Sure there are beaches in Central Florida. Lots of them, with miles of white sand and perfect blue waters. But there are also theme parks galore with rides that will get your heart pumping and artistic endeavours that will touch your soul. There is fine dining, cosmic adventure and off-road drama.
Stretching some 37 kilometres along Florida's stunning east coast, Daytona Beach is one of the world's most famous beaches.
From the historic timed trial that pitted wintering millionaires Ransom Olds and Alexander Winton against each other in 1903, to the present day, when famous race car drivers such as Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart compete head-to-head in the glorious race known as the Daytona 500, the Daytona Beach area has always been, and continues to be, synonymous with speed.
The early roots of the sport can be traced back to Ormond Beach, a small beach resort town located north of Daytona Beach, and its most famous resident, oil billionaire John D. Rockefeller.
Though he was too old and frail to race himself, the sport of car racing owes a great debt to Rockefeller. The richest man in the world at that time, he wintered in Ormond Beach and eventually called it home during the last decade of his life. Because of his influence, other high-society industrialists visited Ormond Beach to hobnob with the elite, play golf and soak up the sun and surf. Some playboys took their sporty cars with them to experience the thrill of opening the throttle as they zoomed down the beach.
However, there is far more to Daytona than racing playboys. The area is home to many points of interest that provide a unique fusion of history and nature.
Explore the area’s extraordinary mix of botanical gardens, historic ruins, state parks, waterways and nationally-recognized landmarks that serve as bridges into the area's colourful past.
Completed in 1887, the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and it is one of only a handful of lighthouses in the United States to have all its original buildings still standing. Located in Ponce Inlet, the Daytona Beach area’s most southernmost point, the lighthouse also features one of Florida’s largest maritime museums.
Tomoka State Park at Ormond Beach was once the site of the Timucuan Indian Village of Nocorocco. In 1766 it became the Mount Oswald Plantation. Today, the 600-hectare park offers camping, fishing, nature trails, picnic areas, a boat launch and canoe rentals for access to the beautiful Tomoka River.
Stroll amid the five beautiful hectares of vibrant, dense botanical gardens at Sugar Mill Gardens, located in Port Orange. The gardens surround the ruins of a 19th-century English-period sugar mill and they are home to 50-year-old dinosaur statues that were erected when the site was known as the Bongoland Amusement Park. In addition, Sugar Mill Gardens features a unique human sundial. When standing on the sundial, visitors can determine the time of day with their own shadow.
Of course, Daytona Beach is all about family fun. The beach itself is up to 150 metres wide at low tide, which makes it perfect for sandcastle-building, cycling, jogging, fishing or just relaxing in the sun. And while driving is permitted on some of the beach, there are four pedestrian-only zones along the coastline. The Atlantic Ocean is perfect for swimming, especially during the spring and summer when temperatures range from 23 degrees to 27 degrees.
If you and your family can manage to tear yourselves away from the beach, you'll discover one of the area's most exhilarating attractions is Daytona International Speedway.
The speedway now offers a daily one-hour tour that allows fans to experience the thrill and excitement of the world-famous super-speedway in person. Tour stops include the Daytona 500 Club, the Sprint Tower and the Sprint Cup Garage. The speedway’s Richard Petty Driving Experience even allows visitors to strap-in and take several high speed laps around the superspeedway.
New Smyrna Beach
New Smyrna Beach is the perfect location for those who want to avoid the crowds, yet be close enough to the action to plan day trips to Orlando’s theme parks, the Kennedy Space Centre or Daytona.
So what’s up in New Smyrna Beach? The surf, that’s what. After all, New Smyrna Beach rides high on National Geographic’s list of the ‘World’s 20 Best Surf Towns’.
With its 20 kilometres of drive-on sand, New Smyrna Beach boasts a gorgeous stretch of wide beach, much like Daytona Beach, but much quieter. This beach has been dubbed ‘Florida’s Best’ by Florida Monthly Magazine, as well as by readers of the Orlando Sentinel for four years in a year.
Beach-goers appreciate the tranquility, while surfers flock to the awesome waves along the eastern seaboard. This is also one of the most biologically diverse estuaries in North America, so grab the opportunity to take a closer look. Who knows, you may even come face-to-face with some dolphins and manatees.
As the second-oldest city in the state, the town of New Smyrna has been beautifully-restored and boasts a great selection of stores, coffee shops and galleries along Canal Street and Flagler Avenue. Recently renovated, these streets epitomize the city’s special hometown quality.
With seven of the world’s top theme parks and more than 100 other fun-filled attractions and outdoor recreation offerings, it’s no wonder more than 57 million visitors choose to spend their free time in Orlando each year.
Home to Walt Disney World Resort, the Lake Buena Vista area houses some of Orlando’s most iconic attractions.
Disney’s Magic Kingdom features seven magical lands with attractions, restaurants and stores. Popular attractions include Mickey’s PhilharMagic, Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and Space Mountain.
The recently expanded Fantasyland project features the new Storybook Circus area with Dueling Dumbo attractions, a Great Goofini Coaster, Under the Sea – Journey of the Little Mermaid, Be Our Guest restaurant and Casey Jr Splash 'N' Soak Station.
Epcot takes visitors to 11 nations at World Showcase and then fast-forwards them to tomorrow in Future World. Must-do rides include Mission:SPACE, The Seas with Nemo & Friends and the newly opened Test Track.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom offers exciting adventures and unique encounters with real exotic animals, plus one-of-a-kind experiences with fictional animals and giant dinosaurs. Must-do attractions include Expedition Everest, Finding Nemo – The Musical, DINOSAUR and Kilimanjaro Safaris.
Attractions at Disney’s Hollywood Studios include the American Idol Experience, Toy Story Mania!, the Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. And if that’s not enough, checkout Blizzard Beach or Typhoon water parks, DisneyQuest Indoor Interactive theme park, or Cirque du Soleil’s La Nouba show.
Alternatively, make your way to International Drive and the Universal Orlando Resort Area. This area is home to two major theme parks – SeaWorld Orlando and Universal Orlando Resort.
SeaWorld Orlando features up-close animal encounters, spectacular performances and thrilling attractions, including the new TurtleTrek attraction and the Manta and Kraken roller coasters, as well as signature shows featuring Shamu, dolphins and sea lions. SeaWorld Orlando’s biggest-ever attraction expansion, Antarctica – Empire of the Penguin is now open.
At Universal Studios Florida visitors go beyond the screen and into the world of television and film to ‘ride the movies’. Featured attractions include Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, Shrek 4-D, Revenge of the Mummy – The Ride, The Simpsons Ride, and TRANSFORMERS: The Ride 3D.
New in the International Drive Area are: Blastaway Beach at Wet ‘n Wild – Orlando; the WhirlyDome, which introduces visitors to the world’s first totally mechanized team sport of WhirlyBall; Monkey Joe’s inflatable play centre and the Rebounderz entertainment centre.
While most visitors are familiar with Orlando’s theme parks, many are unaware of the personality, character and charm that the surrounding neighbourhoods have to offer. The city has a surprising variety of communities and places to explore – from upbeat and energetic, to urban and tranquil.
Check out the Church Street area, with its trendy restaurants and eclectic shops. This is the heart of the city’s commercial and cultural core, where new high rises juxtapose Victorian architecture and a thriving nightlife scene finds its home among the historical landmarks, galleries and performing arts venues.
Then there’s one of the city’s most charming neighbourhoods, Thornton Park, which is awash with neoclassical and Tudor-revival homes. The area is also home to Dickson Azalea Park, an oasis for those who are looking for a peaceful place to contemplate Orlando’s natural beauty.
Just northeast of downtown Orlando, Mills 50 is an expanding enclave of authentic Asian restaurants, shops and markets that is home to one of the largest Vietnamese-American communities in Florida. Dozens of Vietnamese, Korean, Thai and Chinese restaurants crowd along Colonial Drive and Mills Avenue.
A short drive north of downtown, Winter Park charms visitors with its tree-shaded avenues that are a window into the world of Florida’s past. This neighbourhood was a popular retreat for well-to-do northerners who travelled south by train in the late 1800s. Go for a scenic boat tour or browse the works of Albin Polasek in the beautiful sculpture gardens.
College Park lies northwest of downtown along Edgewater Drive. With its streets named after famous Ivy League universities such as Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth, Key West-style bungalows mix with turn-of-the-20th-century mansions in this burgeoning neighbourhood that’s sprinkled with colourful shops and restaurants. On Clouser Avenue you’ll even find the home of Jack Kerouac. This is where he penned On the Road.
Located on Florida’s Atlantic Coast, the Space Coast is best known for its famous NASA Kennedy Space Center, where 135 shuttle missions were launched.
Just 56 kilometres east of Orlando, this is the city’s nearest beach, and it’s a fabulous day trip location for families who have been busy exploring all of Orlando’s theme parks. It is also the east coast surfing capital of the U.S.
Encompassing Cocoa Beach, Melbourne Beach, Palm Bay and Titusville, the coast offers 110 kilometres of beaches – that’s the longest stretch of coast in the state – as well as almost 650 square kilometres of wildlife refuge.
Bird nesting areas are found throughout the Indian River Lagoon. Located on the Atlantic Flyway, the area is within close proximity to 40 sites on the Great Florida Birding Trail. One of the country’s most popular birding festivals, the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival, is held there each January.
The end of the shuttle program may have ushered in a new era in tourism for the region, but more than 1.5 million visitors still go to the Kennedy Space Centre each year to see everything from the Rocket Garden, which displays NASA’s early space craft, to the Apollo/Saturn V Center, which houses the equipment from the Apollo missions to the moon.
There are two IMAX theatres at the centre, as well as a life size replica of a space shuttle, and the Shuttle Launch Experience, an attraction designed by astronauts that gives guests the feeling that they are actually taking off in a shuttle. Visitors also get the rare opportunity to meet veteran astronauts from NASA’s Astronaut Corps.
And now you can take a look at the retired Atlantis shuttle, which is on permanent display in a brand new interactive complex. This makes the Space Coast one of only four destinations worldwide where visitors can view an orbiter – and one of only three destinations where visitors are able to view one that travelled into space.
With its steady waves, warm weather and world-class surf shops, Cocoa Beach is recognized as the east coast surfing capital of the U.S. Eleven-time world champion surfer Kelly Slater, who was born and raised in Cocoa Beach, learned his craft on these beaches.
In historic Titusville, which was established back in 1850, you’ll find Museum Row, which includes the Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum, the American Police Hall of Fame Museum and the Space Walk of Fame Museum. One of the oldest communities on the Indian River, this nostalgic area features arts and crafts shops, clothing boutiques and a choice of riverside parks.
Just a hop, skip and a jump from all the fun of Walt Disney World, SeaWorld Orlando and Universal Orlando, Kissimmee offers a huge selection of affordable and convenient accommodation options for thrill-seekers, as well as an impressive array of family-friendly attractions of its own.
To visit Kissimmee is to visit the very heart of Florida – a family-focused enclave that’s accessible to world famous theme parks, while the Kennedy Space Center and beaches are just an hour’s drive away.
The entertainment choices on offer range from the sensory delights of nature-based experiences, to soaring to new heights in a hot air balloon or a vintage fighter from the Second World War.
For outdoor adventures, there are a number of airboat companies that take families through the marshes of Lake Tohopekaliga, a 7,000-hectare lake that is home to a wide variety of native Florida plants and animals. This is a great way to spot rare birds like the bald eagle, snail kite and heron. Boggy Creek Airboat Rides offers half-hour and hour-long excursions, as well as night rides that launch from the lake’s southern tip, while Spirit of the Swamp offers private rides that launch from the eastern banks.
If your need for speed isn’t satiated by an airboat ride, take a zipline safari at Forever Florida. Soar through the trees and enjoy a bird’s eye view of the plants and animals that call this huge nature preserve home.
For gentler outdoor pursuits, Green Meadows Petting Farm features a two-hour guided tour to see more than 300 farm animals. The kids will adore petting the animals, going on a hay ride or riding a pony. Take a picnic along with you and dine al fresco.
For thrill-seekers, the fun isn’t just to be found at the gates of Orlando’s world famous theme parks. Families can enjoy a number of thrilling rides, shops and restaurants at two of Kissimmee’s best family-friendly properties: Fun Spot USA and Old Town.
Fun Spot USA has some of the area’s best and baddest rides outside the major theme parks, from the tallest SkyCoaster – in which riders are strapped to a harness and lifted to a height of 90 metres before being dropped swinging to the ground – to its several multi-level go-kart tracks and NASCAR simulator.
Old Town also boasts a roller coaster, a slingshot ride that hurls riders into the sky and a good selection of smaller rides for the young ones. Both properties have free admission and you pay per ride, so this can be an economical way for cash-conscious families to spend a day.
Hailed as ‘Florida’s original attraction’, Gatorland is a unique place that was the first of Old Florida’s roadside attractions. Established in 1949, this theme park and wildlife preserve houses thousands of the state’s most intriguing animal residents. Families can get up-close-and-personal to these mysterious beasts in a safe environment. In addition, the park is home to the extremely rare white alligator.
The park puts on some fabulous shows, from the ‘Gatorland Jumparoo’ and ‘Gator Wrestling’ to the ‘Up-close Encounters’ show. It also offers visitors the chance to be a trainer for a day with a program that gives them insight into what it’s like to handle the reptiles.
Gatorland is also a state-designated bird sanctuary, where hundreds of birds coexist peacefully in the same lagoon as their top predator.
In the evening, check out one of Kissimmee’s famous dinner shows, like the Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament, which has been welcoming guests for decades. Don a crown and cheer for your favourite knight. Alternatively, a mix of equestrian styles supports the romantic storyline at Arabian Nights Dinner Attraction, which tells the tale of a princess and the genie who grants her wishes.
St. Petersburg & Clearwater
Visit St Pete/Clearwater
St. Petersburg and Clearwater lies on a beautiful 56-kilometre stretch of white sand that’s drenched in sunshine for a record-breaking of 361 days per year.
You could be forgiven for thinking that it’s all about the beach at St. Pete and Clearwater. After all, this is the only Florida destination to have two of its beaches, Fort De Soto Park and Caladesi Island State Park, reach the top spot on coastal expert Dr Beach’s coveted ‘America’s Best Beaches’ list.
Visit St Pete/Clearwater
However, St. Pete and Clearwater is ramping up its cultural offering. St. Pete boasts Florida’s very own ‘Museum Mile’, with some six museums in the heart of the downtown district. The Dali Museum houses the largest collection of Dali works outside of Spain, and the building’s impressive free-form architecture is a suitable homage to the imagination of the surrealist artist.
Just down the street you’ll find the Chihuly Collection at the Morean Arts Center, a permanent installation of Dale Chihuly’s iconic glass sculptures. This huge exhibition space was designed by award-winning architect Albert Alfonso, and each space was specifically created to complement each installation. A number of large-scale installations, such as Ruby Red Icicle Chandelier, were created specifically for the collection.
Then there’s the Florida Holocaust Museum, which is home to one of the few remaining railroad boxcars used by the Nazis to transport prisoners to Auschwitz and Treblinka. This boxcar rests on its original tracks and is featured as part of the ‘History, Heritage and Hope’ permanent exhibition.
At the Museum of Fine Arts you’ll find the only encyclopedic collection of art on Florida’s west coast. The 18,000 objects on display include striking works by Monet, Gauguin, Renoir, Morisot, Cézanne, Rodin and O’Keeffe.
European culture takes centre stage in Tarpon Springs. Forget My Big Fat Greek Wedding – this town offers a real education in Greek life and culture – minus the baby blue bridesmaid dresses.
What started as a small community of Greek divers has today become an area with a distinct, traditional Hellenic flavour. Tarpon Springs is the largest Greek community in the U.S., and the centre of town, the Sponge Docks, is almost a carbon copy of a traditional Greek fishing village.
Visit Tampa Bay/Robert La Follette
From its gorgeous waterfront location to the warm southern hospitality of its residents, Tampa Bay takes pride in its vibrant and welcoming spirit. Managing to effortlessly blend its rich cultural heritage with some seriously sophisticated big-city style, the area’s character is hard to match.
This is a destination to dive into – with a few close friends – so why not take the opportunity to dive with sharks at the Florida Aquarium? This is one of the few places where certified-SCUBA divers, age 15 and above, can come face-to-face with live sharks. The aquarium’s largest tank, the Coral Reef Exhibit, features warm clear water that’s teeming with massive sharks, moray eels, barracuda and a green sea turtle.
Not SCUBA-certified? Visitors age six and above can swim with the fish in a replica of one of the Florida Keys’ most beautiful coral reef dive sites. You can also observe endangered Florida manatees in their natural habitat in the warm waters surrounding TECO’s Manatee Viewing Center.
If you prefer shopping to sharks and manatees, check out Tampa Bay’s International Plaza. With more than 350 stores to choose from, those in search of quality, luxury and high fashion are sure to find the perfect fit.
Alternatively, go in search of creativity in the Waterfront Arts District, along the Tampa Riverwalk. There’s plenty to inspire, from the Tampa Museum of Art to the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts – the largest arts centre in the southeastern U.S. – and the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts.
While you’re there, don’t forget to experience the Riverwalk, a waterfront walkway along the Hillsborough River where kids jump in the fountains at Curtis Hixon Park. The walkway is a great place to ride bikes, rollerblade or take a Segway tour.
The region’s historic Ybor City was once known at the ‘Cigar Capital of the World’, producing more than 700 million hand-rolled cigars each year at its peak. Red brick buildings, wrought iron balconies and narrow brick streets give it an old-world charm that is a refreshing change of pace. Although there are only two cigar factories that are still active in this now thriving entertainment and historic district, you can still see cigars being hand-rolled as you walk down Seventh Avenue, which has been recognized as one of the ‘10 Great Streets in America’.
Keep the Cuban flavour flowing by ordering a Cuban sandwich at the ‘Home of the Original Cuban Sandwich’, the Columbia Restaurant. Follow this up by watching the restaurant’s Flamenco show. The oldest restaurant in Florida amazes its patrons with passionate 40-minute Flamenco performances every evening.
And to top it all off, get a serious sugar high at Berns’ Dessert Room. Complete with private booths made from old wine casks, an atmosphere that lends itself to after-dinner beverages and a 65-page – yes, 65 – tantalizing menu of decadent desserts. What more could you wish for?
Dates For Your Diary
Silver Spurs Rodeo, Kissimmee, February
The largest sanctioned rodeo east of the Mississippi brings all of its bull riding, steer wrestling, saddle bronc riding, bareback riding, and barrel racing to the indoor Silver Spurs Arena, along with the crowd-pleasing rodeo clown.
Daytona 500, Daytona International Speedway, February
‘The Great American Race’ is NASCAR’s signature event and it is the biggest, richest and is the most prestigious event of the year for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Lake Apopka Wildlife Festival And Birdapalooza, March
Festival at Magnolia Park, Orlando.
Bike Week, Daytona Beach, March
The ‘World’s Largest Motorcycle Event’ rolls into Daytona Beach. Featuring motorcycle shows, exhibits, concerts, racing at Daytona International Speedway and street festivals.
Shamrock ‘N Roll, New Smyrna Beach, March
Food, live entertainment, dancing and a treasure hunt along Flagler Avenue.
Firestone Grand Prix Of St Petersburg, March
The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg featuring famed IndyCar Series auto racing.
Annual Sun ‘N Fun International Fly-In And Expo, April
Polk County’s largest event of the year takes place at the Lakeland Linder Regional Airport. The Sun ‘N Fun International Fly-In is the second largest air show in the U.S., attracting some 180,000 visitors.
New Smyrna Beach Food Festival, April
There’ll be food galore and live entertainment along Flagler Avenue during the 4th annual New Smyrna Beach Food Festival.
Beach Soccer Tournament, Daytona Beach, June
USL Major Beach Soccer returns to for sun and fun on the Atlantic Coast of Florida. The annual competition opens the USL Major Beach Soccer season and brings players, families, fans and spectators to Daytona Beach.
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