Whether your family is looking for a restful, playful or adventurous vacation, amazing Panama City Beach awaits.
Conveniently located along the Florida panhandle, Panama City Beach transformed my family’s view of what a beach town can be. With an abundance of resorts lining the shoreline, it’s quite possible to enjoy the full beach experience without ever leaving your property. But if you’re looking for more entertainment, Panama City Beach boasts an outdoor water park, miniature golf courses, and entertaining museums for all ages. Longing for adventure? Think snorkeling, parasailing, and jet skiing. Or get face-to-face with a shark, go dolphin sightseeing or try your hand at deep sea fishing. In addition to all of this, my family and I still managed to stop in for some great meals of savory southern seafood and more.
Most of all, Panama City Beach feels comfortable with a lively atmosphere that never seems overcrowded. Even with its hip beach vibe, our family of five never felt out of place in Panama City Beach. We bet yours won’t either!
What to do?
Paradise Watersports (5711 N. Lagoon Dr.) delivers all you need for a perfect parasailing trip. Captain Jared gave my oldest son and husband the ride of their lives. After just a quick, 10-minute drive out of the bay, they were up 800-feet above the shoreline for a 2-mile ride. A quick dip in the ocean on the way back surprised and delighted them. We were impressed to see all ages on board including kids, teenagers, and even a grandma out for her first flight! Cost: Standard ride (1 mile, 600 feet, 1 dip) $65; Deluxe ride (2 miles, 800 feet, 2 dips) $85. Minimum age is 5 years old; participants under the age of 18 must have a parent or guardian sign a liability waiver.
KidTripster Tip: Observers are allowed to come along for the ride. Cost: $20/person.
Gulf World Marine Park (15412 Front Beach Rd.) is home to an assortment of ocean life with rescued sharks, stingrays, and sea turtles. Cost: Youth $19; Adult $29. But the real reason to come here is for the dolphin encounters, where my boys were able to kiss, hug, and belly rub their own personal dolphin, Gus. The kids enjoyed learning what it was like to train these amazing mammals. It was hard to tell who was more excited - the kids or Gus! Cost: Participants (under 40 inches) Free with paying adult; Participants (40-47 inches, must be accompanied with paying adult) $69-$99; Participants (48 inches and above); look for seasonal discounts. More expensive options where you can swim with a dolphin also are available.
KidTripster Tip: Both Paradise Watersports and Gulf World Marine Park don’t allow personal cameras of any kind, but the staff does take digital images. If you plan on capturing your adventure, we recommend calling ahead for pricing to determine if it’s worth the expense.
A favorite with the locals, Shipwreck Island Water Park (12201 Hutchison Blvd.) has thrilling slides for the big kids and a lazy river for adults who just want to lounge. Practice your splashing in the enormous wave pool and make sure the kids visit the Tadpole Hole that caters to little ones. Cost: Youth (under 35 inches) Free; Youth (35-49 inches) $30; Adult (50 inches & above) $36.
KidTripster Tip: Shipwreck Island closes earlier than we had expected - 4:30 p.m. or 5 p.m. depending on the season.
Even with all these various activities, be sure to set aside some time to enjoy the crisp, clear water and soft, white, sandy beaches of Panama City Beach. Every location that we visited had a decent sand bank, so you can wade pretty far out into the water without getting too deep. Beach chairs and umbrellas are set up on the beach in many locations and available to rent. Cost: $10-$30/day.
Need a break from the beach? Rev up your engine and take a ride at Race City (9523 Front Beach Rd.) with a racetrack, arcade games, and miniature golf. Cost: Unlimited Rides $43.
Where to eat?
Gypsea Crepes (7012 Thomas Dr.) delivers dazzling crepes made right in front of your eyes. Sweet and savory crepes are available, so why not go for both?
For a friendly cafe, checkout Andy’s Flour Power (2629 Thomas Dr.), a splendid bakery-restaurant combination. We were surprised at how fast our breakfast arrived. Everyone wanted a taste of my French toast, topped with fresh strawberries and toasted nuts. The welcoming staff gave this place a very local feel with Andy himself walking around and checking on customers.
Breakfast fanatics can step right up to the counter at Thomas Donut and Snack Shop (19208 Front Beach Rd.) and then head across the street to the beach. The seasonal varieties at a donut shop were certainly a welcomed surprise; the peaches and crème flavor didn’t disappoint. Savory options such as kolaches, biscuits, and eggs round out the menu.
We satisfied our large lunch appetites with Big Apple Turkey Sandwiches at Liza’s Kitchen (7328 Thomas Dr.); the laid-back patio overlooks the beach across the street.
But why stop the beach fun to eat? Our kids ran out the backdoor at Schooners (5121 Gulf Dr.) while the adults handled the food orders. They continued to run in and out to the beach, stopping briefly for a bite of lobster flatbread with Gouda, cheddar jack, and parmesan and then settled down for the Beach Party Platter with fried redfish, oysters, and shrimp.
The whole family was impressed with the modern flair of one of the newer restaurants on the scene, The Grand Marlin (5323 N. Lagoon Dr.). We were a bit nervous, as our kids don’t eat seafood often, but our delightful waiter educated the boys on handling fried shrimp, oysters, and snapper with ease. The Grand Marlin’s market fish section of the menu changes depending on the season, so we just had to sample the amazingly fresh red snapper served on a bed of mashed potatoes and the most delicious green beans I’ve ever tasted.
Kidtripster Tip: The restaurant is quite busy from Thursdays through Saturdays, so make reservations in advance.
KidTripster Tip: The restaurant sits out on the water, so plan an evening walk on the pier to view a docked pirate ship.
Located in the upscale Pier Park, Pompano Joe’s Seafood House (16202 Front Beach Rd.) is the hot spot to dine while visiting the shopping center. We all had a round of fish and chips with housemade vinegar.
Light up your night at Firefly (535 N. Richard Jackson Blvd.) with spectacular dinner. To round out our seafood experience, the boys sampled the southern favorite She-crab soup with a delicately placed puff pastry in the center. The kids’ menu here featured real food options. And the service was attentive with our waiter taking the time to show the kids how to twirl spaghetti with a fork and spoon. Despite the formal location, beach culture prevailed with some visitors dressed in t-shirts and shorts, so we didn’t feel out of of place. Afterwards, our boys dragged us (ok, maybe we dragged them!) next door to Pink Pelican Ice Cream Bar (543 N. Richard Jackson Blvd.), where the Superman flavor highlighted the unique options that caught the kids’ ever-curious eyes.
Where to stay?
Edgewater Beach and Golf Resort (11212 Front Beach Rd.) is located within 15 minutes of just about every destination on this itinerary. With eleven pools (yes, eleven!) and speedy access to the beach, your kids will be wowed. We visited in the middle of spring break, and there were no rowdy college students to wake our toddler (or adults) during midday naps. With plenty of space for our whole family, every unit includes a full kitchen and washer/dryer, making quick trips to the beach less painful with sandy kids.
A tram runs throughout the property with stops at the fitness center, golf course, tennis courts, and Adventure Zone that includes a splash pad for the kids. Treat your kids to junior tennis or golf lessons with certified professionals ready to instruct. Several on-site dining options are available from Ocean’s Bar and Grill to Paradise Pizza to Starbucks. And if you feel like dining from your balcony with an ocean view, room service is available, too.
Kidtripster Tip: Mid-March through the end of September is the best time to hit Panama City Beach. Even in the summer, the temperature rarely exceeds the 90s, and with the ocean breeze, even that is doable.
Panama City Beach is serviced by Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport. If you're driving and have extra time, Highway 98 is the more scenic route headed along the coast that takes you over multiple bridges and through luscious state parks. However, there are multiple lights breaking up the highway, so expect stop-and-go traffic.
Carla Reed grew up building sandcastles and collecting shells on the beaches of South Padre Island, Texas. As a mother of three boys, she’s always on the lookout for the ideal beach getaway from their home in Houston.