Panama City Beach is a popular spring break and summer vacation destination in the Northwest Florida sector known more commonly as the panhandle. This beach community juxtaposing the Gulf of Mexico is famous for wild college spring-breakers, but families find it a great beach retreat at other times of the year. With warm temperatures much of the year, there are many things to do in Panama City Beach – water recreation and outdoor fun, along with other attractions, activities and amenities.
Beachfront Adventures is everything you can imagine from off-road buggies and zip lines to ropes courses, go karts, mini golf, an aqua maze and more! Purchase tickets or an all-day arm band (the best deal).
Gulf World Marine Park is an attraction that my family has enjoyed for years! They have interactive programs, daily shows (dolphins, sea lions, birds, etc.) and swim with the dolphin adventures!
Pier Park is the premier lifestyle center of the Panama City Beach area. A mecca of sorts, the 900,000+ square foot property features a well-thought-out mix of restaurants, stores, entertainment and attractions. A great idea for sunny weather, you can duck in and out of unique specialty shops and boutiques, but it is also a nice rainy day place to take in lunch and a movie. Store choices include the likes of: American Eagle, Bath & Body Works, Buckle, Carters, Cariloha, Charlotte Russe, Charming Charlie, Columbia, Crocs, Dillards, Forever 21, Old Navy, Rack Room Shoes, Salt Life, Target and SO MANY MORE! Eateries range from quick snacks like Smoothie King, Marble Slab Creamery, Dippin’ Dots, Great American Cookies and AuntieAnne’s to sit-down restaurants such as The Back Porch, Shoney’s, Five Guys Burgers, Chicken Salad Chick, Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, Longhorn Steakhouse, Panera Bread and again, SO MANY MORE! There are kiddie rides, an IMAX theater and lots of fun ideas around every corner. You could literally spend all day at Pier Park.
Pirate’s Island Adventure Golf takes mini golf to the next level with themed adventures and beautiful landscapes (and waterfalls and bridges too)! Kids old and young alike will enjoy this experience AND there are coupons on the web site.
A trip on the Sea Dragon Pirate Cruise makes for a fun, family outing anytime. Join Capt. “Fearless” Phil and embark on a two-hour cruise filled with wildlife sightings, as well as dolphins, birds and fish! Kiddos will especially enjoy sword-fighting, searching for treasure and firing the cannon. Have a dance party and get your face painted…or better yet, how about a tattoo?
Shipwreck Island Waterpark has entertained locals and vacationers for more than 30 years with tons of water, slides, a lazy river and fun food. There are shallow pool areas for the smaller ones and for the slightly older there are fabulous things like the tipping bucket, more thrill-like slides and so forth. If you are more of an adventurer, take on the challenging slides like The Pirate’s Plunge Racing Slide. Also, spend some time in the wavepool for more a splashing adventure! We always enjoy their food, too – pizza and funnel cakes – yum! (NOTE: they also have mini golf and a big snack bar.)
Have you ever wondered how exciting it would be to have an upclose and personal look at exotic animals? Panama City Beach’s Zoo World offers just that! Pet a sloth, hold an alligator or meet a giraffe!
Adventures at Sea caters to the water enthusiast offering jet skis, parasailing, kite boarding, paddle boarding and more, with pontoon and sail boat rentals as well! Adventures at Sea has over 25 years of experience and 60+ locations in the Panama City Beach area.
Boggy Bayou Airboat Tours offers a unique experience on the water with two hour eco-tours taking up to six passengers. Thrill-seekers will love this ride, but sunsets tours are simply the best.
Capt. Anderson’s Marina is the place to head if you are looking to go deep sea fishing, charter a boat or visit Shell Island. They can handle all of those needs, plus they can clean and pack your catch or you can buy fresh seafood from them. Visit the gift shop and dine with them! For other charter boats in the area, visit the area’s web site.
Diver’s Den offers daily dive charters with room for up to 13 divers. The boat captain is US Coast Guard Certified and is a PADI Dive Instructor. They offer snorkeling, diving and certification.
Dolphin Cruises are popular in Panama City Beach and several companies offer good ones. I have a couple of tried and true favorites that I’ll share. The first is Capt. Anderson III (yes, at Capt. Anderson’s Marina) who provides a fun sightseeing cruise and a dolphin encounter. Folks of all ages enjoy these options. Another one I like is Dolphin Tours & More. Just as the name suggests, they specialize in more than dolphins! They also do scuba expeditions, snorkeling and spearfishing.!
Hop-A-Board is the place to rent a paddle board for the hour, the day or the week. They’ll deliver to you and include safety equipment, the paddle and leash as well as the board. Novices will receive FREE lessons and advice about best local places to paddle board. Ask about multiple-day and multiple-board discounts!
Panama City Parasail also provides parasailing adventures, in addition to banana boat rentals and dolphin tours! They have coupons right on their site PLUS they honor competitor coupons.
The Sea Screamer is such a popular Panama City Beach attraction with fantastic dolphin adventures, snorkel trips and eco-tours. Open February to December, Sea Screamer encourages you to bring your camera!
Before your day on the water, you’ll likely need to visit an area outfitter and Sunjammers Watersports is perfect! Coolers, rods and reels, sailing gear, paddle accessories, apparel and the like – get it all in one place with a visit to Sunjammers. They have two locations to better serve you: one at St. Andrews – Panama City and one in Panama City Beach.
Panama City Beach has several championship golf courses set among some of the world’s most beautiful beaches. Here are four good ones: Bay Point Golf Club, Holiday Golf Club, Hombre Golf Club (the only 27-hole golf course in Panama City Beach) and Signal Hill Golf Course.
Back to Nature
There are 27 miles of beaches in Panama City Beach all worthy of being walked on, sun-bathed on and seashell-searched on. Don’t forget to save some time for long walks that lead to sunset encounters and after dark safaris with kids in search of hermit crabs and shells.
Camp Helen State Park is bordered on three sides by water and is the largest of the unique coastal dune lakes in Florida. Guests can swim, enjoy the beach, bird watch, hike/bike on trails or fish in the 183-acre park open for day use only. History tours are available the first Saturday of every month at 10 a.m. and are FREE with paid park admission.
Fishing is a popular pastime no matter if you’re a serious angler, have a passion for deep sea fishing or you’re totally happy casting a line on a pier. All three options are available in Panama City Beach. Choose from freshwater or saltwater, land or sea, novice or expert…there’s a place for you! If you charter a boat for an expedition, you’ll likely not need a fishing license. If you are looking to go for the pier, check out Russell-Fields Pier where you can pay $6 for a daily fishing license ($3 spectator pass), M.B. Miller County Pier (same fees as Russell-Fields and both are on the Gulf of Mexico) or check out fishing at St. Andrews State Park on one their two piers. For more information on a short-term fishing license, visit here.
Shell Island is actually a peninsula rather than an island, but nonetheless a lovely gem. About seven miles of undeveloped barrier-type land running east to west, Shell Island rests between the St. Andrews Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Chocked full of nature, it’s the perfect habitat for deer, many nesting birds and several endangered species. Enjoy a true back-to-nature experience among the unspoiled sand dunes and seashells are a plenty. Take a picnic, but also take your trash (home with you that is) as there are no garbage cans. It is REAL nature folks, so don’t look for restrooms, picnic or concession areas. By now, I’m sure you are wondering how to get there! Shell Island Shuttle is a good resource in getting you there and there are coupons on the web site. Bring something to put your shells in and a trash bag for, well, your trash.
St. Andrews State Park is one of Florida’s most-visited state parks nestling on the eastern side of Panama City Beach with the Gulf of Mexico just to the south, St. Andrews Pass to the east and to the north is Grand Lagoon. Hike the popular trails where wildlife are everyday visitors, fish, bike (rental is available at the St. Andrews State Park general store), or get on the water via kayak or canoe! If you are more adventurous, snorkeling and scuba diving may be your cup of tea. Families with little ones will appreciate the kiddie pool area. Be careful and always be cautious as there are no lifeguards present. Have your own boat? This is the place for you with a public access boat ramp (you may use for a nominal fee). The park closes at sunset each day unless you are camping.
Dave & Buster’s at Pier Park is an indoor facility with arcades, sports television, games and more! Located next to Pier Park Amusements, Dave & Buster’s is a fantastic plan B for days when the weather is not up to par or the family has had too much sun!
The Grand IMAX Pier Park 16 is the place to plan for on a rainy day with wall-to-wall screens, stadium seating, premium IMAX quality, a game room and a specialty café. Located across from Dave & Buster’s, the theater is easily accessible.
Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium provides a unique look at “odd” things. What might you see? Shrunken heads, a sculpture of Thor made of scrap car parts, a vampire killing kit, lots of interactives and a floating car…just to name a few. For a more detailed look at the offerings at Ripley’s and to purchase tickets, check their web site.
Rock’It Lanes ballistic bowling is definitely something to keep in mind for rainy days! More than a bowling alley, kids (and adults) can roller skate, visit the arcade and play pool.
WonderWorks, an indoor amusement park, has over 35,000 square feet of entertainment and educational-minded, hands-on exhibits. Kids can explore everything from natural disasters to outer space and lots of stuff in between. Laser tag is available, as is a ropes course and the Black Hawk Virtual Army Experience!
Best Dining with a View
Captain Anderson’s Restaurant & Waterfront Market is a local favorite in Panama City Beach so you know it’s good! View the menu right online, order to go or enjoy dinner with a view! Kids are welcome in this family-friendly restaurant and will quickly find something to their liking with choices such as chicken fingers, grilled cheese, mac ‘n cheese, cheeseburgers and popcorn shrimp! Adults enjoy starting off with the Grilled Bay Shrimp appetizer and a fabulous entrée like the Stuffed Flounder or a surf and turf combo paired with a nice wine from their extensive wine list. The evening shouldn’t be over without a gorgeous sunset and an amazing dessert – my favorites are the Strawberry Cheesecake and the Crème Brulee.
An ambiance only outdone by terrific food is the setting at Saltwater Grill, where fresh seafood from the Gulf of Mexico and choice cuts of meat grace your plate. I love their crab cakes and the Maine Lobster is also pretty spectacular, but seriously, you cannot make a bad choice. And, although their food is exquisite, the panoramic view of the 25,000-gallon tropical saltwater aquarium is over-the-top! You’re gazing at exotic sea creatures and tropical reef which are absolutely breathtaking. Stay after dinner and have a drink in Panama City Beach’s only piano bar at Saltwater Grill. (Daily early bird specials run from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. and happy hour is 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.)
The Shrimp Boat Restaurant sports an historic St. Andrews address and is worth the extra 10 minute drive. Waterfront dining at its best alongside Smith’s dock grants the most amazing views of boats quietly gliding in. Enjoy a peaceful sunset on the expansive outdoor deck with your favorite beverage. Dinner is a delight with char roasted oysters to get you started and a mouthwatering entrée such as Shrimp & Grits or New York Strip Steak. Don’t fill up before you’ve tasted a dessert: White Chocolate Crème Brulee, New York Cheesecake with Seasonal Berries, Homemade Rich Carrot Cake or Homemade Red Velvet Cake.
Best Family-Friendly Dining
Hammerhead Fred’s is a family favorite serving local seafood (the Shrimp Dinner is very good) and lovely steaks. Eat inside or outside, there are usually games on the televisions and sometimes live music, but always a selection of craft beers. Casual and laid back, you’ll enjoy relaxing with the kids at Hammerhead Fred’s.
Families love dining by the water and Panama City Beach’s Pineapple Willy’s fits the bill with a casual atmosphere, frozen drinks and a great kids menu. Hearty comforting meals to choose from make decisions difficult when it’s your turn to order. I stick with the Grilled Mahi-Mahi or the Grilled Grouper, but the meat-eating men in my family swear by the Prime Rib, Pulled Pork and BBQ Ribs!
Sharky’s Beachfront Restaurant is right on the beach and just plain fun. Serving lunch, dinner and specialty drinks, the whole family will enjoy this dining experience. Watch the sun set, listen to live music and take in the fresh catch of the day, but not before your appetizer – Caribbean nachos are so good! For lunch their Grouper Sandwich is tasty and for dinner…well that’s a little harder, but the redfish or the ribeye are certainly at the top of the list. Save room for the brownie delight!
Andy’s Flour Power has long since been my favorite brunch in Panama City Beach and one of my overall favorites as well! With fresh ingredients and awards to back them up, fresh twists on old favorites will delight your palate. The daily special is usually what I get – and it’s typically something unique and tasty! Did I mention how affordable this place is?
Starbucks located at Pier Park is always the coffee shop that visitors and locals alike frequent. Enjoy FREE wifi along with your favorite cup of joe and a morning Danish.
Special Occasion Dining
Award-winning Firefly is a memorable dining experience in a Mediterranean Bistro atmosphere with twinkling lights amidst a grand old oak tree. Have drinks in the library and feast on entrees from sushi to exotic fish. Your night will be even better if you call ahead for a reservation…just in case. If you are in town for a special occasion, this is the place to dine. The most interesting thing about Firefly is that they have a 4 oz. filet mignon on the kid’s menu.
Festivals Worth The Drive
The New Year’s Eve Beach Ball Drop is one the most fun ways to celebrate NYE with the entire family! With live music and an exciting countdown, Panama City Beach’s Pier Park is the scene of this family-friendly event. Plan early and check for discount lodging on the web site.
In the fall, the Pepsi Gulf Coast Jam a/k/a Country on the Coast, has become a staple in Panama City Beach for three-days over Labor Day weekend. Held at Frank Brown Park, the event has brought in headliners like Eric Church, Miranda Lambert, Big & Rich, Lady Antebellum and The Band Perry. Tickets and travel packages are available on the web site.
The Pepsi Spring Jam is an annual celebration in April with top-name bands that you’ll recognize performing their hit songs. This two-day country and pop festival has become one that folks come back to year after year, likely because of the talent level and the fun location at Aaron Bessant Park adjacent to Pier Park. Tickets and lodging packages are available on the web site.
The Seabreeze Jazz Festival is an April event showcasing the top acts in smooth jazz spread over five days. The festival includes fun offerings such as a Jazz dinner and lunch cruises, and All-Star After Party Jam Shows each evening. The festival, in its 19th year, has sensational headliners like Kenny G. and Brian Culbertson.
UNwineD is a popular two-day Southern garden party that begins with the Garden & Gun Kickoff Party on Friday night. This party is where guests mix and mingle with chefs, mixologists and tastemakers – the South’s finest. Held each spring in March, UNwineD is located in Aaron Bessant Park (adjacent to Pier Park). Saturday winds up the festivities with a Grand Afternoon Tasting and Cocktail Competition along with live entertainment.
Where To Stay
Campgrounds in Panama City Beach are available and St. Andrews State Park is a good option with 176 camp sites that have electricity, water and picnic tables (and grills). Bring your tent(s) or your RV (up to 40 feet) or check out the “primitive” camping area for scouts or other groups. This site area does offer water, a portable toilet, fire ring and some picnic tables.
Hampton Inn & Suites at Pier Park is a property that has a lot going for it. The location is in close proximity to the premier shopping and dining mecca, Pier Park; it is right on the beach; and they offer FREE wifi and FREE hot breakfast. They have a fitness center, outdoor pool and they always have clean rooms.
Holiday Inn Resort at Panama City Beach is full-service and all rooms are gulf front. Amenities include a spa, fitness center, daily activities for kids, a water playground and dive-in movies!
Sheraton Bay Point Resort has recently completed a $30 million renovation and has a new affiliation with the Starwood Hotels & Resorts. A full-service, luxury resort Sheraton Bay Point offers the best in fabulous accommodations, lovely dining opportunities and updated meeting spaces. Enjoy a trip to the spa, a game of tennis, a round of golf at the only Nicklaus-designed course in Northwest Florida, a shuttle to Shell Island or relax in a bayside pool. There’s so much to do at Sheraton and the renovation only made it better. One thing that didn’t change in this recently-awarded four diamond hotel resort (the ONLY one in Panama City Beach) are the views of St. Andrews Bay.
Marriott’s Legends Edge at Bay Point is a winner with villas and rooms featuring the amenities of home. A lovely, luxury property, the spacious rooms are beautifully decorated and ready for your family to enjoy.
When it comes to condos, Aqua Resort is perfectly suited for families on the beach. With the water theme flowing throughout the property from water focals, waterfalls and striking pools, it offers a subtle calming effect. Gulf front, choose from one-, two- and three-bedroom units with all the comforts of home including a fully-appointed kitchen, comfortable rooms and modern amenities. Units are spacious, giving families room to spread out and eat in, while located within walking distance of Pier Park.
Edgewater Beach & Golf Resort misses no mark when it comes to full-service amenities and vacation must-haves. Enjoy a completely equipped kitchen, washer/dryer and the best in beach views. Play a round of golf, a game of tennis, or bask in the sun from the beach, one of the 11 pools or one of the four Jacuzzis. Relax and enjoy your family time at Edgewater.
Shores of Panama Resort & Spa offers affordable one-, two- and three-bedroom units with modern conveniences and beautiful pool areas where you can lounge on spacious decks. The 23-story gulf front resort includes a spa, indoor and outdoor pools, fitness center, tiki bars and more!
Of course, there’s tons more lodging in Panama City Beach, and you are sure to find something for your budget and taste.
Looking for more fun in the area? Try Daytona Beach!
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