We know exactly what to expect when, during our vacation to Gulf Shores, our apprehensive 2-year-old daughter Genevieve comes face to face with eight lemurs.
“No, no, no,” Genevieve says, waving them away, as a tourist from Tennessee laughs.
“Bless her heart,” she says. “You think she’s scared of them, or she just doesn’t know what they are yet?”
“Oh, she’s scared of them,” I reply. “She’s scared of all of them.”
We’re at the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo, which offers multiple interactive excursions, where with supervision guests can interact with certain smaller animals in their habitats. Along with the lemurs, you can hang with sloths and kangaroos. A trio of ’roos named Foster, Buck, and Rousey are especially cute—harmless babies—but Genevieve keeps a solid 10-foot distance from them and also tells them, “No, no, no.”
The zoo, one of the most popular attractions in Gulf Shores, is nicknamed “The Little Zoo That Could.” The first zoo to have a full hurricane evacuation, it has been battered by multiple storms, come close to closing several times, and even been featured in its own Animal Planet series, leading to an outpouring of support. A decade ago a backer donated 25 acres of land, set inland, to the zoo, to better protect it from the next, inevitable weather event. Plans to relocate there are in the works.
“Before it was, Oh, the wind is blowing too hard, we can’t go to the beach, what can we do?” says Kim Dahlgren, the zoo’s general manager. “Now people have made this a destination: Oh, you got beaches, too?”
About those beaches, though: They’re beautiful. Gulf Shores, located just eight hours east of Houston and an hour south of Mobile, is known for its turquoise waters and white, cool-to-the-touch quartz sand. On an afternoon visit Genevieve loves it, giggling and splashing in the warm ripples of the shallows on a cloudless day.
The area is the perfect spot for a family vacation. On pretty days the beach really is all the entertainment a family needs, but on bad-weather days or for a change of pace, there’s not only the zoo, but also Alabama’s largest Ferris wheel, minutes away in neighboring Orange Beach. Seafood shacks abound, and just about everyone here smiles and asks how you’re doing.
Not that it's all perfect. The morning after our zoo visit, we decide to rent bicycles and ride them along a portion of the 15 miles of easy trails inside Gulf State Park. From her perch in the baby bike trailer that I’m towing, Genevieve is restless. The midday sun sears us as we wind through the dirt paths, stopping along the way for turtles crossing the road, to look at the reeds dancing alongside the 193-acre spring-fed freshwater Middle Lake, and to attend to another toddler outburst. Her crying forces us to bypass the butterfly garden, but at least we’re getting exercise while taking in the quiet, sand-swept forests and frog-filled swamps. As we finish our ride, we pass other cyclers with grade-schoolers who are all smiles, and vow to visit again in a few years.
The last day of the trip, we try another animal encounter, driving past Gulf Shores to Orange Beach to hop aboard a boat called The Explorer, run by Cetacean Cruises and helmed by the boonie-hatted Captain Will, who will take us into Bayou Saint John to look for dolphins.
Instead of warning Genevieve that we’ll be spending two hours on board, we just pack a lot of Cheez-Its and hope it works. It does! Fueled by delicious orange crackers, she opens up. Some of the passengers talk to her, and the captain even shows her how to “steer” the boat. Older kids race to the stern after he tells us we’re near a family of dolphins; a few minutes later three of them emerge feet away from us, leaping above the waterline in harmonious arcs.
I tell Genevieve to watch for dolphins, and she catches sight of them. I’m pretty sure I hear her greet them with a hello, which melts my heart. But then they resurface, and she throws up her hands, warning them off with a “No, no, no.”
So, my daughter remains scared of animals, but as The Explorer returns to dock, she and I watch the sunset in peace. The Alabama sky is soft orange and faded purple, a perfect backdrop for family photos before we head to dinner. The next morning we sneak in a few hours at the beach before driving home. Genevieve sleeps nearly the entire way—undeniable proof of a fun family vacation.
- With a family-friendly downstairs area and more formal upstairs restaurant, James Beard–nominated Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina is known for its elevated Gulf Coast fare.
- LuLu’s Gulf Shores is a cheerfully sprawling waterfront restaurant offering great fried seafood and plenty of parrothead music and decor—which makes sense, as it’s owned by Jimmy Buffet’s sister.
- DeSoto’s Seafood Kitchen is a relaxing destination, set inside a house, that attracts dinnertime crowds hungry for shrimp, redfish, and other delights.
- The Lodge at Gulf State Park is located right on the Gulf, with a pool and easy beach access. Rooms from $240.
- For a more affordable stay, try the cozy Paradise Isle Resort, offering a pool, hot tub, and apartment-like lodgings complete with their own kitchens. Rooms from $160.
- Visit the 500 animals who reside at the soon-to-expand Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo.
- Hike or bike through Gulf State Park, home to 6,500 acres full of trails, beaches, and lakeside picnic areas.
- Spy dolphins in Bayou Saint John on a two-hour boat ride with Cetacean Cruises.
- Take a 20-minute drive to Fort Morgan & Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge to tour the historic fort, hit the beach, and visit the habitats that serve as a protection area for songbirds, sea turtles, the Alabama beach mouse, and other threatened and endangered species.
Three more Alabama destinations for families
Ten minutes down the road from Gulf Shores is another small city boasting white-sand beaches and plenty of family-friendly attractions. Adventure Island’s go-kart rides, mini golf course, arcade games, and paddle boat rides will keep the kids busy for hours. The Wharf has something for everyone: shopping, a Ferris wheel, a movie theater, and dolphin-cruise docks. And Orange Beach Waterfront Park (26425 Canal Road) features a fishing pier, playground, and plenty of space for your cookout.
Drive south from Mobile or take the ferry west from Fort Morgan to reach this 166-square-mile town plopped in the Gulf. There’s no traffic light on the island, which offers camping, hike-and-bike trails, a public beach, a bird sanctuary, a historic fort, and the Estuarium, an aquarium showcasing the plants and animals of coastal Alabama.
This coastal fishing town outside Mobile, on the Mississippi Sound, calls itself the “seafood capital of Alabama.” Attractions include Bellingrath Gardens and Home, a 65-acre “Southern estate garden,” and, each May, the Blessing of the Fleet, featuring a parade, boat-decorating contest, gumbo cook-off, and more.