FLORIDA: MAGIC KINGDOM FOR FAMILIES Sunshine state has it made in the shade for kids' activities


Even the best beach aficionado needs a day in the shade. Off the beach, there's a Florida for families featuring baroque museums, lunar modules, rodeos, alligators, vibrant modern art and kid-pleasing science centers. Whether you need a break from the sun, a rainy-day lift or just a follow-your-fancy day trip, here are some suggestions:

Orlando area

Somehow, it seems that nearly every visitor to Florida, with or without a family, ends up at Walt Disney World, which consists of the Magic Kingdom, the Epcot Center and now the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park, which opened last year. Although a visit to Walt Disney World grows increasingly expensive -- a one-day ticket costs $32.75 for an adult and $26.40 for a child -- there's so much available that for most families a trip to Florida's No. 1 attraction is inevitable.

The Disney-MGM Studios' behind-the-scenes tour includes the "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" Movie Adventure, which gives a sample of how the child stars of the hit movie became "little." This portion of the tour opened in December and already is a favorite.

Cooling off from strenuous sightseeing can be done at Typhoon Lagoon, a water theme park with slides and wave pools. At Pleasure Island, a complex of restaurants, boutiques and six nightclubs, parents dance at clubs such as Mannequins, or roller-skate and dance at the XZFR Rockin' Rollerdome. Teens under 18 can boogie at Videopolis East, a club of pulsating lights and music.

Universal Studios Florida, about 10 miles from Orlando, is the largest motion picture and television studio outside of Hollywood. Grab some thrills at rides based on "King Kong," and root for your child's network debut as a star contestant on such popular Nickelodeon cable network shows as "Super Sloppy Double Dare" and "Think Fast." For the behind-the-scenes lessons, pick the takes, music and sound effects for your own "production" of "Murder, She Wrote," and learn how to fashion such special effects as gorillas and brains at "The Horror Make-up Show."

But there's much more to Orlando than the Disney and studio attractions. For high-tech stellar happenings, tour the Kennedy Space Center's Spaceport USA. The real stuff of America's space adventures fires the imagination here, from space suits to the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft to moon rocks. Walk past clusters of rocket engines, peer into a space station, look at a mock-up of a flight deck and drive by the looming launch pads.

For behemoths of the deep, visit Sea World of Florida. Here Shamu and his killer whale family, including Baby Namu, hurtle out of their water stadium. In the Shark Encounter, bull, brown and nurse sharks toothily glide all around you, and at the Penguin Encounter penguins waddle and stare at visitors.

St. Petersburg, Tampa, Sarasota

Along the Pinellas seacoast, the sights mix the nature of art and the art of nature.

Whimsy and fine art meet at St. Petersburg's Salvador Dali Museum, which features a comprehensive collection of the Spanish painter's work -- oils, watercolors and sculptures.

See what the children make of Dali's bold lines and juxtapositions before you take them across the street for more sensory adventures at Great Explorations, a not-just-for-kids science and art museum where "hands-on" rules. Best bets include the 100-foot-long touch tunnel, a dark maze of curves and slopes; sound sculptures; and the Body Shop, an interactive group of computers focused on health education that provides users such data as a nutritional analysis of their lunch.

Then look to the healing handshake of nature and man at the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary. This refuge rehabilitates, then releases injured and crippled screech owls, bald eagles, pelicans, cormorants and herons.

Continue the artful match of man and nature at Sarasota's Ringling Museum of Art. Circus posters, costumes, clown props, gilded wagons and calliopes fill the Circus Gallery. But there's more than the Big Top hoopla: The museum is renowned for its fine collection of baroque art, including Rubens masterworks. It's all housed in the Ringling mansion, Ca'd'Zan, a 30-room Venetian Renaissance palace of marble arches, ballrooms and balconies built with 1920s flair.

Wildlife fanciers looking for big game might try Busch Gardens' the Dark Continent, a 300-acre Tampa family theme park. Watch snake charmers cast a spell in the sultan's tent, and children can observe the raising of baby animals at the nursery. Get wild on the Python roller coaster, and wet on the Congo River Rapids and the Tanganyika Tidal Wave. If that's not enough to cool your dusty African safari days, take the plunge at Adventure Island, the adjacent 19-acre water park.

Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Key Biscayne

These cities' attractions weave a tale of history, art and natural beauty that is as colorful as its myriad cultures.

Inside the Museum of Art at Fort Lauderdale, the colors of the CoBrA artists shine brilliantly. These canvases of a group of post-World War II painters from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam splash the walls with vibrancy. But begin a tour at "Art Amaze," a gallery geared to explaining to children the lines and language of 20th century art. The eye-popping works featured include a polka-dot merry-go-round and Andy Warhol's portrait of Mick Jagger.

For more children's-eye views of art, visit Young At Art, a hands-on children's museum for tots to teens. Try the texture tunnel and the recycled room, a collection of scraps turned into art materials.

Children also come first at the Discovery Center, where they push the buttons and pull the knobs that render science, art and history real. Here kids connect with optical illusions, ant farms, pet snakes and computers.

Fort Lauderdale's Butterfly World is a three-acre park whose aviaries contain thousands of live species of delicate, brilliantly colored butterflies.

For more adventures in history and the here and now of coastal life, head for Miami. The Miami-Dade Cultural Center houses the Historical Museum of Southern Florida. At the Historical Museum, tropical dreams of Miami's days from Indians to the 1940s resort era come alive. Children can ride cannons, board trolleys, and dress up in fancy Henry Flagler-era gaiety. For a view of the city lazing down under a sunset, book ahead for a moonlight canoe dinner trip around Biscayne Bay.

At the Miami Youth Museum, children experience a little bit of pre-revolutionary Cuba by shopping at the bodega for coffee and rolling their own cigars at the factory.

The fun at the Museum of Science includes such head-turning illusions as seeing your noggin served on a platter, your feet flying and your shadow frozen. Next door, take a seat for a sky show at the Space Transit Planetarium.

But don't miss Miami's animals. The Metrozoo features animals in natural environments, kept in by moats and landscaping, not barred cages. From its famous white tiger to its family of gorillas, the zoo delights.

At the Parrot Jungle, check out the plumed, perky and exotically colored parrots. Watch the antics of tricycle-riding cockatoos and parrots at the shows. Then take a walk on the wild side through these lushly landscaped grounds filled with cages brimming with parrots.

Come home to the tanks that trained Flipper, star of his own television show. At the Miami Seaquarium, his descendants still twist, dive and glide at shows. Enjoy the brilliantly colored fish as they swim through the Reef Aquarium, and follow the feeding frenzy of sharks at the Reef Tank.

Take your own water wildlife tour at Biscayne National Underwater Park and at Everglades National Park. At Biscayne, a 45-minute drive from downtown Miami, Capt. Ed Davidson guides a glass-bottom boat tour of spectacular coral reefs. A visitor also can jump in for a firsthand snorkel look at the brightly colored fish. Family forays are encouraged. With shallow waters and wind-protected reefs, this is a good place for a preschooler's first "dive."

Twenty miles away, at Everglades National Park, experience the pristine beauty of what came long before resort and condo development. These rivers of grass harbor alligators, crocodiles and herons. Hike, bike, drive or board a guided tram or boat to tour these 1.4 million acres of tropical mangroves, snaking rivers, wetlands and wide expanses of tall grasses.

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