Queensland is known as the Sunshine State for good reason. Here’s 15 of the best Queensland family travel experiences from tropical islands, coral reefs, steam trains, theme parks, cultural experiences, zoos, resorts and much much more!
1. SAILING THE GREAT BARRIER REEF
Explore the beautiful coral cays and reefs of the Great Barrier Reef on a day trip from Port Douglas with Sailaway. The eco-tourism operator offers a range of experiences, travelling on its luxury catamaran to Mackay and Undine Coral Cays on the Outer Reef, and the idyllic coral cay island known as Low Isles. On the latter, you can relax on the white sand beach, embark on a heritage walk to learn about the island’s nature and history, go on a glass-bottom boat tour, snorkel over coral gardens in the blue lagoon alongside a marine biologist, and swim with turtles in their natural habitat.
2. GOLD COAST THEME PARKS
For a holiday the kids are guaranteed to be talking about for years to come, you can’t beat a visit to the Gold Coast’s famous theme parks. From the rides and rollercoasters of Dreamworld to the epic waterslides at Whitewater World, it’s easy to spend a few fun-filled days here. Families can also meet their favourite stars and superheroes at Warner Bros. Movie World, and the marine life at Sea World, and see a magnificent show at Australian Outback Spectacular. Spend a day on the farm at Paradise Country and hit micro-chipped golf balls into giant targets from your own bay at Australia’s first Topgolf.
3. MARY VALLEY RATTLER
Hop on board a restored steam train at the historic Gympie Station, between the Sunshine Coast and Fraser Coast, and take in the scenery of the region on a fun-filled ride on the Mary Valley Rattler. Run by a not-for-profit organisation, the journey takes you through the picturesque town of Dagun to the historic village of Amamoor, where you can jump out and explore. The train then turns around on a turntable and heads back to Gympie Station, which is housed in an old Queenslander railway building. Learn about the stories of the old Mary Valley Railway Line at the historical display, and grab a bite at The Rusty Rails Café before perusing the train-themed treasures and local specialty products at the gift shop. The three-hour experience is wheelchair accessible and you can even bring your furry friend along with the recently introduced Pets on Board service (bookings required).
4. GREAT KEPPEL ISLAND, GREAT BARRIER REEF
Just a 30-minute ferry ride from the mainland seaside town of Yeppoon, Great Keppel Island is a nature lover’s paradise in the heart of the Southern Great Barrier Reef, with 17 white sandy beaches and sub-tropical waters that are safe for swimming year-round without the need for stinger suits. Don a snorkel and mask or book a Freedom Fast Cats glass-bottom boat tour to discover stunning coral and marine life, including giant clams, sea turtles and tropical fish.
The calm bays are also ideal for kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding, while families with older kids can try scuba diving or explore secret beaches and sea caves on a tour with Keppel Explorer. Whale watching cruises are offered between July and September, when humpbacks pass by en masse during their annual migration. The island also has a network of walking trails, ranging from a 15-minute beach stroll to a challenging 15km hike to the lighthouse at the island’s tip. Along the way keep an eye out for wildlife such as echidnas, and listen for the calls of more than 100 species of birds that call the island home, including kookaburras, rainbow lorikeets and seabirds.
You can either visit on a day trip or book a longer stay, with accommodation ranging from glamping tents and cabins to holiday houses. Favourite places to stay include Great Keppel Island Holiday Village and Great Keppel Island Hideaway. The latter has a beachfront bar and bistro, where you can dine at outdoor tables shaded by trees or in a large wooden hut.
Regular ferry services depart from Keppel Bay Marina and Rosslyn Bay Harbour in Yeppoon, just north of Rockhampton on Central Queensland’s Capricorn Coast. Or put the money you’ve saved not going overseas to good use and splash out on a scenic helicopter flight with Rockhampton Helicopters.
5. RAINFORESTATION NATURE PARK, KURANDA RAINFOREST
Watch a traditional dance performance, learn how to throw a boomerang and hear the didgeridoo played with the award-winning Pamagirri Aboriginal Experience at Rainforestation Nature Park, near Cairns. Set amidst the Kuranda rainforest, you can also do a tour of the rainforest on an authentic World War II Army Duck and meet Tasmanian devils, crocodiles and the endangered cassowary at the Koala & Wildlife Park, where you can hand-feed wallabies and kangaroos.
6. PARADISE RESORT GOLD COAST
With a jungle gym welcoming young guests in the lobby, epic water parks and activities and entertainment ranging from slime making and cupcake decorating workshops to magic shows, fancy dress parades and movie nights, Paradise Resort Gold Coast is a dream destination for families. Children will love the resort’s kids’ club, which offers separate play spaces ensuring age appropriate-care and activities for kids aged up to 12, while the new Teen Club caters for ages 13 to 17. The resort also has an adventure playground, rock-climbing wall and the only ice-skating rink in Surfers Paradise, Planet Chill.
The resort is in the middle of a major makeover, with a new adults-only pool and bar area opening mid-year. Cocktail-making classes, wine and cheese tastings, cooking demonstrations and karaoke provide parents with the opportunity to relax and unwind, child-free, while the kids are being looked after.
Families can also dine at the recently renovated eateries, including Jerry’s Burgers, Deb’s Pizza Shack and Penguins restaurant. If you can find the time to leave, it’s all walking distance from the bright lights, shops, restaurants and golden beaches of Surfers Paradise.
7. AUSTRALIAN DINOSAUR TRAIL, OUTBACK QUEENSLAND
See the dinosaur footprints which inspired the stampede in the Hollywood blockbuster, Jurassic Park, on a road trip in Outback Queensland. As well as visiting Lark Quarry in Winton, the Australian Dinosaur Trail touring route encompasses the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum, which boasts the world’s largest collection of Australian Dinosaur fossils, and Kronosaurus Korner in Richmond, which is home to Australia’s best preserved dinosaur skeleton. Meet Hughie, a skeletal Muttaburrasaurus, at The Flinders Discovery Centre in Hughenden before travelling north to Porcupine Gorge National Park to see 500 million years of layers of rock formations in this deep gorge system, known as Australia’s ‘Little Grand Canyon’.
8. LADY ELLIOT ISLAND ECO RESORT, GREAT BARRIER REEF
There’s no kids’ club and just one restaurant, but mini environmental crusaders will delight in a stay at this eco-resort, located on a coral cay at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef, just north of Fraser Island. Swim with turtles and manta rays and explore an unspoilt coral reef from your base at the family-run resort, which has a strong focus on sustainability. The resort is just a light plane flight away from Hervey Bay, Bundaberg, Brisbane or the Gold Coast and accommodation options include a unit, a glamping-style tent or in a cabin. Day trips are also available.
9. AUSTRALIA ZOO, SUNSHINE COAST
The late Steve Irwin made Australia Zoo famous worldwide, and his family is continuing his legacy with the conservation-focused attraction at Beerwah on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Watch a massive saltie launch a strike from the water’s edge at the Wildlife Warriors Show, and see ring-tailed lemurs and an incredible three-storey tree house. Venture behind-the-scenes at the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital on Bindi’s Island, where a team of vets provides lifesaving treatment to sick, injured and orphaned native wildlife. You can also visit the Tiger Temple to see Sumatran and Bengal tigers hanging out by the pool or interacting with their keepers. The zoo’s conservation projects are helping to protect species, from tigers in Sumatra and cheetahs in Africa, to saltwater crocodiles and koalas in Australia.
10. FITZROY ISLAND, GREAT BARRIER REEF
Just a 45-minute boat ride from Cairns, this affordable, family-friendly resort is the place where locals go for weekend camping trips, or to take visitors when they’re in town. Swimming with turtles just off the beach in front of the island’s only resort is not only possible, it’s a common activity. There’s plenty to keep kids entertained, with a movie theatre, games room, table tennis and a playroom. You can also hire kayaks and stand-up paddleboards, hike to lookouts, take glass-bottom boat tours, cruise to the Outer Great Barrier Reef, and enjoy scenic and sunset sailing trips. The main restaurant, Zephyr, serves modern Australian dishes with an international flavour, while the beachfront Foxy’s Bar & Grill is a more casual option, ideal for families, with bingo nights, trivia and live music throughout the week. Don’t miss a visit to the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre or the Instagram-worthy Nudey Beach, around 20 minutes’ walk from the resort.
11. COOKTOWN & CAPE YORK EXPO
After being postponed last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 Cooktown and Cape York Expo will mark the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s voyage along the east coast of Australia. The British explorer’s ship, The Endeavour, and its crew spent seven weeks in Waymburr, now known as Cooktown, after running aground on the Great Barrier Reef in 1770. The ten-day regional expo will continue the 2020 theme, built around the first recorded act of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in 1770, highlighting the region’s history, culture, visual art, performing arts and agriculture.
12. WHALE WATCHING IN HERVEY BAY
With its calm, protected waters providing the perfect conditions for humpbacks to teach their newborn calves survival skills before continuing on their long journey back to Antarctica, Hervey Bay is known as the whale watching capital of Australia. Each year thousands of the mammals hang out in the bay for up to two weeks at a time from July to November. The whales here tend to be quite curious, with more prolonged encounters than you may expect in other parts of the country. If you get really lucky, you could see playful newborns coming right up to your boat to get a closer look at their first humans. The town also hosts an annual whale festival that includes a blessing of the fleet ceremony to mark the start of the season, in late July, a whale parade and paddle-out for whales.
13. BIG4 ADVENTURE WHITSUNDAY RESORT
Boasting the largest resort waterslide park in Australia with 13 slides, a lagoon-style pool (heated in winter), two giant jumping pillows, a mini-golf course, outdoor cinema and a non-stop games and activities program, this holiday park is kiddie heaven! There is an activity guide for every week of the year, a full-time activities co-ordinator, and a kids’ club offering everything from scavenger hunts to arts and crafts. The waterpark slides come off a 2m-high platform and are linked by bridges and stairways. A massive tipping bucket sits at one end of the pool and there are fun smaller frog and octopus features for toddlers. The resort has 67 designer-decorated, self-contained cabins and 180 caravan and camping sites set amidst tropical gardens, plus there are pedal karts, a full-size flood-lit tennis court, an adventure playground, basketball, volleyball, badminton and bocce. BIG4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort even has its own animal park, where children can get up close and personal with Bambi the calf and her furry and feathered friends, including goats and chickens. Parents can also enjoy massages by the pool and wine and cheese afternoons.
14. FRASER ISLAND, FRASER COAST
The world’s largest sand island, Fraser Island has lush rainforests, spectacular sand dunes, long stretches of beautiful beaches ideal for 4WDing, and crystal clear freshwater lakes including the famous Lake McKenzie. Known as K’gari (meaning paradise) by its Traditional Owners, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed island is a 40-minute boat ride from Hervey Bay. You can camp, stay in a cabin or book into Kingfisher Bay Resort, which runs an excellent Junior Eco Rangers program during school holidays, with interactive wildlife experiences led by experienced rangers.
15. REEFSUITES, THE WHITSUNDAYS
Stay overnight in Australia’s first underwater accommodation and have a front row seat to the spectacular world of the Great Barrier Reef. Moored 40 nautical miles from Airlie Beach, the Reefworld pontoon hosts day trippers, on-deck Reefsleep guests, and the lucky few who’ll head below deck for a private, all-inclusive Reefsuite experience. The journey begins with a cruise through the Whitsunday Islands to Hardy Reef. After lunch, you can snorkel, dive, swim or take a scenic helicopter flight to see famous Heart Reef. Day trippers depart mid-afternoon and then overnight guests have the Reef all to themselves. After watching the sunset and enjoying a starlit long-table dinner on the pontoon’s upper deck, guests can retreat to their undersea accommodation and watch as the reef comes to life through the floor-to-ceiling windows.