the destination that typically comes to mind first––and for good reason. But the fact is, the Florida Keys provide unique, exciting and educational experiences that make the islands a dream getaway for kids of all ages. 

Here are three can’t-miss activities in the Florida Keys to treat your kids––and yourself––to next time you’re looking for a family getaway. 

1.) Ultimate Keys Fishing with Captain Jim Willcox

If Islamorada is the sport fishing capital of the world, as it’s frequently called, then Captain Jim Willcox is the reigning president. The legendary guide was named one of the top five fishing attractions on the planet by North American Fisherman, and for good reason. 

Personally, I’ve never fished with a better guide than Willcox. Our adventure––spotting alligators, sharks and manatees, cruising through the Florida Everglades and catching dozens of redfish, snook and other species––turned me into a kid, I was so excited. I also spoke with someone who has first-hand knowledge of Willcox’s ability to give kids a memorable experience. 

“As a dad, there’s nothing like seeing the pure joy of your 12-year-old reeling in fish after fish and then catching this huge shark,” says Matt Waddell, of White Plains, New York, who visits Islamorada annually for guided outings with Willcox. “Those trips are also a chance for me to bond with my sons with no video games, no phones and no TV. We just talk about what’s going on in life, but it’s not heavy or uncomfortable because they’re so excited about the fishing.”

Waddell brought his 12-year-old son out fishing with Willcox as a birthday present to the boy. After catching mackerel, blue fish, redfish, snapper, snook and trout, Waddell’s son caught a large shark.

“Jim can stop his boat in the middle of nowhere, drop in a few lines and pull out dozens of a specific type of fish,” Waddell says, “Then he’ll motor for a while, stop somewhere else, and you start catching dozens of some totally different type of fish.”

“Jim is great with kids,” Waddell said. “He engages with them really well, and he subtly teaches them without patronizing them.”

Simply put, I can’t recommend Willcox highly enough. As soon as my son is old enough, I’m calling him for sure.

For more information visit UltimateKeysFishing.com. To contact Capt. Jim Willcox dial 305.393.1128 or email captjimw@ultimatekeysfishing.com.

2.) Lorelei Cabana Bar & Restaurant

Yes, I am recommending a bar as a guaranteed, must-see “kids” attraction. Bring your family to Lorelei once, and you’ll see why.

For starters, the food is cheap and delicious. Secondly, Lorelei sits right on the water, facing West with nightly sunsets providing the perfect background for that family Christmas card photo that will make your relatives and friends jealous. Add to that frequent manatees swimming around, live music every night and a friendly staff that brings to life a casual, down-to-earth atmosphere and you can’t go wrong the restaurant recently named one of the top five “after-fish restaurants” in the world. 

“We have fun here,” said John Maloughey, the restaurant’s general manager. “Islamorada is a great place for kids if you like the water. We make sure we’re a family-friendly place, and people seem to appreciate that.” 

Indeed, the gang at Lorelei does more than its fair share for area kids. Each year, they run a huge youth fishing derby and give away tons of prizes. For a full month before the event, Maloughey feeds the fish at 10am every day to help the kids’ success rate for the 10am fishing event. 


“We get good musicians every night and we offer very affordable prices so people want come back,” said Maloughey, who himself has two adult daughters––both of whom can run their own boat. “I took both my daughters out boating and fishing since they were little,” he said. 

As far as eating out with kids goes, there might not be a better deal in all of Florida than Lorelei’s “Own Catch Dinner.” If you bring in fish you caught that day, Lorelei will expertly prepare them for you––fried, grilled or blackened––served with French fries and coleslaw for only $6.95. 

For more information visit LoreleiCabanaBar.com. To contact Lorelei Cababa, dial 305-664-2692 or email johnm@loreleicabanabar.com.

3.) Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters

For Minnesota residents who’ve been to Sea Life at the Mall of America, I’d describe Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters as an outdoor Sea Life … on steroids. At this easy-to-get-to and affordable attraction you get to pet sting rays, swim with hundreds of colorful fish, watch 300-pound goliath grouper eat and feed sharks by hand.

It’s right off the main drag––Florida’s scenic Overseas Highway––and is a great activity to save for a bad weather day. It’s outside, but many of the exhibits are covered by roofs to protect you from sun, rain or wind. For that matter, the aquarium is a good balance after several days of harder watersports out on the ocean. 

Here, you’re swimming in a climate controlled tank or simply reaching your hand into a gentle pool for the curious sensation of petting a sting ray. Better yet, these rays have been de-barbed.

Both my wife and I were struck by how friendly the staff members were at the aquarium. We went in the middle of the afternoon and were delighted that the aquarium wasn’t overly crowded; it’s super easy to navigate and get up close to––or inside––each exhibit. The employees seemed to enjoy interacting with the sea life and with guests.

After an afternoon of feeding the sharks, we even fed ourselves at the aquarium, getting tasty paninis from Eagle Ray Café. 

For more information visit FloridaKeysAquariumEncounters.com. To contact the aquarium, dial 305-407-3262 or email info@floridakeysaquariumencounters.com.

For more information on things to do in the Florida Keys, visit Fla-keys.com.