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Family Guide to Gainesville: What to See and Do With Your Kids

When you’re thinking about a family vacation in North Central Florida, think Gainesville, a historic town with plenty of entertainment for adults and their kids of all ages. Teenagers might grow out of trips to character theme parks with their parents, but they’re certainly not too old to play paintball, check out 3-D printers in action and take a tour of one of the best college football stadiums in the country. Whether your kids are into sports, arts, science, photography, or being outside, Gainesville is the perfect family vacation town. Here’s a guide to Gainesville, Florida, depending on what your kids are most interested in. 
If your children are….

OUTDOORSY, start your Gainesville vacation at First Strike Paintball. At this paintball field, kids grab masks and protective gear, then chase their parents (and each other) around with a paintball gun. If paintball isn’t your thing, get out on the water in nearby High Springs. Here you can canoe or kayak at the Santa Fe Canoe Outpost. If you have adventurous kids, go paddleboarding or stay overnight in one of the nearby campgrounds or state parks. And finally, plan a visit to Canopy Climbers, where kids can hike up tall trees along with a licensed guide. While there, your children will learn the art of tying knots for climbing, how to walk on limbs, and how to hang upside down like a bat. 

SCIENTIFIC, take them first to the Florida Museum of Natural History, a Gainesville favorite for families that regularly holds camps and special events for kids. At the museum, children can browse through dinosaur bones and be surrounded by free-roaming butterflies in the butterfly rainforest. They can also have a hands-on learning experience in the Discovery Room to understand the science and biology behind living things. But to push your science-loving kids closer to their dreams, take them to the Cade Museum of Creativity and Invention. Once inside, children can participate in the Creativity Lab where they’re encouraged to think innovatively and invent new objects. And for future engineers, the Fab Lab teaches children to use advanced tools such as 3D printers and scanners, laser cutters, soldering stations and computers.  

BUDDING PHOTOGRAPHERS, the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park outside Gainesville is an oasis for young shutterbugs. With a camera in hand, your kids can explore the 1930s farmhouse and citrus groves, snapping shots of immaculate cracker-style antique furniture and roaming chickens. For more isolated scenery, head over to Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park in Micanopy to sightsee grazing bison and alligators basking in the sun. After grabbing some wildlife photos, take your kids to the 50-foot high observation tower for a spectacular view and a chance to take panoramic photos. And if you still have more space on your memory card, the Kanapaha Botanical Gardens provides another scenic place to snap pictures of Japanese bamboos and red-tailed hawks. However, it’s advised to plan ahead and go on the Moonlight Walk to photograph hundreds of sparkling lanterns and lights throughout the garden. 

ANIMAL LOVERS, the Santa Fe Zoo is the perfect place to go in Gainesville. Families can see exotic animals like capuchins, Galapagos tortoises, kangaroos and otters. While you’re there, don’t forget to check out the zoo’s most important exhibit, FrogWatch, where children learn about amphibians and meet some of these unique and rare creatures. If your kids aren’t afraid of things that go bump in the night, head over to the UF Bat Colony to watch more than 300,000 bats fly overhead after sunset. After admiring the bats and kangaroos from afar, swing by Morningside Nature Center for a real hands-on experience of petting and interacting with docile animals such as cows and turtles. But to make your child’s dream come true, the Mill Creek Farm’s Retirement Home for Horses will allow your kids to meet rescued horses and learn the routines of taking care of them. 

FOODIES, there’s no better place to go than Roger’s Farm, a working farm where kids can hand pick fresh fruits and vegetables. With a bucket to fill up, your kids can learn how to identify the best ripe tomatoes and wild strawberries. And if blueberries are your children’s favorite, BlueBela Farm is a great alternative to stock up on the freshly picked berries. Finally, to satisfy both your foodie’s sweet tooth, visit Sweet Dreams, a local ice cream that serves up interesting ice cream flavors like Mayan chocolate and cake batter in massive waffle cones (and sugar cones or bowls, depending on preference). Sweet Dreams regularly has kids’ events, too, like the annual Touch a Truck event that pairs big trucks with small treats. Sweet Dreams is pet-friendly, too, so you can bring the whole family along. 

ARTSY, there’s plenty of inspiration at the Harn Museum of Art. Families can browse through the impressive collection of paintings of different eras and regions. Whether it’s African, Asian or Contemporary art, your children are sure to find their perfect muse. Children who would rather make art than look at it need to go to Do Art Pottery Studio. At this studio, kids can select their favorite unpainted ceramic figurines on display and use their imagination to paint over them. Once their masterpieces are completed, the staff will fire up the kiln and the figurines will be ready to be picked up or mailed in a week. 

UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA GATORS FANS, make their entire vacation by planning a trip to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, affectionately known as “The Swamp.” The stadium seats more than 88,000 people, and tickets are often available during the fall for home games. Self-guided tours are available during the off-season to explore, and the spring offers some opportunities to watch spring games or practices. Be sure to buy tickets in advance so you can take your kids to Spirit Day, where they can meet and greet the football players. A trip to the stadium should end with a visit to The Swamp Restaurant, a well-known local eatery for big-time fans that serves tasty chicken wings and gator bites.

PICTURED: Kanapaha Botanical Gardens
Photo Courtesy of Visit Gainesville
PICTURED: Sweet Dreams Ice Cream
Photo Courtesy of Visit Gainesville
PICTURED: Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park
Photo Courtesy of Visit Gainesville