“When you say Blizzard, we think Dairy Queen”- Florida
Florida is called the Sunshine State for a good reason. The weather here is almost perfect. In fact, I didn’t even own a heavy jacket until I visited New York during the winter a few years back. We’ve definitely experienced some cold days, but my definition of “cold” comprises any temperature below 60 degrees, where I may need to wear long sleeves, possibly a sweatshirt, not sure if that qualifies as cold in the rest of the country, but it does here. With the wonderful weather year round, we Floridians get to spend a great deal of time outdoors. And contrary to popular belief, we don’t spend all of our free time at amusement parks! Ok, maybe a little. I think it would be a safe bet to say most of us own annual passes to at least one theme park, but it’s amazing how many other destinations Florida really has aside from Disney World!
The diversity of wildlife and nature in Florida is almost unbelievable. With the largest subtropical wetland ecosystem in the country, known as the Everglades, and the largest continuous stand of sawgrass prairie, Florida is a never-ending source of beautiful landscapes and native species of birds, reptiles, and mammals, with a vast array of locations for viewing. You certainly will have a lot to do on a Florida family vacation.
1. Fresh Water Springs
We’ll start with Florida’s freshwater springs. With over 900 in the state, they range from small to large and can emit over 550 million gallons of 70-75 degree water per day, year round, perfect for swimming. Experiencing a spring is like entering another world! There are underground caves to explore, with proper training and apparatus of course, clear waters to snorkel, and a beach-like atmosphere to relax and picnic with the family. Here are some favorite springs the natives like to enjoy:
Lithia Springs Regional Park A 160-acre park is located on the Alafia River. Here, you will find a variety of plant communities, river cypress swamps, and hardwood hammocks.
Along with excellent swimming conditions in the spring, Lithia Park also offers snorkeling, canoeing/kayaking, wildlife viewing, picnicking, camping, fishing, and a playground for the kiddos. Spending the day here is super laid-back and peaceful.
Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park One of my favorites! Here, you can see West Indian manatees 365 days of the year from the park’s underwater observatory in the main spring area.
Aside from the crystal-clear spring water swimming fun, the park also showcases native Florida wildlife, including black bears, bobcats, white-tailed deer, American alligators, American crocodiles, and river otters, snakes, and other native animals.
The Rainbow River takes the spring experience to another level! Not only do you have a magnificent spring to swim in, you have an entire 5.7 mile long river to float thru. At depths ranging from 10 feet to 25, visitors can rent tubes or bring their own, and float down the river with its naturally flowing current. Rainbow Springs has become the anchor for the Rainbow Springs State Park.
The spring is not one large vent, but is part of a numerous spring system that issues 400 – 600 million gallons of crystalline water everyday. The Rainbow Springs State Park is a popular destination to swim, snorkel, canoe, picnic, and hike on its many paths to enjoy the native plants and animals that live here. This is something that should be on your to-do list on a Florida family vacation.
Next, we’ll visit some truly inspiring camp grounds where families make memories around the campfire, under the open stars, and perfect, although sometimes buggy, weather. Camping is popular in Florida, and makes for the perfect weekend getaway without having to spend too much time and money on travel. There are many ideal camping locations throughout the State, ranging from camping in the beaches of the Keys, to camping in the forest of our State Parks.
Fort Desoto Park. Fort De Soto consists of 1,136 acres of five interconnected islands that are home to beach plants, mangroves, wetlands, palm hammocks, hardwoods, and many native plants. Named the best beach in the country twice over, camping here requires booking SIX months in advance.
I know people who wait for that official 6 month mark, and at 12:01a.m. 6 months in advance from the day they want, they stay up late to grab a campsite location Did I mention there is an actual fort on the beach? Oh, yes, with jail bars, cannonballs, and old cannons all intact. There’s kayaking, beaching (that’s a word here in Florida), hiking, bird-watching.and much more. This is a busy, fun-filled campground, and among the favorites of the locals.
Myakka State Park . Just as amazing as Fort Desoto Park, is Myakka State Park. Quite possibly my indelibly memorable encounter with the most alligators I’ve seen in one location in my entire life as a Floridian! Granted, I was on one of the world’s two largest airboats, but it was a sight to remember, and my kids were thoroughly amused by the experience. As one of the oldest and largest state parks, Myakka lies on one of the state’s most diverse areas, covering 58 square miles of wetlands, prairies, hammocks, and pinelands.
There are so many activities for families to partake in. Boating, freshwater fishing, canoeing, kayaking, safari train tours, and the opportunity to walk among the treetops on Myakka’s canopy walkway. Campers can choose from their full-facility campgrounds, primitive campsites, or palm log cabins, built in the 1930s and modernized for comfortable lodging. The choices are plentiful! When camping in Florida, this is definitely high on my list! Something that should be done on Florida family vacations.
Of all the things to do in Florida, this is by far my top choice, the beach. Anywhere you go in Florida, the beach is not too far. On the East Coast, we have the Gulf of Mexico with its clear, calm and beautiful shores. On the West Coast, we have the Pacific, a bit rougher and colder but still beautiful, clear, and majestic in nature with its waves and tides. Since we’re such a beach-driven culture, the amount of beach-centered activities we have are abundant. We have sunset festivals, movies at the beach, dog beaches, islands beaches, private beaches, beach weddings, beach parties, and the list goes on!
Clearwater Beach Sunset Festival. Operating 364 days of the year (I am assuming the one day closed is Christmas? But I am not sure…) two hours before sunset to two hours post, this festival is bustling with entertainment, activities, vendors, and beach lovers of all sorts. On any given night of the week, you will find fire breathers, escape artists, magicians, stilt walkers, pet shows, jugglers, and much more.
Every time we go, my daughter gets her hair wrapped and braided, and my boys enjoy the biggest blow-up water slide I have ever laid my eyes on. There is live spray paint art, glass blowing, and caricatures. The highlight of the event? That’s right! The sunset! Everything stops as it sets, and you even hear the sound of a conch horn blow at the end. At least, I envision it to be a conch horn? That could totally be my imagination!
4. Caladesi Island
Last but not least on my magnificent list of things to do in Florida is Caladesi Island. An island beach so beautiful in nature that it is part of a State Park called “Honeymoon Island,” a popular beach destination for weddings, and at one time, The beach is accessible via boat or beach ferry and even has a fully functional marina with water and electricity hosting a snack bar and gift shop.
Visitors can enjoy a three-mile nature trail through the island or paddle the three-mile kayak trail through its mangroves and bay. However, if you don’t take the ferry over to the island, you can still enjoy a fantastic, white sanded beach at the Honeymoon Island State Park.
I know I am a bit biased, but I could not think of a better place to live or visit. I have been to many places abroad, and with the diversity of things to do right here in my own state, I could spend years attempting to see everything, and never get bored. And imagine, we haven’t even touched on the theme parks. Yes, if you make your next vacation in Florida, there’s plenty to do on a Florida family vacation!