Last summer, Dawn Balliet’s family went on vacation – just 20 minutes from home. She didn’t have to endure the incessant, “Are we there yet?” chorus from her three young girls, and she could easily sneak away for a couple hours if work demanded it. Plus, the off-season rates on Little Hickory Beach were terrific. “We get it for cheaper, and it’s like a little mini vacation,” says Balliet, who owns a local Home Watch company. “We have the best beaches in the country, so why not just stay here?” Many locals choose to “staycation” in Southwest Florida, enjoying a relaxing change of scenery while taking advantage of the smaller crowds and lower rental rates of summer.

“The off-season rates are very appealing to vacationers who live in Florida and are looking to get away but still stay in paradise,” says local Realtor Kevin Yankow, who rented the summer retreat to Balliet. “Vacation spots like Sanibel and Captiva are a good place to visit while the traffic to and from is lighter,” he adds. Balliet said her girls – ages 8, 5, and 3 – love to simply play in the sand. She’s planning to rent another place on the beach this summer, whether it’s for a long weekend or a full week. “You don’t have to deal with the crowds on the beach in the summer time,” she says.

“It’s so nice and relaxing.” The Balliets usually bring the family dogs and take them to nearby Dog Beach, so they get a chance to run free in the surf. Christine Goll and her family like to take their Chiweenie, Bella, to the dog park at Estero Community Park.

“She’s just a puppy, so she needs to run her energy out,” Goll says. “We like letting her run free.” While Bella plays, the three Goll girls – ages 9, 11, and 13 – venture over to the beach volleyball area or the big hill in the park. While they’ve nearly outgrown playgrounds, the family enjoys outdoor recreation together. The Goll’s own kayaks and often launch onto the Estero River in the morning or evening to beat the heat. “It’s really peaceful going up and down the river,” Goll says. “People are real friendly along the riverbank. Sometimes you’ll see a manatee, birds, or jumping fi sh.” The downside of summer is the heat. Many local families look for indoor activities to have some fun without working up a sweat.

Summer camps, Vacation Bible School, and library programs are the staples of summer for many Estero families with children. They also look forward to free or discounted movies offered at local venues. The Carofano family often heads to Gulf Coast Town Center on Tuesday nights for a free outdoor movie, along with $1 burgers from Bar Louie and $1 ice cream from Cold Stone Creamery. They usually catch a few $1 movies at Regal Cinema in Gulf Coast Town Center, as well. Her two daughters also enjoy free skating at Bamboozles once a week (sign up for the Skating Club).

Aimee Skolmutch started the summer with a trip to the newly opened Zoomers Amusement Park with her daughter’s graduating fifth grade class. Her girls also like to jump around at Pump It Up and participate in special events through the Lee County Library System’s Summer Reading Program. “We try to do things indoors in summer,” Skolmutch says. An array of children’s activities and summer camps are offered at the Golisano Children’s Museum of Naples (C’MON), the Imaginarium Science Center and the Edison and Ford Winter Estates. The three malls in Estero also are offering a great lineup of summer fun including outdoor movies, a talent competition, and street-corner musicians. Here are some additional suggestions for summertime boredom busters:

GET WET

If the heat makes your family want to cool down at the pool, try Sun-N-Fun Lagoon at North Collier Regional Park. Attractions include five water slides, a lazy river, an aquatic playground, tadpole pool, and a high-dive near the lap pool. The Skolmutch family likes to visit the Fort Myers Aquatic Center, where admission is just $3 for kids and $4 for adults. The center features a Junior Olympic sized competition pool and a zero-entry kiddie pool, as well as a 30-foot Slide Tower.

ENJOY THE THEATER

Broadway Palm is featuring “Disney’s Sleeping Beauty” at the Children’s Theatre throughout the month of July. For $16, children and adults can catch the show and eat a kid-friendly lunch. The cast is available for autographs in the lobby following the performance.

GO GEOCACHING

If your family hasn’t tried geocaching, summer offers the perfect opportunity. More than 50 caches are hidden near the CREW Marsh Trails and the CREW Cypress Dome Trails, and another 34 are hidden at the Bird Rookery Swamp Trails. Caches are filled with fun trinkets – if you can find them! Find GPS coordinates on www.geocaching.com and begin the hunt while enjoying a walk through the wetlands. The Golisano Children’s Museum also maintains some caches for curious kids. Visit www.cmon.org for descriptions and links to the coordinates. Geocaching.com also has coordinates to other caches around Lee and Collier counties and beyond.

TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALLGAME

The Fort Myers Miracle runs daily specials on food, beer, and soda. Sundays are always Family Fun days. Get a Family Fun Pack for $25, which includes four tickets, four hot dogs, four soda vouchers, and a game program. Enjoy pre-game catch on the field and post- game sprints around the bases. Sunday home games this month are July 14 and July 28.

EXPERIENCE NATURE & EXPLORE HISTORY

Peg Egan, the College of Life Foundation’s master naturalist, offers kayaking tours along the Estero River that includes an archaeological site tour. Explore the ceremonial center of the Calusa Indians and stop to hike their trail, rising more than 30 feet above the waters of Estero Bay. Paddle with dolphin, manatee, osprey, cormorants, and Great Blue Heron as you trace the trail of Estero’s early settlers, from the Calusa to the Koreshans ($55, all equipment included). Reservations at (239) 992-2184.

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