THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

As college students went elsewhere, Fort Lauderdale was rejuvenated

By Necee Regis
Globe Correspondent / February 15, 2004
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Five-year-old Rachel is too shy to talk, but Steel, who boasts he's "seven and a half," spits water from his snorkel, holds up a blue plastic charm he has retrieved from the bottom of the pool, and announces that this is not his first but his second snorkeling class: "The first time was in swimming class in Tennessee."

That's a long way from Fort Lauderdale, where he's taking part in "Funky Fish Kids Day." Developed by Sarah-Jayne Brown, diving enthusiast and former Londoner, the five-hour session teaches children how to snorkel in a pool and the ocean, while slipping in lessons on coral reefs and marine wildlife.

"The kids do a series of educational activities disguised as fun," says Brown, who offers a Funky Fish snorkel day at seven hotels here. Each child is fitted with professional child-size snorkels and fins, and the instructors are trained in marine biology and CPR.

The Funky Fish phenomenon is one part of a revitalized and changing Fort Lauderdale. As the epicenter of "spring break madness" in the 1960s and '70s, when thousands of college students arrived to party hard, the city's image suffered and adult tourism fell. Now that the youthful revelers have moved on to other destinations, Fort Lauderdale is reinventing itself, wooing a more cultured crowd and welcoming families.

Although baby joggers haven't totally replaced bikinis on Ocean Drive (and who'd want that?), the strategy seems to be working: Fort Lauderdale is a great place to go with children.

The ocean, of course, is the gem of the town. The main beach, between 17th Street and Sunrise Boulevard, is well maintained and accessible, with a spiffy new promenade and renovated lifeguard towers. Across the road, T-shirt joints, souvenir shops, and casual cafes offer the basic necessities: towels, sunscreen, ice cream, and boogie boards.

With 300 miles of navigable waterways in the county, Fort Lauderdale has adopted the nickname "Venice of America." The newly launched Ride the Ducks tour in World War II amphibious vehicles (yes, like the ones in Boston) provides a smidgen of history, a waterside view of sprawling mansions, and an entertaining tour of the town. Out in the wide Intracoastal Waterway, children can "steer" the boat and mug for the camera. On a recent trip, the revelry reached a riotous level as the grown-ups quacked to the theme song of "Gilligan's Island."

Public transportation also goes by water here. The Venetian-like Water Bus makes 20 stops along the Intracoastal Waterway and the New River at hotels, restaurants, and local attractions. (Pick up a schedule as they loop around only once an hour.)

Water Bus stop No. 11 is at the 15th Street Fisheries, on the Lauderdale Marina. It offers more than 15 varieties of fresh seafood including grilled dolphin, spicy peel-and-eat shrimp, and conch chowder. The outdoor deck has an eye-popping view of the towering New Bridge, which opens to let larger, seafaring vessels pass through. Not only is the food good, but taking a boat to lunch or dinner is part of the adventure.

The Oasis Express, a yellow and red tram that looks like an old steam engine, makes free hotel pickups and chugs to its four restaurants along the beach. Children particularly like the Oasis Cafe for its pizza, chicken tenders, and burgers and also because the outdoor seating is in gliders that swing.

If the beach hubbub is overstimulating, the Hugh Taylor Birch State Park is an oasis of another sort. On the north end of the commercial strip, this 180-acre park is an island of greenery dropped into urban Fort Lauderdale. The city sounds fade, and one has a sense of what Florida looked like 100 years ago.

A 3-mile road loops through the park, paralleling the ocean past mangroves and a freshwater lagoon. On a recent sunny afternoon, most visitors were on skates or bikes, not in cars. Canoes can be rented for a three-quarter-mile trip up the lagoon, though it's choked with plants and may not be as interesting to children. The short Beech Hammock trail hike, through the last significant remnant of a tropical hardwood forest in Broward County, would be appropriate for the under-10 crowd.

For older children, open water canoeing, kayaking, and boat tours are available a short drive south at the West Lake Park and Anne Kolb Nature Center.

To the west, near the edge of the Everglades, Flamingo Gardens offers another opportunity to connect with nature. Originally owned and developed as a citrus grove in the late 1920s, this not-for-profit center now aims to preserve South Florida's heritage through its 60-acre botanical park and wildlife sanctuary.

Brick and cement paths meander through towering trees and exotic palms to various exhibits, whose highlights include a half-acre free-flight aviary with five indigenous natural habitats, including coastal prairie and mangrove swamps, and the wildlife sanctuary, which has spacious enclosures for injured peregrine falcons, bald eagles, and osprey that park officials hope to return to the wild. Wander through the groves or take the narrated tram ride.

Kathy and Paul Rizzo from Geneva, Ill., were doing just that with their three children, ages 9, 11, and 13. "I like this place the best of anything we've done in Fort Lauderdale with the kids," said Paul. "It's kept their attention. We've been here for 2 hours."

Rainy day? No problem. Along the New River, the Museum of Science and Discovery has interactive exhibits and an IMAX theater with a five-story screen. The Swap Shop claims to be largest indoor and outdoor flea market with live circus shows daily. On Los Olas Boulevard, a tony street with shops that will entice parents, children can stay busy for hours painting ceramics or making mosaics (and snacking on tortillas or sweets) at Joe Picasso's.

Back at snorkeling class, Steel can't wait to get out of the pool and into the ocean.

"I want to see a blue gill," he says, his eyes widening behind his goggles.

"The hard part is keeping them from smiling," says Brown. "If they smile, the water goes in their mouths."

She's got a difficult task. It's hard to stop kids from smiling when they're having so much fun.

Necee Regis is a freelance writer who lives in Boston and Miami Beach. She can be reached at neceeregis@yahoo.com.

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