When families think about vacationing in Florida, one thing usually comes to mind: theme parks. I’ve got nothing against theme parks, in fact, they’ve been the source of many happy memories for me both as a kid and a parent. But if you’re headed to Orlando for a theme-park trip, you’re within easy reach of places where you can experience another side of Florida. Here are three day trips to consider adding to your theme-park itinerary. Each combines a different slice of Florida history with a stunning natural environment.
Lake Kissimmee State Park, Lake Wales (90 minutes from Orlando) Camping at this park is a treat, as sandhill cranes loiter around the campsites like teenagers hanging out at the 7-11. The real draw, however, is the Cracker cow camp, where you’ll find re-enactors in character as 1870s cow hunters. Each weekend from October 1-May 1, you can sit around their campfire, watch them demonstrate the whip-cracking skills that earned them their nickname, and explore the frighteningly rustic shelter that was all that stood between them and the wilds of pioneer Florida.
Castillo de San Marcos, St. Augustine (about 2 hrs from Orlando) Founded in 1565, St. Augustine offers a one-of-a-kind look at Florida’s Spanish colonial history. Visitors have remarkable freedom to explore the Castillo de San Marcos, built in the 1670s: You can crawl into the powder magazine, visit the soldiers’ quarters and chapel and wander around the gun deck, where re-enactors fire cannons on the weekends. The nearby but lesser-known Fort Matanzas National Monument is also worth a visit, and as a bonus, getting there entails a free boat ride.
Florida EcoSafaris, St. Cloud (less than an hour from Orlando) Forever Florida’s 4,700-acre conservation area is home to wild turkey, black bears and alligators, and offers some novel ways to explore the preserve. Choose between speeding along on a zipline, riding on horseback or touring the preserve in an open-air safari bus. Kids 12 and up are welcome on the horseback safari (10 and up with riding experience), while kids 10 and up weighing at least 70 pounds can zipline. All ages are welcome on the coach safari.
Alisson Clark is a travel writer whose work has appeared in Disney’s FamilyFun, Parents, The St. Petersburg Times, Florida Travel+Life and other national publications. She blogs about family travel at OutThereWithKids.blogspot.com and GeekMom.com.