February Break in Florida

It’s common in our area (New England) for schools to have a “ski week” break in mid-February. Many people do go skiing during that time; there are many great places nearby for that.

That said, a common alternative (besides the staying home and working) is to go somewhere warmer, where places in Florida and the Caribbean are often on the list. If you are coming from a frigid northern state, you just might want to hit the beaches and enjoy some warm weather fun.

Some backstory: we had planned to go to Costa Rica in December 2021, but bailed out last-minute due to Omicron. As a result, we had some Spirit Airline credits that were due to expire within 3 months (quite brief!).

We started looking into ways to use the credit for the February break, and (partly due to the Omicron scare) decided to avoid crossing borders for this particular trip. We looked into our options – ideally with nonstop flights where we could use the airline credit. Some other options we considered were

  • The US Southwest (flying into Las Vegas and driving places like the Grand Canyon and Bryce); alas, we learned that it’s still a little cold in those places in February.
  • Puerto Rico – a strong choice; but in our case, the flight options deteriorated and we were running out of time to plan things.

For us, since we only moved back to the East Coast in 2020, we’d never actually done a “week in Florida” trip (we’d been to Florida briefly as part of a road trip). So we decided to do that!

That said, as is the case for us sometimes, what started off as “a week in the sun” quickly became more elaborate. Because flight options returning from Miami were tricky, we ended up booking an “open-jaw,” flying into Miami and out of Tampa. Our original plan was to see Kennedy Space Center in the north, though with the kids’ strong insistence, we added a day Disney World (naturally, they changed the masking rules there a few days after we booked the tickets). And then we decided to add Key West. If you do not enjoy fast paced travel, this is probably not the itinerary for you!

Miami

South Beach

Miami has a lot of great places to stay, but decided on South Beach because of its iconic atmosphere. It’s perhaps not where one would want to stay for a quiet seclusion or with small children, but it’s definitely an interesting place.

We ended up staying about a block off the beach (quieter and cheaper) at an older hotel called Ocean Reef Suites, which ticked the boxes – definitely not super high end, but worked if you want to be in the middle of the South Beach area, and a bit removed from the nightlife noise.

After a nighttime arrival – with some minor rental car issues where the seatbelt wouldn’t buckle, we woke up ready to face the day and spent the morning on the beach. In retrospect, it was a little cool and a different morning activity might have been better, but after a long New England winter, all of us were ready for some beach time!

Our hotel offered 2 complementary beach chairs as part of their “resort fee,” so we took advantage of them and paid for an umbrella rental so that our pale and pasty New England skin wouldn’t be severely damaged on our first day.

Jeremy picked up some takeout for lunch and we ate on the beach. Once the boys were done with the sun and surf, we went back to the hotel to clean up and rest, then went out to explore the town on foot.

South Beach is know for its amazing Art Deco architecture from the 1920’s and 1930’s. Even if you don’t visit any of the museums or take an official walking tour, you should still pay attention to the buildings as you wander.

You might also see some interesting classic cars on display!

And in the evening, you can enjoy the lively party atmosphere and fun restaurants. While the overpriced drinks might make you happy, make sure you check out the reviews on Yelp or another website before you enter, or you might be quite disappointed with the food quality.

You may also want to consider noise levels when you pick your hotel. Fortunately, our hotel was a block off Ocean Drive and was much quieter than it could have been!

Day Trip to the Florida Keys

On our second full day in Miami, we decided to take a long day trip through the Florida Keys. We had hoped to spend a night there, but hotels were very booked up for the school week – e.g. the cheapest rooms we saw were ~$800/night! We decided to skip that.

You might ask, “What are the Florida Keys?” Well, they are a long group of islands that are connected by causeways and bridges. Key West apparently was the biggest city in Florida in the 1800’s, and it still is just 90 miles from Cuba.

The drive from Miami to Key West will take a solid 3.5 hours each way, but with the goal of trying to visit the southernmost point in the continental United States, we decided that it was worth the trouble!

Plus, there are quite a few things to do along the way – since we only had a day, we couldn’t stop as we liked, but for instance, we stopped at an interesting place called Robbie’s where it was possible to “feed the tarpon [fish].” In addition to some delightfully large tarpon, there were also manatees and pelicans. The pelicans are quite aggressive and are not for the faint of heart. Once we figured out how to not get bit by the pelicans, we had a lot of fun!

Next, we stopped at Barracuda Grill in Marathon. The fish tacos were fabulous!

Our drive suddenly became much more scenic (the first part of the Keys from Miami seemed to have much more of a strip mall vibe than we expected) and we continued to Key West. While many people stop at the Hemmingway Home, our boys really were not interested Earnest Hemmingway’s legacy (or the 6-toed cats that wander around the estate), so we went up to the top of the Key West Lighthouse across the street instead.

We then chose to explore the town. If you are looking for takeaway key lime pie, there are a couple of Southernmost Key Lime Shops that are super convenient and tasty!

After feeling like we had seen enough to make the drive worthwhile, we started out 3.5 hour drive back to Miami. It was overall a long day (e.g. 7am to 9pm), and we’d recommend making it an overnight. If you want to spend the night anywhere on the Florida Keys, book as far ahead of time as possible and try to go during off-peak times!

More South Beach

On our third day, with an 11:00 hotel checkout time, the boys and I decided to spend a little more time on the beach, making sure to leave enough time to get cleaned up before starting our drive to the next destination.

While we played, Jeremy decided to rent a bike through the CitiBike Miami app and explore the beachside bike trail. It was ~$7 for an hour ($24 for a day pass), and he was quite pleased with his ride.

Downtown Miami

From here, we decided to leave Miami Beach and explore different areas of Miami, starting with the waterfront by Bayside Park.

Next up was lunch in Little Havana. We found the food at Sala’o Cuban Restaurant & Bar to be quite tasty. With a live band and great decor, we were quite happy!

Our last stop was at Coconut Grove. If you are looking for a lively area with a lot of shops and restaurants, come here! We had a lot of fun, and while I was quite pleased with my lunch in Little Havana, I was longing for a second lunch as I saw all the delicious looking food at various outdoor tables!

By this point, it was 3pm, and we started a 3.5 hour drive to our hotel in Titusville, TownePlace Suites by Marriott, just outside the Kennedy Space Center. After dinner, the boys had a lot of fun in the pool!

Kennedy Space Center

The Kennedy Space Center was a great addition to our itinerary! If you are interested in the history of the space program, or simply enjoy looking at real rockets, make time to visit this amazing center!

The two main activities that shouldn’t be missed are a ride on the bus tour to the Apollo/Saturn V Center and a visit to the Space Shuttle Atlantis to learn about NASA’s Shuttle Program.

A lot of websites advise to hop on the bus as soon as you arrive. This was great advice as the lines were quite short and the crowds relatively minor! On the bus ride, you should try to sit on the right as it will give you the best view of wildlife lurking in the roadside waterways. This is an alligator, though the digital zoom makes it grainy:

While at the Apollo/Saturn V Center, you will have different opportunities to learn about the race to the moon! Not only will you be able to see the famous Saturn V rocket, but you can also touch an actual moon rock, watch a video about the Apollo 11 moon landing, and more!

This took us a little over two hours to complete, and while it was a little early for lunch, we knew that the Atlantis center would also take about 2 hours, so we went ahead and found some early lunch.

From there, we continued to see the Space Shuttle Atlantis zone. Beyond just the space shuttle, you will also be able to watch some amazing videos, ride on a rocket launch simulator, play with some training simulators, a memorial to lost astronauts, and more!

The boys wanted some astronaut ice cream, dippin’ dots, but it ended up causing us to miss one of IMAX shows that we were hoping to see. You should arrive at least 10 minutes early to avoid a full theater!

So, we walked through the rocket garden and visited the Heros and Legends instead. Unfortunately, we were at risk of missing our next IMAX movie, so after the two movie let out, we were not able to look the Hall of Fame and other exhibits in a lot of detail.

We then rushed back to the IMAX theater and watched Astroid Hunters. The boys really enjoyed it! Feeling tired and like we had seen enough, we stopped by the Nature and Science area to learn about some of the local wildlife and then by about 4pm headed out to our Orlando hotel an hour away.

We arrived at Home2 Suites at Flamingo Crossing, which we booked because it was a 10 minute drive from Disney World. There was a decent size pool where our boys (and half the kids at the hotel) swam in after getting pizza for dinner.

Disney World Magic Kingdom

In the morning we started our day with some nice Mickey Mouse waffles, then set out for Disney World Magic Kingdom!

I was reluctant to go to Disney World, given covid. One of our boys commented that we might be among the only people wearing masks in Florida. He was not far from wrong. (We wore masks in line there, since people are packed in quite close. We didn’t get covid, but I did get a minor sore throat after getting home).

Otherwise, we had a great time! Disney isn’t cheap, and if you want the best experience you will want to spring for Genie+ and use your phone app to skip a few rides. At first, we weren’t sure if it was worth it, but in the end it made our last several hours in the park quite pleasant.

We started our morning with Space Mountain and the Speedway, then continued on to Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted House. It was already time for an early lunch at a way too crowded restaurant with mediocre food, but we followed this by a skip-the-line at Big Thunder Mountain, then managed to convince one of our kids that It’s a Small World is actually fun by offering to wait in the Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters line afterwards. What teenage boy wouldn’t want to ride around and shoot at invading robots?

Given that it was getting hot and even more crowded, we started looking for indoor places to sit and rest, so we visited the Carousel of Progress, the Hall of Presidents, and got some strawberry lemonade slushies. Late afternoon is a great time for avoiding long lines and enjoying the atmosphere.

After an early dinner in Tomorrowland, our Genie+ tickets started to pay off and we had skip-the-line passes to Splash Mountain, Winnie the Pooh, Space Mountain, and It’s a Small World, also fitting in another ride at the Speedway! We took a brief pause for fireworks.

We arrived at the parking lot 45 minutes before its 9am opening so we could be there on time, and left a little after 9pm (it closed at 10pm) – quite a solid day. Since our flight the following afternoon was from Tampa, we spent the evening closer to Tampa, though in retrospect, we should have probably just stayed in Orlando.

St. Petersburg

We were quite exhausted in the morning, and took a while to wake up. We had planned to spend the morning at Clearwater beach, but nobody felt like getting wet and sandy, so we simply looked at the beach from the car and kept driving. Of course, we forgot that Saturday would have both tourist traffic and local traffic, so driving times were about double what we expected!

Eventually we made it to St. Petersburg and had a lovely time.

First, we discovered there was a Grand Prix race going on, so we found a place with a semi-obscured view of the track and watched the fancy cars fly around the course a few times.

Next, we found a nice seafood restaurant and had some delicious fish tacos!

Finally, we took a walk along St. Pete’s Pier, enjoying the atmosphere and beautiful Florida weather.

Eventually, we knew it was time to head out to the airport and make our way back to snowy New England where over a foot of fresh snow was waiting in our driveway. What a great vacation!

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