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Are you thinking about loading up the family and hitting one of Florida’s beaches? While Florida offers lots of options for beach vacations, if you want family-friendly, beautiful, pristine beaches, and lots of options for entertainment and dining, try Pensacola. Although the beaches in this Florida Panhandle destination are the big draw, there’s more to explore in this fun Florida city. This travel guide is designed to help you make the most out of your visit to Florida’s Emerald Coast on your family vacation.
Disclosure: The writer was hosted by Visit Florida for this trip.
Although Naval history and the gorgeous beaches will probably be front and center in your mind when you think about Pensacola, there’s so much more.
I love a good family beach trip. I love the simplicity of going to the beach – you don’t need a ton of stuff to enjoy a great day out. Being outside is awesome and I’m all for any activity that doesn’t require batteries or an internet connection.
Pensacola Beach is one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. While that’s part of why I love it, there’s more to Florida’s Emerald Coast than just a pretty face.
There are lots of things to do in Pensacola with kids outside of hanging out on the sand. Listed here are a few of my favorites. The family-friendly and very chill vibe, along with the great choices in activities are what makes this such a great option for a family vacation you’ll remember.
TravelingMom Tip: Opening dates and times can change without warning. Always check the website or call before heading to an attraction.
1. Spend Time on the Beach
This is a no-brainer, right? Unless you’re very unlucky and the weather just straight up does not cooperate, sinking your toes in the pristine, sugar white sand and cooling off in the crystal clear emerald water is a big part of visiting Pensacola and the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
If you’re driving to Pensacola, consider bringing your own beach gear. If you’re short on space, you also have the option to rent gear. We used Lazy Days Beach Service to rent umbrellas and chairs. The beach umbrella is super important, by the way. The sun is really strong here, and even using sunscreen, you won’t want to spend a full day on the beach without some shade. (Here are our favorite sunscreens for kids and babies.)
Lazy Days also rents paddleboards, kayaks and beach bikes. The rates are very reasonable, so if you want to do something a little more active and adventurous but don’t want to drag a bunch of equipment with you on your trip, you can! If you need other beach gear or if you forgot something, there are beach shops all over the place. We popped in to Alvin’s Island to grab a couple pairs of goggles for my kids, since we forgot ours at home.
2. Sign Up for Surfing Lessons
This was seriously the absolute best part of our Florida vacation.
My kids did a two-hour lesson with Braden from Gulf Coast Surf School. He was fantastic with my boys, who are both 10. I have one child who is extremely adventurous and fears absolutely nothing and one who is a little timid with new experiences. After a very short time, they were both riding the waves like little pros.
Surf lessons will start with a brief land class and your kids (or you, if you’re really adventurous!) will be right in the water.
You can do private lessons or group lessons, and, if you’re already an experienced surfer, Gulf Coast Surf School offers board rentals.
Conditions for surfing depend on the weather, so I recommend scheduling this activity for early in your trip so you have some wiggle room to reschedule, if needed.
What I loved the best about getting surfing lessons for my kids, besides the confidence it gave them? Two hours of time for me to truly relax on the beach. As a solo parent traveling with two 10-year-old boys, I’m constantly “on.” We have a lot of fun together but there’s not a lot of relaxing going on and lounging on the beach is just something I don’t get to do.
While I did watch a good bit of my kids’ surf lessons and I was that mom on the beach jumping and cheering and taking a bazillion pictures, I did get time to sit in my beach chair and read my book, knowing that my kids were in the care of a responsible adult. It was truly the best of both worlds and I can’t recommend this enough.
3. Spend the Day at Laguna’s Adventure Park & Laguna’s Beach Bar and Grill
Laguna’s is a truly happy place for both kids and adults. You can spend all day here and not run out of things to do. If you have a larger group that can’t agree on activities, Laguna’s is a don’t miss.
While this is more than an eatery, Laguna’s does have good food and a full bar. There’s lots of open air seating and the activities are going on all around the seating area, so you get a nice 360 view of everything that’s happening.
I recommend purchasing the unlimited day pass, which will allow your kids (or you – I saw lots of adults having a great time) to have unlimited time on the go karts, clip n’ climb structures, ropes course and splash pad. If you are comfortable letting your kids run from activity to activity on their own, there’s no need to stay on top of them. There are plenty of places to sit, relax, wave and say “Good job, honey!” including a beach area that’s exclusive to Laguna’s.
Laguna’s also offers pontoon boat rentals and lots of excursions and adventures, such as a jet ski dolphin tour, parasailing and paddleboard classes. If part of your group wants to go parasailing and part of your group wants to relax on the beach and part of your group wants to race go karts, this is the place! You can split up a little bit and still be together.
I recommend spending some time on the website before your visit to make sure you’ve got a good read on height requirements, waivers, and boater test requirements. Laguna’s makes everything easy, but you’ll have a better time if you know a little bit about what to expect before you go. One of my kids was just a hair too short to ride the go karts alone so I ended up being his driver whenever he wanted to take a spin around the track. I didn’t mind, but things like this might be a big deal if you have a large group of kids and only one is too short to ride alone.
Depending on which book-ahead activities you choose (i.e. a dolphin cruise or kayaking) I recommend coming for an early lunch and spending the afternoon relaxing while your kids explore the adventure park.
4. Miniature Golf and Ice Cream with an Alien Flair
Did you know the Pensacola Beach area is famous for alien sightings? Whether or not you believe that sort of thing, you can probably agree that Pensacola is a really awesome place and you can’t blame aliens for loving it, just like everyone else.
You might not see a real alien but you can experience a little bit of alien culture at UFO’s Pensacola Beach, which is a fun miniature golf course and ice cream parlor. There’s also a small arcade on site
We played our round of mini golf at night. There is a little bit of shade and there are misters but I think this would be pretty hot during the heat of the day so I recommend going early or late.
This is also a really dark mini golf course. While it is lit well enough to see where you’re walking, the green areas are not very well lit. If you choose a blue or green ball, you might have trouble finding it at night but it’s still a really good time.
The ice cream is pretty amazing, so even if you don’t want to play a round of mini golf, definitely stop by for a treat. UFO’s offers lots of unique flavors – I’d never seen cookie butter ice cream before and I highly recommend. There’s also a selection of boozy adult milkshakes.
5. Visit Historic Pensacola Village
If you want to dig into the history of Pensacola, check out Historic Pensacola Village. This is a collection of historic properties and interpretive sites near downtown Pensacola. History buffs will find lots to enjoy in this historic district. This is also a great activity for homeschoolers or any family that wants to add an educational component to their vacation.
Founded by a Spanish explorer, the Pensacola Bay Area is one of the oldest settlements in North America and is known as “The City of Five Flags.” Flags of Spain, Great Britain, France, The United States and The Confederacy have flown over Pensacola and the 27 historic homes and properties in the Historic Pensacola District take you through this rich history.
Check out the Explore Pensacola website for more info on activities and outings you can plan that teach more about the history of this area, such as nearby Fort Barrancas and Fort Pickens.
6. Look Up! It’s a Blue Angel
Pensacola is home to Naval Air Station Pensacola and the famous Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy’s Flight Demonstration Squadron. Access to NAS Pensacola and Pensacola Lighthouse is limited to DoD ID card holders. Keep that in mind when making plans.
But you can still look up to see the famous Blue Angels practicing their aerial acrobatics on certain days. Here’s how and when to catch these talented pilots in flight.
7. Other Activities in Pensacola
To fully experience all the things to do in Pensacola with kids, you’d probably need at least a week. Even then, you probably couldn’t see it all. Here are a couple of highlights and you’ll find more seasonal activities popping up depending on what’s going on in the city during your visit.
If you’re a baseball fan, you’re in luck. The Pensacola Blue Wahoos are a AA team affiliated with the Minnesota Twins. Grab a hot dog and take in a game!
You can also check out Big Lagoon State Park, Pensacola Museum of Art or explore nearby Perdido Key. I always find it helpful to have a couple of extra activities loosely planned. You never know what the weather is going to do and traveling with kids is…well, unpredictable.
There also are lots of free things to do in Pensacola with kids.
Getting to Pensacola
My family lives in the San Antonio area and we drove to Pensacola. Most of our travel kept us right on I-10 going through east Texas and then skirting along the bottom of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Door to door was about 12 hours and that included stops. We are not long haul road trippers (although my kids say we are now!) and we found the drive to be pretty manageable. I think this would be a pretty do-able drive from many southern state locations. And honestly? These beaches were absolutely worth the long drive and I would do it again in a heartbeat.
If you choose to fly, Pensacola offers an international airport. Before we decided to drive, we did check into flights and found several were available.
Family Friendly Hotels in Pensacola
We stayed at the Holiday Inn Pensacola Beach Resort. Like most hotels in the surrounding area, it is a high rise hotel with direct beach access. All of the rooms offer beach views, which I really like. We stayed in a double queen room with a balcony and it was clean and comfortable. We had a mini fridge and a Keurig.
The hotel has a full restaurant and bar – Riptide’s Grill and Tiki Bar. It also has a coffee bar that offers various coffee drinks, smoothies and snacks – great for breakfast. There’s a Publix supermarket located nearby if you want to stock up on snacks and drinks and save a little money.
The biggest amenity at the Holiday Inn Pensacola Beach Resort is the lazy river resort-style pool area. It’s a great pool. Towels are provided and there are several outdoor games available. The hotel is located within walking distance of lots of shopping and dining (to include most places I’ve mentioned) as well as a nearby boardwalk/fishing pier.
Rooms will run between $300-$375 a night, which seems to be about average for the area. There’s a nearby Hampton Inn which has rooms at this price point and offers free breakfast, which can help you stretch your budget further.
One thing to keep in mind is that you’re paying for location and proximity to the beaches. For $300+ per night, you might expect a luxurious room, which is not the case in this area. Our room was fine and all of the hotels in the surrounding area looked well-maintained and safe. We spent one night in Pensacola away from the beach on our first night in town. The room was nicer (it was also a newer hotel) and the price was about half of what the beachfront hotels were.
If you are looking to cut costs, consider staying further away from the water. Our first night hotel was about a half hour drive from Pensacola Beach. We loved the convenience of staying close to the beach so we could go back and forth as much as we wanted. But if you want that, you will pay for it. Do a Google search or check Trip Advisor for the most current rates.
Family-Friendly Restaurants in Pensacola
Casino Beach Bar (very family friendly despite the name) and Water Pig BBQ, along with the already mentioned Laguna’s. I didn’t get a chance to check it out personally, but Red Fish Blue Fish also looks like a great place to sample. It is located right next to Water Pig and managed by the same company.
Fish tacos and Ahi Tuna Nachos seem to be the most popular dishes across the board. I always ask the server or locals what they recommend and these dishes seem to be the most popular across the board. I also had a very good crab cake slider at Riptides and some seriously delish quinoa battered shrimp at Laguna’s (gluten free). If you want something other than seafood, definitely check out Water Pig. As a Texan, I can be a little bit of a BBQ snob and this is the real deal.
The recommended adult beverage was consistently the Bushwacker, which is a regional Florida panhandle specialty. It’s made with ice cream so it’s heavy. I kept meaning to have it for dessert one night and never had room for it. Have one for me when you go to Pensacola.
All of the restaurants we tried are beachfront with beach access. Most offer live music during dinner, which is a lot of fun.
Pandemic Travel to Pensacola
Travel advisories in this very strange time are a thing of constant change. Every family has a different comfort level when it comes to traveling. You ultimately have to make the decision on what’s right for your family based on the current info available to you.
Our trip to Pensacola was planned in mid-June 2020. At the time of our departure, Florida was considered a coronavirus hotspot, although the spike in cases was in another part of Florida. Our decision to drive versus fly was due to the pandemic. We would ordinarily fly anywhere that’s more than half a day’s drive. I know lots of y’all are road trippers but that hasn’t been us up to this point.
If I could have a do-over, I would have chosen to rent a house or a condo with cooking facilities. This would have helped minimize interactions with other people. You’ll find more of this setup in nearby Destin. Pensacola has more beachfront hotels than family vacation rentals and Destin is the exact opposite.
While we did eat in restaurants, all of them had open air seating and all of the servers wore face coverings. Many places – although not all – had single-use paper menus or QR code menus.
It’s easy to social distance at the Pensacola beaches. They were populated but not crowded. With the exception of our surfing instructor, we had no problems staying six feet away from other people while on the beach.
We found it hard to social distance at the pool in our hotel and in our hotel in general. Although the staff at the Holiday Inn was great and very mindful of safety procedures, most of the other guests were not. We used the pool only minimally and only during off peak hours when the crowds were light. If you stay in a high rise beachfront hotels, be prepared to take the stairs. That, or accept you’ll be in an elevator with people who are willing to breach the six foot rule.
For our family, pandemic travel is still possible but we’re doing some things differently. Committing to a long day of driving to avoid flying, planning meals in advance, and planning outdoor activities. Beach days and water sports for us this summer versus museums and theme parks.
The Visit Pensacola website has a lot of info on pandemic travel. Take some additional time to plan and learn about options ahead of time. Be flexible, as some activities and attractions may be closed or have limited operating hours due to the pandemic.
We had a great time and have zero regrets that we went.