Childhood in Florida means swimsuits and bare feet. It means water days year-round. It means splash pads and swimming holes, resort pools and river paddles. We can’t think of a better activity that reflects Florida culture more than swimming. Surrounded by water in every direction, Florida families flock to oceans, bays, springs and lakes to take advantage of our state’s beautiful geology.
When I was a kid, I practically lived in my swimsuit. Now, as a mother of two, I keep the Florida family tradition alive by finding fun ways for my own Florida kids to spend time in the water. There are over 1 million swimming pools in the state of Florida, more than 600 miles of beaches, 700 freshwater springs and countless other lakes, ponds and waterways. Needless to say, swimming could easily be our state family sport!
Florida kids are lucky. Not only do they have water parks and pools, but they have some truly unique aquatic experiences right at their fingertips. Here are some interesting places to take your family for unique swimming experiences in and around Central Florida.
Shark Swim at Discovery Cove
Have a jaw-some time swimming alongside blacktip reef, nurse, zebra and bonnethead sharks, along with thousands of other tropical fish at The Grand Reef inside Discovery Cove® Orlando. The Shark Swim program includes an intimate shark talk and training session with Discovery Cove’s expert Aquarists so guests can learn about several different shark species. The Shark Swim Program is for ages 10+ and starts at $129 per person. Space is limited, and extra health and safety measures are in place to ensure property social distancing. discoverycove.com
Snorkel in a Giant Fish Tank at Rumfish Grill
At this uniquely Florida experience, swimmers can snorkel alongside several species of fish in a 33,500-gallon tank built by the stars of Animal Planet’s hit show TANKED, then sit down to enjoy a meal together and talk about what they learned. The Swim with the Fish experience is led by experts at the Marine Exploration Center and is designed to educate guests about the fragile marine environment. This 90-minute experience is for ages 8+ and starts at $35 per person. Space is limited. As of August 2020, this experience is closed due to CDC guidelines, but keep an eye on the website for future booking availability. rumfishgrill.com
SeaCamp in the Florida Keys
Go ahead and book your 2021 summer staycation now. This unique camp experience on Big Pine Key is perfect for water lovers of all kinds. Send the kids off to learn all about marine science, SCUBA, sailing, windsurfing, kayaking, lifeguarding and more. Meanwhile, mom and dad can vacation without the kids for a week or two in one of the many nearby resorts in the Florida Keys. The co-ed Sea Camp experience is for children 12–17 years old. You must apply online at seacamp.org. As of now, the 2021 summer season camps are expected to happen as scheduled.
Swim with Manatees in Crystal River
Swimming with the manatees in Crystal River is practically a Florida rite-of-passage. Crystal River is home to a large population of manatees, especially in the winter months. There are several tour guides in the area that provide opportunities to swim with the gentle sea cows. We recommend booking one for a winter morning when you know there will be a strong cold front. The manatees gather in the warm spring water when the temperatures dip low. Most manatee tours provide masks, snorkels and wet suits. Kids ages 3+ can participate. Pick your guide and call ahead to find out pricing.
Scuba for Kids: Pool S.C.U.B.A.
When you’re a Floridian, it makes sense to turn your kids into fish by teaching them how to breathe underwater. The PADI Bubblemaker Program teaches children who are at least 8 years old to use scuba gear in shallow water. They’ll learn things like how to clear a regulator and mask, plus breathing dos and don’ts underwater. PADI also offers a program called SASY for kids ages 4–7. SASY stands for “surface supplied air system.” It looks like scuba gear, but it’s designed to float on the surface. There are several participating dive centers in Central Florida. Go to padi.com/courses/bubblemaker to find one near you.
Hang Ten Like the Pros at Cocoa Beach
Florida’s Atlantic coast is home to world class surfers like Kelly Slater and Frieda Zamba. Now you can learn to surf like the pros by taking lessons at one of our local beachside surf schools. Cocoa Beach Surf Company and the Ron Jon Surf School are a couple of popular options. At Ron Jon’s, kids ages 5 and up can participate in private lessons to learn how to stand up and ride a wave. Prices vary at different schools, but expect to pay $50–$65 for an hour-long private lesson. ronjonsurfschool.com and cocoabeachsurf.com
Snorkel in a Deep Blue Cavern at Devil’s Den
Less than a 2-hour drive from Orlando will take you to a swimming hole worth putting on your bucket list. Devil’s Den is a cave filled with crystal clear spring water. It’s a popular diving spot, but families can also snorkel and hunt for prehistoric fossils. Scuba and snorkel equipment is available for rental. Children must be over age 6 to enter Devil’s Den. Admission starts at $15 per person on weekdays and $22 per person on weekends and holidays. devilsden.com
Become a Mermaid at Weeki Wachee Mermaid Camp
Who doesn’t dream of becoming a mermaid at some point? The 2-day Weeki Wachee Mermaid Camp teaches kids exactly what it takes. They’ll learn to swim with the famous Weeki Wachee mermaids, indulge in a mermaid makeover, get a personal photo session in a tail and more. The camp is available to kids ages 7–14. The 2-day camp costs $375. (P.S. There’s also an adult version of this camp if parents want to brush up on their own mermaid skills!) floridastateparks.org/learn/junior-mermaid-camp
Dive for Dinner in Homosassa Bay
This activity is best if mom and dad are up for an adventure too. Scallops are a type of mollusk that live in the shallow grassy waters of the Homosassa River, about 2 hours west of Orlando. Tour companies like River Safaris Mile & Wild take guests out on a boat to dive for scallops under the watch of a highly skilled captain. They describe it as an Easter egg hunt underwater! Fun for all ages, a 5-hour semi-private tour for six starts at $79. It includes a license, mask, snorkel, fins and scallop bag. Best part? You can take your collection home at the end of the day. Bon appétit! riverventures.com
This is just a snapshot of the many ways to give your children a true Florida childhood they’ll never forget. Of course, you don’t have to be this “extra” to give your kids a fun day in the water. You can always just hit the closest beach, a local splash pad or even your own backyard pool!