The almost palpable essence of the glittering Naples area coastline lures a vibrant mix of retirees, rising professionals, and sun-seeking vacationers. Many are discovering the Paradise Coast is just as rich in excitement for families, too. Here’s an alphabet full of pleasures for ages 3 to 93.
AH-TAH-THI-WHAT? Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki, a Smithsonian Institution affiliate, is a fascinating museum on the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation. It houses more than 30,000 artifacts, life-size Seminole scenes from the 1890s, and an exciting movie, We Seminoles. Stroll the mile-long boardwalk through a cool, shady cypress dome, past the ceremonial grounds, to the living Seminole village where you can watch native artisans making their traditional beadwork, baskets, wood carvings, and colorful patchwork clothing.
BEACH DAY. With our miles and miles of white-sand beaches and islands, you can’t go wrong no matter which direction you take. Some of our family faves, with sweet boardwalks, tons of wildlife, beach rentals galore, snack bars, and picnic and play areas include Clam Pass Park in the Seagate area, Tigertail Beach Park on Marco Island, Wiggins Pass State Park in North Naples, and Lowdermilk Park in Old Naples.
CAMP COOLNESS. When the kids are out of school, summer camps rule. The Naples Equestrian Challenge, which offers therapeutic riding for adults and kids with special needs, also hosts a summer camp to teach horsemanship skills to all children, whether they have special needs or not. And it’s all horses, all day at M&H Stables’ camp. The Ritz-Carlton, Naples’ Nature’s Wonders Summer Camp, offers children an interactive educational experience—everything from naturalist-led eco-adventures to storytelling, to yummy food for kids and creatures.
DISCOVER A DOLPHIN. Seriously! Families can participate in an important research project aboard the Dolphin Explorer. The crew studies a pod of about 200 dolphins off Marco Island. Whoever spots a dolphin that has not yet been documented gets to name it. Kids receive a souvenir photo and an official researcher patch. There’s a shelling stop on Keewaydin Island, too.
EVERGLADES FAMILY ADVENTURE. Have just one day for an Everglades experience? Families can pack in a whole lot of adventure with the Ultimate Combo Package at Wooten’s Everglades Airboat Tours. Ride a swamp buggy into the backcountry, hop aboard the airboat for an exhilarating ride through the grasslands, see gator shows, and even hug a baby gator.
FIREWORKS & GAMES. The biggest Fourth of July ice cream social in Naples is at Sugden Park. Besides free ice cream, there are ski shows and tons of games. On Marco Island, don’t miss Uncle Sam’s Sand Jam. It’s a huge, all-day family beach party with games, food, contests, and more for all ages. Both events end with fireworks, of course.
GET GIGGLY IN THE GARDEN. There’s no end to family fun at the Naples Botanical Garden. Kids can climb into the huge tree house, check out the kid-size Cracker House, play in the fountain, visit a cave, and lots more. Even grownups love the Garden’s activity-packed W.O.N.D.E.R. Kids weekends, starting at 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday all year. Each week is another cool theme. There’s no advance registration; guests can drop in for an hour or the whole day.
HATCHLINGS. Summer is sea turtle nesting and hatching time. Nesting (when giant female turtles crawl from the sea and lay up to 100 eggs in the sand) is usually complete by August 1, and the hatching continues through October. Walk any Collier County beach in the early morning and observe the naturalists as they monitor nests and protect the hatchlings.
ICE CREAM, CUPCAKES & CHOCOLATE ALLIGATORS. Cold, creamy treats rule the summer, and Fifth Avenue South proves it! There’s Regina’s Ice Cream (check out the 1950s jukebox and Thunderbird convertible on the wall), Adelheidi’s Organic Sweets (even gluten-free and dairy-free), Spin Frozen Yogurt (sorbets, too), and Kohr Family Frozen Custard. Also on the Avenue are Kilwin’s (fudge and more), Grace & Shelly’s Cupcakes, and alligator-shaped chocolates at Olde Naples Chocolate. Of course, there are scores of other sweet places to visit beyond Fifth Avenue South. Savor something delish by Norman Love, our world-famous chocolatier, from jewel-like individual chocolates to gourmet cakes and gelato at Norman Love Confections. And the most adorable cake in town? It’s the fluffy little Puppy Cake, with its pink tongue and chocolate chip eyes, in the bakery at Wynn’s Family Market.
JUST PUTT. A hole-in-one gets you a free game at Coral Cay Adventure Golf, where the family can putt its way through a cave, a coral reef, and waterfalls on two classy little 18-hole miniature golf courses. Marco Golf & Garden has real garden ambience, while there’s jungle excitement galore at Golf Safari Mini Golf in Bonita Springs. It gets even wilder at Congo River Golf also in Bonita Springs, where guests can also feed gators, mine for gemstones, and play games in the arcade.
KIDS’ DAYS. Every Friday all summer, kids get in free for activities, adventures and storytelling at Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center. On Saturday mornings, the popular sightseeing boat Double Sunshine has a special kid-themed dolphin sightseeing cruise, with a scavenger hunt and prizes. And every day is kids’ day for ice skating at Germain Arena, with special hours designated exclusively for public skating. Grab the whole family—and don’t forget your sweatshirt! Skate rentals are available.
LOOK UP IN THE SKY. On moonless nights, when the sky is darkest, the Everglades Astronomical Society sets up gigantic telescopes on the prairie of Big Cypress National Park and Collier-Seminole State Park to look at meteors and planets. They provide ladders so the littlest kids can take a peek.
MERMAIDS OF THE MANGROVES. One of our favorite sea creatures, the manatee, is a gentle, curious soul. The big, clunky mammal dines on sea grass and can weigh up to 2,000 pounds. Thus its nickname, “sea cow.” You can see them on your own in the backwaters and bays, or take one of the special manatee tours at Port of the Islands Resort.
NAPLES PRINCESS. Family reunion ahead? Summer birthday? Graduation celebration? Blended family wedding? Sometimes only a yacht will do, and the Naples Princess is up to the task. You can book lunch or dinner in the Captain’s Room, a sunset sail, or charter the whole boat, with balloons, cake and ice cream, music, or other amenities.
OH, THE CREATURES YOU’LL SEE! Kids up to age 5 will love the monthly Little Explorers program of stories, arts, and nature activities at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. Summer themes include Izzie Lizzy Alligator, Great Sharky Shark, and Jenny the Jellyfish. All ages will enjoy meeting the animal ambassadors, experiencing the interactive exhibits in the Dalton Discovery Center, and peeking into the rehabilitation areas for injured and orphaned wildlife.
PLUME, FLUME & ZOOM. Summer play includes much more than just swimming in the four pools at Sun-N-Fun Lagoon. There are dumping buckets, water pistols, a lazy river, and—if you’re at least 48 inches tall—five exciting water slides, including a 38-foot tower.
QUIRKY TO THE MAX. Bigfoot may have met his match in the elusive Everglades Skunk Ape. Frankly, we’re unconvinced, but film crews from around the world keep showing up with high hopes. So if you want quirky, head down to the Skunk Ape Headquarters on U.S. 41 in Ochopee. It does have a live, 30-foot, 300-pound python named Goldie and other creatures in residence, plus you can get your official Skunk Ape T-shirt.
RIDE THE GREENWAY. Ride your bicycle (or take a stroll) on the beautiful new Gordon River Greenway, a paved nature trail that follows the Gordon River beside the Naples Zoo and the Conservancy. Watch for wildlife, including horned owls, bald eagles, raccoons, and maybe a fox.
SUPERHEROES & ZANY FUN. There’s always something new at the Golisano Children’s Museum of Naples. We love the graffiti wall—“Look, Mom, no paint splatters!”—and costumed superheroes show up regularly for special programs. Don’t miss the new Sonic Sensation exhibit, through September 7. Make a movie sound track, conduct an invisible orchestra, and yell as loud as you like in the Scream Chamber.
THOMAS THE TANK. A best-kept Naples secret is the Naples Train Museum, which shares the historic downtown railroad station with the Naples Depot Museum. It’s open on Saturdays all summer. Watch Thomas the Tank and other miniature Lionel trains chug around the model city. Outside, hop aboard the mini-train pulled by a real diesel locomotive, and then visit the Depot Museum. It houses many antique vehicles, from a mule wagon to a cool 1955 Chevy Bel-Air, to the nose of a 1940s Army Air Force plane.
UBER SAILING EXPERIENCE. Enjoy a tropical summer breeze aboard the magnificent Sweet Liberty catamaran as it sails toward Keewaydin Island for a picture-perfect day of wildlife watching, sightseeing, and shelling on a deserted 7-mile-long beach. Comfy lounge, big decks, charming crew. Bring a picnic or buy snacks aboard.
VROOM, VROOM! Even the youngest race-car enthusiast would be thrilled for a chance to glimpse a 1966 Porsche 906 Carrera, a 1995 McLaren F1, or 1966 Ford GTO, but to see all three of these up close (no walls or ropes between you and them), and 100-plus more of the world’s fastest, most important race cars, WOW! The Revs Institute for Automotive Research is open by reservation only with reduced summer hours.
WOLF’S BIRTHDAY TOUR. Big bad wolf? You may think differently after meeting the residents of the Shy Wolf Sanctuary. The private facility is a nurturing haven for exotic animals that have been abused or abandoned, especially wolf dogs and wolves. You can’t just drop in, but every animal is celebrated on its birthday, and families are welcome by appointment for a guided visit.
XTREME FAMILY FUN SPOT. This attraction is a one-stop Naples adventure for families of all ages and interests. Kids and grownups will love the choices at Extreme Family Fun Spot, which include deck boat, pontoon, and tritoon rentals, guided Segway tours, rentals of stand-up paddleboards, and pedal-or-paddle kayaks. Start with a fun sightseeing, sunset, or dolphin tour, complete with island music, aboard the 24-passenger pontoon cruiser, CoveRunner.
YOUNG AND ADORABLE. Shop yourself silly for adorable summer fashions and accessories, books, and gifts at these delightful boutiques in Naples: Beth Moné Children’s Shoppe, Little Luxe, Giggle Moon, Eco Baby, All About April, The Little Merchant, Gigi’s Children’s Boutique, and Cottontails in Naples (239-594-9005). On Marco Island, visit Butterfly Beach. Also, check out Children’s Couture in Bonita Springs (239-405-7401).
ZOO-LICIOUS. Visit the primate island at the Naples Zoo, where you’re the ones contained (in the cruise boat) while the apes, monkeys, and lemurs swing freely through the trees. See exciting shows in Safari Canyon, get practically nose-to-nose with cobras, vipers, and more serpentine creatures at the Snakes Alive! presentation. You also can meet the keepers, hand-feed the giraffes, watch the bears enjoy a backyard picnic, and see critters you never knew existed.