I raised two kids in Fort Lauderdale, so there was a time I knew all the best playgrounds, parks and beaches around.
But now, a few decades later, I was preparing for one of those kids to come home with a 3-year-old grandchild. And I knew lots had changed.
I didn’t plan to write a Florida Rambler story on the topic, but our outings were such great successes, I felt I had some good tips to share with parents and grandparents looking for things to do with kids in Fort Lauderdale. My focus is on toddler-friendly destinations, though most will be just as big a success with big kids. And while I live in Fort Lauderdale, we didn’t limit ourselves to that city.
Here are our five favorite spots for things to do with kids in Fort Lauderdale.
The redeveloped beach area in Pompano Beach is a blast for families
One of the biggest changes since I last sought family-friendly outings was Pompano Beach, where the beach area has been completely revamped in the last few years.
Our granddaughter lives up north and thanks to the pandemic, hasn’t visited in two years. But her name is Coral, so we knew she’d love the ocean. And she did. She loved it so much we went to the beach seven out of 10 days – and three of those times, we went to Pompano Beach.
What’s special about Pompano Beach for toddlers is that you can park once and not just hang out at the beach, which is very wide, clean and life-guard protected, but also experience three other great areas:
- A wonderful playground adjacent to the beach.
- A splash playground where water spurts out of a non-slip play area.
- The fishing pier, where you’re sure to see pelicans and where you can gaze up the coast at Hillsboro Lighthouse and into the water at fish and other sea life. (We saw a large ray.) The fishing pier is free for people strolling and not fishing!
We loved the grassy areas built along Pompano Beach Boulevard, where there are picnic tables, grills and enough trees to cast shade.
There are now several restaurants in the pier areas. The most casual, Lucky Fish, has outdoor seating where kids are welcome. There are also some good fast casual options – Burger Fi; Kilwins for ice cream; and Cannoli Kitchen, where we got sub sandwiches and cannolis. (The adults ate while the toddler cavorted on the playground, which she never wanted to leave.) It’s also helpful that there’s a snack bar next to the splash playground and at the pier with $2 ice cream options.
The downside of Pompano Beach is that by afternoon, it was jammed. There is a lot of parking here, but we did see people waiting in the lot for an open space. Parking is not cheap, though. We used Pay By Phone, a great app that lets you add an hour from your phone when you discover you can’t tear the kid away. But parking was $4.20 an hour and so our outings here ended up costing $12 to $16 in parking. We thought it was worth it for all the fun we had.
Parking is quite close to the beach, but we brought a wagon along and used it to go between car, playground and pier. (We left it in the trunk during the hours we were at the beach.) The beach offers no shade, so a beach umbrella makes sense. The splash playground is shaded in early morning. The dry playground is pretty shady at most times.
Pompano Beach Pier
222 N. Pompano Beach Blvd.
Pompano Beach, FL 33062
Flamingo Gardens, where kids get close to the animals
I have been going to Flamingo Gardens in Davie for years, taking my own kids here when their tree-loving grandmother used to visit every winter.
Again, though, this attraction has gotten better and better over the years.
While a 3-year-old can appreciate some colorful flowers and exotic trees, what really excited her were the animals, many of which you can get remarkably close to.
Our granddaughter knew flamingos where a symbol of Florida. She got a stuffed flamingo as a gift when she was born (called “fafingo” for a few years) so seeing REAL flamingos was high on her list.
I did not realize, however, that at Flamingo Gardens, you can feed the flamingos, whose big funny beaks are very gentle as they scrape your palm for handout food pellets. Be sure to buy a $1 bag of flamingo food when you buy your tickets. It wasn’t just the kids who thought this was the coolest thing ever.
Hungry ibises and peacocks are everywhere, and they’re a lot of fun to feed too. Again, buy a $1 bag of bird food (different than flamingo food) so you can have this interaction.
Other up-close animal experiences include the otter area, where playful otters are visible through a large glass window streaking through the water doing backflips in front of your eyes.
The walk-in aviary gets you exceptionally close to a variety of Florida birds and the African spurred tortoise pen has low railings that allow small people to be within an arm’s length of these creatures, who crawl along with surprising speed.
Another favorite: As you head toward the aviary, do pause in front of the fish crows cage. These brilliant crows have learned to say a few words. It delighted young and old when we said “hi” to a crow and it said “hi” back.
There are many other things to do here that we didn’t get around to – a narrated tram ride (probably not great for toddlers but I remember enjoying it) and regularly scheduled wildlife encounter shows (11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m., and 3:30 p.m.) We did walk quickly through the very interesting 1933 Wray home/museum. (Were it not for COVID, I think we could have lingered here because of the many old-fashioned items one could show kids.)
This whole experience can be done with a stroller or wagon and the gardens offer extensive shade.
Flamingo Gardens is a bigger ticket price – Adults are $22, age 3 to 11 are $15. Here’s a money-saving tip: Buy your tickets online and save $2 on adult tickets and $1 on kids.
Here’s a complete story on Flamingo Gardens from Florida Rambler.
3750 S. Flamingo Road
Davie, FL 33330
Lauderdale-By-The-Sea for a playground near a terrific beach
Another great beach destination is at the end of Commercial Boulevard in the nicely developed public spaces of Lauderdale-By-The-Sea.
We started at Friedt Park, 4501 Bougainvilla Drive, where there is a restroom and a small shaded playground with a pirate-ship theme. Two blocks east (with city hall and a fire station in between) is the beach, which has a grassy park with colorful Adirondack chairs under pavilions. (Admiring the fire trucks was a nice diversion too.)
The beach here is broad and clean and at this point, you are a pleasant two-block walk along the beach to the pier area, where a colorful plaza has some amusements especially for kids – giant blocks, a corn hole game, colorful lawn chairs and cafes and an ice cream parlor nearby.
Parking at city lots and meters in the beach area is $2.25 an hour.
Note: We brought a stroller here and felt safe leaving it near a pavilion at the entrance to the beach. There is shade here near the beach at various pavilions, but these seats do tend to fill up.
Lauderdale-By-The-Sea Friedt Park
4501 Bougainvilla Drive
Whiskey Creek, passing ships plus the beach at Mizell-Johnson State Park
Mizell-Johnson State Park in Dania has always been beloved in our family and a big part of that is Whiskey Creek, a narrow mangrove-lined tidal waterway that parallels the beach for 1.5 miles. We’ve canoed it, kayaked it and paddled down it on a Stand Up Paddleboard.
But when our kids were small, Whiskey Creek was also a place to swim when the waves were too big or there were jelly fish at the beach.
Seeking a place where our 3-year-old granddaughter would be comfortable playing with a floatie for the first time, we thought of Whiskey Creek with its shallow sandy shoreline and its utter lack of waves.
It was just as expected: She played happily along the shore, where we even spotted a puffer fish in the clear water that she could actually see.
If you plan to swim in Whiskey Creek, if there are a lot of power boats moored there, head south and you’ll find some sandy shore where those boats don’t venture because it is too shallow. (The sandy shoreline is not extensive; it is mostly lined with mangrove trees.)
There are a few other things we cherish about Mizell-Johnson State Park. We love go to the northern end to watch the ships go in and out of Port Everglades. We were thrilled to explain to Coral about tugboats and freighters, as a giant ship cruised past. (When cruise ships pass through, it is quite a spectacle. On Sunday afternoons, you can see them go out to sea one after another.)
At this state park, we love the proximity of restrooms (often an issue at municipal beaches) and the many picnic tables.
Mizell-Johnson has experienced some severe erosion, and a chunk of the beach is closed through April 30, 2022, as trucks deposit fresh sand in a big beach renourishment project.
When we visited, there was a nice section of beach open at the northern end along the Port Everglades jetty and the most southern stretch of beach was open. This may shift as the project progresses. One result of erosion and previous beach renourishment projects is that this beach is a good place to find chunks of shell and coral, which made a little girl named Coral very happy.
At the northern end of Whiskey Creek, Whiskey Hideout is an open air, covered café that serves food and craft beer as well as renting canoes, kayaks and SUPs.
The park, once known as John U. Lloyd State Park, has a $6 per car entrance fee.
Here’s a complete story from Florida Rambler about Mizell-Johnson State Park, including its interesting history as the “colored beach” in Broward County.
Note: We brought a wagon when we parked to go to Whiskey Creek because it’s a bit of a walk from the parking lot.
Mizell-Johnson State Park
6503 N. Ocean Drive
Dania Beach FL 33004
Shallow, calm and clear: The beach at Oleta River State Park
This state park in North Miami is in the middle of traffic hell. But once you reach it, it feels like an island getaway.
If you are looking for the safest, calmest, shallowest beach where a small kid can play, this is it.
We drove 40 minutes to get here because Coral wanted one more beach day and there was a 1-2 foot chop in the ocean. She had tried out an inflated air mattress at Whiskey Creek and we knew she’d enjoy another day of water play experimenting with flotation without waves.
Oleta River State Park was just what we were looking for and we stayed on that beach for five hours!
The manmade beach here is located on a very sandy shallow cove off the Intracoastal directly across from the Haulover Inlet. This fresh ocean water means that Oleta experiences unusual water clarity. When we walked out of the wooded pathway from the parking lot to the beach, the clear turquoise water made us feel like we were at a Caribbean island. Stop-and-go traffic seemed a long way away.
Oleta has a lot to offer – a pretty kayak trail through mangrove tunnels, excellent mountain biking trails, picnic tables and pavilions and a fishing pier (currently closed) – but we did nothing but hang out at the beach with a very happy toddler.
Note: This place is full of people on summer weekends. On a winter weekday, we shared the broad beach with at most four or five other groups.
Here’s a complete story about Oleta River State Park from Florida Rambler. There are also 14 camping cabins here available for rent, described in this story.
Note: It’s a bit of a walk with gear from the parking lot to the beach, but we were able to roll our wagon right onto the hard-packed beach. Unfortunately, there’s no food service near the beach. We sent an adult to buy lunch at the park concession Blue Marlin Fish House, located outside the park entrance. The food was good but the wait was long. Also, if you want shade, you should stake out a picnic table near the beach in the shade, as the beach itself offer no shade.
Admission is $6 per vehicle.
Oleta River State Park
3400 NE 163rd St.
North Miami Beach, FL 33160
A note from the editor:
The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning your trip.
This page may include affiliate links from which we may earn a modest commission if a purchase is made. More often, we include free courtesy links to small businesses, such as kayak outfitters, from whom we receive no compensation.
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.