The plusses of Florida for a family vacation are almost endless. The state really has it all - perfect weather year-round, amazing kid-friendly attractions, exciting wildlife, outdoor adventure, and gorgeous beach resorts that are tailor-made for family fun.
When organizing a family-friendly getaway to Florida you are never going to run out of things to do. From Orlando’s theme parks to the mysterious and entrancing Everglades, and down to Key West and Key Largo in the Florida Keys, there are amazing and enticing family-friendly options the length and breadth of the state. But making plans for a family trip isn’t just about working out what to do - you also need to make sure it suits your budget.
Planning a family getaway can be an expensive business. With attraction entrance fees, hotel rooms, and dining out, costs can rack up pretty quickly. Trying to coordinate how to get the whole family from point A to point B, making sure the vacation itinerary suit the whole family, and keeping the trip within budget is a feat all in itself and takes some serious planning.
Luckily, the Sunshine State is full of possibilities for affordable family vacations and day trips. Despite its reputation for Miami Beach luxury resorts and the glamorous oceanfront hotels in Hollywood, there are plenty of ways to plan a family-friendly trip that doesn’t break the bank, without compromising on your family’s enjoyment.
Take a look at some of the best destinations, attractions, and experiences, as well as some great tips and advice that you absolutely must consider when organizing your next family vacation to Florida.
Natural Springs of North Florida
North Florida, and Columbia County, in particular, are known for the amazing natural springs and aquifers that bubble up everywhere you look. Natural springs offer a wonderful budget-friendly family day out, with enjoyable options for everyone in your group.
Springs like Ginnie Springs, Fanning Springs, and Gilchrist Blue Springs offer crystal clear, cool waters that are the perfect way to cool off from the heat of the day. These spots are safe for kids of all ages to swim in and are set in delightful locations that are incredibly pleasant just to sit and admire.
If a little more adventure is what gets your family excited, try heading to Ichetucknee Springs near Fort White, where tubing, canoeing, and kayaking past live oaks and elegant cypress trees is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.
Edward Ball Wakulla Springs is one of the largest and deepest springs in the world and offers glass-bottomed boat rides across the cool, clear spring waters. If snorkeling or scuba diving is more your thing, try the ancient, atmospheric setting of Devils Den Springs, or Wes Skiles Peacock Springs near Live Oak, which boasts the longest underwater cave system in the United States.
North Florida’s natural springs offer great days out with very little financial outlay, beyond picnics, canoe hire, or the occasional nominal State Park entry fee. They are one of Florida’s most wonderful attractions and a must for any family vacation.
The majestic Suwannee River runs from Southern Georgia to the Gulf of Mexico, right through the heart of North Florida. At over 240 miles long, this “Outstanding Florida Waterway” offers an incredible array of things for families to do, and is a great way to start planning a budget-friendly vacation.
The main attraction of the Suwannee River is hiring a canoe or kayak and spending the day paddling. The gentle flow of the river makes it perfect even for beginners, and a day or two of lazy paddling will take you on a tour of the amazing, beautiful flora and fauna that make North Florida so special. Drift past live oaks and cypress trees, and keep your eyes peeled for ‘gators, turtles, and a stunning variety of birds.
For families on a budget, there are loads of great, cheap accommodation options along the length of the river. Camping is permitted in a number of spots including Suwannee River State Park, which offers a number of campgrounds. If you prefer something besides traditional camping, the State Park also boasts a number of riverside cabins, offering charming, rustic comfort in a beautiful location.
No two visits to the Suwannee River are ever the same, and whether you discover ancient natural springs, sunken paddle steamers, or exciting wildlife, this is an exceptional choice for families looking to explore the great outdoors.
Stephen Foster Folk Culture Centre State Park
Lining the banks of the Suwannee River, the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park offers a touch of culture combined with the classic nature-filled North Florida experience.
The museum itself is a wonderful homage to Stephen Foster, the folk singer who’s song "Old Folks at Home" made the Suwanne River famous. It features exhibits about Foster’s most important songs, as well as demonstrations of quilting, blacksmithing, and stained glass making, guaranteed to entertain all ages.
The grounds of the State Park are delightful, full of winding, shaded trails for hiking or cycling, as well as the scenic natural beauty of the Suwannee River itself. Fishing and horseback riding are also available, and families can camp in one of the fully equipped campgrounds, or hire a cabin for a little more comfort.
Liki Tiki Village and Disney Springs
Orlando is obviously a huge draw for families vacationing in Florida, but hitting Disney World, Universal Studios or any of the major theme parks can end up being a pricey endeavor. Theme park entry can cost you an arm and a leg, particularly if you are hitting up more than one, and food and beverage costs in the parks themselves are not cheap either.
However, it is totally possible to have a great time in Orlando without spending a fortune. For starters, Disney Springs offers a taste of the Magic Kingdom with none of the expense. You’ll discover spectacular street parades and world-class dining, as well as superb shopping, without having to pay an entrance fee.
For something a little different that will still leave your kids entranced, try Little Tiki Village. This Polynesian-themed resort is just a stone’s throw from Orlando, and offers mini-golf, and an array of excellent water parks, complete with slides, lagoons, wave pools, and an erupting waterfall! Condos can be had for $59 per night.
Often overlooked in favor of Florida’s more glamorous cities, Tampa is a great spot for a family trip. For starters, it has been the backdrop for all sorts of blockbuster movies, from Edward Scissorhands to Magic Mike, so you’ll be sure to recognize plenty of its neighborhoods.
From an entertainment point of view, the city is full of family-friendly attractions guaranteed to fill up a vacation itinerary. Busch Gardens is incredible, a great combo of animal adventure experiences and theme park excitement. There are water shoots, flume rides, fountains, and swimming pools galore scattered across the city, while the Glazer Children’s Museum offers a slightly more sedate yet equally fascinating experience.
One of the highlights of Tampa’s family offering is the Florida Aquarium. This excellent attraction gets your little ones up close and personal with everything from alligators and otters to sharks and manatees.
The best part about Tampa’s family attractions, for parents on a budget, is that most of them are part of the Tampa City Pass scheme, which provides big discounts across the city, and will help you save loads of money if you intend to visit a few during your stay.
There are plenty of other excellent family vacation destinations along the Gulf Coast around Tampa as well. St Petersburg, just across Tampa Bay, is a delightful little city filled with waterfront parks, great museums, and a few excellent golf courses. Clearwater Beach just up the coast was named the best beach in the country a few years ago by Tripadvisor, and its calm waters are perfect for paddleboarding, watersports, or just gently splashing around! The winding boardwalk boasts some excellent restaurants and cafes, and the street entertainers on Pier 60 are guaranteed to delight your little ones. Another option is to head a little further down the coast to Sarasota. This charming town was once the winter home of the Ringling Brothers Circus and is still a great hub for arts and culture.
No discussion of vacationing in Florida would be complete without considering the magnificent ecosystem that is the Florida Everglades. This extraordinary expanse of lush mangroves and dark, enticing lagoons and channels is packed with some of the most surprising, exotic, and downright stunning wildlife you will find anywhere in the world. Kids and grown-ups alike will be entranced by an Everglades adventure, and excitement can be found around every bend in the river.
Exploring the Everglades by airboat or on a tour can be a little pricey. But take matters into your own hands and you’ll have a unique experience that you’ll never forget. There are two camping grounds within the National Park that are accessible to visitors - Long Pine Key Campground and Flamingo Campground - and staying at either is a great way to explore.
With your campground as a base, you can set off on self-guided adventures through the sawgrass wetlands and forested trails, discovering ‘gators, turtles, crocs, and hundreds of species of birds. There are plenty of amenities to make your stay comfortable, as well as ponds for fishing and canoes for paddling.
Florida beach resorts, particularly in South Florida around Miami, can be expensive. But the Sunshine State is blessed with gorgeous golden and white sand beaches almost everywhere you turn, and heading to one of the slightly less fashionable beach towns is often a great way to save a few dollars and cents on a beach vacation.
Jacksonville's beachfront boasts 22 miles of stunning, golden sand, perfect for lounging and relaxing while the kids play in the gentle surf of the Atlantic. There are fewer tourists, so fewer crowds, and vacation rentals and dining options are significantly cheaper as a result.
Best of all, if you and your family get sick of the beach, Jacksonville is a vibrant, exciting city with loads to offer families on a budget. From sports and culture to the beautiful St John’s River and Amelia Island, this is a great little city a little off the beaten path that makes a fine addition to a Florida family vacation. Slightly further down the Atlantic coast, St Augustine, Fort Myers, and Daytona Beach are all worth a look too.
Of course, not every Florida vacation has to include beaches or the great outdoors. There are loads of charming little towns and cities inland, with loads to offer a family looking to discover a different side to the Sunshine State. Gainesville is one of North Florida’s loveliest towns - home to the University of Florida - with a whole heap of excellent free or cheap options to keep the whole family entertained.
The Florida Museum is a great place to start, a wonderful hub of Florida culture, with the magical Butterfly Rainforest situated right alongside. The UF Bat Barn and Bat House brings your little ones face to face with one of nature’s most mysterious creatures, while the town is surrounded by crystal-clear natural springs to cool off in if the heat of the day gets too much.
Hints and tips
Planning a budget-friendly family vacation to Florida is a breeze, but there are a few things to consider that can help keep spirits up and costs down across the board.
Transportation can take up a huge chunk of a family vacation budget, so think carefully about where and how you arrive. Having a car in Florida is a huge bonus, and you can almost always access the most affordable activities and destinations more easily by taking a road trip. Places like Pensacola and Panama City Beach in the Panhandle are great, for example, and much cheaper than some other options nearer airports.
If you do fly, you will almost always find the best deals flying into the larger airports like Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Miami, or Orlando. Cheap air carriers like Spirit, Frontier, or SouthWest service the whole state, and you are likely to be able to find great fares year-round.
How to save money on activities
A little research and internet detective work before heading off on your family vacation will let you reap the benefits of some excellent deals and money-saving possibilities.
Booking online and in advance is usually far cheaper than paying at the door. There are almost always discounts or deals to be had for canny travelers who come prepared.
Another suggestion along more traditional, almost obsolete lines, is to pick up the brochures you find in restaurants and hotel lobbies. They will often come equipped with a number of money-off vouchers and coupons and can be a creative way to save.
Finally, take a look at the various passes and memberships that offer discounts and deals in Florida. Things like The Undercover Tourist, CityPASS, Groupon, and AAA/AAARP are a great way to get the best out of the cities you visit on your vacation.
A family getaway to Florida is a great experience and doesn’t have to cost you a fortune. With our guide to family vacations in Florida on a budget, you’ll be able to combine a wonderful experience with a vacation that doesn’t leave your wallet empty!