Think of Florida and, typically, a few things come to mind: the islands of the Keys, the theme parks in Orlando, and lots and lots of beaches. But that’s just the beginning. This easy-living state is home to springs where manatees congregate, underwater bioluminescent light shows, peak-experience golf courses and even a few hidden gems among the theme parks of Orlando.
Visit and you’ll see why Florida is anything but a one-and-done destination.
Swim with Manatees in Crystal River
Every winter, hundreds of West Indian manatees congregate at the springs in the town of Crystal River, an hour and 40 minutes west of Orlando by car. The easiest spring to see them at is Three Sisters, which local operator Bird’s Underwater offers guided pontoon boat tours to, along with in-water experiences. No touching of the manatees is allowed.
The Red Course at Streamsong Resort in the town of Streamsong, a two-hour drive southwest of Orlando, consistently ranks as the state’s top public golf course. Grassy dunes provide the backdrop for this challenging, anything-but-flat course with innumerable sand bunkers and water features. The spot is also a favorite for its minimalist, glass-and-steel architecture complementing the natural landscape.
Beyond Streamsong, two more worth noting are TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, 34 minutes east of Jacksonville, and PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, an hour and a half north of Miami.
Bioluminescent Kayak Tour
In the summer months, the marine bays of Titusville—an hour east of Orlando—collect massive spawnings of bioluminescence, aka tiny organisms that emit light when disturbed. Come night, kayakers can paddle into the blackness and watch as the water erupts into a light show of blue streaks. Local guide Adventures in Florida supplies the gear and know-how for this one-of-a-kind experience.
Something’s not right if you come to Florida and don’t partake of an airboat thrill ride through the swamps of the Sunshine State. The Everglades National Park is the place to go to witness the ‘rivers of grass’ as literary treasure and early Florida settler Marjorie Rawlings called them.
We like family operator Coopertown Airboats, who provides 1-, 1.5- and 2-hour private regular, sunset and picnic tours upon request. We especially appreciate that guides point out a wide range of fauna, from red shouldered hawks to snowy egrets—and, yes, gators.
Boat to a Sandbar
A quick image search of ‘Florida summer’ nets tons of photos of folks enjoying the sandbars and waterways of this island-rich state. The sandbars seem especially decadent, as loungers float in inflatable unicorn and flamingo while enjoying wine, beer or cocktails. Sure, it’d be easy to think this is a locals-only experience, but it’s open to anyone.
Renting a boat, such as Sandbar Boat Rentals‘ pontoon vessel, which comes with or without a captain, allows you to access these secret spots and have your own picture-perfect moments of escapism.
Snorkel Coral Reefs
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo hails as the nation’s only protected tropical reefs reachable by car. Stretching 25 miles in length and 70 nautical square miles across, this park packs size—and diversity. Snorkel or dive to encounter loggerhead and green turtles, eagle rays, angelfish, schools of French grunt fish and leagues more.
Plus, the park is home to the famous Christ of the Abyss statue, found in 25 feet of water where it has become one of the Florida Keys’ most beloved selfie spots.
Become a Princess
You’re lying if you say you don’t have a favorite Disney princess—and this entertainment giant sure knows how to make the most of our character fascinations. One way to treat your little one—ages 3 to 12—is with the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, offering makeovers in three locations: Disney Springs, Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, and the Magic Kingdom.
We recommend the first two, allowing you to save your paid-for park time for rides, although there is something special about being all dolled up while enjoying the park experience.
Pet a Penguin
Sea World offers a host of behind-the-scenes experiences—but they do require pre-booking. We especially like the 45-minute Penguins Up-Close Tour, which provides education about the bird as well as the chance to pet a tuxedoed guy for a photo op. Be forewarned: Their rookery is incredibly pungent—think blue cheese and feet—but well worth it to meet who you’ve come to see.
Cross into the Devil’s Den
Central and northern Florida are world-famous among cave divers for their underwater limestone tunnels. But—you don’t need to be a cave diver to appreciate the natural beauty at Devil’s Den, a massive room formed by a karst window. Swimmers and snorkelers can take a dip in the clear-water pool, 120-feet across, and 72 degrees F year-round.
Enjoy a Mermaid Show
Nearly every Floridian has a soft spot for Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, home of the stunt swimming mermaid performance show, dating back to 1947. Performers rely on hidden air hoses to stay underwater and create synchronized musical numbers. It’s a slice of Old Florida that, along with the glass-bottom boat tours of Silver Springs State Park, has remained open to the public. Beyond the show, kayak rentals are available onsite to explore the Weeki Wachee river.