The Great Barrier Reef might not be the first family destination that comes to mind when vacationing with kids, but it definitely can be fun for the whole family. When visiting The Great Barrier Reef and surrounds, there are plenty of things to do for the whole family that do not have to involve swimming in the open ocean. Besides taking family friendly boating adventures and island excursions, there are plenty of holiday spots for families in Cairns, Port Douglas, and Townsville.

Getting to the Great Barrier Reef

Great Barrier Reef Map

The Great Barrier Reef is located along the eastern coast of Queensland, Australia in the Coral Sea. There are several port cities that you can travel to that give you access to the Great Barrier Reef. There is also a variety of family friendly activities in each port city that you can plan on doing to add to your holiday fun. Port Douglas, Cairns, and Townsville  are all popular coastal destinations with access to the Great Barrier Reef as well as local destinations and activities for the whole family. You can hire a car in any 3 of those port cities so that you can travel with your family on your own schedule.

Family Friendly Things to Do in Port Douglas

Port Douglas - Map

Port Douglas

Photo Credit: WIkipedia

Port Douglas is on the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef. You can hire a car in Port Douglas  and explore around town and the surrounds. Port Douglas is home to Four Mile Beach, which is a perfect beach resort area for families. Beach fun, boating, surfing, and fishing are just some of the activities you can do in Port Douglas. The beaches are very well patrolled by the Port Douglas Surf Life Saving Club.  There are resorts and plenty of casual dining cafes for families. Here are some of the things to do with your family near Port Douglas.

Daintree Rainforest

Nearby is Daintree National Park, home to the Daintree rainforest. You can spend a whole day exploring the rainforest; we have even highlighted this vacation spot before and you can definitely spend more time exploring the rainforest if you choose. The drive to Daintree has been described as the most spectacular coastal drives in the world where the rainforest meets the sea. The drive from Port Douglas to the park entrance is less than 30 minutes; however, if you want to extend the drive, the rainforest extends northward and the drive is up to an hour and a half. Once you arrive at Daintree National Park, there are tours available, walking tours, and you can add in some education for the kids and learn about the Aboriginal culture of the oldest rainforest in the world.

Mossman River Gorge

Mossman Gorge

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Mossman Gorge is part of the Daintree National Rainforest, but is worth mentioning as a family friendly destination. The crystal clear waters of the streams are great for swimming and wading in the refreshing waters. The Mossman Gorge’s traditional owners are the Kuku Yalanji. Make sure to book one of their Dreamtime walking tours.

The Rainforest Habitat Wildlife Sanctuary

Wildlife - Habitat

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The Rainforest Habitat Wildlife Sanctuary is located in Port Douglas. This sanctuary features 3 habitats to explore and learn about: rainforest, wetlands, and grasslands. Each habitat features animals and plants unique to it. Watch the presentations that are scheduled throughout the day and be sure to plan to have breakfast with the birds, and lunch with the Lorikeets.

Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures

Hartley's Crocodiles

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Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures is located 25 minutes south of Port Douglas and 40 minutes north of Cairns. It is a place where you can safely see crocodiles up close and personal on river boat tours. There are plenty of other animal presentations including opportunities to feed the cassowaries and koalas.

Family Friendly Things to Do in Cairns

Cairns Map


The Lagoon at Cairns Esplande Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The City of Cairns is just a little over an hour drive south of Port Douglas down the Coral Sea Coast adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef. It is probably the most well-known port city for Great Barrier Reef excursions; however, there are still plenty of things to do that the whole family can enjoy in and around Cairns. Cairns has many adventurous and fun things that the families with children can do including: rafting, hot air ballooning, horse rids, quad bike riding tours, and even bungy jumping geared to kids ages 10 and up. Here are some of the things you can do when you hire a car in Cairns  and get around town yourself.

Kuranda Rainforest


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Kuranda Train

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The Kuranda Rainforest is just a 30 minute drive from Cairns and is well worth the trip. Like the Daintree Rainforest, you can plan an entire holiday around the rainforest, but if you can only see Kuranda for a day, be sure to experience the train and Skyrail. Both of these rainforest trips give you a view of the rainforest that cannot be seen by any other way.

The Cairns Tropical Zoo

Cairns Tropical Zoo

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The Cairns Tropical Zoo is definitely a great destination for the kids. There are interactive shows and lots of hands on feeding and petting opportunities for them. You can plan on having breakfast at the zoo, or just follow the schedule of shows and presentations. In between showings, check out all of the wildlife and flora displays at your leisure. Breakfast at the zoo is a great way to start your day, get some up close encounters and ask the zoo keepers any questions you might have so that you can make the most of your time visiting the zoo.

Cairns Zoom

Cairns Wildlife Dome

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The Cairns Zoom is a ropes course above the Cairns Wildlife dome. It is located atop the Cairns’ Pullman Reef Hotel Casino. There are courses and zip lines that add some adventure to the traditional zoo experience. The Cairns Wildlife dome is home to free flying birds and about 60 species of animals including snakes, lizards, turtle, crocodiles, bettongs, koalas, and gliders.

Family Friendly Things to Do in Townsville

Townsville - Map

Townsville Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Townsville is metropolitan city on the coast of the Coral Sea. It is adjacent to the central section of the Great Barrier Reef. Don’t let the bustling urban city life fool you; the city is filled with great places to visit for families with children of all ages. Hiring a car in Townsville  will help you get around to see and do the things you want. Here are some of our suggestions for holiday adventures for families in and around Townsville.

The Strand

The Strand Water Park

Water Park Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The Rock Pool

The Rockpool Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The Strand is section of the seaside in Townsville that is a great place to look to stay while in town. The stretch of beach has pools, cafes, restaurants, a recreational park, a kids’ waterpark, a lagoon and a jetty. The Rockpool is a salt water lagoon that gives kids the opportunity to experience the salt water without parents having to worry about the waves.

Reef HQ Aquarium

Reef HQ

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Reef HQ is located right in the city of Townsville and it is the largest living coral reef aquarium. It is an excellent way for children to see and learn about the marine life of the Great Barrier Reef without even getting wet. The naturalness of the Coral Reef is maintained through exposure to the elements: precipitation, sunlight, and moonlight.

Museum of Tropical Queensland

Tropical Museum - Queensland

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

This museum always has new exhibits, so even if you have been there before, there is likely something new to see and learn about. Many of the museum’s exhibits focus on the wildlife of Queensland past and present. This is a wonderful way to escape the heat of summer and learn a little something in a creative and entertaining way.

Billabong Sanctuary

Billabong Sanctuary

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The Billabong Sanctuary is a wildlife refuge that is just 17 km south of Townsville. They say that it is the best interactive wildlife experience. They make much of the attractions interactive and educational too. Feed kangaroos, hug koalas, and participate in the talks and presentations throughout the day. Everything they do has an emphasis on conservation and preservation.

Stay tuned for part two of our series about things to do in the Great Barrier Reef with kids. Part two in our series focuses on boating, island excursions, and kid friendly tours that let kids of all aged experience the wonderment of the reef in some way.