PHOTO: Panama City Beach. (photo by Stacey Schottey)
Located in Florida’s panhandle, Panama City Beach doesn’t get quite the same reputation as other Florida beach destinations. Unlike areas such as Clearwater, Sarasota, Fort Myers or St. Augustine, it doesn’t have “parent cred” after generations of family vacations.
Instead, many millennial parents think of Panama City Beach as the place they once saw on MTV as a raucous party destination, but while that notion may have had some credence a few decades ago, Panama City Beach—like many of you—is all grown up and ready for families.
Get Up Close and Personal with Some Marine Life
Go just about anywhere on coastal Florida, and it’s a surefire bet that you’re not far from some sort of marine life center. Every year, scores of animals are rescued around Florida, and many of those are unable to go back to the wild. Some need a short stay, others are deemed (by the government) to need permanent residence.
Gulf World, in Panama City Beach, is one of those permanent residences that not only takes wonderful care of the animals entrusted to them but also allows humans to interact and learn more about them.
READ MORE: Panama City Beach a Perfect Pick for Parents
At Gulf World, my young boys experienced a Rough Toothed Dolphin up close (even giving her a kiss!). We also saw penguins, sharks, turtles, tropical birds and Sea Lions in a fantastic setting that is both accessible from the beach and somehow far more expansive than it looks from the outside.
Head Out to the Gulf
Of course, if seeing a Dolphin in a tank isn’t your style, there’s always the chance to see them up close and personal right alongside your boat!
That’s what happened to my family on our last day in PCB, as we embarked on a Dolphin and Snorkel Tour out around the Gulf and eventually toward Shell Island—a small undeveloped section of St. Andrews St. Park accessible only by boat.
I’ll admit. I, personally, was not looking forward to this adventure as much as my family was. My mind was already thinking about the long drive back home, and I’ve never been much for the open water, but I quickly put my reservations behind me as we puttered out of the harbor and heard of the prospect of seeing a pod of Dolphins spotted nearby.
Boy did we luck out!
Over 75 Dolphins of all ages were going for the same kind of Sunday cruise that we were, and it was hard to tell who was smiling more between my wife, boys and I as they played around our boat and as baby dolphins swam by accompanied by their mothers.
As we raced back to the port following a brief stop on the island, there were moments where the stress seemed to just melt away with a combination of the music from the boat’s speakers, salt water spray in my face and plenty of Florida sunshine. I was so glad to have had time for this particular adventure.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for my family, but Captain Lorraine and her boat's passengers get to see stuff like this all the time, and you’re always welcome to join her.
Do Some Dining and Shopping in Style
PHOTO: Pier Park in Panama City Beach is perfect for shoppers young and old. (Photo courtesy of Stacey Schottey)
So, let’s say you’re one of those families that aren’t quite as in love with nature as mine is. Or, maybe you have one of those tweens or teens for whom no excursion is complete without some retail therapy.
Fear not: Panama City Beach still has something for you.
Culturally, the panhandle of Florida—really, anything West of Tallahassee—is incredibly different from what many people think of as the Sunshine State. Near the water, words like “crawfish” and “bayou” start to creep up far more than one might expect. Yet, from tacos to tempeh, red beans to ratatouille, Panama City Beach has something for everyone.
The best meal we had on the trip was breakfast at Andy's Flour Power Cafe for breakfast on Sunday. The name and decor suggest that hipsters and aged brunch types might be the only ones to frequent the place, but although we were the first ones in the door that morning, the place was almost immediately filled with everyone from the aforementioned suspected clientele to families, Firemen, fishermen in from the morning catch and the church crowd.
Why? Well, the food is fresh and amazing.
Of course, the seafood just about everywhere in Panama City Beach, is also top notch, as we experienced on a sunset dinner date at Schooners.
The one newer attraction that didn’t exist in your granddad’s Panama City Beach (or, yours if you frequented the locale back in your college days) is Pier Park. Good for anyone from families, teens, budget-conscious deal hounds, luxury shoppers or beach bums, Pier Park has tons of varied shopping and dining options over a sprawling beachfront property.
Like the rest of the town, Pier Park has something for everyone.