I'm Lindsay Ferrier, a Nashville writer with a passion for family travel, exploring Tennessee, and raising kids without losing my mind in the process. This is where I share my discoveries, along with occasional deep thoughts, pop culture tangents and a sprinkling of snark. Want to get in touch? Use the CONTACT form at the top of the page.
November 15, 2016
Think you know Panama City Beach? Think again. The town your parents and grandparents once flocked to for its roadside motels and amusement park attractions has transformed into a sophisticated and sensory-rich destination offering something for everyone, from families to foodies to outdoor enthusiasts. Drive down Front Beach Road and you’ll now find upscale shopping centers, luxury high-rise condominiums, eye-catching new attractions, and a wide variety of restaurants serving up unforgettable meals. You’ll also note a new focus here on preserving the area’s natural habitat. A gorgeous new park is restoring an ecosystem once destroyed by industry, and bike trails are being constructed that will eventually span the entire city. As for the beach itself? It’s better than ever. The sugary white sand is sparkling and clean, and the turquoise waters are crystal clear.
This year, we scheduled a family beach trip to Panama City Beach during Fall Break and it was one of the best travel decisions we’ve ever made. (I wrote more about why fall is my new favorite time to visit Panama City Beach over at iExplore.) We found so many fun things to do with our kids that we couldn’t fit them all into one visit– which means that we’ll just have to come back! In the meantime, here’s my handpicked list of the top 30 things to do with your kids at Panama City Beach.
Choose a family-friendly place to stay like the Splash Resort.
We stayed at the Splash Resort during our PCB visit and it was a true children’s paradise. The resort includes three pools (one connected to a lazy river) and an elaborate kids’ play area — Your children will want to spend as much time here as they do on the beach! Our condo was spacious, clean and well-equipped with comfortable beds and it overlooked the beautiful blue gulf. We’d stay here again in a heartbeat!
Another popular option is the Holiday Inn Resort, which features a water playground, a lush lagoon pool, beachfront rooms and daily activities for kids.
Chow down on delicious donuts at Thomas Donut & Snack Shop.
It’s not unusual to wait in an hour-long line at this Panama City Beach staple, and when you taste one of their donuts, you’ll understand why! If you want to avoid the crowds, wait until late morning for your visit, and whatever you do, don’t overlook the Kolaches. These yeasty rolls filled with smoked sausage and cheese were our personal favorites. I’ll never visit Panama City Beach again without stopping here at least once!
If you vacationed in Panama City Beach as a kid, chances are you went to the Shipwreck Island Waterpark — I know I did! Now, your own children can relive the experience in the updated and improved version of the park, which includes water slides, a wave pool, kids play areas and a river rapids ride. Don’t miss Treetop Drop- two 65-foot tall slides that send riders on a speedy and thrilling descent to the ground.
Use your GPS-enabled devices to participate in this brand new outdoor treasure hunting game, where you’ll navigate to GPS coordinates in order to try and find the geocache container hidden in that location. Caches are hidden around Panama City Beach; clues from the caches will help you fill out a treasure map that leads to Captain Dominique Youx’s pirate treasure. Each cache has pirate gear you can wear on your journey! Use this grid sheet to help you get started and read the full list of instructions here.
Keep an eye out for baby alligators at Conservation Park.
This hidden gem of a park has 24 miles of trails for hikers and mountain bikers — The mile-long boardwalk path right beside the parking lot is a perfect option for kids. Here, you and your children can look for gators in the wetland habitat from the safety of a raised platform. We didn’t see any alligators on the day we visited, but we did see a chameleon, several large turtles and plenty of birds. It’s a hike definitely worth making time for, particularly in the autumn months when the milder conditions make hiking more fun.
Another great trail option for families here is the Green Trail, an easy 1.8 mile loop hike that winds through two cypress domes.
Check out some of the world’s most interesting artifacts at Ripley’s Odditorium.
Ripley’s Odditorium is easy to spot — Just look for the gigantic ship-shaped building on Front Beach Road! You’ll see more than 500 weird and wacky exhibits here including shrunken heads, a Thor sculpture made from scrap car parts, an authentic vampire killing kit, one-of-a-kind artwork, and tons of hands-on interactive features. If you haven’t visited one of Ripley’s Odditoriums before, I guarantee you’ll be pleasantly surprised– They are REALLY fun and interesting and a great way to spend a rainy day at the beach.
Enjoy authentic New Orleans Sno-Balls and beignets at David’s Sno-balls.
You’ll feel like you’re back in the Big Easy once you enter this unassuming cafe inside a strip mall on PCB Parkway. The Sno-Balls are delicious and the beignets are flash fried on the spot, making for a great place to enjoy a surprise snack during your week at the beach. Feeling adventurous? Try a ‘stuffed’ Sno-Ball, which has ice cream in the center!
Join a crew of pirates aboard the Sea Dragon.
The Sea Dragon offers one of those classic Panama City Beach experiences your child will never forget. Helmed by Captain ‘Fearless’ Phil and his friendly crew, this two-hour cruise is a kid’s dream come true– It includes sword fighting, swabbing the deck, firing the “Kid cannon”, reading a treasure map, finding a sunken treasure, a water gun fight, face painting, limbo, a pirate dance party and a pirate tattoo. You’re also pretty much guaranteed to see lots and lots of dolphins. What’s not to love?
Speaking of pirates, did you know Panama City Beach devotes an entire festival to them? Held on Columbus Day weekend each October, thousands of wanna-be buccaneers gather for a the family-friendly Pirates of the High Seas Fest, which includes a scavenger hunt, pirate invasions, kids’ parade and main parade, live music, fireworks and more.
Try the famous Key Lime Pie at Uncle Ernie’s.
We loved having dinner on the deck overlooking the bay at Uncle Ernie’s in PCB’s Historic St. Andrews community– Our Grouper Imperial was superb. This restaurant’s most famous dish, though, is its Key Lime Pie. Our server swore it was made only with sugar, eggs, condensed milk and key limes, but there must be some magical extra ingredient, because it’s definitely the best Key Lime Pie I’ve ever eaten!
Panama City Beach is a great place to introduce kids to the art of fishing. Take them to Panama City Beach’s city or county piers — Both have rod rentals, bait and tackle available onsite, as well as one-day fishing licenses. You might also consider heading out on a chartered boat for a few hours of deep sea fishing. Many fishing expeditions are family-friendly and will give your kids the thrill of a lifetime. I went deep sea fishing as a kid in PCB and never forgot it!
Visitors rave about Airboat Adventures, where a gator demonstration ensures that everyone gets to hold a baby alligator. On the airboat tour, you’ll search for dolphins, bald eagles, osprey, and of course, alligators. Airboats are able to navigate in just a few inches of water, making them a great way to see Florida’s inland ecosystem.
Take the shuttle to Shell Island for the best shell-seeking in Panama City Beach.
Shells can be sparse on PCB’s beaches, but you’ll find some amazing shells on the aptly-named Shell Island– You just have to know where to look. Luckily, I know just the spot!
Locals say the best shells can be found on the beach at Shell Island known as ‘Kiddie Pool,’ named for its calm, shallow waters. Hundreds of shells generally wash up to shore the day after a storm, but on an ordinary day, just dig into the bank of sand surrounding the shoreline — Beneath the soft, white sand, you’ll find harder packed sand that contains hundreds of gorgeous shells- You should find several dozen ‘keepers’ within just a few minutes of digging.
Spend an afternoon at Pier Park.
This popular outdoor shopping center is clean, attractive and family-friendly, and it has something for everyone– including a year-round collection of amusement park rides. Choose from a Drop Tower, a 1952 merry-go-round, a scrambler and more and try to guess which of these rides are left over from the original Miracle Strip Amusement Park. (Hint: The Scrambler once had a dome over it and was known as the Abominable Snowman- If you went to Panama City Beach as a kid, I KNOW you remember that ride!) Once you’ve had your fill of fun, opt for one of Pier Park’s many restaurants for your family dinner.
Watch the famous sunset cannon blast at Schooners.
Crowds gather at this beloved beachfront restaurant each evening to count down from ten as the sun dips below the horizon and Schooners sets off its cannon, marking the end of another day. If you opt to eat at Schooners afterward, try the smoked tuna dip (our favorite). I also highly recommend the smoked Gouda and Tasso cheese grits as a side in lieu of fries.
In addition to the trails at Conservation Park, Gayle’s Trails is a system of paved greenways and trails that will eventually cover all of Panama City Beach. Right now, you can take Gayle’s Trails from Frank Brown Park over to Conservation Park. The trail starts in the back of the Frank Brown Sports Complex– Check in at the park office if you have trouble finding it.
Rent your bikes from Bike the Beach PCB and they’ll bring your bikes to you!
Dine on mouthwatering burgers and delicious British pasties at Eat My Pasty.
This had to be one of our favorite meals at Panama City Beach, and believe me, PCB is loaded with great restaurants. British expats Jeff and Stacey Temperley opened Eat My Pasty based on the success of their food truck by the same name, and it’s a been a huge success ever since, both with locals and vacationers. Taste one of their 19 varieties of pasties and you’ll understand why. We shared a Cornish pasty and cheese, potato and onion pasty and both were savory and delicious. We also split a duck burger – called ‘The Donald’- and it was tender, moist, and topped with a surprisingly addictive combination of sweet marmalade and mustard seed chutney. Even the french fries were fantastic. Your kids will love this place (especially if they’re Harry Potter fans like mine), and so will you.
The calm, clear waters of the Gulf don’t often offer much opportunity for body surfing, but skimboarding conditions here are ideal. You can find skimboards at any local beach shop — Skimboarders use them to skim over the shallow waters at the shoreline. The sport is so popular with kids that a skimboarding ‘channel’ had been dug in the sands outside our PCB resort — Children lined up all day to take turns skimboarding in the shallow waters that ran through it with the tide.
What makes this small zoo special is the number of animal encounter opportunities. For an additional fee that ranges from $5 to $20, you can snuggle with a lemur or feed giraffes or alligators. More than 200 animals are on display here, including lions and tigers, wolves, prairie dogs and monkeys.
Take a hike at St. Andrews State Park.
This popular park gives families a perfect opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors and see the area in its natural state. Be sure and stop at the park’s interpretive center beside the entrance– It has several interesting exhibits on the park’s history, and our kids loved the special interactive exhibits for kids.
St. Andrews State Park has two hiking trails — Gator Lake and Heron Pond — Both are appropriate for children. We chose the Heron Pond trail, which winds past an old turpentine still through flatwood pine forest and out to the scenic Grand Lagoon. There, you’ll find all kinds of water birds, as well as an osprey nest atop Buoy #5.
Wonderworks will get your attention right away– The building looks like an upside-down mansion! This self-proclaimed ‘amusement park for the mind’ gets rave reviews from visitors. With more than 35,000 square feet of ‘edu-tainment’, Wonderworks has all kinds of interactive exhibits for kids, including sections on natural disasters, light and sound, space, imagination, a far out art gallery, a physical challenge zone, a ropes course, virtual army experience and laser tag zone. This is another fantastic rainy day option at PCB.
We opted for a private afternoon tour with Dolphin and Snorkel Tours and it was absolutely worth the cost. In fact, it was one of the best vacation experiences we’ve ever had! Our guide, Croix, was born and raised working with his father on boat tours in Panama City Beach and knew everything there was to know about the area. He asked us what we wanted to do and then helped us come up with an itinerary — We ended up snorkeling and looking for shells on Shell Island, searching for marine life and wild animals (we spotted a sea turtle, several varieties of jellyfish and a family of friendly raccoons) and lots and lots of dolphins, some within just a couple of feet of our boat. At sunset, Croix surprised us with a ride alongside a pod of dolphins playfully racing one another in a large boat’s wake — a once-in-a-lifetime experience we’ll never forget.
Try what just might be the best fish tacos EVER at Finn’s Island Grub.
I’m still dreaming about this funky restaurant-slash-outdoor market in Panama City Beach’s Historic St. Andrews neighborhood. Not only did they serve up the best tacos I’ve ever tasted, the eclectic decor and cool breeze wafting through the open air restaurant made dining at Finn’s a true delight. My entire family adored this place, and my husband and I also enjoyed Finn’s chocolate and vanilla slow-brewed iced coffees. Children are welcome here, but be sure to keep a very close eye on them– There are lots of one-of-a-kind breakables on display.
Rule number one: You DO talk about Loco Bubble Fight Club! In fact, you probably won’t be able to stop talking about it once you’ve given it a try. Participants don inflatable bubble suits and face off in five rounds of ‘fighting’ that generally end up becoming a laugh-til-you-cry fest for all involved. The Loco staff will also come to you with all the equipment if you have a group that would like to participate in Loco Bubble Soccer. This could be a hilarious way to let your kids work out their sibling rivalry issues after a long car trip to the beach!
Check out the one-of-a-kind four headed palm tree at Oaks by the Bay Park.
Headed to Panama City Beach’s Historic St. Andrews neighborhood for a meal or shopping? (Hint: You should definitely check this neighborhood out!) Don’t miss Oaks by the Bay Park, home to the world’s only four-headed palm tree! Although the palm tree was cool, I have to admit that I was even more impressed by the park’s massive 200-year-old oak tree, which has been standing since the Civil War! Top off your park visit with a scenic view of the bay at the back of the park — Oaks by the Bay is a fantastic place for family photos and a must-see stop on any visit to Panama City Beach.
Tweens and teens will love the go-karts, bumper cars and coasters at this popular amusement park on Front Beach Road. The Hurricane is one of the newest rides here and includes more than 1,400 feet of track and speeds of up to 35 miles per hour! The park also has traditional carnival-style rides, mini golf and an arcade. And for adults who want to kick back while the kids play, there’s even free wi-fi. Veterans park visitors recommend buying the wristbands that give your kids unlimited access to mini-golf and all the outdoor rides except for the bungee-style sky coaster.
We presented our children with snorkels and masks on our recent Panama City Beach visit and they LOVED the experience. The crystal waters of PCB are a perfect place to try out snorkeling for the first time. If your family is really into snorkeling, the best place to do it is St. Andrews State Park’s Shell Island. Head for the beach next to the jetty– The gentle waters here stay waist deep quite a ways out and snorkeling opportunities abound. Local snorkelers enjoy swimming right up to the rocks when the waters are calm– That’s where bigger fish and other marine creatures like sea urchins like to hang out.
Watch entertaining live animal shows at Gulf World.
This popular marine park is always busy, mostly because of its wonderful live animal shows, which are scheduled throughout the day. Admission is pricey, but once you’ve paid for the day, you can come and go as you please. With that in mind, I’d advise that you come for a few shows in the morning, leave for lunch, and return for more shows in the afternoon. You can also have a swim-with-the-dolphin experience at Gulf World for an additional fee.
Eat a hearty breakfast at Andy’s Flour Power.
You’ll likely have to wait for a table at this popular breakfast and lunch spot, but your payoff is a delicious breakfast. Owner John Certo is a third generation chef from New York and he’s a constant, hands-on presence in the restaurant, bustling around and making sure everyone is satisfied. We tried and can enthusiastically recommend the French toast and shrimp and grits.
Are you convinced now that Panama City Beach is worth a visit? I’m now convinced we need to make a return visit as soon as possible! Have fun — and please let me know what you loved most at PCB after you return!
This post was written in partnership with Visit Panama City Beach. Check out their excellent website for even more fun things to do at PCB.