From its origins as a subtropical outpost for carpetbaggers to its more recent incarnation as an international Riviera, Miami’s come a long way, baby. But now, the emphasis is on “baby”—as in, even the littlest members of the family can be thoroughly entertained when visiting the Magic City these days. And that holds true if you’ve got a water baby, a sand baby or just a plain old land baby in your family unit. Whether it’s under the sun, in the shade or in the cool air-conditioning, with dozens of youngster-friendly attractions, Miami’s got the kids covered.
Formerly known as Miami Metrozoo—and going back to its birth in 1948, as the Crandon Park Zoo – Zoo Miami is one of the pre-eminent, open-air animal enclosures in the world. With an emphasis on conservation and education, the more than 100 exhibits represent 500 species, including 40 of which are endangered. Zoological colleagues have performed miraculous feats, ranging from the first successful captive birth of an aardvark to hatching a clutch of 27 Komodo dragons. But if all that sounds a bit like school, don’t worry—the $5 camel rides, Samburu Giraffe Feeding Station and the about-to-debut Children’s Zoo Wacky barn will make you forget all about statistics.
If you can’t get enough of animals and animal shows, venture next to Jungle Island. Born as Miami’s Parrot Jungle in the hammocks of South Miami, where trained parrots flew free yet also performed for visitors, today’s Jungle Island is home to 1,100 tropical birds and almost twice that amount of plant and flower varietals. Visit the aviary and feed the parrots or take at a seat in one of the amphitheatre for some of the most entertaining shows. And don’t expect it to be all about feathers, either. Jungle Island is also home to a surprising number of primates, reptiles and big cats, including the impressive liger and tion, the offspring of captive lions and tigers. Like children, they’re cute when they’re small—but they don’t stay that way very long.
Miami Children’s Museum
Just across the causeway from Jungle Island, Miami Children’s Museum is the place to while away a few hours during the fall rainy season or the heat of the summer day. Innovative exhibits create a miniature world in which kids can practice everyday skills—banking, food shopping, taking care of pets—or learn new ones, such as recording music or making newscasts. For active tots, there’s water play, a sand castle with a slide and a rock climbing wall. You can even board a replica cruise ship for some limbo dancing. And if you feel a twinge in your back from going too low, fear not—your kids can take you to the “hospital,” too.
History is never so evocative as it is when it’s tropical. At least, that’s what the premier exhibit at the History Miami, “Tropical Dreams: A People’s History of South Florida,” seems to prove, as it explores more than 10,000 years of immigration, expansion, rivalries and new technologies in this Gateway of Americas. Nor does the museum want you to walk away believing that history is motionless, something to be studied while standing still. That’s why the historical museum offers more than 30 coach, boat and eco-walking tours with historian Dr. Paul George and longtime resident Frank W. Schena. Explore the waterways, the ethnic neighborhoods, the architecture of South Beach or even take the popular “Mystery and Mayhem: Crime Tour.”
IN THE SAND
Miami Dade College, Kendall Campus Earth Science Museum and Demonstration Center
Sure, this small museum is sort of hidden in the warren of buildings on a college campus. It’s former room 5130, to be exact, and was once a cafeteria and then a bookstore, among other things. But it’s earned the big-time nickname “Kendall Rocks” because of what it contains: the worldwide archaeological collection of former Miami Dade College Professor Loren D. Wicks. This includes a tiger shark jaw from Key Largo, bottom sediments from the Antarctic and a whale tooth from Chesapeake Bay. The museum, now under the care of Associate Instructor Diane McKinney, now has 10,000 specimens in the collection, where kids are allowed to handle everything from animal jaws to turtle shells. McKinney also shows children how to cast fossils and the elements of archeological digs. Best of all? Admission is free.
Crandon Park, Family Amusement Center and Gardens
This two-mile, spun sugar beach is the unburied treasure of Key Biscayne. Not only does it horseshoe a completely calm lagoon, it features lifeguards, concession stands and picnic areas. Nearby, the Crandon Park Amusement Center, offering a vintage carousel, a paved and banked roller rink with derby-style rentals, and a spraying seahorse fountain, is ideal for when the kids are bored with the beach. A little father beyond, the arboretum and gardens provide fragrant, welcome relief from hot pavement and sun.
OUT TO SEA
Oleta River State Park
If you like both shade and breeze, be sure to check out the wetlands, mangroves and hammocks at Oleta River State Park. Here you can huff up and whiz down fifteen miles of mountain bike trails. Rent bikes and related gear at the Blue Moon Outdoor Center (www.BlueMoonMiami.com), which also leases canoes and kayaks so you can drift out onto the black tea waters filled with native wildlife and newly created fish nurseries. If you’re unfamiliar with the terrain, be sure to schedule instruction and tours. One of the most popular is the Full Moon expedition, a two-to-three hour, four-to-five mile paddle, so if you’re in town during that phase of the moon, count yourself lucky and head to Oleta.
The Marjory Stoneman Douglas Biscayne Nature Center
The Biscayne Nature Center is another venue where you can get your feet wet—quite literally. This not-for-profit Crandon Park facility, devoted to conservation of South Florida’s natural resources, is a marvel of solar power and recycled material design. It’s also a terrific place to explore whole family adventures that range from dragging nets through seagrass and catching sea urchins, sea horses and starfish to examine (and throw back) to exploring an ancient fossil reef tide pool. The Center has a fabulous array of programs; if you’re going to be in town for a while and can’t decide which one you want to experience, you can always sign up for Coastal Ecology, which offers a variety of them to take day after day.
Lolita might just be the most famous name in Miami. And not because she’s a famous character in literature. No, Lolita is the trained killer whale that practically began it all, living and performing at the Seaquarium for more than four decades. Alongside her, Pacific white-sided dolphins leap and play with their trainers as well. In other tanks, sharks, manatees, alligators, turtles and more both entertain and educate—and often splash—the crowds. But for getting really wet, and really well-acquainted with one of man’s favorite mammals, nothing beats putting on a wetsuit and hopping into Dolphin Harbor. Here, you’ll learn interactively, as a “Dolphin Odyssey” guest, how to trade kisses, hugs, rubs and even dance with the dolphins—and then catch a ride across the pool.
Duck Tours South Beach
If you prefer staying dry to getting wet and ducks to dolphins, sign on for this land-to-water tour. You’ll enter a sophisticated, built-to-spec “Hydra Terra,” which leaves from South Beach. After a guided, dramatic tour of the Art Deco District, during which you can blow your duck whistles at passersby, the vehicle floats into Biscayne Bay where you can get a water birds-eye view of the fabulous celebrity mansions on islands that are accessible only by boat or private causeway. It’s a whimsical, somewhat wacky—or should we say “quacky?”—look at the landmarks that make Miami famous.