Family vacations are a time to let loose and be a kid again, and with jumping dolphins, leaping lemurs, soaring ziplines, and milkshakes the size of your head it’s easy to do just that in Orange Beach, Alabama. It’s easy to think that all beaches are the same, so what makes the Gulf Shores & Orange Beach region of Alabama different? One expects powdery soft white sand and surf, but guests also discover exceptional family friendliness in the area. You won’t find college kids gone wild on spring break, or beautiful people parading around in the skimpiest of outfits. Continue reading below for some of the ways I let my kid flag fly in Gulf Shores & Orange Beach, Alabama.
Gulf Shores & Orange Beach is located on a narrow barrier island on the southernmost tip of Alabama. The family-friendly destination has 32 miles of soft, white beachfront along the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Beyond the dunes covered in sea oats on the coast are inland areas with pine tree forests, freshwater lakes, rivers, bayous and coves filled with an abundance of wildlife.
One of Alabama’s original five state parks, Gulf State Park opened in 1939 as part of FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps. With nearly 6,500 acres of protected land, 28 miles of paved/enhanced trails, and almost 3 miles of beachfront, there are plenty of natural and recreational activities to enjoy. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan made landfall in Gulf Shores, AL causing widespread damage to Gulf State Park, and in the spring and summer of 2010 oil from the Deepwater Horizon accident began washing up along the Alabama coast.
Due to the BP settlement, $85 million was invested into Gulf State Park, and was used to rebuild the facilities damaged all the way back to Hurricane Ivan. Reconstruction of a state-of-the-art hotel, The Lodge at Gulf State Park, a Hilton Hotel, is now complete. Eagle Cottages at Gulf State Park became the seventh United States property to join National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World program this summer. It’s one of only 55 such lodges in the world to achieve this status. Finally, the Gulf Coast Center for Ecotourism & Sustainability is a world-class ecotourism and experiential learning facility developed in partnership with Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society. The inaugural Gulf Coast Ambassadors of the Environment program will be offered to students in grades 4-12, and housed at the Gulf State Park Learning Campus. Future Environmental Ambassador programs will include college students as well as adults.
The Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo is currently a small, private, 6-acre zoo that opened in 1989. Over 30 years, the zoo faced a number of challenges including a total evacuation in 2004 due to Hurricane Ivan. The entire facility was under 12-16 feet of water, and the zoo remained closed for an entire year. In 2020, the entire facility moves to a much larger space (nearly 4 times the size) on higher ground.
Joel Hamilton is the brand-new zoo director who relocated from the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans. Hamilton explained his vision of the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo, “A zoo’s value has changed. People can get information and images about animals from computers, television, and mobile devices. Getting people connected to nature is a big part of what we do at the zoo.” The Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo works on conservation projects and protection of animals, and they want to inspire people to conserve animals and nature.
In addition to the new zoo, a new restaurant, The Safari Club Gulf Shores, opens as well, and guests do not have to pay admission to go. The Safari Club’s menu ranges from small plates to artisan wood-fired pizzas, plus a variety of vegan and vegetarian options, and, in keeping with the zoo’s mission, is the states first certified “Green Restaurant.” Executive Chef Greg Buschmohle has opened 75 restaurants in 13 different states. He says the inspiration comes from the original zoo and items on the menu come from the animals’ countries of origin.
Of course Gulf State Park and the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo are just two of the many activities you’ll find at Gulf Shores & Orange Beach, AL. There’s a wide range of outdoor water sports including sailing, kayaking, surfing, and building sand castles. Families can find plenty of rainy day activities when the weather doesn’t cooperate such as the nearby Naval Aviation Museum, Fort Morgan Historic Site, and shopping on The Wharf. Of course, you cannot forget the wide variety of dining establishments from over-the-top creations at The Yard Milkshake Bar to gourmet, private dining experiences courtesy of a Cordon Bleu trained chef.
There’s plenty to explore during a Gulf Shores & Orange Beach family vacation. If you keep your eyes open, you’ll never know quite what you may find. Kids may stumble upon the world’s largest purple octopus, or was that just an illusion from the iridescent purple sky?
DISCLOSURE: Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism hosted Adventures by Daddy on this trip to Alabama including travel, accommodations, meals, and experiences. However, all opinions are those of the author. For more family travel news, reviews, and trip reports, be sure to follow Adventures by Daddy on instagram, twitter and “like” our facebook page too.