Daytona Beach For Families

by Sheila O'Connor

THINK DAYTONA BEACH and you probably think teenagers and party revelers. Think again. Today’s Daytona Beach goers tend to be families and others out looking for a quieter time and some plain, good old-fashioned fun.

museum of arts and sciences

Just take the Museum of Arts & Sciences, for instance. We have a fascination for anything that’s big. Or really old. So how about both then? When you visit the Museum of Arts & Sciences, located on the beautiful six-acre Tuscawilla Nature preserve, complete with nature trails, you’ll see the giant 14-foot ground sloth that was found on the grrounds practically outside the building. It dates back 1.3 million years and is the most complete giant sloth skeleton in the whole of North America.

The museum also boasts the largest collection of Cuban art outside of Cuba). You’ll also find African ritual art and Coca-Cola entrepreneur and inventor of the Cocoa Cola bottle, Chapman Root’s lifetime collection of Americana . There’s even a planetarium and there’s a beautiful nature walk just outside the building.


From things that are old to things that are tall, you and the kids will enjoy seeing the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse completed in 1887, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The lighthouse was relit in December 1982 and continues today as a working beacon. If you’re brave, try the 203-step climb to the top of Florida’s tallest lighthouse for an outstanding panoramic view of the surrounding area. If you feel it’s quite a workout, you’d be right, but at least you’re only likely to do it once. The lighthouse keeper had to do it every day. This lighthouse has been voted the Best Learning Experience in Daytona Beach four years running and deservedly so.

Small huts on the site feature other exhibits, like a typical keeper’s house of the time and the rare Fresnel lenses that was once used in the lighthouse. During World War II, the beacon of the lighthouse was dimmed and the tower was used as a lookout for enemy ships and vessels in distress off the Florida coast. The lighthouse comprises over one million bricks shipped from Maryland and New York and it took over four years to complete.

old spanish sugar mill & griddle house

Sometimes all the convenience and ‘having-everything-when-you-want-it’ mentality that we have today can lose its luster. It’s nice once in a while to step back and take things more easily and forget all the rush. You can certainly do this at the Old Spanish Sugar Mill & Griddle House, nestled in the peaceful DeLeon Springs State Park. The park was named for the Spanish Explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, who sought the Fountain of Youth in the 1500s. Ponder the thought as you pour your pancakes from unbleached white flour or a mixture of five fresh stoneground flours and watch them bubble up right in front of your eyes — the griddle is set right into the middle of the table.

Once you’ve had all you can eat, then check out the farm’s collection of old tools, antiques and milling equipment, as well as their natural springs that have people coming for miles around to enjoy a swim. The headspring has some 19 million gallons of water per day flowing from an underwater cavern at an inviting year-round temperature of 72 degrees. It’s really no wonder this area was occupied by native american groups who came to the spring to gather food. It’s so peaceful and serene. Two dugout canoes found in the spring are among the oldest canoes in America (5,000 and 6,000 years old). In 1832 the famous artists, John James Audobon, painted bird life in this area.

jet fun

But if all that history and serenity, which adults love, is more than the kids can take, and they’re ready for some howling fun, then check out the Daytona Beach Jet Boats, located at the dock on Aunt Catfish’s — on the west end of the Dunlawton Bridge. Boats can go as fast or as slow as you like and the kids wish, but don’t worry — you don’t have to drive it yourself, there’s an excellent guide for that. The boat will slide, sashay and do the famous Hamilton 360 degree spin.

daytona international speedway

More thrills can be had as you and your mini race drivers take a track tour of the Daytona Speedway, also known as the ‘Word Center of Racing’. You’ll be surprised to find the tour bus driving on a race track whose banked turns are as much as 31 degrees. The tour includes a 30-minute backstage look at the racing world including a stop in the pit area, the NASCAR garages, the infield area and the Victory Lane. There are loads of activities inside the center too —from changing a wheel on a stock car in just 36 seconds to trying out your skills as a race car driver in the simulation vehicle.

The early roots of racing can be traced back to Ormond Beach and a historic 1903 race between Ransom E. Olds — father of the Oldsmobile — and Alexander Winton. Winton beat Olds in that first sanctioned time trial, known as the Ormond Challenge Cup, and the rest, as they say, is history. Time trials continued for several years and before long this sleepy little winter resort town earned its place in history as ‘the Birthplace of Speed’. In 1935, Englishman Sir Malcolm Campbell posted an unprecedented official one-mile speed of 276.82 miles per hour — on the beach!

jackie robinson ballpark

Sports come alive again at the historic Jackie Robinson Ballpark. In 1946, Jackie Robinson came to Florida for spring training with the Montreal Royals, the Brooklyn Dodgers AAA farm club. He was banned from playing in Jacksonville and Sanford, but not in Daytona. He debuted here on March 17, 1946. His first plate appearance came in an exhibition game against their parent club, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson then became the first African-American player in the Major Leagues. Now home to the Daytona Cubs, this historic ballpark honors its past with exhibits that highlight the career of Jackie Robinson.

daytona lagoon

Whether you want to mess about at the ballpark or would rather ‘mess about on the river’, especially if it’s an eco-rich one, check out the Manatee Cruise where you might be lucky enough to spot dolphins. Even if you don’t, you have the good fortune of spotting some of the richest-looking homes along the river banks.

marine science center

Kids not only love to see animals out in the wild, such as the dolphins mentioned above, they also love to know people are helping those that have been hurt. Go along to the Marine Science Center to see rescued birds that can’t be returned to the wild because of their injuries, as well as several rescued sea turtles at the sea turtle rehabilitation laboratory, many of which can be returned to the wild.

hilton hotel

The Hilton Daytona Beach Oceanfront Resort is a great place to stay and one that’s right on the beach (in fact, Daytona’s only traffic-free beach). The resort has everything you’d expect from a top-class hotel. For childcare the kids will love, check out their D-Dawg’s Kidszone — an activity center with games, movies and fun activities. A great way to let the kids have fun and give the adults some grown-up time to spend together, even if it’s just going a few yards down the beach to shop and browse at the Ocean Walk Shops.

Daytona Beach is not for spring break any more — and thank goodness for that. The noisy students are all but gone. Instead, it’s a place where families can go now to enjoy a bit of good old-fashioned fun and reveling for themselves! •

from the July-August 2009 issue

The Ponce de Leon Inlet
was completed in 1887 and continues today
as a working beacon.

Jackie Robinson played in this historic
ballpark in March 1946 while with the
Brooklyn Dodgers' AAA farm team,
the Montreal Royals.