Family- and Wildlife-Friendly Time in Florida

There are a lot of reasons why Florida is one of the most popular vacation destinations for American families: kid-friendly beaches, mild weather and, of course, theme parks. But kids who love nature and marine life — and most children do — can get their fill of both at a variety of wildlife adventure programs on land and sea in Punta Gorda/Englewood Beach, located halfway between Sarasota and Fort Myers.

The Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center, for example, provides family-friendly environmental education and sustainable recreation opportunities for everyone, whether you’re a visitor or a local. There are more than 20 educational programs on tap, which vary monthly based on what’s going on in the surrounding ecosystem. Staple programs include volunteer-based water monitoring, boat tours and guided educational walks. Families especially enjoy the wading tours, which allow small fry to step into shallow water in search of marine life.

Morning Mist over Environmental Center

© Brian Grant | Dreamstime.com

Charlotte County Blueway Trails, a collection of mapped-out aquatic pathways, offer more opportunities for marine exploration while searching for Florida wildlife. The colored trail markers stretch along hundreds of miles of undeveloped shorelines and into the water among the mangroves. To help families plan which of the 57 trails are right for them, the Blueway Trails Guide offers data on ease of access, difficulty of terrain and scenic value.

Sharp-eyed families are likely to see manatees, dolphins and fish jumping out of the water, and paddlers are encouraged to watch the skies in search the white pelican, one of the largest birds — with a wingspan of up to 9.5 feet — in North America. From October through April, as many as 2,000 white pelicans make their way to the islands off the coast of Punta Gorda/Englewood Beach to roost.

On land, families can enjoy a traditional Old Florida wildlife adventure with Babcock Ranch Eco Tours, which whisk visitors through the working Babcock Ranch in a refurbished school bus. The ranch is surrounded by indigenous wildlife, citrus groves, prairies and undeveloped expanses of wet pine flatwoods. Plenty of wildlife can be seen from the safety of a swamp buggy, including alligators, the resident Florida panther and snakes.

For a slighter tamer experience, visitors can check out Peace River Wildlife Center, which treats ailing or injured native birds and small mammals. Animals who cannot be returned to their native habitat become permanent residents of the center, a menagerie that currently features nearly 200 residents visitors can view. Some favorite residents include bald eagles, raccoons and a white Eastern Screech-Owl named Luna, uniquely colored because of its rare condition called leucism, caused by a partial loss of pigmentation.