7 ideas for family fun in Panama City Beach, Florida

By: Kristin Finan
September, 2021

That crystal-clear water. That squeaky-soft white sand.  Those Instagram-worthy beachside cocktails. 

I grew up visiting the Northwest Florida Panhandle every August and, to me, it’s the ultimate summer destination –– a place where beautiful beaches, incredible seafood and high-intensity attractions combine to become an ultimate getaway. 

Thomas’ Donuts is a famous doughnut shack in Panama City Beach, Florida. Kristin Finan photo

Whether you’re seeking a socially distanced trip this fall or planning an advanced itinerary for summer 2022, here are seven ideas for enjoying Panama City Beach and all it has to offer. 

SkyWheel Panama City Beach

There are myriad ways to see the ocean along the Northwest Florida coast, but perhaps my favorite came from the top of SkyWheel Panama City Beach, a nearly 200-foot-tall observation wheel featuring 30 fully enclosed climate-controlled gondolas that offer panoramic views of that famous coastline. Each gondola can seat up to six and only your individual group will be onboard, meaning you don’t have to worry about sharing an enclosed space with strangers. Want to upgrade your experience? Try the VIP package, which includes a gondola that can hold up to four and features leather seats and a glass-bottom floor; doubled flight time; a souvenir photo; and one free drink per person. Regular tickets are $16 for ages 12 and up and $12 for children. VIP packages are $50 for adults and $35 for children. Combination packages that include access to the adjacent ropes course and minigolf are also available. https://www.skywheelpcb.com/

The SkyWheel offers panoramic views of Panama City Beach, Florida. Kristin Finan photo

RELATED: 9 incredible ideas for glamping in Texas this fall

Pier Park

After your spin around the SkyWheel, come back down to earth –– and get your wallet ready –– to visit Pier Park, a sprawling entertainment district with 124 shops ranging from boutiques to chains and a wide variety of restaurants and bars. My kids couldn’t resist a stop in I Love Sugar, where humongous gummy bears make for fun photo ops and the shelves are filled with every confection imaginable. Pier Park also has additional entertainment options including a Dave & Busters, Grand IMAX movie theater, laser tag and live music. https://www.visitpanamacitybeach.com/pier-park/

Thomas Donuts and Snack Shop

If you love doughnuts like I do (my husband proposed to me in a Krispy Kreme box), you’ll want to add Thomas Donuts and Snack Shop to your bucket list. In business since 1971, this beachside shack serves up morning staples including breakfast biscuits, muffins, sandwiches, kolaches and, of course, a wide selection of doughnuts in inventive flavors such as Key lime, red velvet, peaches and cream and Reese’s pieces. Be prepared to wait in line, and go early – popular flavors frequently sell out. http://thomasdonutandsnackshop.com/

Thomas’ Donuts is a famous doughnut shack in Panama City Beach, Florida. Kristin Finan photo

Capt. Anderson’s Restaurant and Waterfront Market

Have a hankering for seafood or steak? Don’t miss the opportunity to make a reservation at Capt. Anderson’s Restaurant and Waterfront Market, frequently named as one of the country’s best restaurants and lauded by everyone from “Southern Living” to “Wine Spectator.” The crispy-yet-supple house rolls slathered with butter are the perfect start to a lingering dinner that may also include seared jumbo sea scallops, fresh crab fingers in seasoned butter, oven-broiled lobster tails or a 32-ounce Porterhouse steak. Whatever you do, don’t pass up dessert – the sweets menu includes a dozen options ranging from crème brulee to peanut butter pie. https://www.captandersons.com/

The dessert tray at Capt. Anderson’s in Panama City Beach, Florida. Kristin Finan photo

WonderWorks

Billed as an “amusement park for the mind,” WonderWorks boasts 35,000 square feet of exhibits intended to entertain the kids while educating them, too. From standing amid hurricane-force winds and touching water that was the same temperature as the ocean when the Titanic went down in the Extreme Weather Zone to creating massive bubbles and tap dancing on a giant piano on the Light & Sound Zone, my kids hardly noticed they were learning. Make sure to snap a photo in front of the façade of the building, which is cleverly and amazingly designed to look as though it’s upside down. https://www.wonderworksonline.com/

WonderWorks is a family friendly attraction in Panama City Beach, Florida. Kristin Finan photo

Shell Island Adventure Tour

When visiting Panama City Beach, you must visit Shell Island, a 7-mile stretch of undeveloped land between the Gulf of Mexico and St. Andrews Bay. There are various shuttle services to the island, which is about a 10-minute ride from Panama City Beach, but one of our favorite ways to spend an afternoon is on the Ultimate Shell Island Adventure Tour with Paradise Adventures. In addition to offering service to Shell Island, this tour also includes one complimentary beverage; access to an inflatable watercourse (think “Ninja Warrior” on water); and use of kayaks and paddleboards. Paradise Adventures offers dolphin, snorkeling and sunset tours, too. https://paradiseadventurespcb.com/

Enjoy a cocktail on the deck at Hang Five in Panama City Beach, Florida. Kristin Finan photo

RELATED: Lessons in life and death on the beach in Port Aransas

Holiday Inn Resort Panama City Beach

For a family friendly home base, you can’t beat Holiday Inn Resort Panama City Beach, where a host of activities and amenities will delight all ages in your party. Since the resort is located directly on the beach, you can spend your day alternating between splashing in the surf, lingering in the lazy river or roasting s’mores at the beachside bonfire. The resort also offers loads of family-focused fun, ranging from dive-in movies to arts and crafts to live music. https://www.hipcbeach.com/

If You Go

Getting there:

Various airlines including Southwest offer nonstop service to Panama City Beach. If you prefer to drive, it will take you about 12 hours. 

Do:

For a break from the water, try out one of two putt-putt golf courses or make your way through a football-field-sized maze at Coconut Creek Family Fun Park, https://coconutcreekfun.com/. Gulf World Marine Park is another idea sure to satisfy all ages, https://gulfworldmarinepark.com/

Food and drink:

Dig into a stack of delectable seafood nachos and sip a sunset-hued Absolut Suntan cocktail while taking in the ocean views or playing a round of cornhole at Hang Five Beach Bar and Grill, https://hangfivepcb.com/menu. Enjoy burgers, margaritas and seafood platters galore – and stop by the adorable on-site gift shop – while singing along to live music at Runaway Island, https://runawayislandpcb.com/. Craving fish tacos, ceviche or quesadillas? Don’t miss Finns Island Style Grub, https://www.finnsgrub.com/. On the hunt for incredible seafood with wonderful ambiance? The Grand Marlin of Panama City Beach is the place for you, https://www.thegrandmarlin.com/. Need a caffeine and breakfast fix? The pastries, omelets and breakfast potatoes at Andy’s Flour Power, https://www.andysflourpower.com/, are sure to satisfy.

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