If all the sofa sleepers in the Beaches of South Walton were placed end-to-end, they wouldn’t circle the world, but they might well stretch the 26 miles of beach that constitutes the region, between Panama City and Pensacola in Florida’s Panhandle.
Nearly every accommodation, whether it is a condominium, a beach house or a hotel room, has a sofa that makes a bed. The ubiquitous sofa sleeper is just one sign that this strip of white sand is all about families.
“This is a very family destination,” said Pamela Watkins, director of sales for Visit South Walton.
The lodging that dominates South Walton’s 16 beach neighborhoods is another hint that families come first. Hotels are in the minority; of the 10,000 accommodations in the Beaches of South Walton, 80 percent are single-family dwellings, Watkins said.
Then there are the family-aimed amenities. Some are as subtle as wooden cubbies for tiny sandals at the end of WaterColor Inn and Resort’s beach boardwalk, cane fishing poles at the lake and shelves of DVDs for loan in WaterColor Inn’s library. Others are as direct as children’s day programs, outdoor movies, and parks and pools to serve every neighborhood. Families cycle over to the resort’s beachfront and pool complexes, leaving bikes of every size and description on a large green at the foot of the beach boardwalk.
Tuned in to families
Even the region’s largest hotels and resorts are tuned in to children.
Kids jump up and down when they see the bunk-bed cubbies equipped with a flat-screen television in guest rooms at the 598-room Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort and Spa.
And the hotel doesn’t stop there. Its children’s program goes all out, rising to the occasion even during a wash-out like this past July 4, a day of endless rain. “We popped every kernel of popcorn in the county,” said one staffer.
At Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, meeting attendees with families in tow who might once have opted for beachside condos are now choosing to stay on the bayside, near the resort’s Village of Baytowne Wharf. Why? How about a carousel, a laser maze and a two-story arcade called Blast for starters. Or jugglers that entertain along the village’s streets? Or an ice cream shop called Moo La-La?
Neighborhoods to the east
The Beaches of South Walton is a happy mix of resort styles. On its east end, high-end but human-scale communities dominate. They are products of the New Urbanism movement, first brought to the region by Robert Davis, who developed the community of Seaside, in the early 1980s. New Urbanism promotes developments that are walkable and that offer services residents need and want.
It was Davis who pushed for a building height restriction to prevent future high rises in the area. That move has given the east end of South Walton an appealing scale and has prevented its beach views from being obliterated.
Along Scenic Highway 30A, the two-lane highway that courses through much of the area, little is tall and towering. Instead, visitors encounter a series of villages, each with its own personality. Many are linked by bike paths, which on some summer days are busier than the highway as children and parents pedal to pools, the beach or to fish in a dune lake.