1. Swimming with Manatees: One of the most unique experiences to be discovered in Florida is swimming with the manatees in Crystal River. This is the only place in the world that you can legally swim alongside the gentle sea cows. During the winter months, the manatees flock to the warmer waters within Crystal River, which significantly increases the number of manatees you are likely to encounter. Several tour operators, including American Pro Diving Center, will take you on a boat tour and provide all of the necessary equipment for snorkeling if you don’t have your own. Manatees are a protected species, so you are not allowed to feed or chase after them, but these friendly animals are known to swim up to you on occasion, giving you an extremely up-close view. If you prefer to stay on dry land to view the manatees, then Blue Spring State Park in Orange City is the next best location to spot manatees. On cold days there are upwards of 500 manatees in these springs, which you can comfortably view from the boardwalk that lines the waterway.
2. Tubing: A perfect way to spend a lazy afternoon is tubing down a river with a group of friends. Several of the most famous and popular waterways for tubing are Rock Springs in Apopka, Ginnie Springs in High Springs, and Ichetucknee Springs in Fort White (with the longest stretch of river allowing for 3.5 hours of float time from one end to the other and shuttle transportation available). The water is refreshingly cool and clear because the waters are spring-fed, which makes for an ideal way to enjoy the fresh water. Come early as these parks can fill up very quickly! Picnic tables and camping sites are also available, for when you finally decide to get out of the cool water and dry off.
3. Kayaking: Kayaking is a wonderful way to get out into nature and see a lot of wildlife in their natural habitat. Depending upon where you kayak, you are bound to see countless birds, fish, and yes, even the occasional alligator. While this may seem unnerving, alligators will typically leave you alone as long as you do not antagonize them – so keep a wide berth and you should be fine! While there are many coastal waterways to kayak along, one of my favorite inland rivers is the Econlockhatchee River. There is a gentle current to guide you along, and the occasional fallen tree to maneuver around to add to the excitement. And don’t worry if you don’t have your own kayak – companies like Econ Outfitters will provide the kayaks and even transport you back to your starting point so that you never have to worry about how to get back to your car.
4. Beaches: Florida is synonymous with beaches, and everyone has their favorite beach to choose from. I prefer the gulf coast beaches (such as Destin and Clearwater) because the water is cleaner and gentler, with beautiful soft, white sand. However, many prefer the busier beaches on the Atlantic side such as Daytona Beach or New Smyrna Beach, which are renowned for their spring break crowds and surfers. Wherever you decide to go, make sure to bring plenty of sunscreen and reapply as needed, because the Florida sun can be brutal!
5. Searching for Sea Shells (Sanibel/Captiva Island): Shell lovers from all over the world come to the islands of Sanibel and Captiva off of Florida’s gulf coast to search for shells. Due to the broad underwater shelf with gentle currents, these beaches are a prime spot to discover countless intact shells of all shapes and sizes. The best time to go shelling is during low tide when more of the shore is exposed, especially after a strong storm passes through. As a general rule, the smaller seashells are found on the Lighthouse end of the island chain on Sanibel, while the larger shells are nearer Captiva and North Captiva. Among the species you may find include conch, whelk, cockle, scallop, murex, tulip, sand dollar, and the elusive junonia. Happy hunting as you join everyone in the “Sanibel Stoop” stance while searching for shells!
6. Everglades: Florida is home to just one UNESCO World Heritage Site – the tropical wetlands of the Everglades in southern Florida. This unique ecosystem is not found anywhere else on earth, and is caused by water from Lake Okeechobee forming a vast and slow-moving river flowing southward across the state. There are a variety of ways to discover the Everglades, from the guided tram tour of Shark Valley, to walking along the boardwalk trails of the Anhinga Trail and the Gumbo Limbo Trail. Park rangers offer canoe trips along the wetlands where you can paddle through the mangroves and spot alligators and birds along the way. Take your time and enjoy the sights and sounds of the wildlife, and you will be surprised at how much incredible nature there is to see! And if you want a break from all the nature tours, take a guided tour of the Nike Hercules Missile Base HM-69 which is a remnant of the Cold War where you can walk through the missile assembly building, storage barns, guardhouse, and underground control room (between December and March only).
7. Bioluminescent Kayaking: Florida’s Indian River lagoon on the east coast is the most reliable spot in the entire continental United States to see bioluminescence. There are two types/seasons of bioluminescence in Florida, so it is important to time your trips appropriately. During the warmer months of May to October, bioluminescent plankton (dinoflagellates) turn the water a ghostly bluish-green when the water is disturbed by paddling or by swimming fish. The winter months between November and March are the prime months to see the glowing Comb Jellies. Because these tours are dependent upon dark skies, the ideal time to go is during a new moon when the light is minimal. There are several outfitters that offer various tours (kayaking, paddleboarding, rafting) such as A Day Away Kayak Tours, BK Adventure, and Get Up and Go Kayaking, but book in advance as these tours can fill up quickly.
8. Snorkeling / Scuba Diving in the Florida Keys: The Florida Reef is the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States, and the third largest reef system in the world. This makes Florida the ideal spot for snorkeling and scuba diving to see the colorful fish living within the reef. Most of the Florida Keys have easy access to portions of the reef, so there are many places to go to explore the reef. Some of the best locations are Looe Key, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, Alligator Reef, and Dry Tortugas National Park. You are liable to see parrotfish, angelfish, eels, barracudas, dolphins, rays, invasive lion fish, the occasional shark, and numerous other tropical fish and corals. And for those who are able to scuba dive, there are also plenty of shipwrecks to explore. Many boat operators are available to take groups out to the reefs, so you should have no problems participating in this relaxing and immersive adventure.
9. Hiking: Hiking is available year-round in Florida, although the months between November and March are the prime hiking months to avoid the oppressive heat and afternoon thunderstorms. There are hundreds of hiking trails available throughout the state, most of which can be found within state parks and preserves, where wildlife spotting is at its best. Make sure you bring sun protection and insect repellent as both can be brutal depending on the time of year. While there are many excellent trails to explore, some of the top-rated hiking trails in Central Florida include the following:
· Little Big Econ State Forest (Geneva): contains trails through the forest which meander along a river designated an Outstanding Florida Waterway
· Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary (Naples): a 2.25 mile long continuous boardwalk through a pine flatwood, wet prairie, a marsh, and the largest old-growth bald cypress forest in North America with many chances for bird and animal watching
· Circle B Bar Reserve (Lakeland): a former cattle ranch that boasts of plenty of wildlife throughout their oak hammock, freshwater wetlands, and marsh habitats, with especially an abundance of water birds and alligators
· Orlando Wetlands Park (Christmas): a man-made wetland with trails along the marsh and through the cypress swamp which are renowned for bird watching
· Ravine Gardens State Park (Palatka): several miles of hiking trails wind around the ravines in this park, which is known for their azaleas lining the trails (peak blooming season is between January and March)
· Little Manatee River State Park (Wimauma): contains 6.5 miles of shaded, looped trails through several habitats with abundant wildlife and river views. Additionally, there are 12 miles of shared equestrian/hiking trails to explore, and plenty of kayaking along the river
10. Silver Springs State Park: These springs were the first tourist attraction in all of Florida, and several old Hollywood movies were filmed here including six Tarzan movies, Rebel Without a Cause, and Creature from the Black Lagoon. While you can kayak and canoe along the waterways, the most popular way to experience them is on the famous glass-bottom boats which enable you to see all of the sparkling clear waters below. During these boat tours you are likely to see alligators, manatees, turtles, and plenty of fish and birds. Several old movie props were left behind in the waters as well as Native American and Spanish artifacts, which can all be seen through the glass bottom of the boats. After your journey along the springs, there are hiking trails to enjoy, a small museum devoted to local natural history, and a Cracker Village replica of a 19th century pioneer settlement to explore.
11. Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour: Nestled amidst the beautiful town of Winter Park is Lake Osceola, which is the starting point for this relaxing hour-long boat tour along the rivers and canals which connect the waterways. During this boat ride you get to see native Florida wildlife and learn about the history and owners of many of the million-dollar mansions that you pass along the way, including the home where Fred Rogers (Mister Rogers) used to live. The tour guide intersperses silly humor along with interesting nuggets of information about the area, and this boat ride is a great introduction to the town and history of Winter Park.
12. Florida Caverns State Park: You may not expect a state with the lowest elevation to house a walkable cave system, but Florida is full of surprises! Florida Caverns in Marianna has your one opportunity to explore natural caves in Florida and admire the stalactites and stalagmites adorning the interior. The interior is a cool 65 degrees year-round, so this is a perfect way too cool down on a hot day. In addition to the cave system, the park has plenty of hiking trails, although Hurricane Michael destroyed much of the canopied forest in 2018, leaving a broken shell of what it once was, but regrowth efforts are in full force.
13. Fossil Hunting: Millions of years ago, Florida used to be submerged under the sea, resulting in an accumulation of marine animals on the sea floor over the millennia. As the sea levels receded, it became possible to hunt for exposed fossils in specific regions of the state, including Peace River in Wauchula. A fossil hunting permit is required to search for vertebrates, but tour companies like Paleo Discoveries will take care of that for you. Join a professional guide to find the best spots along the waterway to dig and sift for fossils. You are likely to find an abundance of shark teeth, and maybe even a coveted Megalodon tooth if you’re lucky! The best time of year to go is during the dry season (from October through April) when the water levels are low, making it easier to dig the river bottom.
14. De Leon Springs State Park / Old Spanish Sugar Mill: Make sure to come early and come hungry to this local institution at the springs! The line for a table starts to grow very quickly, because the pancakes served here are delicious and a fun experience for the entire family. Griddles are built into the tables, and the all-you-can eat pancake batter is brought in large jugs for you to prepare just the way you like them. With the choice of many toppings to add to the pancakes, as well as other sides such as eggs, sausage, and bacon, you will leave feeling like you ate too much, but it’s worth every calorie! Afterwards, you can take a ride on the pontoon tour boat to float along the De Leon Springs and learn about the native wildlife while keeping an eye out for alligators and birds. There is also a large swimming area, kayak rentals, hiking trails, and many other ways to spend the day and stay active after your gluttonous breakfast.
Animals and Wildlife
15. ZooTampa at Lowry Park: This top-notch zoo in Tampa encompasses 56 acres of naturalistic animal exhibits in a tropical setting. The zoo has sections devoted to Asia, Africa, Australia, and Florida, caring for more than 1,100 animals, many of which are endangered or threatened. There are four aviaries within the zoo and an impressive Primate World with an extensive collection of monkeys, orangutans, lemurs, and more from around the world. The Asia section contains tigers, an Indian Rhino feeding encounter, and leopards, while the Africa section has giraffe feedings and a safari tram ride through the exhibits for plenty of animal sightings. In addition to all of the animals, there are several rides as well, including a flume ride and a tiger coaster for the whole family to enjoy.
16. Zoo Miami: The largest zoo in Florida is located in Miami and houses over 3,000 animals within over 100 exhibits. The zoo is separated into five main sections: Asia, Africa, Amazon, Australia, and the Florida Everglades, all linked by a monorail to provide easy access around the park. Some of the most popular animals include tigers, elephants, giraffes, hippos, rhinoceroses, jaguars, and koalas. There is also an aviary featuring 300 rare birds of 70 species that you can walk through. For those who enjoy up-close animal encounters, there are opportunities to feed and interact with tortoises, giraffes, camels, rhinos, and parrots.
17. Brevard Zoo: This is a compact zoo located in Melbourne that has a surprising amount of wildlife available to see, divided into four main regions. In Expedition Africa you can feed giraffes, watch the hilarious meerkat colony, admire the rhinoceroses lumbering around with zebras, and spot some elusive cheetahs. Other sections include Wild Florida, The Rainforest (South America), and Lands of Change (Asia & Australia) with plenty of exotic and interesting animals to admire. For an added perk, the zoo offers a kayaking adventure through Expedition Africa where you can see many animals from the water, really making you feel like you’re seeing the animals in the wild on a safari.
18. Gatorland: Come to this Alligator Capital of the World for up-close adventures with alligators and crocodiles. They have wild jumparoo shows to demonstrate how high the gators can jump out of the water to catch food that the handlers are dangling by hand. In addition to reptiles, Gatorland also has several Florida panthers and bobcats that have been rehabilitated and deemed as non-releasable, and are now on display to teach the public about these endangered animals. Throughout the park they also have a petting zoo, tortoise feeding opportunities, ziplining above the gator swamp, and off-roading on monster vehicles. For the truly brave, you have the opportunity to feed the gators and even have a photo-op with a full-sized gator!
19. Giraffe Ranch: Deep in the heart of Dade City lies a unique ranch with exotic creatures straight from the savannahs of Africa. There are several ways to explore the ranch – by camel, Segway, or jeep. Your experienced zoo guide will take you through the ranch and explain all about the animals you see along the way. You really feel like you’re on a wild African safari much more so than anything you can experience at the zoo. There are ostriches, zebras, giraffes, rhinoceroses, and plenty of other animals to encounter on this safari adventure. Afterwards, you even have the opportunity to feed the giraffes, lemurs, otters, rhinoceroses in a one-of-a-kind adventure – hand feeding a rhinoceros and feeling it’s slobbery mouth, and then getting the chance to hose it down for a refreshing bath is an experience not to be missed!
20. Single Vision: This wildlife facility is operated by Carl Bovard, and he truly has a passion for animal welfare and conservationism. He rescues these animals from situations where previous owners can no longer take care of them, and he gives them a loving home with massive enclosures to roam. He specializes in large felines (lions, tigers, bobcats, panthers, etc) but also has several bears, lemurs, kinkajous, and other exotic animals. You can join Carl on a guided tour of his facility and learn about each of the animals that he lovingly cares for. He does not allow breeding at his facility, but occasionally he will rescue a young tiger or lion, which affords you a unique opportunity to play with the cubs while they are still young. There are many questionable facilities in existence, but you can rest assured that these animals are exceedingly well taken care of, and Carl devotes his entire life to education and taking care of his animals.
21. Lion Country Safari: You can visit the wild lands of Africa simply by visiting Lion Country Safari in Loxahatchee and doing a self-drive through their safari habitats. This preserve is separated into seven sections, each with various exotic species that you would typically see in Africa, including zebras, lions, giraffes, rhinoceroses, impala, ostriches, and many more. While you drive along at your own pace, expect to spend about 90 minutes on this drive-thru safari, spotting all the animals and getting some amazing photos. Afterwards, be sure to check out their adjoining Safari World park, where you can see more animals in a small zoo environment, feed and pet some of the animals, and enjoy other fun amenities like mini-golf, boat rides, and a splash park.
22. Butterfly World: These butterfly and bird gardens in Coconut Creek are your best opportunity to see over one hundred different species of butterflies all in one location. The massive tropical rain forest enclosure is the highlight of the park, and every step you take there are dozens of butterflies flittering about. There are reputedly more than 20,000 butterflies at any given time, so you are bound to get some amazing photos, especially when they land on you. There is also an area where you can see butterflies emerging from their hanging chrysalises as they take their first flights through the air. In addition to the butterflies, there are several aviaries where you can see colorful birds and have the chance to feed some of them as well.
23. Sea Turtle Egg Laying/Hatching: One of Florida’s greatest natural wonders are the endangered sea turtles that nest along the sandy beaches. During the summer months, several sea turtle species (most commonly the loggerhead, green turtle, and leatherback species) emerge from the sea at night and climb up on to the sand. The sea turtle will then dig a deep hole and lay dozens of eggs into the hole, cover it back up with sand, and then head back out to sea. Months later, after surviving numerous dangers and hazards, baby sea turtles will hatch from the eggs and waddle their way back to the ocean. They are guided by the moonlight, which is why it is so imperative to turn off outdoor lights during the hatching months, so as not to draw the hatchlings away from the sea. There are several conservancy groups around Melbourne (Sea Turtle Conservancy and Sea Turtle Preservation Society) that will allow you to join them on guided turtle walks at night to see the egg-laying/hatching cycle of the sea turtle. Having the opportunity to see these amazing creatures up close is a wonderful opportunity and helps to instill an appreciation for preserving nature for future generations.
24. Gatorama Gator Hatching Festival: This festival in Palmdale occurs each August when the incubating gator eggs begin to hatch. You are given an egg that is on the verge of hatching, and are able to hold it as the little gator chips his way through the shell and emerges from the egg. You may not think of alligators as adorable, but holding a cute baby gator in your hands will make you change your opinion! Gatorama also has numerous adult gators as well, where trained handlers feed the gators in dramatic and entertaining shows that will make you hold your breath in suspense. There are plenty of other reptiles and native Floridian creatures to see while you’re here, and if you’re feeling brave you can even get a photo next to an adult alligator or even be a gator handler for a day and feed them yourself!
25. Theater of the Sea (swim with dolphins and sea lions): This marine mammal park in Islamorada within the Keys offers many shows and interactions with the animals. Their biggest attractions are the dolphin and sea lion shows and interactions, where you can even swim with either of these mammals. In addition to the marine mammals, they also have alligators, sea turtles, sting rays, sharks, and parrots that you can interact with in various ways. If you prefer to relax instead, they have beaches to enjoy or you can snorkel in their lagoon.
26. Two Tails Ranch (elephants): At this ranch in Williston, you are able to take a tour of the facility and see the ex-circus elephants living out their carefree retirement years. The owner has been taking care of elephants her entire life, and is happy to tell you fascinating stories about her unique experiences. There is also a special “extreme encounter” tour where you spend several additional hours on a private tour, and have the opportunity to feed and even get down and dirty and wash the elephants during a good scrubbing. This hands-on tour is an experience you will never forget!
27. Lubee Bat Conservancy: This bat conservatory located in Gainesville provides the unique opportunity to view some of the largest and most endangered species of bats in the world. They house 200 bats representing 13 species, and you are allowed to enter the screened enclosures for up close viewing of the bats. This is a unique experience that is educational and will help you to appreciate the importance of bats and realize they are not the scary creatures that the media portrays them to be.
28. Big Cat Rescue: The crazy year 2020 started off with the release of the wildly popular Netflix show Tiger King which featured the owner of Big Cat Rescue (Carole Baskin) and caused her to become a household name. Despite all of the drama that occurred during the Netflix show, this feline rescue facility is actually an entertaining place to visit if you are interested in seeing many types of exotic felines, from lions and tiger to servals and caracals. While here you join a guided tour as you’re led around the extensive grounds of this facility to see cats that have been rescued from poor living situations.
29. Wild Florida: Located in Kenansville, Wild Florida has many activities for the whole family to enjoy. There is the drive-thru safari park where you can see a combination of over 100 native and exotic animals wandering throughout the grounds. And if you enjoy it enough to go through again, you are allowed to make the loop as many times as you want at no extra charge. Adjacent to the safari is their Gator Park which is a walk-through portion of the zoo which houses many types of animals including some massive alligators. They have a petting zoo area, and an opportunity to have some special hands-on animal encounters with sloths, porcupines, lemurs, and safely feeding the alligators. They also offer animal show times where you can see expert animal handlers feed the hungry gators in a daring encounter! Lastly, Wild Florida also offers airboat rides along Lake Cypress where you can see wild alligators and birds in their native and untamed habitat.
30. Ocala Horse Country: Ocala is prestigiously known as the Horse Capital of Florida, and one of the five official Horse Capitals of the World as well! Many winning horses were born and/or trained in Ocala, including American Pharoah (2015 Triple Crown winner) and Nyquist (2016 Kentucky Derby winner). For horse enthusiasts, visiting the horse farms of Ocala is a definite must, and there are over 1,200 horse farms located here. Gypsy Gold offers two-hour walking tours of their farm where you can meet the prized horses and learn about the history of the Gypsy Vanner breed. For a more generalized tour, Farm Tours of Ocala offers a 3-4 hour tour where you visit three different farms, get to interact with the breeders and their horses, and learn about the racing industry. Horse breeding is a huge industry in Ocala, and these tours offer excellent behind-the-scenes glimpses into their workings.
31. Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park: This 210-acre park provides the opportunity to see Florida’s wildlife in a natural setting along 1.1 miles of paved trails and boardwalks in Homosassa. This park is a rehabilitation center for injured manatees and other animals, enabling visitors to see black bears, panthers, red wolves, bobcats, Key deer, river otters, alligators, and even a hippopotamus at close range. The underwater observatory allows visitors to see the manatees and thousands of fish in the crystal-clear spring waters.
Museums / Arts & Culture
32. Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg: This impressive museum in St. Petersburg is one of Florida’s greatest art museums and a definite must-see for any art enthusiast. Over 20,000 works of art are on display throughout the many galleries, ranging from ancient history to modern contemporary arts. The collection includes paintings and sculptures from famous artists such as Monet, Rodin, O’Keeffe, Corot, and Morisot. Also on view are ancient Greek and Roman, Egyptian, Asian, African, pre-Columbian, and Native American art and objects. Major internationally touring exhibitions are frequently on display as well, providing compelling reasons to visit the excellent collections time and time again.
33. Ringling Museum of Art / Ca’ d’Zan: Designated as the official state museum of Florida, this museum located in Sarasota is one of the preeminent museums in the state. The art museum is reminiscent of a European palace and contains more than 10,000 artworks including a world-renowned collection of Peter Paul Rubens paintings, and many 16th to 20th century European paintings by Bernini, Gainsborough, Boudin, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and others. In addition to the art museum, this estate contains the Circus Museum which has an extensive collection of memorabilia and artifacts from the Ringling circus, including the Ringling’s private train car and a massive yet intricate model of the circus. There are several gardens to amble through within the 66-acre estate, the historic Asolo Theater, and the Ringling’s mansion called the Ca’ d’Zan. This waterfront mansion was built in the Venetian Gothic style, and offers tours that explore this decadent house. Make time to tour Ca’ d’Zan because its interior is spectacular, especially the Ballroom with the coffered ceiling, the breathtaking Court which was the centerpiece of the house, and the extravagant dining room.
34. Dali Museum & Chihuly Collection: These two separate art museums are located in St. Petersburg and are each dedicated to their appointed artists. The Dali Museum houses the largest collection of Salvador Dali’s artwork outside of Europe, located inside a surrealism-inspired museum structure which is a treat to walk through. The collection contains 96 oil paintings and 200 watercolors and drawings that span the artist’s entire career, and it is a mind-bending experience to view and admire all of these iconic paintings from one of the most eccentric artists of his time. Afterwards head down the block to view Dale Chihuly’s collection of studio glass artwork. His colorful and uniquely shaped glass sculptures were revolutionary and have become centerpieces in many buildings, and this collection showcases his expressionistic genius combined with the fluidity of glass, forming beautiful works of art.
35. Local Theater: Central Florida has so many venues for live theater performances that it can be difficult to choose where to visit. Because the theme parks attract so many people associated with the performing arts to this region, there is a large pool of excellent talent throughout the area. The Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts is the state-of-the-art theater that draws all of the national theater tours and also houses many local performing arts productions within its modern architecture. The Orlando Shakespeare Theater puts on superb local productions of both the classics and modern plays, housed within several intimate theater settings. The Garden Theatre in Winter Garden is another stand-out venue with excellent musical and dramatic productions within a former single-screen cinema building that still retains its unique Spanish style interior. Regardless of which venues you choose to go, you should always try to support your local theaters as much as possible to ensure their longevity!
36. Morse Museum: Located in the historic district of Winter Park, the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art has a decent collection of art and furniture. But the true standout feature of this museum is the renowned collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany, including his colorful leaded-glass lamps and windows, his beautiful chapel interior from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, as well as several surviving art and architectural objects from his Laurelton Hall estate.
37. Orlando Museum of Art: The centerpiece of this museum is a large multi-colored Chihuly glass sculpture which is prominently displayed in the foyer. My favorite permanent collection of this museum includes the 900+ pieces of pre-Columbian artwork from throughout Central and South America, including pottery, jewelry, and textiles. Temporary exhibitions are continually passing through the museum, so be sure to look on their website for their upcoming exhibitions to make sure you don’t miss any excellent showings.
38. Norton Museum of Art: With over 7,000 works of art in its collection, with a concentration in European, American, and Chinese art, the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach is the largest museum in Florida. The ground level galleries showcase contemporary American art, while the top floor is dedicated to European art through 1870. The museum houses works by famous artists such as Rubens, Monet, Gauguin, Cezanne, Picasso, Miro, O’Keeffe, and Pollock. The extensive Chinese collection has over 700 pieces of art, including colorful vases, decorative wine ewers, bronzework, and jade jewelry. There is much art to be seen in this extensive museum.
39. Kennedy Space Center: Blast off into space at this facility in Merritt Island that has loads of rockets and space paraphernalia for everyone to enjoy. The highlight of this trip is the space shuttle Atlantis exhibit which still gives me goosebumps every time I visit. The Apollo/Saturn V Center showcases the gigantic Saturn V rocket which will inspire awe in everyone that stands in its shadow. From IMAX movies, to launch simulators, to behind the scenes tours, to astronaut meet and greets, there are numerous activities to fill an entire day of enjoyment. Time your visit just right, and you may get to experience a rocket launch up close as well – there’s nothing like seeing and hearing a rocket launch, while feeling the rumbling vibrations course through your body!
40. National Museum of Naval Aviation: Located in Pensacola, this is the world’s largest Naval Aviation museum with more than 150 meticulously restored aircraft representing Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard Aviation. Some of the rare aircraft include the NC-4 (first to cross the Atlantic by air), SBD Dauntless (from the Battle of Midway), the Que Sera Sera (first aircraft to land at the South Pole), the last combat Tomcat F-14D Tomcat, and many more! For a more immersive experience, the museum offers 3D flight simulators, 4D Blue Angels experience, and a thrilling Apollo 11 virtual reality experience. If you’re lucky, on select days you may even get to watch the Blue Angels flying practice runs overhead and meet the pilots afterwards!
41. Polk Museum of Art: This small art museum in the heart of rural Lakeland packs quite a punch in regards to the impressive traveling exhibitions that pass through the walls of this museum. Past exhibitions have included Dutch Golden Age paintings, American Impressionism through the French Lens, Illuminated Manuscripts from the 13th to 18th Centuries, works by Degas, Chagall, Picasso, and more. And best of all, the museum is always FREE to visit! I feel like this is one of the best kept secrets of Central Florida.
42. Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens: This fine arts museum in Jacksonville houses a collection that is especially strong in European and American paintings as well as an extensive selection of Meissen porcelain. There are over 5,000 works of art on display within the museum, with pieces by Rubens, Winslow Homer, and Norman Rockwell. In addition to the artworks, there are three small gardens adjacent to the river (English Garden, Italian Garden, and Olmstead Garden) among which visitors can stroll and admire the city views from a quiet and serene vantage point.
Historic Homes & Architecture
43. Vizcaya Museum & Gardens: This former villa and estate of businessman James Deering is located in Miami and open to the public. The estate contains extensive Italian Renaissance gardens, native woodland landscape, and a stone barge in the harbor used to host parties. The main house was completed in 1922 and was conceived as a modern and subtropical interpretation of an Italian villa. The first floor contains to ornate and elaborate reception rooms, the library, music room, dining room, and courtyard. The second floor contains the spacious bedrooms, as well as the breakfast room and kitchen. Even today, Vizcaya has one of the most significant collections of Italian furniture in the United States, with awe-inspiring designs and architecture throughout the villa to admire as you step from room to room.
44. Henry Flagler Museum: Opened in 1902, this 75-room, 100,000 square foot Gilded Age mansion called Whitehall was the winter retreat of Henry Flagler located in Palm Beach. Flagler was a founder of Standard oil and later was a railroad magnate who became one of the richest men in the United States, allowing him to spare no expense while building his home. Today you are able to tour the house with most rooms fully restored to how it looked at the turn of the century. The ground floor has many rooms that are resplendent with beautiful decorations and stunning grandeur, most notably the Grand Hall, Grand Ballroom, Dining Room, Music Room and Library. The second floor contains the elaborate bedrooms as well as some small museum exhibits about the Flaglers and the Gilded Age. Walking through the house is reminiscent of a European palace, and is a way to experience a taste of Europe while in Florida. Adjacent to the house is the massive Beaux-Arts style Pavilion which contains Flagler’s luxurious, private rail car that you can walk through to see how he traveled in style on his railway.
45. Edison & Ford Winter Estates: Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were great friends and eventually purchased adjoining properties in Fort Myers upon which they built their winter estates. The current estate contains over 20 acres of historic buildings and gardens to walk through, with excellent museums devoted to both of the famous men. In addition to seeing the homes as they were when Edison and Ford lived there, the museums cover the achievements of Ford (automobiles) and Edison (many inventions including the lightbulb, phonograph, kinetoscope, etc) for an informative look at their lives. One of the true jewels of this estate is the Edison Botanic Research Laboratory where he sought a domestic source of rubber that could be grown and produced quickly in the United States, and this laboratory was left as if Edison was expected back at any minute, with test tubes and beakers on display. Finally, don’t forget to wander through the gardens which contain more than 400 species of plants from all over the world.
46. Hemingway Home / Harry S. Truman Little White House: Ernest Hemingway’s home is nestled in the heart of Key West and is where this troubled author resided in the 1930s. You can wander through the grounds and take a guided tour throughout his house, learning about the man who became one of America’s greatest writers. Found in abundance are the many cats that take up residence on the property, including the famous polydactyl (six-toed) cats which are all descendants of Hemingway’s original polydactyl cat named Snow White. A short distance away from Hemingway’s home is Harry Truman’s home – the only presidential museum in Florida. In the days following WWII, Truman made this home his winter abode and spent 175 days of the presidency here between 1946 and 1952. While he wasn’t the only president to stay here, he spent the most time here which is why the house is now named after him. Informative guided tours are available through the house, which has been restored to how it looked when Truman stayed here, and is a great way to walk through a piece of American history.
47. Frank Lloyd Wright Architecture Tour: To view the largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture in the world, simply head over to Florida Southern College in Lakeland for a student-led tour of the 13 structures he designed. This in-depth tour gives you the rare opportunity to see the structures up close and explore the unique buildings. Some of the most well-known structures include the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, the library, the Usonian house, and the water dome fountain. Even if you’re not an architecture buff, this tour is very interesting, and you will walk away with a new appreciation and considerable knowledge about this famous architect and his distinct style.
48. Art Deco District in South Beach: As a result of a devastating hurricane that largely destroyed Miami in 1926, the city was rebuilt in the current Art Deco style of the time, and it remains a treasure trove of authentic Art Deco architecture today. The district is only one square mile, but contains over 800 examples of Art Deco for onlookers to admire in this compact area. Some of the most dramatic and prominent buildings overlook the beach on Ocean Drive, allowing for impressive views from the beach. Several famous examples include The Carlyle, The Breakwater, Colony Theatre, Park Central Hotel, and Senor Frogs, but there are hundreds more buildings on display. In addition to the architectural wonders, there is one of the world’s most famous beaches to enjoy, as well as plenty of high-end shopping and dining within this district.
49. Tampa Theatre: Voted one of the 10 most beautiful cinemas in the world by the BBC, this historic movie theater opened in downtown Tampa in 1926 and is still in use today, typically showing independent and foreign films. Inside the building lies an opulent interior with a Mediterranean-style courtyard and a ceiling dotted with twinkling stars to simulate an outdoor venue beneath the romantic nighttime sky. In order to get a better understanding of the history and architecture of the building, 90-minute backstage tours are available several times a month, offering guests unrivaled access to the theatre as well as a demonstration of the Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Organ.
50. Henry B. Plant Museum: When railroad mogul Henry Plant brought the railroad to Tampa, local businesses began to thrive, necessitating the construction of a grand hotel in 1891 for the surge in visitors. The resulting Tampa Bay Hotel exemplified America’s Gilded Age and has 511 rooms that were built with all the latest technology and luxuries of the time, including electricity. While the hotel was converted to the University of Tampa campus in 1932, it still houses many original furnishings and a large portion of the building remains as it was in the 19th century. Walking through the many rooms, you are afforded a glimpse into the lifestyles of upper class Americans at the turn of the century. The self-guided audio tour adds extra insight into all of the exotic antiques that were imported from around the world, as well as the hotel’s role in the growth of Tampa.
51. Flagler College: Currently the site of a private liberal arts school in St. Augustine, this historic building was once known as the exclusive and luxurious Ponce de Leon Hotel. Built by oil tycoon Henry Flagler and completed in 1888, this ornate building is designed in the Spanish Renaissance style and was one of the first buildings in the US to be wired for electricity. The student-led tour brings you through the courtyard to admire the exterior architecture, the grand lobby with its dome ceiling supported by hand-carved caryatids, the dining room with 79 Tiffany stained glass windows and hand-painted murals along the walls and ceiling, and the Women’s Grand Parlor with its fancy chandeliers and clock. This tour is a wonderful combination of history, architecture, and artistry on display.
52. Bonnet House: Bonnet House was built in 1920 by Frederic Bartlett and named after the Bonnet lily which fills the ponds around the house located in Fort Lauderdale. The gardens surrounding the house are like an oasis within the city, and is a great way to slow down and relax within one of the last examples of native barrier island habitat in Florida. You may even spy several of the monkeys that call these gardens their own! The house has an unusual and eclectic design created entirely by Bartlett himself, and is full of color and oddities from their travels displayed throughout the house.
53. Zip Line Adventure: Deep in the heart of Ocala lies Canyons Zip Line & Canopy Tours which has several different zipline tours across the lakes and ravines. Opt for the full tour with 9 ziplines, 2 sky bridges, and a rappel for the full adventure package, or choose the shorter tours if you simply want a taste of ziplining fun to allow more time for the other options here. The longest zip line is over 1100 feet long and 130 feet high, so you will catch a lot of speed and have amazing views over the lake while on this exciting journey. You can also participate in horseback riding, kayaking along the lake, or gem mining for the little ones. This is a great way to actively enjoy the Florida wilderness and get your adrenaline going!
54. Hang Gliding (Wallaby Ranch): If you are wanting to experience a true thrill in Central Florida that isn’t found within one of the theme parks, look no further than Wallaby Ranch in Davenport! Just south of Disney lies a facility where you can catch a ride on a tandem hang glider with an experienced guide. Because Florida is so flat, your hang glider is attached to a small plane, which then pulls you 2000 feet up into the air. Once disconnected from the plane, you catch the breeze and gently soar above the landscape in a serenely calm flight. Depending upon how brave you are, your guide can let you steer and practice dives, which adds plenty of additional adrenaline to an already exciting flight! This is the closest you will ever come to feeling like a bird, and it’s an unforgettable experience.
55. Skydiving (or iFly): For the ultimate thrill that adrenaline junkies will love, you simply need to jump out of a perfectly good plane! At Skydive Space Center in Titusville, you can participate in a tandem jump from a height of 18,000 feet, which is the world’s highest allowable jump. Plus, they have special permission from NASA to fly over the launch pads, allowing for some amazing views are you are ascending in the plane on your way to reaching altitude. As dangerous as it seems, skydiving with a trained professional is relatively safe, and it will be an experience that you never forget as you freefall toward the ground at 120 mph. Once the parachute is released, it’s an easy and gliding descent the rest of the way, allowing you to finally appreciate your surroundings. In case skydiving is simply out of the question for you, then a tamer alternative would be iFly Orlando on International Drive, where you can simulate freefalling with the help of a massive wind tunnel, even though you’re never more than a few feet off the ground at any time.
56. Hot Air Balloon Ride (or Disney’s version): Be prepared to set your alarm for a very early start if you want to ride in a hot air balloon. Liftoff is completely at the whim of Mother Nature, so you will not know until the last minute if the weather will be conducive for a flight. Be prepared to accept that you may not get to ride on your first or second attempt, but it is well worth the wait once you do get to launch. After arriving at the company’s meeting point (such as Orlando Balloon Rides), you will be driven to a field where you get to watch roaring jets of flame inflate the hot air balloons, which is an impressive sight to see. As the sun begins to rise, you still climb into the bucket and prepare for lift off. The balloon suddenly rises off the ground in an act of defiance against gravity, and you begin your graceful ascent into the sky. Grazing out into the horizon, you get to see a bird’s eye view of the landscape as you slowly pass overhead. This is a thrilling experience and a wonderfully exhilarating ride for those that are not scared of heights. However, if a tamer version that is tethered to the ground is more your style, Aerophile at Downtown Disney offers a helium balloon ride that gives you an excellent view of the surrounding Disney parks, with the safety leash always attached.
57. Airboat Ride: One of the most quintessentially Floridian activities is to take a ride through the swamp on an airboat ride, and there are many places that this can be done. At the Black Hammock in Oviedo you can take a ride across Lake Jesup which is reputed to have the state’s densest population of alligators. After taking a wild ride across the lake with many wildlife viewing opportunities, you can try out the restaurant located on site which is well known for its selection of alligator menu items. Another great airboating opportunity is in Boggy Creek, which in addition to its airboat rides also offers fossil and gem mining/sifting for children, as well as a native American village to learn about the indigenous peoples and their heritage. Further south in the Everglades is another excellent airboating experience at Billie Swamp Safari, which also has a safari park with many native animals, swamp buggy rides, and wetland adventures.
58. Biplane Ride at Fantasy of Flight: Unlike any other plane ride you’ve ever been on, a biplane ride sits you in the cockpit of a WWII-era plane for a wild ride through the clouds! These planes are open to the sky, allowing you to feel the wind whipping through your hair as you soar high above the ground on this adventurous flight. After you set back down on the ground, there is a large hangar museum filled with vintage aircraft that’s sure to interest anyone that’s curious about aviation history.
59. Rocket Launch: While the space shuttle program has come and gone, that doesn’t mean that your opportunity to see space launches has ended. Quite the contrary! SpaceX is launching rockets and astronauts into space on a regular basis, so the odds are good that you will be able to see a launch if you plan ahead. While these launches are visible from throughout Central Florida on a clear day, your best option is to head out to the coast and see the launch up close. Most SpaceX launches take off from launchpad 39-A which is clearly visible from the Kennedy Space Center’s Banana River viewing bleachers if you are able to book in advance for the best views. Otherwise, anywhere along the coast still offers excellent views of the liftoffs. The thrill of seeing the rocket take off, followed by the deep rumble as the sound waves reach you and fill your body with vibrations is an unforgettable experience. Daytime and nighttime launches are distinctly different viewing experiences, and both should be seen if you have the chance.
60. Castillo de San Marcos / Fort Matanzas: The Spanish began constructing the current fort in 1672 to replace an earlier wooden one that was destroyed in St. Augustine. The Castillo de San Marcos fort is the oldest masonry fortification in the United States and has been used in many wars over the years. Today you can walk along the imposing walls encircling the entire fort for free, but there is a fee to enter the interior that is well worth it. Upon crossing over the drawbridge and entering the fort, you truly are stepping back hundreds of years into the past and getting a firsthand view of America’s beginnings. Within the fort you learn about how it was constructed from coquina and can wander into the many rooms including the chapel, storage rooms, guard rooms, powder magazine, and the British Room. There are many interesting exhibits detailing the history of the fort and the living conditions of the soldiers stationed there. Walking along the upper level gives you excellent views across Matanzas Bay, and allows you to see the cannons positioned along the walls to defend the fort against attackers. There are cylindrical bastions at each of the four corners of the fort that you can enter, which served as protected guard towers to scan for approaching ships. If you have additional time, make plans to visit Fort Matanzas, a coquina watchtower just south of the city that protected the rear of the city and is also open for tours.
61. Fort Clinch: Located on Amelia Island, Fort Clinch is one of the most well-preserved 19th century fortifications in the country, and was used during the Civil War and Spanish-American wars. Within the fort you can tour five bastions, a prison, bakery, blacksmith shop, hospital, kitchen, and barracks, all furnished just as they would have been in 1864 during the Civil War. In addition to the buildings, you can climb the ramparts and walk along the thick walls for great views of the ocean and the massive cannons along the walls. This fort is a wonderful walk through living history, with employees reenacting daily life as soldiers in the fort, and this is the most interactive fort in Florida that you can visit.
62. Historic St. Augustine: Founded in 1565 by Spanish explorers, St. Augustine is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the entire United States. This town is packed with historic sites to see, from numerous old houses and buildings to explore (Pena-Peck House, Old Jail, Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse, Oldest House Museum), to the infamous Fountain of Youth that Ponce De Leon claimed to have found, to old forts guarding the city. There are museums around every turn, with the Lightner Museum, the Spanish Military Hospital Museum, and the Villa Zorayda Museum being some of the stand outs to visit. But the true quintessential heart of St. Augustine is the pedestrian shopping area along St. George Street with dozens of quaint shops and eateries interspersed among the historic sites. The Colonial Quarter is a step back in time to get a firsthand view of how early settlers lived, as you walk through a colonial settlement complete with blacksmithing demonstrations, live musket firing, and many more interactions. This city is a true example of history and culture combined in an entertaining manner, and should be a requirement for every Floridian to visit.
63. Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas: Fort Jefferson was built on Garden Key within the Dry Tortugas National Park as a military fort to protect the major shipping lanes off Florida’s coast. Despite construction starting in 1846 and ending in 1875, the fort was never fully finished or fully armed, although it remains the largest brick fort in the United States. There is a daily ferry that leaves from Key West, allowing visitors to spend about 4 hours on the island exploring the fort which includes the barracks, magazines, walls, and museum, while still allowing for time afterwards to swim and snorkel in the surrounding reef. Alternatively, there are sea planes and private boats that can be hired to take you to and from the island as well. This is a great escape to learn about Civil War history while enjoying the natural beauty of this unspoiled section of the Florida Reef.
64. Ponce Inlet Lighthouse & Museum: This brightly colored Venetian Red lighthouse is the third tallest lighthouse in the United States at 175 feet and was built in 1887. You are able to climb all the way to the top and have a great view of Ponce Inlet and the beautiful surrounding coastal areas. Afterwards, there are several historic buildings to explore that make up part of the museum complex, where you can view the previous mirror lenses of the lighthouse and learn about the lighthouse’s history. There is so much more to see than just a lighthouse, and it’s a fun visit for everyone!
65. Historic Pensacola Village: There are 28 properties spread across 8.5 acres of downtown Pensacola which was one of the first European settlements in the Americas. The houses and museums within this historic village encompass many different styles and time periods, from Colonial to Victorian to WWII, all with furnishings authentic to the time. For anyone who loves walking through history and admiring old houses, this is the perfect destination for you! People in period dress are wandering about to answer any questions and bring the experience to life. In addition to the historic village, Pensacola has several other must-see sites that are ticketed separately, but enhance your visit to old Pensacola: Fort Pickens, Fort Barrancas, the Pensacola Lighthouse, and the archaeological Arcadia Mill.
66. Sugar Mill Plantations: Along the Florida coastal region between Daytona Beach and New Smyrna Beach lie the ruins of twelve sugar mill plantations. These plantations were active in the 1830’s and processed sugar cane into refined sugar, molasses, and rum. During the Seminole Wars that occurred during this time, the Native Americans ended up burning all of the mills to the ground in retaliation for being forcefully evicted from their tribal lands. Nowadays, only the ruins of coquina walls remain standing, but these are still a fascinating look at the history of the sugar making process that unfortunately relied entirely on slave labor before it was abolished. The ruined sugar mills of Bulow, Dunlawton, and Cruger-dePeyster are the best examples to visit, and these visits can be coupled with leisurely nature hikes along the trails located at each of these three sites. For visitors to Florida’s west coast, the Yulee Sugar Mill Ruins in Homosassa are an excellent example with restored remains of the chimney, iron gears, and cane press to see.
67. Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Musem (Seminole Indians): Located in Clewiston deep in the heart of the Everglades, lies the Big Cypress Reservation which is the home of the Seminole tribe. Within this reservation is an educational experience to learn all about these Native Americans and their way of life. The museum holds exhibits featuring native artwork, handicrafts, and artifacts, as well as traditional clothing that is worn by the Seminoles. There is a boardwalk through the surrounding landscape, along which you can walk through a living village and ceremonial grounds. If possible, try to catch one of the Pow-Wow festivals where there are ceremonial dances and traditional costumes being worn for the general public to attend.
68. Fort Christmas: While the aforementioned forts dwarf this location in size, this location in the iconic small town of Christmas houses a full-scale replica of a wooden fort built during the Second Seminole War in 1837. Nowadays it houses museums of Florida’s history, Seminole tribe artifacts, as well as a collection of restored “Florida Cracker” houses and farm buildings that showcase the pioneering life in Florida by early settlers. Throughout the year, many festivals take place on the grounds of the fort, where you can see reenactments and enjoy bluegrass music festivals. It’s a great way to step into Florida’s past and bring the pages of Patrick Smith’s book “A Land Remembered” to life, a must-read book for anyone interested in a fictionalized experience of Florida’s early pioneering days.
69. Koreshan State Park: Originally the home of the Koreshan Unity Settlement which was founded by Cyrus Teed in Estero, this unique religious group gradually dissolved after his death in 1908 and eventually deeded the land to the state in 1961. Today you can visit the remaining historic structures and learn about the Koreshan way of life as they strove to create their “New Jerusalem”. Guided tours are available which give you deeper insight into their beliefs, and access into several of the structures. Among the 11 restored historic buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries include the Founder’s House, Planetary Court, Bakery, and Art Hall. During certain times of the year, there are live demonstrations of blacksmithing, baking, and the old machinery that still is in operation. The state park also has a campground with access to canoe and kayak rentals, hiking trails, and picnic areas within the 200-acre park.
70. Leu Gardens: Within the heart of Orlando lies an oasis from the bustling noise of the city. Visit Leu Gardens and explore 50 acres of nature’s beauty within the Rose Garden, Tropical Steam Garden, the Butterfly Garden, and more. These gardens are most famous for their largest documented camellia collection in Eastern North America, with over 200 varieties that bloom from mid-October through March. Additionally, there is a lovely historic home that you can explore on a guided tour. And here’s an added bonus – if you become a member of the Leu Gardens for a very reasonable price, you receive reciprocal privileges to American Horticultural Society partners, which includes free admission to over 300 gardens nationwide (including several of the gardens on this list!)
71. Bok Tower Gardens: These massive gardens located in Lake Wales are presided over by a 205-foot art deco and neo-Gothic Singing Tower carillon that is played by a live person every day. This tower makes for a beautiful backdrop in your photos and is quite an impressive sight to see. The gardens were designed by famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead (who also designed Central Park and the Biltmore Estate gardens), and allow you to ramble through many acres of beautiful landscapes as you explore the flora and fauna throughout the estate. Additionally, you can take a guided tour through the Mediterranean-style Pinewood Estate mansion located on the property.
72. Sunken Gardens: This tropical paradise in the center of St. Petersburg is a wonderful respite from the rest of the city. You can meander around the 100 year old gardens and explore the exotic plants and flowers throughout. The gardens are deceptively large and you can easily spend one or two hours in here exploring all of the paths and enjoying the lush scenery. There are also koi ponds and a flock of flamingos to admire within the gardens. Well worth a visit if you are in the area!
73. Morikami Museum & Japanese Gardens: The museum building at the entrance is modeled after a Japanese villa and features exhibitions of Japanese art and culture with hundreds of authentic artifacts on display. The main reason why people visit is to wander through the 16 acres of meticulously designed gardens throughout the property located in Delray Beach. There are plenty of strolling paths that meander through the lakes, bonsai garden, zen garden, bamboo groves, and other buildings. This is a serenely relaxing way to spend a pleasant afternoon admiring the beautiful views and surroundings, while learning a little about Japanese culture in the meantime.
74. Marie Selby Botanical Gardens: Comprised of two separate locations, the Downtown Sarasota campus is a wonderfully large garden complex with various gardens to walk through. The tropical conservatory houses an extensive collection of orchids and bromeliads, and the banyan grove has a multilevel treehouse garden complete with a waterfall. Other notable gardens include the bamboo garden, butterfly garden, and the mangrove walkway along Sarasota Bay. The second location of the gardens is their Historic Spanish Point campus which is more of a walk through history as you can see an ancient Native American midden mound excavation, as well as several historic homes to explore such as the Guptill House, the White Cottage, and Mary’s Chapel. While there are several gardens interspersed along the walking paths, they are not the primary draw to this campus, and far fewer visitors come to this site.
75. Goodwood Museum & Gardens: Goodwood Plantation was a medium-sized cotton plantation of about 1,675 acres back in the 1830s, but the gardens and property only comprise 19 acres nowadays. The plantation is a historic house museum in Tallahassee that you can visit on guided tours, with rooms beautifully decorated as they would have appeared in the years surrounding World War I. In addition to the main house, there are other historic buildings scattered around the property including cottages, a water tower, and the old kitchen. The gardens are free to visit, and offer lovely strolls through assorted gardens located around the estate, including rose gardens, azalea gardens, and even a vegetable garden.
76. Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden: These gardens in Coral Gables have an extensive collection of rare tropical plants including palms, cycads, orchids, bromeliads, and flowering trees spread out over 83 acres. Walking paths go alongside the many lakes within the gardens, allowing you to easily spend several hours exploring the property. There is also a large butterfly house that you can walk through and keep an eye out for the more than 40 species of colorful and exotic butterflies.
77. McKee Botanical Garden: These lush tropical gardens are located in Vero Beach and encompass 18 acres of native and exotic plants. There are numerous trails throughout the jungle, and it’s easy to get a little lost, so make sure you grab a map at the front of the park. There are many small lakes and ponds spread throughout, with thousands of blossoming flowering plants and trees everywhere you look. Some of the highlights include the many species of bromeliads, orchids, royal palms, and other tropical plants spread along the walking trails, as well as the unique rainbow eucalyptus tree with its multi-colored bark.
78. Magic Kingdom: The number one tourist destination is the world is located right here in Orlando, and the Magic Kingdom is where is all began when Walt Disney expanded to Florida. This theme park houses the classic Disney rides as well as the popular “mountain” rollercoasters – Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, and Thunder Mountain. From castle stage shows, to multiple parades throughout the day, to character meet and greets with Mickey Mouse and the whole gang, there are many more activities besides the quintessential rides to enjoy. And make sure you stay until park closing, because the most magical experience of all occurs after the sun sets – the nightly shows are not to be missed! The festivities begin with a colorful and high-tech light show projected onto Cinderella’s Castle, which evokes nostalgia in anyone who grew up watching classic animated Disney movies. This is followed by the awe-inspiring fireworks show that ignites the childhood wonder which still lives in everyone. The fireworks show is set to dramatic music and is undeniably the highlight of the day, and is the perfect ending to a magical day.
79. EPCOT: This Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow is represented by the massive Spaceship Earth “golf ball” at the park entrance, and is divided into two main sections. Future World houses the adrenaline-raising rides such as the high-speed Test Track, the G-force inducing trip on Mission: Space, and a simulated hang glider ride around the world on Soarin’. For those who like gardening and agriculture, make sure you take the Behind the Seeds tour at The Land pavilion for an informative look at the environmentally innovative processes in use to grow plants. And my favorite part of EPCOT is the World Showcase, where you can walk around the countries of the world in an afternoon. From regional cuisines, to cultural experiences, to unique shops in each of the eleven countries on display, there is so much to do for those people who love traveling and sampling foreign dishes! The best times to go are during the many festivals, especially the Food & Wine Festival in the fall, and the Flower & Garden Festival in the spring.
80. Hollywood Studios: This Disney park is the home of the new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge land which has been a huge hit for its incredibly immersive experience that transports you to the center of the Star Wars universe. You can explore the landscape in this highly detailed outpost on the planet of Batuu, get to pilot the Millennium Falcon on a simulator ride and see the spacecraft up close for an iconic photo op, and participate in the battle between the First Order and the Resistance on the action-packed Rise of the Resistance ride. Toy Story Land is another popular section of the park, with the Slinky Dog Dash roller coaster, alien swirling saucers, and the Toy Story Mania! arcade ride. The classic rides are still major draws as well, which include the Tower of Terror elevator drop and the high-speed indoor Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster. If you want to live the movies and experience some thrill rides at the same time, this is the park for you!
81. Animal Kingdom: Disney’s newest theme park opened in 1998 and is the closest experience that Disney comes to having a zoo. While the drive-thru Kilimanjaro Safari jeep tour and the Expedition Everest rollercoaster have been the main draws to the park for many years, there is now a new area of the park to explore. The Pandora area is inspired by the movie Avatar and brings this fantasy planet to life with its immersive design. The Flight of Passage 3D simulator is the highlight of this area, which lets you experience a thrilling ride through the Pandora landscape on the back of a flying Banshee; however, be prepared for long lines for this ride! And for those of you looking for a special behind-the-scenes interactive tour, the Wild Africa Trek is a little-known secret – you can hike through the animal habitats, cross over suspension bridges while looking down on crocodiles, and get close-up views of the hungry hippos.
82. Universal Studios & Islands of Adventure: These dual theme parks in Orlando are Disney’s biggest competitor, and for good reason. They cater not just to children, but to teens and adults with their assortment of high-speed rollercoasters and thrill rides. Universal Studios is the original of the two parks, but has undergone considerable renovations over the past few years, with rides such as Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, Transformers: The Ride 3D, Fast & Furious: Supercharged, Revenge of the Mummy, and the intensely popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley, where you can wander through the alleyways, browse through the magic shops, try out your wand on the interactive environment, and ride Escape from Gringotts. The later park to be built is Islands of Adventure, with sections of the park such as Marvel Super Hero Island (The Incredible Hulk Coaster, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, and Doctor Doom’s Freefall), Toon Lagoon (Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls), Skull Island (Reign of Kong), Jurassic Park (River Adventure and VelociCoaster [opening in 2021]), Seuss Landing, and the original section of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade with the incredibly immersive Forbidden Journey ride and Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure. Catch a ride between the two Harry Potter lands on the Hogwarts Express train ride, and you never even have to leave this movie set brought to life. Make sure you drink a frozen Butterbeer and buy a wand while you’re here! Additionally, if you’re here in the fall, then make sure to check out the premiere setting for haunted houses and scare zones at the popular Halloween Horror Nights which is a separately ticketed event after the park closes.
83. SeaWorld Orlando: SeaWorld has gradually been making the transition from aquarium to theme park over the past few years, and they have been adding new rides and experiences to keep drawing visitors to the park. The theme park has a mixture of excellent rollercoasters (Manta, Mako, Kraken) mixed amongst the plentiful animal exhibits. From the Wild Arctic where you ride a simulator and walk through an exhibit with beluga whales, walruses, and polar bears, to the Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin exhibit with a trackless ride vehicle that takes you on a journey that ends at the spectacular penguin exhibit, there is plenty to see. The animal shows are still one of the main draws to the park, with the orca encounter, the dolphin show, and the hilarious Clyde and Seymour sea lion show filling the auditoriums (beware of the splash zones if you don’t want to get wet!). In addition to the hands-on experiences throughout the park which include dolphin and sea lion feeding and stingray petting/feeding, there are additional up-close tours you can purchase for more unforgettable memories (e.g. penguins, dolphins, sea lions).
84. Busch Gardens: This theme park in Tampa is the perfect combination of theme park and zoo, with many rollercoasters and thrill rides to satisfy the adventure enthusiast, but also plenty of animal exhibits and encounters to please the nature lovers. Some of the stand-out thrill rides include SheiKra (the first dive coaster in North America), Tigris (the tallest launch coaster in Florida), Montu (inverted roller coaster), Falcon’s Fury (tallest free-standing drop tower in North America), Kumba (coaster with seven inversions), and Cheetah’s Run (steel launch coaster). For the animal lovers, exhibits include cheetahs, lions, rhinos, elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, a walk-through aviary, an Animal Care Center where you can observe veterinarians at work, and many others. Add on some special interactions for up-close experiences with animals such as the Serengeti Safari where you can feed giraffes from an open-air vehicle, the VIP Rhino Safari, Elephant Insider Tour, a Sloth Encounter, and the Penguin Insider Tour.
85. Volcano Bay: Universal’s water park is centered around a steaming volcano called Krakatau and has around 20 water slides and pool areas to enjoy. From the high-speed drop slides at the top of the volcano (with the 3 tallest water slides in Florida), to multiple raft slides, to milder kiddie slides, there are plenty of attractions to spend a full day here. One of the highlights is the aquacoaster which is a unique combination of a rollercoaster and a water slide in one, which is an exciting concept. Relaxing in the lazy river that winds through the park is another popular attraction. In an effort to reduce lines, the park uses a TapuTapu wristband system, enabling you to enjoy other activities until your time to get in line arrives. The park can fill up quickly, so it’s best to arrive early and also splurge on the Express Passes if you want to bypass wait times and ensure that you ride every water slide before you leave.
86. Blizzard Beach & Typhoon Lagoon: Aside from the theming, Disney’s two water parks are very similar to each other, so it’s hard to pick a favorite between the two. They both come with many water slides, raft rides, wave pools, a lazy river, kiddie areas, and plenty of opportunities to just relax away in the sun. The water is heated during the colder months, so you can enjoy these water parks year-round without worrying about hypothermia. Blizzard Beach is themed like a melting ski resort, and it has a 12-story drop slide Summit Plummet which is the most intense ride between the two parks. Typhoon Lagoon is themed like a tropical island after a big storm, and its tallest drop maxes out at only 5 stories on Humunga Kowabunga. With many rides and pools available at both parks, there are plenty of fun thrills to be had at either.
87. Discovery Cove & Aquatica: These two water parks are owned by SeaWorld, but are very different from each other. Discovery Cove is an all-inclusive park where you can swim with dolphins, snorkel with fish and rays, hand-feed tropical birds in an aviary, and have up close interactions with other animals. In between animal experiences, there are beaches and rivers in which to laze. Additional upgrades are available for purchase, such as the popular Trainer for a Day package, swimming with sharks, and the SeaVenture underwater walking tour while wearing a dive helmet. In contrast, Aquatica is a more typical water park with water slides, raft slides, lazy rivers, wave pools, and a children’s play area. Their signature slide is the Dolphin Plunge, which is a corkscrew slide that plunges you into total darkness before blasting through a tunnel in a pool occupied by a pod of Commerson’s dolphins.
88. Weeki Wachee Springs State Park: If you’ve ever wanted to see live mermaids swimming in a show, this fantasyland is the place for you! Located in Spring Hill, Weeki Wachee is an iconic part of Florida’s theme park history, even though is it located in a state park. There is a submerged aquatheater where mermaids swim underwater and put on a show (with the aid of breathing hoses placed throughout the pool). After viewing such a uniquely eclectic show, there are numerous other outdoor activities you can participate in at the park. You can swim, snorkel, and kayak in the crystal clear spring waters, and for something with a little more speed, Buccaneer Bay has waterslides to race down. There are also boat rides for a more relaxing way to glide along the waters and learn about Florida’s natural history. For the child who always dreams of being a mermaid, this park proves that your dreams can actually come true!
Towns / Shopping
89. Tarpon Springs: This small Greek town is also known as the sponge capital of the world. You can walk along the Historic Sponge Docks to see how divers would collect sponges from the water’s depths and how the process has evolved over the years. There is enough sponge kitsch to satisfy your every whim in all of the tourist shops along the historic district, as well as a couple museums to learn about the history of the town. You’re sure to work up an appetite for a hearty meal, and there are numerous Greek restaurants and bakeries to get your fill of traditional Greek fare. This town makes for a great day trip to walk through a glimpse of Florida’s past.
90. Key West: This is the southernmost city in the contiguous United States and is a seaside oasis of relaxation and quirkiness. The creative crowd is drawn here for the eccentric and accepting nature of the island’s inhabitants, and they stay here for the beautiful weather year-round. The downtown district is bursting with art galleries and vendors, street performers, raucous bars, and seafood restaurants on every corner, especially Mallory Square and Duval Street. Shipwrecking was a major industry in olden days, drawing unsavory characters and pirates to the shores. Several intriguing museums are devoted to this history and the resulting spoils that were salvaged from the sea. Several of the most popular island activities are deep sea fishing, boating, scuba diving, and snorkeling, and there are many operators eager to take you out on the water. The island is awash with history as well, from Fort Zachary to touring historic houses (e.g. Hemingway, Truman, Audubon) to climbing a lighthouse built in 1848 for spectacular views of the city. And don’t miss out on the sweet yet tart dessert that is the specialty of the island -- key lime pie!
91. Mount Dora / Renninger’s Florida Twin Markets: This historic small town in Central Florida is situated along beautiful Lake Dora and is packed with boutique shops, eateries, and parks. This is the perfect way to spend a morning or afternoon, browsing through all of the stores and antique shops while admiring the quaint architecture of this pet-friendly town before settling in for a meal at one of the delicious restaurants or sidewalk cafes. Don’t miss seeing the Historic Donnelly House built in the Queen Anne style in 1893. There are plenty of options to explore the waterways around the town as well, from pontoon boat rides through the canals, to the popular CatBoats that you drive as you sit just above the water for close views of nature. Mount Dora is also home to many popular festivals throughout the year which draw numerous visitors. Additionally, the Renninger’s antiques and flea market is open on the weekends and is a massive market at 117 acres in size. There is a large outdoor flea and farmer’s market with hundreds of booths that sell every type of obscure or homemade item you can imagine, with plenty of food booths to keep you fed all day. There is also a large indoor antiques market with over 180 stalls to browse for hours as you rifle through all the bric-a-brac for sale. Even if you’re not typically a fan of antique stores, the sheer size and diversity of the offerings at Renninger’s will ensure that you find something you never knew you needed.
92. Winter Park: The main entertainment district in Winter Park is along Park Avenue, which is a tree-lined street adorned with parks and plenty of boutique shops and independent restaurants. Come for a casual stroll and enjoy the relaxing atmosphere as you amble along each block and window shop. Every Saturday morning at the old train depot, there is a plant and produce farmer’s market that draws in excellent vendors each week. Winter Park also hosts several famous art festivals during the spring and autumn, which attract hundreds of creative art vendors from all over the country and is the perfect opportunity to pick up that special piece to adorn your home. Wandering through the beautiful campus of Rollins College to admire all of the Spanish Mediterranean style architectures is a treat as well, including the historic Knowles Memorial Chapel and the Cornell Fine Arts Museum which is free to attend. And for further cultural adventures, make sure to visit the Morse Museum, tour the Casa Feliz historic home, and wander through the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens, all located in the heart of Winter Park.
93. Cedar Key: This small island off the gulf coast hasn’t changed much in the years since it was built, and people liken it to old Key West before it became a tourist destination. This quiet island community is known for their laid back way of life, so don’t come here looking for much action. There are nature trails and wildlife refuges to explore with topnotch birdwatching, kayaking through the gulf waters, fishing from the pier or on chartered boats, and eating plenty of freshly caught seafood in the local restaurants. Cedar Key also has important history to learn, as it played a role in the Civil War, was on the railroad line for exporting goods internationally, and was the site of a major pencil factory before a hurricane destroyed the town. Come here to relax and enjoy the coastal way of life, recharging yourself in the gulf breezes and Florida sun.
94. Fernandina Beach Historic District: This 50-block National Historic District on Amelia Island is a thriving seaport neighborhood with plenty of artisan restaurants and eclectic shops to satisfy your whims. The preserved historic architecture makes the perfect setting for horse-drawn carriage rides and casual strolls along the streets while enjoying the cool sea breeze. For a taste of the town’s pirating past, visit Florida’s oldest operating saloon (Palace Saloon) or tour the Marlin & Barrel Distillery which distills their own handcrafted liquors. History buffs will enjoy learning about the shrimping history of the island at one of the several museums or admiring the architecture of the many buildings including the Victorian-style courthouse which is still in use today. The historic district is a short distance from beautiful beaches, golf courses, and cycling trails to enjoy the natural beauty of Amelia Island.
95. International Drive: This tourist mecca is a stretch of road in Orlando with an abundance of places to eat, shop, and experience thrills. From ICON Park which houses the gigantic Orlando Ferris wheel, to Madame Tussauds wax museum, to the largest museum of osteology (bones) for the science nerd in all of us, there is plenty to do. Pointe Orlando is a section which has many restaurants, stores, and a movie theater. There are giant slingshots, the world’s tallest swing ride – the Starflyer, helicopter tours, and plenty of other thrill rides for adventure-seekers. Escape rooms, mini-golf, go-kart racing, and water slides are all found here as well. This strip is Orlando’s answer to the Vegas strip, and it is easily walkable but there is also the I-Ride Trolley and the Lynx bus systems to get around.
96. DeLand: DeLand’s historic downtown is a quaint district north of Orlando that is replete with early 20th century architecture and an old-timey vibe. There are many antique shops and outdoor cafes to check out, along with a mixture of eclectic shops and art galleries and museums to peruse. There are murals painted on the walls of several buildings, making for a surprise around every corner. Some of the most famous buildings are the historic Athens Theater and the County Courthouse with its unmistakable copper-clad dome. For lovers of historic houses, the Henry A. DeLand House Museum is a treat to walk through while learning about the town’s history. Another must-see house is the Stetson Mansion which was built in 1886 for famed hat maker John Stetson, and is open for tours throughout most of the year. It was one of the first homes designed and constructed with electricity, steam heat, indoor plumbing, and a call bell system. The home is known for its intricate parquet flooring and its Gilded Age architecture, and during the winter months the house is adorned in over-the-top Christmas decorations. DeLand makes for an excellent day trip to see the sights while enjoying the slower pace of life here.
97. Disney Springs: This shopping and dining complex recently received a complete makeover, but it remains entirely free to visit, which is a rarity at Disney. There are over 100 stores located here, so you’re sure to find something that piques your interest, some of the most popular being the World of Disney (housing the world’s largest collection of Disney merchandise) and the Lego store. There are dozens of top-notch dining establishments as well, so you have plenty of options after working up an appetite from shopping. There are many fun activities to enjoy as well, such as bowling at Splitsville, watching a movie on one of AMC’s 24 screens, driving across the lake on a floating car, flying high on a helium-filled balloon, and watching a new Disney-themed Cirque de Soleil show Drawn to Life which will be premiering soon!
98. Ybor City: This historic city is just northeast of downtown Tampa and was founded by cigar manufacturers, where thousands of immigrants worked in the cigar factories and rolled millions of cigars annually. Ybor City is the only neighborhood on Florida’s west coast to be designated a National Historic Landmark District, and it is now a thriving district with many eclectic places to shop, eat, and drink. The Ybor City Museum showcases the history of cigar making and includes a casita which is representative of a typical cigar-worker’s family home. The oldest restaurant in Florida – Columbia – is a staple for delicious Spanish food and flamenco dancing, and should not be missed. At night, the neighborhood becomes a lively spot for bar hopping and live music.
99. Daytona International Speedway: This historic speedway was transformed into a state-of-the-art motorsports facility in 2016, causing it to be awarded the prestigious Sports Business Award for Sports Facility of the Year. With over 100,000 seats and a sports complex spread over 500 acres, this massive facility has one of the most diverse racing schedules in the world, including NASCAR’s Daytona 500, IndyCar and Formula 1 racing, Supercross, and more. Tours are offered which allow you to access backstage areas that most fans typically never see, including the infield, the Press Box, and the Axalta Injector, and ending with a photo op next to the most recent Daytona 500 championship car. Additionally, the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America was recently relocated here, and access is included with each Speedway tour. For the ultimate fan, the NASCAR Racing Experience allows you to either ride in a NASCAR race car around the track, or even drive the car yourself!
100. Attend a Sports Game: Florida has an abundance of sports teams throughout the state, with many loyal and avid fans of these teams, whether they are collegiate or professional teams. Seeing a live game in person allows you to feel the thrill of the sport with thousands of other fans, and you can rejoice in victory together when your team wins. Below are some of the available professional sports teams you can attend (with collegiate football included). Additionally, Florida hosts many major league baseball teams for spring training, so if your favorite team is from out of state, you might still be able to watch them practice here.
· Basketball: Orlando Magic, Miami Heat
· Football: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Miami Dolphins, Jacksonville Jaguars
· College Football: Florida Gators, Florida State Seminoles, Miami Hurricanes, UCF Knights, South Florida Bulls
· Baseball: Tampa Bay Rays, Miami Marlins
· Soccer: Orlando City SC, Miami Fusion, Tampa Bay Mutiny
· Hockey: Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, Orlando Solar Bears