7 Florida Hot Spots to Visit That Don't Include Disney or Universal

With 271,000 miles of road, more than 30,000 lakes, 11,000 miles of waterways and over 1,300 miles of coastline beaches that touch the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, it’s easy to explore Florida beyond the theme parks. The Sunshine State is home to one of the 15 oldest cities in the United States, and features 11 professional sports teams from hockey to NASCAR and golf.

Econfina State Park is just one wilderness area to explore in Florida.
Econfina State Park is just one wilderness area to explore in Florida.

There’s something for everyone in Florida.

Yet ask someone what there is to see or do in Florida, and they usually think of one or two places; Disney World and Universal Studios. Those signature attractions are well worth the visit, but there’s plenty to do year-round whether during the humid summers or a moderate, 61°F January day. Here are seven favorite areas.

1. Florida’s coastline and inland lakes keep water activities on the top of any travel itinerary. Fishing proves popular from young kids to grandparents alike with the variety of saltwater, freshwater lake, and river fishing. Start by canoeing down the Econfina River, or tubing from one of the many natural springs, like the crystal clear waters of Pitt Spring along Econfina Creek.

2. Some of Florida’s best kept secrets are places the locals might tell you about over an ice cold glass of sweet tea. Take the kids to Bok Tower Gardens and explore a 200-acre garden, or the 180,000 square feet of bargain shopping at the Swap Shop. Buy the locals a slice of pecan pie, (and that is pronounced “pee-KAHN pie”) and they might tell where to find the beaches that only residents go to during tourist season, or where the Marianna Caverns are.

3. Take a family road trip along US 95 from New York City all the way down the Atlantic Coast to Key West, Florida. Once you cross the St. Mary’s River at the Florida border, US 95 will take you to some of the best roadside attractions, not on just any roadmap. Jacksonville has several including the Last Silent Movie Studio and a Giant Can of 7-UP. Of course, you can’t pass Cocoa Beach without stopping to see where “I Dream of Jeannie” was filmed.

4. Before Cirque du Soleil and its new attraction at Disney Springs, Ringling Brother Circus drew visitors to its home state in Florida. Visit the house of John and Mable Ringling, a 56 room mansion they named Ca’ d’Zan on Sarasota Bay, and step back into the roaring 20’s. No visit to Florida is complete without trying salty, fresh oysters and the best oysters come from Apalachicola, one of the most historic cities in the country. You can find the oldest masonry fort, the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, but there is much more to see as you stroll along St. George Street.

Ca'd'Zan, the Ringling Estate in Sarasota, Florida. photo c. Ringling.org
Ca’d’Zan, the Ringling Estate in Sarasota, Florida. photo c. Ringling.org

5. Check out some of the day or overnight camps at Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay. You might find yourself sleeping next to the tigers, or feeding the giraffes their breakfast the next morning, all while learning about animal conservation efforts! Want to give back this summer and have some serious fun?

6. Volunteer to be part of Paul Newman’s Camp Boggy Creek for children with serious illnesses just outside of Orlando. Want your kids to reach for the stars? Sign up for summer camp at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral where they can learn what it is like to be an astronaut. Kids who rock at guitar can sign up for one of the School of Rock camps in Florida!

7. Got sport lovers in the family? Get ready for warm up stretches if you plan on watching any of the 15 Major League Baseball teams during their spring training and playing in the Florida Grapefruit League. Be sure to air your tires and pack your helmet for one of the bicycling tours offered by Bike Florida where you will be able to see Florida without the confines of a car. If you are really feeling like Superman, you can sign up for one of the Ironman triathlon events, or just be there to cheer them on.

Still Want That Theme Park Experience?

Florida has theme and amusement parks that will fit any size family.  From Legoland to SeaWorld; Weeki Wachee Springs to Dinosaur World; or The Holy Land Experience to Lion Country Safari. No matter what your interest, there is something to do in Florida that doesn’t include Disney World or Universal Studios.

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