Central Florida is usually associated with one place: Orlando. We love Disney World and Universal Studios, of course. But there’s more to Central Florida than theme parks in an area that stretches from Gainesville south to Tampa. It’s where vacationers have traveled for generations and where there is still some kitsch and old-school experiences to be had. Here are some of our favorite experiences that you can only have in Central Florida.
See the mermaid show at Weeki Wachee
Weeki Wachee Spring is located between Orlando and Tampa and is well worth the detour. Their mermaid show has been attended by generations of travelers, including Elvis Presley. The performers use a tube system to breathe underwater. The park also has a water park, open seasonally, and runs boat tours of the river. Their spring is at least 400 feet deep and can be explored by kayak.
Admire manatees in the wild
The population of manatees is one of the big draws to this region of Florida, especially Crystal River. But this isn’t the only place to see them! Blue Spring State Park and the Saint Johns River also have populations of the gentle giants during winter months. Remember to keep your distance from the protected species, even if you’re doing a “swimming with manatees” excursion.
Swim in Florida’s natural springs
This part of Florida is unique because it’s full of natural and deep springs and lakes, which remain the same temperature year-round. Some are open to swimming and snorkeling while others can only be accessed by scuba divers. And some are privately owned while others are managed by Florida State Parks. Ponce de Leon Springs, pictured, is within a state park and has a natural pool where you can swim. Ginnie Spring and Devil’s Den are also popular.
Flipping your own pancakes at the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant
Where else can you cook your own pancakes on the flat top? The Old Spanish Sugar Mill has been a local favorite since opening in the 1960s. Tables are equipped with a hot cooking surface and you’re brought buckwheat and regular pancake mix as well as spatulas to flip. On busy weekends, you can go on a boat tour of the nearby springs while you wait for a table.
Bioluminescence Kayak Tour companies operate from Orlando and Cocoa Beach. I went on a kayaking tour of Merritt Island, pictured, but wasn’t traveling during the time of year that you can see the glowing microscopic creatures, usually the summer through the fall. Florida is one of only a handful of places in the world that offers sightings.
Feel the energy in Cassadega
Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp is a community that dates back to the 1800s. Mediums reside and work in the historic homes that line the street. You can have a reading, come for a church service, or just explore on your own. Grab a meal or stay the night at Hotel Cassadega, located right across from camp property.
Visit a real-life fish camp
Life on the St. John’s River is classic Florida with houseboats and waterfront trailers. These communities are where travelers can stay for a fishing trip or hop aboard a boat tour. Most have camping facilities, a bait and tackle shop, a marina, and sometimes restaurants. See the stunning waterway for yourself with an All Day St Johns River Fishing Trip near Daytona.
Visit the place where legends were made at Cape Canaveral
Don’t miss a visit to the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, where generations of astronauts trained and were launched into space. The Kennedy Space Center has exhibits and interactive experiences that can take up an entire day. And be sure to splurge on the Lunch with an Astronaut experience.
Drive like a NASCAR legend in Daytona Beach
Daytona Beach is home to the Richard Petty Driving Experience at Daytona International Speedway, one of the sport’s most legendary venues. Visible from the airport, the massive complex isn’t just busy on race days. Visitors can also take tours throughout the year.
Catch horse fever in Ocala
Ocala surprises many as the state capital of thoroughbred horse racing. The first farms were established in the early 20th century and continued for the areas warm weather and plentiful pastures. The charming historic district is home to stunning homes and locally owned shops and restaurants. And nearby, the Ocala National Forest provides plentiful recreation.
Visit the stunning homes from the Gilded Age
Florida was where the rich and famous spent the winters and built lavish homes. You might have heard of Ca d’Zan in Sarasota, Villa Vizcaya in Miami, or Edison and Ford’s Winter Estates in Fort Meyers. But in DeLand, there’s the privately-owned Stetson Mansion Tours, which offers tours of the home formerly owned by hat maker and philanthropist John B. Stetson.
Catch some waves in Cocoa Beach
You’ll see the signs for Ron Jon Surf Shop for miles before reaching Cocoa Beach, known as a surfing hotspot in Florida. First timers can take advantage of Cocoa Beach Surf Lessons and Board Rental. Whether you surf or not, be sure to check out the iconic pier and swim in the Atlantic waters.
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