Planning your spring vacation? With powder white beaches and loads of family fun, Panama City Beach promises a mix of relaxation and adventure. And don‘t worry … the fall‘s hurricanes have not slowed this town down.
Crystalline water, a 27-mile stretch of white sand beaches and gentle winds – Panama City Beach boasts a breathtaking view of the Gulf of Mexico. Couple that with plenty of family-friendly activities, and you have a prime family destination. Of course, at just over twelve hours from Cincinnati, it’s also one of our closest beach communities!
When we pulled into town, a cloudy day was breaking, and all I wanted to do was get to the beach. The sugar white sand and emerald water: why else had we come to the Gulf? With a lovely sunset in our favor, we were not disappointed. The wide, flat beach and gentle gulf waves (an average of 63 degrees in March and up to 80 in May) are perfect for releasing pent-up-in-the-car energy by building sand castles and swimming with young children.
The eastern tip of Panama City Beach is nestled between the Gulf of Mexico and St. Andrews Bay. To enjoy the best of both worlds, we spent the next day at St. Andrews State Park. We rented an umbrella on the bay side, which has safe swimming in the shallow, protected pool behind the jetties and is just a short walk away from the Gulf. Snorkeling is best on the Gulf side, where we explored many schools of fish hiding among the jetty’s rocks. Hiking enthusiasts can explore the Gator Lake Trail – a great location for spotting alligators and waterfowl. Other birds, such as herons and ibis, can be spotted in the Button Bush Marsh. Two fishing piers, a boat ramp and concession stands will meet any family’s needs for the day.
Family Fun Attractions
Panama City Beach flows along one main strip – Front Beach Road – that follows the coastline. We were able to have lunch, play a round of putt-putt, visit an amusement park and go to a public beach all within a few miles of each other. At Shipwreck Island Waterpark we took a break from the saltwater and found plenty of fun for young children, including a lazy river and tadpole hole with slides, towers, tubes and swings, plus a few exhilarating rides for teens and adults and a wave pool.
At our favorite attraction – Gulf World – we saw dolphins, sea lions, penguins, tropical birds, sharks and many types of fish. During the Performing Parrot Show, I was surprised to learn that tropical birds can ride bicycles (mini-bikes, of course) and perform other fascinating tricks. We were amazed at the beauty of the macaws and toucans, which we visited up-close in the tropical gardens. The dolphin show, with two jumping, spinning and flipping dolphins, was equally amazing. We visited in the morning, and then realized that on most nights the Splash Magic Laser Show – free with admission – features lasers, music and synchronized fountains.
With all of the fun and entertainment, we certainly worked up an appetite. Most coastal towns are known for their seafood, and Panama City Beach does not disappoint. Aside from the numerous eateries along the beach, we learned from other vacationers about Capt. Anderson’s Restaurant, a 35-year-old landmark that claims to serve more fresh seafood than any other restaurant in Florida. The family run destination is a large complex located on the bay with a bar, video game room, marketplace and expansive dining area. Capt. Anderson’s acclaimed Greek-style open-hearth broiled fish – their specialty – kept us craving more for days. Kids offerings include chicken fingers, hamburgers, seafood and pasta. Go early (before dusk), and watch the fishermen bring in their catch through windows overlooking the dock.
Where to Stay
Families can choose from a multitude of accommodations in Panama City, from beachfront rental property to motels. We stayed off the beaten path – and away from the brimming main strip – at the Marriott Bay Resort. This beautiful 1,100-acre complex, located on a wildlife sanctuary, overlooks the St. Andrew Bay. With two 18-hole PGA championship golf courses, rentals from sailboats to wave runners and multiple restaurants, you don’t even have to leave the resort property – but given all that Panama City Beach has to offer, you’d be missing out!
Brenna Hansen is freelance writer for this publication.