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Key West and Lower Keys Family Vacation Ideas Include Dolphins, Sharks and Conch Train. A vacation in the Florida Keys can be almost magical. The Overseas Highway (a.k.a. U.S. Route 1) is an extraordinary rolling field trip. Distance is measured by mile markers, the closer to Key West the smaller the number. Cross the Seven-mile Bridge and you will be in the Lower Keys. From Big Pine and Grassy Key all the way to Key West there are dozens of opportunities for mini adventures and plenty of stuff for building one-of-a-kind memories.

Count down to the end. It’s not the beaches that make the Keys terrific, although there are a few. It is the carefree island attitude and the quirky sometimes just plain odd mix of residents and visitors. In the Keys—it really is no shoes, no problem. Maybe the most fun for school aged kids is the act of reading the map, watching the mile markers decrease in number and finally getting to the end of the road.

Talk to the dolphins. The Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key is home to a family of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions. Narrated sessions occur throughout the day and provide oodles of information about dolphin behavior, training, and habits. The facility offers “Hands-on-Training” sessions that include a private course with up-close interaction. Participants have access to the Fish House where the dolphins' meals are prepared, get training first-hand and a chance to practice communicating with the dolphins. Discovery: There is also the option to go behind the scenes for a close-up look at California sea lions. (The Dolphin Research Center. Mile Marker 59, Grassy Key. 58901 Overseas Highway 33050-6019. (305) 289-1121 or

Get wet in a park. Not a walk in the park, Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary is approximately five nautical miles south of Big Pine Key and all underwater. Dramatic coral formations, abundance of fish, and the wreck of the H.M.S. Looe, provide snorkelers and divers days of discoveries. The sanctuary is marked by more than three dozen buoys enabling visitors to enjoy a variety of undersea life from dramatic elkhorn coral and massive star coral to schools of blue-striped grunts to toothy green moray eels. (Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary. (305)-292-0311 or

Spot tiny deer. Big Pine Key is the only place on earth to see the petit (large dog size) key deer in the wild. The National Key Deer Refuge, more than 8,000 acres in total, is the official protected area for the little guys. Not all of them remain within the boundaries but prefer to wander outside the refuge and may be seen on adjacent keys. Similar to the Virginia whitetail, this species is on the endangered list. Discovery: To officially see them take the 7/10-mile self-guided nature that trail begins off Key Deer Blvd, north of the Blue Hole, and winds through the refuge area; dawn and dusk are best for viewing the deer. The refuge open daily from sunrise to sunset and is free to the public. (The National Key Deer Refuge, Big Pine Key Visitor Center. 1(305) 872-0774 or

Ride the Conch Train. It’s obvious and easy and in the must-do category for families. The open air train, really a trolley, provides an entertaining effortless way to see Key West with the kids – no sweat involved. The stories, legends and lore make interesting conversations over lunch. Who can resist a good pirate story or just the facts about hundreds of cats? (Conch Tour Train 201 Front Street, Key West. (305) 294-5161.) Need to know: Historic Tours of America has discounted tickets. Go to

Get on and off the trolley. Also a blast, the Old Town Trolley swings around town providing a running dialog about the best and sometimes the worst of the city. Making nine stops along the tour route it is easy to get on and off as often as you wish. Hear about Henry Flagler and learn where to get the best key lime pie. (Old Town Trolley Tours, Mallory Square Key West, 33040. (305) 296-6688) Need to know: Historic Tours of America has discounted tickets. Go to

Whisper to a butterfly. For a quieting experience (Yes, it is possible with kids.) stroll among the flowers, trees and cascading waterfalls counting free-flying butterflies and tropical birds. Bonus Points: The learning center provides plenty of interesting facts about the world of butterflies. Get a rare close up view of a variety of live caterpillars feeding and developing on their host plants. There is a short film to pull it all together. (Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory 1316 Duval Street Key West, Florida 33040. (305) 296-2988, 1-800-839-4647 or

Pet a shark.
Small and kid friendly, Key West Aquarium is the place to go for squeals. See in real life the fish depicted on the fish cards used on snorkeling excursions. Fishy residents include parrot fish, grouper, moray eels, barracuda, tropical fish and tarpon. The touch tanks provide tactile encounters not easily forgotten. Who can resist touching a live shark? Bonus Points: Don’t miss the daily shark and turtle feedings. (Key West Aquarium 201 Front Street, Key West, 33040. (305) 296-2051 or

Make a turtle stop. Located in Land’s End Marina, the Turtle Kraals Museum is home to sea turtles and their keepers who help visitors understand more about the ongoing struggle between sea turtles and humans. The small museum and refuge center offers several mini lessons for kids. This is one location where being there makes all of the difference. The staff members of the museum are is often rehabilitating a sea turtle on site. Look in the tank by the entrance. (Turtle Kraals Museum, 200 Margaret Street, Key West 33040. (305) 294-0209)

Set sail with history. Each day the flagship of the city of Key West, the schooner Western Union, sails the Atlantic Ocean near Key West providing passengers with the delights of the sea and a living history experience in the process. The storytelling includes the adventures of the sunken ships, pirates, and early residents. Passengers may raise the sails, heave lines and take the helm. Bonus Points: Music on board is a seafaring tradition so there's a musician wandering the deck playing old sea shanties. For night owls and teens, stargazing sails are also an option. Need to know: From time to time kids sail free. The offer will be at the website. (Schooner Western Union departs from Schooner Wharf 202 William Street Key West 33040. (305) 292-1766 or

Is it a pirate’s life for thee? Key West is a small island community and everything and almost everyone is connected to the past. Everyone has at least one pirate story to tell but at Pirate Soul on Front Street the real stuff is on display. The museum encourages interaction and with just a little imagination makes time-travel back to 1690 easy. Hallways and alleyways feature the unique collection of pirate artifacts includes Captain Kidd’s last journal, Blackbeard’s weapons and an authentic pirate treasure chest. Bonus Points: Take an interactive journey complete with pirates and loot. (Pirate Soul 524 Front Street, Key West, 33040. (305) 292-1133 or

Discover a wreck. Imagine Key West just before the American Civil War. That is exactly where the Shipwreck HISTOREUM® Museum begins for visitors. Combining actors, films and the actual artifacts from the 1985 rediscovery of the wrecked vessel Isaac Allerton, time travel is easy. Hear from master wrecker Asa Tift and his wrecking crew the story of how this unusual industry provided livelihoods of the early pioneers of Key West. Bonus Points: Seeing is believing, and visitors are invited to climb the 65' lookout tower and if need be, alarm Mr. Tift of any wrecks on the reef. (Key West Shipwreck HISTOREUM® Museum, 1 Whitehead Street - Key West, 33040. (305) 292-8990 or

Climb to the top.
The Key West Lighthouse, predates the city that later grew up around it. Today, a climb to the top of its 80 steps rewards the visitor with a great view of the nearby Ernest Hemingway House and the rest of the downtown area. Visitors are also welcome in the museum, housed in the restored keeper’s dwelling. (The Key West Lighthouse. 938 Whitehead Street, Key West, 33040.

Taste the best key lime pie. Tart and scrumptious best describes the real thing – key lime pie. Watch the special pies being made at the Blond Giraffe Key Lime Factory Located in the Historic Key West Coca-Cola Bottling Plant. The Blonde Giraffe has won many awards for excellence but it is important to see for your self. Luckily there is more than one location. (Blond Giraffe Key Lime Factory 600 Front Street, Building A and 107 Simonton Street, Key West, 33040. (305) 293-9296 or

Embrace the sunset. Each evening Mallory Square, on the historic waterfront in Key West, is the location of a sunset celebration. The seaport once a bustling commerce center with schooners, and frigates, cigar makers and fishermen, remains linked to its history and connected to the times. It’s the place for shopping, dinning, and tropical entertainment. (Mallory Square. On the historic waterfront in Key West.

Look for local ghosts. Key West is loaded with legends and stories and so it makes senses that discovering the ghost connection would be a fun way to spend an evening with teens. Ghost Tours of Key West conducts lantern-led walks through the shadowy streets of Old Town. In not more than a mile the tour route weaves a rich mystery not so obvious in the light of day. Hear about haunted dwelling places reported to be inhabited by the ghosts of the city’s earliest residents. Need to know: Tours depart at 8 p.m. every night from the Crowne Plaza La Concha. (Ghost Tours of Key West 430 Duval Street, Key West, 33040. (305) 294-9255.)

Text researched and posted by Nancy Nelson-Duac, Curator of the Good Stuff for the Family Travel Files. Images provided by Visit Florida, Key deer by T. L. Nelson. Copyright content update 2018. 
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