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Panama City Beach: Playground in the sun

Life is a beach and an amusement park ride in Panama City Beach. Two of life’s greatest pleasures come together in one big playground. A favorite for families, especially in spring and summer, Panama City Beach lays out a dizzying selection of parks offering kiddy rides, go-kart tracks, batting cages, paintball, laser tag, a maze, water attractions and miniature golf.

Buy Disney Tickets Deep-sea fishing off the coast of Panama City BeachEqual

in number and variety, its watersports concessions and charters accommodate with glass-bottom boat tours, deep-sea fishing, scuba diving, parasailing, kayaking, waverunning and anything else water-bound you can fantasize. Choose from a high-speed powerboat ride to a leisurely sail aboard a pirate ship or dinner cruise yacht. Divers take advantage of Panama City Beach’s reputation for shipwrecks dating back to World War II. Fishermen cast for billfish, especially during July’s Bay Point Invitational Billfish Tournament, as well as cobia, mackerel, redfish, pompano and ladyfish.

Some boating excursions take you to unbridged Shell Island for shelling, beaching and snorkeling totally away from it all. The island is part of St. Andrews State Park, and a shuttle departs from its docks for the short ride across the pass, rich with fish and other marine life. Snorkel equipment is available for rent. The park also offers beaching, fishing piers gulfside and bayside, camping, a historic turpentine still exhibit, and nature trails.

Other popular beach accesses are the expanding Aaron Bessant Park, across from Dan Russell Pier, and M.B. Miller County Pier, where the fishing is fine. The town’s beaches consistently rank high for their fishing, cleanliness, surfing waves, and pure vacation value. The beach’s best attractions lie along Front Beach Road, including Coconut Creek Family Fun Park, Museum of Man and the Sea and Gulf World Marine Park, which does educational shows and dolphin encounters.

Seaside restaurants serve fresh fish and Southern specialties. Bars and clubs keep the nightlife lively, especially during the popular ritual known as spring break. Ocean Opry Music and Comedy Show provides another sort of entertainment, everything from country to gospel, with big-name guest stars. Shops sell souvenirs ranging from T-shirts and tattoos to African art and resort clothing. Stop at Alvin’s Island, an attraction and gift shop in one. Accommodations range from cozy mom-pop places to family resorts and swanky condominiums.

Away from the beach Panama City thrives like a typical hometown. Visit Junior Museum – The Adventure Place for hands-on enlightenment that focuses on science, history, cultural studies and the environment. Outdoors, a nature trail through swampland and a pioneer farm further the educational mission.

Then drive to the heart of the city, to its historic downtown along Harrison Avenue and in the Old St. Andrews neighborhood. Church bells chime the time and old buildings hold boutiques, galleries and fun-to-browse downtown shops and eateries, including a hot dog place and an antique mall. Take in a play at the Historic Martin Theatre and stroll around MacKenzie Park, site of summer concerts. Find more theater and arts on the waterfront at the Visual Arts Center and the Marina Civic Center.

St. Andrews, the bayfront’s original settlement, lures visitors with unusual shops, salty restaurants and a bustling marina full of shrimping and fishing boats. It is stage for the annual holiday Boat Parade of Lights. In April, the neighborhood celebrates its sea bounty with a Shrimp & Oyster Festival. A cycling tour visits historic buildings and sites dating back to 1886. Hop on the Bay Town Trolley to explore the county. Entertainment awaits in the form of bowling, ice skating, greyhound racing, helicopter rides, superlative golf and nature and heritage exploration.

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In Panama City’s backyard you will find unusual parks that honor this wild and rural area. In Blountstown, visit the Panhandle Pioneer Settlement, a collection of historic log homes and other country-town structures. For deep woods recreation, take to the hiking, biking and horseback riding trails of Pine Log State Forest, Florida’s first state forest near Ebro. Favorite pastimes include picnicking, camping, fishing, boating, swimming and bird-watching. For more hiking, follow the portion of the Florida Trail currently under development along pristine, bluff-lined Econfina Creek, also a favorite with canoeists and kayakers.

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