A Local’s Guide to Family Time in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Alabama

A Local’s Guide to Family Time in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Alabama

The Ultimate List of things to do with kids in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Alabama

When I think of home, I think of sand between my toes, sun-kissed cheeks, and salt spray in the air.  I also fondly remember the small town family friendly atmosphere and a place where (at least in off-season) everyone knows each other.  The cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Alabama are wonderful choices for a great family vacation.  If you want to make the best of your vacation, then check out these tips of great things to do from a local (me … well local, partially removed 🙂 ).  Learn the best time to visit, the best places to go and discover some of the best food.  Also get the scoop on the fabulous white-sand beaches.  This is your ultimate guide to family time and things to do in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach (with and without kids).

When your home towns have mottoes like Small Town, Big Beach or Life is Better Here you know you grew up in someplace special.

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More about Gulf Shores and Orange Beach

Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are the 2 largest cities on Alabama’s Gulf Of Mexico and they are beauties.  Long stretches of sugar white sands are just some of the appeal.  Home to less than 20,000 locals and temporary home to 5 million tourists each year, the cities have much more to offer than just the standard tourist filled beaches.    Most tourist book in to their condo’s and spend their days soaking up the sun on the beach and playing at the pool.  It makes a great vacation but if you want to see what more the area has to offer (especially for families) and what the locals enjoy that call this place home read below.

What the Locals know about How to get the Most Out of Your Beach Trip

Take Advantage of Off Season

Summer is not the best time of the year to visit.  It’s busy, it’s hot, the weather can be down right electric, and the traffic … grrr.  Don’t get me wrong, a lot of the economy is based on tourist season but the people who live here year round tend to hide during the busy times.  If you have options, book your trip in August – October or May.  You’ll get better rates, the weather will likely not be as hot, restaurant waits are minimal and you won’t be spending half your day in traffic.

September is my favorite month of the year.  It’s perfect beach weather and the water is still warm.   August is another favorite month of mine but sometimes I’ve noticed more jelly fish then other times of the year.  Other hints:  Spring is usually nice weather wise but the water can still be chilly. Fall can also be lovely.  Generally I feel that half the days of fall are shorts and t-shirts and the others are cooler.  You probably won’t do a lot of swimming but it’s better weather for outdoor activities like biking.

Beach Tips

The beach is best early (9-11am) and late (after 3pm).  Mid day is best inside and enjoying your AC.

I have 3 kids and hauling everything we want down to the beach can be a daunting practice.  I prefer taking less stuff and staying for a shorter amount of time (usually less than 2 hours).  Mid day in the summer on the beach is just miserable for me with kids.  I also try to pack my beach must haves as simply as possible.  I typically take 1 bag with about 3 towels, one roll up mat or blanket to sit on, sunscreen cream and spray  to prevent sunburns (although we are trying to change over to reef friendly options).  Bottles of water and may be a very small bag cooler with snacks.  If it’s jellyfish season I pack a small bottle of white vinegar and life jackets.  I also carry a small umbrella for shade and a few small beach toys.  It sounds like a lot to carry but most of it will fit in a backpack.

Looking for great beach accessories – check these out


The Best Beaches in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach

Gulf Shores Public Beach

Gulf Shores Public Beach has recently undergone some amazing renovations and it’s now fabulous.  This beach is easy to get to (just go to the end of hwy 59 take a right then park to the left).  Parking is $5 for most of the day and the facilities are great.  The beach is big and there is usually a mat set up that helps with wheel chair access.  My favorite addition is the new playground.  My kids love it.  I’m looking forward to many evenings hanging out and enjoying the atmosphere.  If you see too much traffic in the area then skip it and go to your next stop.

Want a food break ? The Hangout, Pink Pony, Mikee’s and DeSoto’s are all great nearby options.  There are several brand new businesses in the area as well but I haven’t gotten to check those out yet.

Gulf State Park Beach

The Gulf State Park has good bathroom facilities and a sometimes concession stand (in season). It’s usually not as crowded as the Public Beach and makes another great option.  You can also take a walk down the pier and see what’s being caught.  There is a parking fee.

Lagoon Pass

If you have young kids – Lagoon Pass is your spot. Just go west on beach road and park to the north when you see the pass.  This beach is great for young kids and a low stress beach break because there are minimal waves.  You can just float, wade, relax and enjoy the views.  There also tend to be a lot of hermit crabs.  Hermit crab collecting and racing is so much fun.   Do be cautious swimming to the walled side.  There is a current there and it can be swift.  There is now a parking fee and it’s not uncommon to see a dredge in the area.

The Pass (Perdido Pass)

Park to the right after the Perdido Pass Bridge.  There is no parking fee.  The Perdido Pass Beach is big and you can find a spot directly on the gulf.  You can also find calmer waters along the pass. The reason locals like this spot – you can use the bridge for shade (and if you have adventurous kids they  can jump of one of the bases).  Do use caution because the current can be swift along the pass itself.

Bon Secour Wildlife Refuge

Bon Secour Wildlife Refuge use to be my favorite beach – just because it was so quiet and you felt like you had the beach to yourself (and you use to be able to take your dog – unfortunately no more).  Now, you’ll likely have more company but it’s still a great option if you like big open beaches with very few people.  It’s a long drive down Ft. Morgan Road.

Robinson and Bird Island

Robinson Island and Bird Island is really where the locals go – but we generally have boats.  If you have access to a boat or a rental it’s one of the best places to take the family.  Boggy Point boat launch is very close.   Of the two islands I feel that Bird Island is more family friendly.  I like finding a white stretch of sand with a long shallow area.  Set up your beach tent and umbrella over the water and enjoy your day.  We always find great neighbors to hang out with and let the kids play.

The Islands East of Ono

Again, you need a boat for these.  The closest boat launch is behind Hub Stacey’s in Perdido Key.  This is a set of 3-4 islands and can be a really fun place to hang out.  Hub Stacey’s and Holiday Harbor are both great choices for lunch and dinner.  The blackened grouper sandwiches and key lime pie for Holiday Harbor are fantastic – just yum.  Holiday Harbor is also a wonderful place to watch the sunset.

Local Tip:  Get some of this stuff – Solar Recovery Spray.  We have used everything over the counter to help with sun burns and nothing works better than this spray.  It smells great and it does an awesome job of relieving symptoms.  It could save your vacation (and your back).

Where The Locals Eat

I’m planning on a more extensive guide later.  The restaurants around here change all the time but I have a few long-standing favorites.

Local’s Lunch

For Locals Lunch I’m a huge fan of Miss Kitty’s and Desoto’s.  Both have great lunch specials.  The food is consistent and delicious.  The broiled flounder at Desoto’s is my go to dish.  They both are getting busier so I generally will show up at 11 in the busy seasons to avoid waiting.  If you want Asian food try Aji Sai – very rarely is there a wait and the food is really good. For Mexican go for El Toro.  In Orange Beach we’ve been going to GT’s lately.  You can get a small 1 serving salad bar for less than $5 and it has a great atmosphere.  Want fresh but simple sandwiches – try Amelia’s.

Family Friendly Tourist Hot Spots

These places are more than just restaurants they’re just plain fun.  They double as entertainment venues and are very good choices for those restless kids that don’t like to sit still at tables.

LuLu’s – Great atmosphere and you can now check in online which is great since otherwise the wait could be hours.

The HangOut – Beachfront restaurant and entertainment.  Check out their website for a schedule.  Many nights they have events and foam parties that the kids really enjoy.  There is also a large sand pit that is great for the kids to play in and usually they have trampoline activities as well.

Tacky Jacks Gulf Shores – Sand pit, playground and events for kids during the summer.  See their website for more details

GT’s This restaurant has beautiful views of the bay, a playground with pirate ship, music, outdoor games, and the kids love watching the fish in the large indoor fish tank.

The Gulf – Enjoy your burger and views while the kids play in the sand.  This outdoor beachfront restaurant has a wonderful atmosphere.

Other Favorites

Mikee’s – Try one of the fresh catch fish lightly blackened.  Skip the fries and go for new potatoes and either baked beans or turnip greens.  The fried cheese sticks are the best I’ve ever had.  Also the buffalo chicken bites and shrimp are just yummy.  I also used to be somewhat addicted to the Emerald Green Salad dressing and peanut butter pies.  In the summer there will be a long wait so it may be better to make this a lunch stop.  If you end up catching fish during your trip let them do the cooking.  Call for details.

Cosmos – On canal road.  Generally good food.

Fin & Fork – This is a new one.  I haven’t been yet but I hear good things.

For Something a little Different

Tin Top – This restaurant is located in the very small town (or almost town) of Bon Secour about a 20-30 minute drive from the beach.  The food is high quality and very good.  Think steaks, fillets and other anniversary dinner type foods.  Even though the food is fancy and “market price” the atmosphere is relaxing, friendly and low-key.   I may still be a little reluctant to barge in with all 3 of my kids at dinner but for date night or lunch it’s been really good.

Doc’s Seafood – If you’re looking for that typical old southern fried seafood place. This is your place. The fried shrimp is great and the best part – you get to make your own cocktail.  Since I’ve had lots of practice making cocktail sauce over the years and I like mine spicy, it’s great for me.

Things To Do in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach (not on the Beach)

Gulf State Park

Bike (or Hike) – The Gulf State Park has some amazing trails through forest, marsh and along scenic lakes. If you don’t have a bike handy there are several places you can rent one – try here or here.  The park has done a really good job making the trails fun.  You can stop and climb rocks, slide, look for gators and play on the park our playground.   Biking these trails has become one of our favorite activities. For park map click here.

Nature Center – Nestled in the campground area is a wonderful little nature center.  Last year we went to a talk on sea turtles and we plan on going to many more talks this summer.  The talk was wonderful and very hands on.   It’s a really good way to learn a lot about the environment around us.  Click here to look up a schedule of events.

Pier – The Gulf State Park Pier is a fun unique experience.  We did our last trip on a day that the park had education activities as well.  You can fish or just check out everyone else.

Kayak – Rent a Kayak (click here) or go fishing on Lake Shelby

Lake Shelby –  Lake Shelby can be a great stop for a busy day with kids.  The water is calm and swimming areas are shallow.  The water is brackish so it’s not everyone’s cup of tea 🙂 but it can be a nice alternative if you’re tired of the beach.

Geocaching –  One of our favorite things to do in the park.  Upload the app and don’t let the Muggles catch you.

Waterfront Park in Orange Beach

This park located on the back bays of Orange Beach is a wonderful place to spend a few hours.  First stop at the playground and let the kids run off some extra energy.  Next go to the Hot Shop (closes about 3).  We just love watching the artist make their beautiful pieces.  There is also a clay studio right next to the hot shop where you can see more masterpieces in progress.  The beautiful new Coastal Art Center is also worth a stop.  Check out local works of art and those stairs … so pretty.

Feel free to take a stroll down the pier and kids can also go swimming.  The water is shallow and calm and there is a small, sandy beach.  It’s not generally crowded but there is usually one or 2 families taking advantage of the calm water.

Just a block away is the library.  It has a small play area with puppets and blocks if you’re searching for an indoor space outside of your condo.  The library does have many year round activities.  Click here for the calendar.

Between the Art Center and Library you’ll see a lovely building down by the water.  It’s called the Wind and Water Learning Center and is the location of … sail camp.  If you plan ahead and have the time sail camp is a wonderful addition to a holiday.  They also have other activities like the Full Moon Paddle.

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Sea and Stars

This is an educational facility just behind the elementary school.  During the summer they do tours for donations – you may need to rsvp.  Our kids (and us) really enjoyed the tour and learned quiet a bit.  For more information click here.

The Orange Beach Public Pool is just across the street.  It has a toddler area with fountain (and usually a small slide), diving board and slide for older kids.

If you’re wanting a place to work out – check out the nearby recreation center.

Waterville

Honestly it’s been awhile since I’ve made it to Waterville but I’m sure it’s still a good time.  It may not be the best option for younger kids (I just don’t remember a lot of shady spots) but it’s a good water park.  They use to offer after 3pm discounts.  I’m not sure if that’s still available but it may be worth calling and checking.

The Track

Go carts, toy grabbers, kids area, putt put – it’s a lot of fun.  You can make a short stop or find enough to do for a few hours.

The Factory

This is basically an indoor trampoline park.  There are areas for toddlers and smaller kids.  I would be hesitant to let my kids jump in areas around the larger kids but every time I’ve been it has not been a problem.   I also would give my older kids a big safety lecture.   There is a ninja climbing area that is a favorite of my kids.

The Zoo

This is a great little zoo with lots of hands on activities.  If you can spring for one of the animal encounters go for it.  We’ve played with lemurs, held baby kangaroos, and hung out with baby tigers.  There are plenty of opportunities to feed the animals.  Please read the signs in front of the cages to make sure the animal you are feeding is not on a diet.

Owa

This is a new amusement park in Foley.  I haven’t been but it sounds like a nice day out.  Here’s the website for more information.

Wharf

The Wharf generally has great activities all year round.  Even if no activities are scheduled it’s a good place to take a stroll, go shopping, get some good food and ride a ferris wheel.  For more info see here.

Putt Putt

There all over the place and all fun.  Our favorites are Pirate’s Cove and the smaller (and cheaper) one in front of the zoo.

Shop at Tanger

Great stores, shaded playground and a splash pad.  Let the husband watch the kids and get your credit card ready.

Golf

Yep, there ‘s lots of it.  I can’t give you much advice but you can check here.

Get involved in Local Activities and Events

There is always something going on the Gulf Coast.  From events such as Smore’s on the Beach, Cardboard Boat Races, Camps, Shrimp Festival, Sports Festivals , runs, and Movie nights the things to do list is long.  Check out the Mullet Wrapper and here, here and here for a list of local events.

Looking for a church while in town (or another unique experience)?  Check out the Flora Bama’s Church service.  They have an area where you can check in the kids and if you’re wanting that Sunday Morning Bloody Mary just order it.  Dress is casual – I recommend swimsuit and light summer dress/cover up. After service go across the road to the Flora Bama Yacht club, get a lounge chair and hang out by the water for a few hours.  It’s another no wave beach for the kids to play in (and the Bushwackers are great).

Get on the Water

For a super special day – nothing beats getting on the water.  You can rent a pontoon, wave-runner, or do a group cruise – aka dolphin harassing cruise.  The sunset cruises are the best.  If you can handle a full day on the water a deep sea fishing cruise may be your type of trip.  There are also some great areas to kayak of paddle board.

Nearby Activities and Day Trips

Alligator Alley

This farm in Summerdale is such a fun stop.   We’ve been a few times and it’s been a great experience each time.  You can watch them feed some really large gators and even pick up some small guys.  They also have turtles and other reptiles.  Take a stroll through the swamps and count the eyeballs.

NAS

The Pensacola Naval Air Station Museum makes a great day when you’re wanting to be indoors.  The facility is huge and very well done.  Also take a stop by Ft. Barrancas and the Pensacola Lighthouse.

Ft. Morgan and Ferry to Dauphin Island

Honestly it’s been awhile since I’ve done this trip but way back it was pretty cool.  Drive down to Ft. Morgan, explore then take the ferry over to the Dauphin Island Sea Lab.

Pirates Cove

Pirates Cove  is a great beach bar/restaurant about 30 minutes north of the island.  Bring your swimsuit.  The water is shallow and adults can get food and drinks while the kids play.  Within a short drive you’ll also find Bama Henge, life-size dinosaurs, the Lady in the water and other unique structures near Barber Marina.

Mobile, AL

If you’re venturing a little farther look in to Battleship Park, 5 Rivers Delta, Explorium, and the Maritime Museum in Mobile.   Downtown Fairhope can also make a quaint stop.

Other Tips

Get a coupon book – they’re all over the place and can have some really good deals.

Don’t get sunburned and start slow.  Nothing ruins a beach vacation faster then a major sunburn on the first day.

Eat a little early or late – the wait at restaurants in the Summer can be very long (or just cook in the condo).

and Enjoy!  Alabama’s Gulf Coast is beautiful and can make an absolutely fabulous vacation that your kids will remember for years.

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. I, myself live in a town that gets really busy during holiday season. So I can relate to what you said that ‘the people who live here year round tend to hide during the busy times.’ :p
    I hardly travel on summer peak season since I’m not really a fan of hot weather (even though I live in a tropical country). I prefer spring and autumn which is also the shoulder season in most places.

    I’ve bookmarked this article, it will come handy when I plan to explore Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Alabama. I’d go to The Gulf State Park and have a relaxing day in Pirates Cove. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  2. Cath says:

    We live in a place that has quite a lot of beautiful beaches that are inundated with visitors during the summer months and rarely use the beach on weekends because it is just so busy, so we share your thoughts on the busy times. It looks like you live in an awesome place with heaps to do for kids in the great outdoors though. Thanks for sharing, we may even get to explore your shores in the coming months if things workout

  3. Cat says:

    Great tips! It is great to know you can find coupon books around. I usually travel off season too to avoid the crowd and heat! September sounds like the perfect time to visit.

  4. Lydia says:

    When I read the title of your post, the first thing that came to my mind was a song line ‘oh, sweet home Alabama!’ 🙂 I love reading/hearing tips from locals and these tips will come in handy when exploring the magnificent Alabama!

  5. Claude Logan says:

    Wow. What a great article. We live in Fairhope and you covered just about everything. Do you know about Dottiejo’s Shrimping Charter? They drag a net then dump the contents in the boat. The kids will see and touch shrimp, crabs, puffer fish, flounders, squids and lots more. My kids love it.

    1. Fitz5 says:

      That sounds like a great experience! I’ll have to look in to it. We have taken the kids shrimping (on friend’s boats) and it’s one of my favorite things to do. I didn’t know that there was a company that focused on Shrimping Charters. Thanks for the advice!

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