Rolling waves, sandcastles and amusement parks -- it must be time for summer vacation on Alabama’s Gulf Shores. Laze away the day on the beach with boogie boards and buckets, hunt for pirate treasure and monitor sea turtle nests while learning about the Gulf Shores area’s abundant wildlife and unique ecosystems. In the evening, catch the fishing action on the long Gulf State Park Pier and take a few spins on the Ferris wheel on the wharf (the tallest in the Southeast) to celebrate all that is magical about summer at the beach.
Head 6 miles east on highway 59 for an idyllic family beach spot with rolling sand dunes, sea oats and nearly 3 miles of beaches for building sandcastles and relaxing in the sugary white sand. Need a break from the beach? The beach pavilion has a snack bar, restrooms with air-conditioning, private showers to rinse off the sand and 2 fireplaces where you can warm up after an ocean dip.
Insider’s Tip: Though it’s tempting to skip the parking lot fee for street parking down the road, avoid crossing busy Highway 182 with the kids in tow and stick to the paid lot.
Take the 45-minute ferry ride from Fort Morgan across Mobile Bay. Once at Dauphin Island, it’s just a 5-minute walk to the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. Marine science is serious business here as marine biologists share their knowledge about the Mobile Bay area’s diverse ecosystems and wildlife, including the freshwater delta and the Gulf of Mexico. Visitors can observe freshwater tanks of alligators and turtles as well as saltwater tanks filled with shrimp, clams and hermit crabs. Stroll the boardwalk and explore the salt marsh that borders the coast, and learn about the ecosystem by following the adventures of “Mr. Sand” through the various audio kiosks and panels.
Insider’s Tip: If you’re traveling with older kids curious about the environment, reserve a spot on one of the Sea Lab’s 2.5-hour coastal tours of either the area’s salt marshes or the dunes and maritime forest. The tours are only $10 a person (including a snack), but be sure to bring bug spray if you’re headed out on the Beach, Dune and Forest Excursion during the summer.
Local lore tells of pirates running amuck in the area in the 17th and 18th centuries. Set sail on a 65-foot wooden boat for a 2-hour journey to search for the booty from Hudson Marina at Skull Harbor, an active water sports marina about 11 miles from Gulf Shores. The young at heart (and especially those between the ages of 4 and 7) will enjoy face painting, pirate tales, an onboard treasure hunt, water gun fights and even battles with nearby ships. And if you’re extra lucky, the captain may even direct your attention to nearby dolphins. Parents be warned: party poopers (known in these parts as scallywags) may be tossed into the ship’s dungeon. The schedule is updated weekly on the website for the season, which runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Insider’s Tip: Infants are free, but still require a ticket to be on board. Also, parents must supply a personal life jacket for infants under 30 pounds. Coast Guard regulations also dictate that kids under 8 must wear life jackets for the entire boat ride. These life jackets are available onboard.
Endangered sea turtles visit the 47-mile stretch of Alabama coastline from Florida to Dauphin Island each summer to build nests. Volunteers start patrolling the beach in early May looking for turtle tracks from the momma sea turtle to determine where nests are located under the sand. Then from the second week of June through early October, volunteers watch the nests, and listen with stethoscopes to the sand to hear the baby turtles as they dig their way to the surface and begin their journey back to the Gulf of Mexico. Visitors can follow along on twitter @sharethebeach for breaking news on turtle activity and nest locations and go observe the volunteers and sea turtles in action.
Insider’s Tip: Nest sitting is ideal for older kids to watch, as it occurs after sunset and into the evening and requires patience and lots of quiet so as to not disturb the turtles. While the season officially runs from May 1 to Oct. 31, the prime time is from June 21 through Sept. 7.
The Track Recreation Center with go-karts and amusement rides represents the classic love/hate vacation excursion -- while it’s a no-brainer for the kids, adults may dread the long lines, loud attractions and constant begging for “just one more ride/game/trip to the snack bar.” But it’s futile to resist the lure of the Track, with go-karts, mini-golf, bumper boats, kiddie rides and arcade fun all in one spot. Fuel some family competition with a spin on the Wild Woody, a 3-story spiral wooden track. The convenient ticketing system lets you set limits and plan ahead without pulling out a wallet at every turn (the exceptions are the arcade and Skycoaster, which simulates skydiving with a 110-foot-freefall at $20 a ride).
Insider’s Tip: Save up to 10% by purchasing points online to use on rides and games. And don’t worry about overbuying -- if you somehow manage to not use them up, they never expire.
Enjoy a 2-for-1 deal from May through August when both the water park and amusement park at Waterville USA on Gulf Shores Parkway are open and share a single admission fee (and an added bonus: free parking). Spend the day slipping and sliding on looping waterslides, float in the slow-moving 1/3-mile-long lazy river, conquer the wave pool or splash around in WaWa World (but only if you’re under 42 inches). For an extra fee, catch a wave on the Flowrider simulated surfing experience. After the waterpark closes at 6 p.m., you’re allowed to stay and enjoy the amusement park rides, but you’ll need to pay a fee for each trip.
Insider’s Tip: Bringing along the grandparents or other non-riders? Pay the discounted observer fee if you don’t plan to go on any rides. No food or drinks (even water) is permitted in the park so leave a cooler in the car if you plan to bring along snacks. You may leave and re-enter the park with a wristband.