Many people have Florida on their list of places they want to visit but they don’t really know where they want to go or what they want to do. I’m here to tell you there’s a lot more to Florida than Disney World. I will also give you a disclaimer that I do not live in Florida, nor have I ever, so while I’m not an expert on Florida, I have been there about a dozen times, all over the state so I at least know a bit on where to go and what to do.
The first time I went to Florida, I don’t even remember it at all. My mom has pictures of me in Florida when I was about two or three years old with these large white strips of bandages over one of my legs. I asked her what the bandages were for and she said, “You fell down.” Honestly, it looks like maybe an alligator tried to take my leg or something far worse than just falling down, but I never pressed her on the subject.
On subsequent trips to Florida as a child, we went to Pensacola a couple of times (which is where the photos of me with the bandaged leg were taken), Orlando to go to Disney World and SeaWorld, and Daytona Beach. When I was in college, I went to Port Canaveral, Miami, and Ft. Lauderdale. After college, I went back to some of the earlier mentioned places, plus down the keys, stopping for a week in Marathon and driving down to the tip of Florida to Key West. My brother lived in Naples for a while so I visited him one summer and explored the area around there including the absolutely stunning Sanibel Island. I later went back to Naples and I’ve been to Miami a few times. Most recently, I completed my circle of the state by exploring St. Petersburg and cities around there.
OK. So let’s get started with planning your first vacation to Florida. I’ll start with a popular choice- Orlando.
If you’ve never been to Florida but would like to go to Disney World, Universal Orlando, or one of the theme parks or attractions in the Orlando area, I’m not going to be much help here other than to refer you to someone else. There are websites entirely devoted to all things Disney; a good one is mousesavers. You can easily get lost in all of their information as it sends you deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole but it’s filled with useful information and tips. Two links on the mousesavers “links to useful Disney sites” that I also recommend checking out are Undercover Tourist and TouringPlans. Between these three sites alone, you will gain a wealth of knowledge and be better-informed for your trip to Orlando.
Next up- southern tip: Miami and Key West. First, figure out what you want to do. Do you want to party at the famous Miami clubs and dance all night then just hang out at the beach during the day? I’ve been to Miami a few times, both before kids and after kids and it’s entirely possible to have just about any type of vacation you want there, whether it’s going to nightclubs, lounging at beaches, going shopping at high-end stores and eating at only the “best” restaurants, enjoying a more family-friendly vacation with your spouse and kids, or getting out in nature and exploring Everglades National Park.
There is a long list of hotels in Miami, ranging in price and amenities from high-end to budget and everything in-between. A splurge is the Loews Miami Beach Hotel but if you want to stay in more of a historical section of Miami, stay in the Whitelaw Hotel in the Art Deco District. I suggest staying in the South Beach part of Miami if you want more of a party scene. If you choose a hotel in South Beach near Citi Bike, Miami’s bike sharing program, you won’t have to worry about renting a car and paying astronomical parking fees. Just remember, Miami’s high season runs from December through March, so prices will be higher and places will be more crowded. Regarding restaurants in Miami, honestly, the hottest restaurants change all the time, so a good place to check is Eater Miami, which focuses solely on this. For a more family-friendly long weekend Miami vacation, check out my post “Welcome to Miami”- Long Weekend in Miami, Florida.
If you want to drive from Miami to Key West (which I highly recommend), it will take about four hours on the Overseas Highway. Honestly, that alone deserves an entire post on its own. I could write up a post on driving from Miami to Key West, with where to stop, stay, and eat, but I’ll simply refer you to a well-written article by Skyscanner: Miami to Key West Drive. I concur 100% with their suggestions, especially the part that says, “we strongly suggest you spend at least a couple of days on the Keys, booking a nice hotel in Marathon.” Also visit the turtle rescue center; plus you should know the dolphin research center in that article isn’t in Marathon but nearby Grassy Key.
Beaches– Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico? This comes down to what you’re looking for in a beach area and personal preferences. The beaches on the Atlantic Ocean range from the quieter Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island in the far northeast corner of Florida and St. Augustine, to the rowdier crowds that come with Daytona Beach, to the more “refined” crowds at West Palm Beach, to Ft. Lauderdale which is known for the spring break crowds that visit every year, ultimately ending at Miami and then finally Key West.
While many of these beach areas have their charms and positive attributes, I prefer the beaches on the Gulf side. Starting in Pensacola in the northwestern side, or panhandle of Florida, you can find the powdery soft, white beaches found all along the Gulf coast of Florida. The water here tends to be a bit more clear and just prettier in my opinion. As I mentioned earlier, Sanibel Island is on the Gulf coast, as is one of my most recent discoveries, St. Petersburg. I wrote a few blog posts on St. Petersburg and the surrounding area, which you can find here: A Brief Overview of St. Petersburg, Florida- Where to Stay, What to Do, Where to Eat and here More Things to Do in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Nature and Active Pursuits- Florida is so much more than just Disney World and beaches, however. As I mentioned in my posts on St. Petersburg, Florida is filled with places for people that like to be out in nature and have more active vacations. One place I’d really like to check out is Crystal River, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours by car from St. Petersburg, depending if you take the toll road or not. There you can not only see manatees but swim in the water with them (just don’t touch them), visit the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, kayak the Chassahowitzka River, and visit the Crystal River Archaeological State Park, with remains of an early Native American settlement.
Another place you may not hear much about in Florida is Ocala, in the central part of the state, due north of Orlando. This is where Ocala National Forest lies, with more than 600 lakes, rivers and springs, including three first-magnitude springs where visitors can swim, snorkel and dive in crystal-clear waters year round.
I think I’ve highlighted the more popular areas of Florida with something for everyone. Most of all, I hope I’ve shown that Florida is much more than just Disney World and Miami Beach.
Have you been to Florida and if so where? Have you been to Florida many times but only to go to Disney (I know this is a common thing many people do; there’s certainly nothing wrong with that if that’s what you enjoy)? Is there another area of Florida that you enjoyed visiting that I didn’t mention?