When you’re planning a vacation for your family, it can be tough sometimes to find a place that is perfect for your entire family. Kids often want one thing, while parents want something else. Luckily, Sanibel Island is a perfect vacation spot for families. But what about the island makes it so enticing for families to visit?
From beautiful beaches for shelling to countless water activities for kids, Sanibel Island is a great place to vacation for families. The Island also offers many opportunities for kids to learn and have fun at the same time. These include the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, dolphin and wildlife cruises, and more.
For a complete look at everything your family needs to know for the perfect Sanibel Island family vacation, read through our comprehensive guide below.
Table of Contents
Not only is Sanibel Island family friendly but it is tailor made for families. In 2015, Sanibel Island was named the number one family friendly vacation spot on NBC’s Today Show after the area had won two categories in a poll that was carried out in the popular FamilyFun magazine. These two categories were the ‘top tourist town’ and the ‘best family friendly vacation spot.’ There is a lot for families to see and do in the area, with an abundance of natural wildlife, as well as beautiful white-sand beaches.
One thing that Sanibel Island is famous for is wildlife refuges. In fact, more than half of the island is made up of wildlife refuges. The biggest is J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. This is a non-profit Friends of the Refuge organization that has been named after Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling, who helped found the refuge. The organization supports environmental services and education and was established back in 1976 for the purpose of protecting one of the biggest undeveloped mangrove ecosystems in the world. The refuge is over 6,000 acres in size and is famous for its migratory bird populations. Not only does the complex consist of the refuge itself but also Pine Island, Matlacha, Island Bay, and Caloosahatchee Refuges. The ecology and topography of the refuge changed significantly after Hurricane Charley in 2004.
For more on what Sanibel Island is known for, take a look at our article What is Sanibel Island famous for?
You will be spoiled for choice when it comes to things to do on Sanibel Island. From visiting famous museums to enjoying the natural life, there is something for all ages and all personalities here. Below, we are going to take a look at some of the best tourist spots in the area. However, you’re not going to be limited to what is mentioned. There are plenty of other activities, including some really unusual tourist activities, such as zombie scavenger games. You can also enjoy inshore fishing here, as well as historic walking tours, parasailing, dolphin cruises, buggy adventure tours, and much more.
The first place that we recommend visiting is Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum. This is actually the only museum in the United States that is completely devoted to mollusks and shells. The museum’s mission is to unite people to the natural world through their love of shells, as well as the incredible creatures that have created them. The museum uses their expertise, programs, and collections, to tell the story of mollusks, support scientific research, and inspire learning. You will also be pleased to know that there is an aquarium opening at Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum in 2020.
If you want to visit Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, it is open from 10 am until 5 pm, although it is closed on Thanksgiving and there are reduced hours on other holiday dates. Admission costs $7 for children aged between five and 11-years-old, $9 for young people between the age of 12 and 17-years-old, and $15 for adults. Active military and children under the age of five-years-old are able to visit free of charge. There are also group tickets available so that families can enjoy reduced prices.
One of the best things about visiting Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum is enjoying the daily programs that are offered. This includes Shell Arts & Crafts whereby you can exercise your artistic talents and imaginations through building your own shell creation. This is great for the whole family, as you will be able to create something that you can take home with you and cherish. Other programs include Live Tank Talks, where you can learn about the local mollusks from one of the museum’s experts, and Beach Walks, which take place at 9 am daily. If you go on a beach walk, it will last for an hour, and one of the museum’s passionate shell experts will talk about mollusks, shells, and other marine life that washes ashore on Sanibel. You will need to make a reservation if you want to go on a Beach Walk. Reservations are not needed for the Shell Arts & Crafts or the Live Tank Talks.
This is one of the best areas to visit when you are taking a trip to Sanibel. Sanibel Island Lighthouse is situated on the end of the island, and so not only is the attraction itself noteworthy but you will also get to see the entire tip of the island from here. It is a very popular spot, as there is a lot going on here, including a popular fishing pier and great shelling opportunities. The facilities are excellent here too, with plenty of restrooms and large parking lots for those heading to the beach.
If you are going to visit this part of Sanibel, we definitely recommend that you arrive early. Even though there are plenty of parking spaces, they do tend to fill up very quickly. From feeding the pelicans to observing ospreys, spotting dolphins, and finding some great shells, you will find that there is plenty to keep you busy all day long here. A lot of people purely take the trip here so that they can enjoy sunning themselves on the beach!
Accounting for a third of Sanibel Island, a lot of people make the trip to this area of the U.S. purely to enjoy the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. It was established back in 1945 and it is known as one of the best places for bird watching in the country. If you want to enjoy the Wildlife Drive, you will need to pay for this and do note that it is closed on Fridays. There are many different ways for you to enjoy your trip here, and so the best thing to do is to take a trip to the free visitor center. This is open every day from 9 am until 4 pm. You will get all of the information you need about the refuge and the different options that are available in terms of your adventure.
A lot of people do not realize that there are so many different activities to enjoy here. There really is something for everyone. If you would rather go on a self-guided tour, you can easily do this with the Discover Ding app, which is a wildlife spotting app that will take you through the area. Another fun way to explore the refuge is to do so using the free scavenger hunt style game. In terms of different activities to enjoy here, you can enjoy a picnic on one of the benches, make the most of fishing opportunities, go kayaking, take a tram tour, and go on the wildlife drive.
In terms of the wildlife at this 6,000 acre refuge, you are going to find more than 230 species of birds, 32 mammal species, and 51 kinds of amphibians and reptiles. Below, we will provide a quick overview of the different types of animals that you can expect to see while visiting the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.
Undoubtedly, the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge makes it possible for the Sanibel Island wildlife to thrive and visitors to the island are lucky to admire and experience it.
When visiting somewhere new, it is always nice to find out about the history of the area and the story behind its creation. This is something you are going to be able to do at the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village. The museum and village was established back in 1984 for the purpose of sharing the history of Sanibel Island and preserving the area’s story. Sanibel’s history dates back to the 1800’s when early Spanish and Calusa Indian families settled in the area. It tells of the proprietors, farmers, fishermen, adventures, and warriors that first called Sanibel Island home.
To create the village here, nine historic buildings were moved from their initial sites. Every building has been restored to the state it was originally in. There is also a replica of a garage that houses a 1927 Ford Model T truck and a Packing House. There are around 10,000 people that visit Sanibel Historical Museum and Village each year, with volunteer docents sharing their stories. Open from Tuesday to Saturday, Mid-October to July, we definitely recommend heading here. Children go free and the price is only $10 for adults.
Aside from the wildlife, something else that Sanibel is known for is the amazing beaches here. There are a lot of great beaches on Sanibel Island, so let’s take a look at them in further detail.
Another fun way to explore Sanibel Island is by bike. There are 22 miles of paved trails here, including Bailey Road-Dybes Circle, Middle Gulf Cemetery Route, Dixie Beach Road, and Rabbit Road Trail. You can also ride a road through the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. This is a 4.3 mile limestone road, which is known as Wildlife Drive. Another option is to ride your bike through Periwinkle Way, as there is a bicycle trail here. This is one of the main shopping areas on the island and there are lots of bicycle racks so you can park with ease and shop to your heart's content. It's easy to see why biking on Sanibel Island is popular among so many people.
Sanibel provides first-class paddleboarding and kayaking. Sanibel Island has been recognized in multiple publications as a top kayaking destination. In Paddler Magazine, and Canoe & Kayak Magazine, Sanibel was listed as a top destination in terms of this. There are a lot of different companies here that will be able to set you up with a kayak or paddle board. There is no better way to get close with the marine creatures and rich bird life in this part of the world. Dolphins will regularly escort your excursion, making this an experience to treasure.
If you have a restless child or a big family, dining in one of the high-end establishments may not be the best idea. However, you have nothing to worry about in Sanibel Island, as there are a lot of restaurants that not only welcome children but cater to them. The Bubble Room is a popular spot, although this is a short drive to Captiva Island. It is one of the most well-known restaurants because it is themed, featuring shadow box tables and memorabilia on the walls.
There are a number of other restaurants that cater to children as well. This includes the Lazy Flamingo, whereby children’s meals are served in flying disks. Not only does this create excitement amongst kids but this can easily be used on the beach later or act as a great holiday keepsake. Of course, we cannot talk about family-friendly restaurants in Sanibel without mentioning Island Cow. This has a comfortable atmosphere, as well as a menu that appears more like a newspaper. There are so many different meals to choose from, and so you will have no problem finding something you like to eat here, even if you have a few picky eaters in your family!
There are a number of different ways to get to Sanibel island. If you have quite some distance to travel, you will probably want to fly into Fort Myers at the Southwest International Airport (RSW), in Florida. Once you have done this, you will only need to take a short drive in order to be connected to this island paradise. Southwest International Airport (RSW) is the closest air link to Sanibel, with 20 airlines offering flights from different parts of the United States to this airport in Fort Myers.
Whether or not you choose to bring your own car or rent one on Sanibel Island is up to you and your personal situation. The island is approximately 16 square miles, so if you want to travel all over the island, you’ll definitely have to walk quite a bit or take a rideshare/taxi. With a family, this may prove to be too difficult and stressful and having your own vehicle to use will make things easier.
On the other hand, if you’re staying in close proximity to everything you plan on seeing and doing while you’re on the island, it’s feasible to forego the car. Ultimately, it will come down to personal preference and your unique situation.
The peak season in Sanibel Island is December to April, and this is definitely the best time to visit. However, we definitely recommend that you start planning early if you would like to visit during this time. Properties book quickly and you may be out of luck if you wait till the last minute. Nevertheless, this is when you are going to find the best weather for relaxing on the beach and topping up your tan.
Of course, there are people who head to this part of Florida during other times of the year, and it really all depends on what you want from your vacation when figuring out what time of the year to visit. For example, some people visit Sanibel Island in the late fall when they want to do a bit of shelling in the colder Gulf Water. It is certainly a lot more affordable to go at this time of year.
Be cautious when booking during hurricane season in Florida, which takes place from June to November. Sanibel Island has been fortunate over the years and has avoided major damage from hurricanes. Regardless, it’s a good idea to purchase travel insurance if you do happen to book your vacation during this season.
Below, is a brief overview of what to expect from Sanibel Island based on the time of year that you visit.
December - April
During this time of year, it is likely that temperatures will stay in the mid-70s. However, there have been occasions whereby they have fallen to the mid-50s. As mentioned, it is more expensive to visit the island during this peak season time of year. Nevertheless, there are a lot of people who believe it is worth the added expense because Sanibel seems a bit too quiet for them when it is out of season. There is also the popular Sanibel Music Festival that takes place in March. Booking in advance is always recommended if you are going to go in the winter season.
May - June
If you target May or June for your vacation, the earlier, the better! Shooting for May instead of June would definitely be our recommendation. One of the main reasons why people visit during this time of year is because the prices are a lot more affordable. However, June is the rainiest on the island, so you can expect to get wet without taking a dip in the sea. This isn’t a bad thing, since you’ll still be able to experience much of the island! It is worth noting that temperatures will be mid-80s on most days.
July - September
If you’re looking to have more of the island to yourself, this is one of the best times to go. Due to the threat of tropical storms and hurricanes, many visitors tend to avoid booking their vacations during this time. However, as we noted above, Sanibel Island has been fortunate over the years to avoid massive damage from these storms. If you do happen to book during this time, invest in travel insurance to protect yourself from losing your entire vacation should a storm make its way to the island.
October - November
Finally, the weather in the late fall in Florida is truly spectacular. You will see highs of 70s and 80s, as well as lows of 60. The evenings can be a bit chilly, though, so pack your sweater and do be aware that you are not going to be able to get in the water every day. You will find that this time of year is good for shelling because the tides are generally low.
Of course, you will need to find somewhere relaxing and comfortable to stay while taking a trip to Sanibel Island. It is easier than ever before to find the right vacation rental for you. You can search across many booking sites to find the perfect property for you and your family. You will want to make sure that the accommodation comes with all the facilities and amenities you need, especially if you are travelling with children. Most families look for vacation home rentals on Sanibel Island. Location is also going to be critical too. This is especially the case if you are not going to be bringing a vehicle while in Sanibel.
If you don’t have the time to conduct all of the research to find the perfect place, we can help you. Royal Shell Vacation Rentals has hundreds of vacation rentals on Sanibel Island that can match the perfect family vacation. Our vacation rental experts live in the Sanibel area and can guide you to the perfect property so that your entire family gets what they want.
A lot of people decide to incorporate Captiva and Fort Myers into their trip, especially if they are flying into the airport in Fort Myers. There are a lot of great attractions and places to visit in Fort Myers. This includes Lee County's Manatee Park, which enables you to get up-close with manatees.
If you are also going to be visiting during the peak season, it is worth trying to organize your trip so that you are in Fort Myers during the first weekend of February. This is when Artfest takes place. This is one of the most respected art events in Florida. Taking place over three days, there are 200 artist booths with over 70,000 people participating in the event.
Other places and activities that we recommend in Fort Myers include Lakes Regional Park, Fort Myers Beach Sunset Celebration, and Edison Festival of Light. In terms of Captiva Island, we have already mentioned enjoying The Bubble Room restaurant here. A giant piece of cake is a must! However, there are a lot of other things to do in the area as well. This includes kayaking in the Pine Island Sound, going on a Dolphin Watch Cruise, and spending time on the gorgeous beaches here.
If you are looking to plan the perfect Sanibel Island vacation, Royal Shell Vacation Rentals is here to help. We live and breathe Sanibel Island and the surrounding area and love to help others experience it. Our large and diverse portfolio of Sanibel Island vacation rentals ensures that we'll be able to match you to one that fits your family and your desires for a perfect vacation. All of our properties are maintained to the highest level of quality making sure that you don't encounter any issues during your stay.
So, whether you're looking for a Sanibel Island condo rental or a different type of property, we want to help you find it. Check our availability now or contact us to have one of our vacation rental experts help you find the perfect property.
Note: Sanibel Island has a 7-day to 30-day minimum stay requirement which varies by property.