There’s no denying it: Florida has a reputation. A Google search for “crazy Florida news stories” yields nearly 40 million hits, ranging from freak tragedies like the Miami “Face Eater” to hilariously bizarre crimes of passion, like the story of diaper-clad astronaut Lisa Nowak. With characters like manatee-rider Ana Gloria Garcia Gutierrez running amok, it makes sense that vacationers would seek refuge in the controlled environments of Disney World, Islands of Adventure, Busch Gardens, and other theme parks. But with ticket prices reaching unprecedented highs, it’s worth exploring the Sunshine State’s other offerings–and there are plenty.
10. The Florida Aquarium, Tampa
If the promise of a day of fun and education doesn’t sway you, the air conditioning will. Just over an hour’s drive from Orlando, The Florida Aquarium has long been one of Tampa Bay’s most beloved attractions–and with good reason. Visitors can get up close and personal with creatures they may never see otherwise, including eels, jellyfish, sharks, and seahorses. Check out the Penguin Promenade, daily at 9:45 and 2:45, and prepare to be delighted as an army of African black-footed penguins makes its way through the aquarium’s public areas. Otters and alligators populate the Wetlands Trail, reminding tourists and locals alike of Florida’s wild roots. And Explore-A-Shore, the aquarium’s 2-acre outdoor water park, lets kids burn off steam and parents cool off at the nearby Cantina bar and grill.
History buffs, couples, families, and partygoers can all find something to do in St. Augustine. Founded in 1565 by Spanish explorer Don Pedro de Menendez de Aviles, St. Augustine is the oldest continually-inhabited European-founded city in the U.S. Enjoy the breathtaking Spanish Renaissance architecture during a walking tour of Flagler College, which was once the very exclusive Ponce de León Hotel. Wander through the grounds of the Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the continental U.S., and let your mind page through its centuries of stories. Later, grab dinner and drinks on one of St. George Street’s numerous restaurants and bars, and stroll along the waterfront as the city lights up at dusk.
8. Airboat Rides, Boggy Creek
Aquariums are great, and boardwalks better. But there’s nothing like the real thing. Unfortunately, the “real thing” in Florida is usually only accessible via foot, 4-wheeler, or other nontraditional transportation. For fearless adventure-seekers, an airboat ride through the wetlands is a sure remedy for a blah vacation. Airboats, flat-bottomed vessels with large rear propellers, easily traverse shallow marshes, making them the preferred mode of transit through the swamp, where water depths can vary greatly. The roar of the propeller, fast pace, and opportunity to spot wildlife appeals to thrill-seekers of all ages. If all this sounds a little too in-your-face, fear not; airboat tours with reputable agencies like this one are safe, fun ways to experience a side of Florida that few dare to visit.
7. The Dali Museum, St. Petersburg
Don’t let the news stories fool you; Florida is brimming with culture. The Dali Museum, located on St. Pete’s gorgeous waterfront, houses the largest collection outside of Europe of the works of Salvador Dali. To call Dali an eccentric would be a grave understatement. One could argue that the Spanish surrealist strove to live his life to mirror his art–he regularly sported a cape and upturned mustache, and doted upon his pet ocelot, Babou. Since 1982, The Dali Museum has celebrated the life and work of this polarizing artist, with a vast permanent collection as well as exciting traveling exhibits. Even their restaurant, Cafe Gala, seeks to enlighten visitors. Their light Spanish entrees and tapas make it a destination that stands alone.
Though the link I provided is a great starting point, this classic road trip route is endlessly customizable to fit your interests, budget, and time constraints. It’s easy to overlook the Keys as a vacation option. Images of raucous Spring Breakers, tacky tee-shirt shops, and overhyped tourist traps have pushed folks seeking “the real Florida” away in recent years. While those stereotypes can certainly be true in some areas, a low-key (pun sort of intended) experience is yours to enjoy if you know where to look. Classic attractions like the Hemingway Home are always worth a stop. Learn to embrace the mile marker–that’s how directions are given around these parts–and set aside a few hours for exploring back roads, noshing on fresh conch fritters, and letting your mind meander through the characters and lore that have colored this unique region for generations.
5. Kennedy Space Center, Titusville
Space travel has long captured the collective imagination of Americans. It’s mysterious, thrilling, and inspiring–and there are only a handful of places in the country to really get to know it. Happily, Florida is one of them. Located less than an hour east of Orlando, on what’s known locally as the Space Coast, Kennedy Space Center gives visitors an opportunity to learn as much about space exploration as they can while keeping both feet on the ground. Catch a 3-D IMAX film on the imposing five-story screen, or strap yourself into the Shuttle Launch Experience for a realistic simulation of a launch from an astronaut’s perspective. Gaze at treasures from the space program’s heyday in the Apollo/Saturn V Center, including real spacesuits, one of Saturn V’s massive rockets, and various artifacts paying tribute to the remarkable individuals who helped make the U.S. a leader in space exploration. (Author’s note: don’t forget to pick up some freeze-dried astronaut ice cream in the gift shop! I recommend strawberry.)
4. Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, Weeki Wachee
What little girl didn’t go through a mermaid phase? Rekindle yours at Weeki Wachee Springs, a true piece of Florida kitsch. Opened in 1947, the springs were originally used by stunt swimmer Newt Perry, who used the location to create and test prototypes for hose-assisted underwater breathing techniques. Today, the springs are best known for their (possibly?) world-famous live mermaid shows, in which the lovely ladies of Weeki Wachee gracefully use their lungs of steel to act out stories and perform terrific acrobatic feats. A river boat cruise, animal shows, and miniature water park round out an active day at Weeki Wachee. Is it a little corny? Of course. But Weeki Wachee Springs is a long-loved piece of old Florida that shouldn’t be overlooked.
3. Fort DeSoto Park, St. Petersburg
I couldn’t make this list without adding a beach, and this one is a doozy. Fort DeSoto Park, located just outside of St. Pete, provides a day’s worth of activities beyond lying on the sand for hours. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that…if you like melanoma.) Fort DeSoto’s sandy, palm-dotted North Beach has been recognized as one of the top beaches in the country on several occasions by drbeach.org. Its warm, calm waters make it perfect for swimming. Once you’ve worked up an appetite, plentiful picnic areas provide a place to grill or enjoy a lunch packed from home. Two fishing piers feature bait shops and enough room for everyone. A boat ramp, 2.25-mile canoe trail, nature trail, and tour of the Civil War fort provide a variety of other activities that don’t require a swimsuit. If you’ve found too much to do for one day, stay the night at Fort DeSoto’s well-appointed campground and do it all again tomorrow.
2. Gatorland, Orlando
Folks who grew up in Florida within the last few decades have something in common: somewhere their parents’ house, buried in an album or folder, is a childhood photo of them standing at Gatorland’s iconic alligator-mouth entrance. Don’t believe me? Ask around! Gatorland is another one of those kitschy attractions that first-time visitors simply can’t miss. Celebrating Florida’s most notorious reptile, Gatorland aims to educate and entertain through live shows, exhibits, and programs. Ever consider ziplining over a crocodile pen? You can do it–safely–at Gatorland. Participate in the Gator Nightshine and observe and feed the alligators who call Gatorland’s Alligator Breeding Marsh home, or take in an alligator wrestling show. In addition to gators, visitors can enjoy Gatorland’s pythons, petting zoo, and free-flight aviary.
1. Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, Crystal River
Every year from January to March, dozens of manatees migrate to Crystal River to spend the winter in the warm, brackish water. These gentle, plant-eating mammals have long been one of Florida’s most famous threatened species, and visitors can help their numbers bounce back by observing them responsibly. Abiding by wake restrictions on boats, refraining from feeding the animals, and, ahem, not riding them (I can’t believe I have to say that at all, but here we are) are all important rules to remember. Despite the heavily regulated atmosphere surrounding manatees, watching them in the wild is still one of Florida’s great free thrills.
Did I miss some? Share your favorite Florida activities in a comment!
Balloons: Photo credit: sassy mom / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA
Flagler College: Photo credit: kmroselle / Foter.com / CC BY-ND
Space Shuttle: Photo credit: NASA / Foter.com / Public domain
Manatee: Photo credit: USFWS Endangered Species / Foter.com / CC BY