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We were worried that after our first trip to Walt Disney World, we’d never be able to visit Florida again without a trip to The Mouse. And while we adore Disney and loved our time there, sometimes it’s just not feasible to include theme parks on every family vacation. I’m happy to report that we are still able to hop down to the Sunshine State for a relaxing family getaway, and for us that has everything to do with the fantastic beaches along the Gulf Coast.

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When I was a child, my family often rented a condo on Treasure Island, and visiting there for the first time with my own child was a definite flashback. The neon still gleams on many of these classic Florida beach motels, although fortunately most have had an interior upgrade since the ‘70s! The beach stretches for miles, and offers a great opportunity for seashell collectors, as it’s not as picked over as some of the more popular beaches.

Just a hop up from Treasure Island is Madeira Beach, where we stayed for our first trip to the Gulf Coast as a family of four. The Barefoot Beach Hotel offered a great room with a full kitchen that was right on the beach, and was within steps to John’s Pass, a wonderful little nook featuring restaurants, shops and great coffee from Addicted To The Bean. The Barefoot Beach Motel’s rooms are all renovated, and there’s free wifi as well as beach towels and chairs. It was on Madeira Beach just outside the hotel where we saw three dolphins frolicking in the Gulf. A definite highlight!

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One of our great finds on the Florida Gulf Coast is the little town of Tarpon Springs. This village gives a glimpse of Florida that’s sometimes overlooked by the big flashy attractions. Built by Greek immigrants that brought the tradition of diving for sponges to the bountiful waters of the Gulf of Mexico, this tiny town is home to one of the biggest sponge industries in the world. We loved our trip to the Tarpon Springs Aquarium – they have shark and alligator feedings throughout the day and you can pet and feed stingrays and feed bits of shrimp to baby sharks off of a long stick. This place is a little rustic compared to some of Florida’s other big attractions, but we loved it. They have two big gators, a big giant turtle, various snakes, eels, lobsters, and a small clownfish and coral tank.

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We are so incredibly thankful the the BP Gulf oil disaster hasn’t destroyed Florida’s wonderful Gulf Coast beaches, as I want my children to grow up with the same fond memories of there that I have. The close proximity to the big theme parks means the best of both worlds, too. Go nuts on the wild rides, then decompress on the white sand (checkout the Florida beaches with their live webcams). Perfect.

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