Florida is the archetypal place for a family holiday. With its sandy beaches, theme parks and endless sunshine, not to mention Disneyland and the Kennedy Space Centre, it is not difficult to see why so many families flock there every year.
Now I’m a big fan of sunshine, particularly after a night when the temperatures dropped to -12°C in parts of the UK. Despite this, Florida has never really crossed my travel radar other than during a brief airport transition at Miami en-route to South America! It is possible that being a staunch advocate of the traditional, gritty, non-Disneyfied fairytale and also harbouring a mild phobia of strangers dressed up as oversized mice has blinded me to all that Florida has to offer.
With two young children it is hard to ignore the fantastic deals on offer for family holidays to Florida. There is also a lot to be said for regular flights and the convenience of travelling to a family friendly location with reliable medical facilities. In a state larger than England it also stands to reason that there is more to do than visiting Disneyland. With extensive wetlands, pristine beaches and miles of cycle tracks and national trails, it turns out Florida has a lot to offer outdoor families in search of active holidays. Winter temperatures drop down to around a balmy 17°C, adding on the bonus of being able to enjoy everything Florida’s outdoors has to offer all year-round.
Here are ten things to do in Florida other than Disney that have finally put the Sunshine State firmly on our active family travel list:
Kayaking in the Everglades
With over 1.5 million acres of pristine wetland and the largest mangrove forest in North America, the Everglades are an unmissable part of any family trip to Florida. Whilst lots of people head straight for an exhilarating ride on the famous airboats , taking to your own paddles with the guidance of an experienced naturalist allows you to reach the truly wild areas of the Everglades that the crowds can’t reach. Discover wading birds, alligators, manatees and otters amongst many other species or opt for a sunset or moonlit tour for extra adventure.
Pick your own oranges
Forget Strawberry picking – imagine being able to pick your own oranges? Florida is famed for its citrus fruit, with many big brand orange juice producers such as Tropicana making the most of the ideal warm and sunny conditions. It is possible to take a tour around many of the orange farms, learning about the process that takes fruit to bottle. Some also offer the chance to get stuck in and take home your own pickings for your own juice at family breakfast the next day.
Whilst swimming with trained dolphins might be one of Florida’s biggest draws for kids, there is a much rarer and wilder marine mammal to be found in Florida’s seas. The endangered manatees are gentle sea giants measuring between 8 and 13ft. Sometimes better known as sea cows, they spend their entire lives in the water, although still need to surface for air every 3-4 minutes. Find them along Florida’s coastline from April to October or over winter in some of the inland springs where they come to escape the chill of the winter seas. Blue Spring is a dedicated manatee refuge, where you can view the manatees from observation decks or boardwalks, whilst Crystal River is the place to go for the chance of coming across one whilst snorkelling. Tampa Electric Viewing Centre is another popular spot.
Hit the trail
With its mainly flat landscape and a wealth of wildlife, Florida makes a great place to explore with a family hike. The Florida National Scenic Trail offers around 1300 miles of non-motorized pathway for hiking, with some sections suitable for cycling or pushchair use. Young kids would love creeping across the boardwalk on the family friendly hike at Big Cypress Bend, peering over the rails on the lookout for alligators or maybe even a flash of the Florida panther. Fancy a day away from Orlando’s more organised fun? The Little Big Econ Hiking Trail is close enough for day trippers and offers accessible family walking along the scenic Econlockhatchee River. Voted one of the most family friendly trails in the USA by the American Hiking Society it is suitable for mini-hikers of all ages and has plenty of wildlife for kids to spot along the way.
Florida is home to five different species of marine turtle and is the nesting site of choice for around 90% of the USA’s endangered Loggerhead Turtles. All along the east coast of Florida you can find Loggerhead turtles and during June and July every year they come ashore to lay their eggs on the beaches. There are strict laws protecting the Loggerhead turtles and to see them nesting you will need to join an official naturalist led walk. A full list of centres approved to lead guided walks can be found at the bottom of this page from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commision, although Juno Beach is reputedly the best spot with the highest density of nesting Loggerheads in the USA and the second highest in the world. A unique experience for all the family and one the kids are unlikely to forget in a hurry.
If you like your family like their nature mixed in with a healthy dose of adrenalin then Florida looks like it might just provide all the thrills. Strapping yourself onto a metal rope and flying through the air seems to be a thing in Florida, with plenty of places to choose from to take the plunge, most of them catering for kids. The Canyons Zipline, Ocala, is renowned for its great scenery, dramatic cliffs and long lines, whilst younger kids might like to try the TreeTop Trek course at Brevard Zoo, Melbourne, where aerial ropeways and ziplines take you above the animal enclosures for a bird’s eye view.
Thanks to its unique geology, Florida is home to more natural springs than any other US state. Whilst there are two warm geothermal pools near Tampa, the majority offer refreshingly cool waters during the height of Florida’s tropical summers. The springs are crystal clear and are usually surrounded by lush vegetation and plentiful wildlife. At Blue Spring there is a good chance of seeing manatee during the winter from the observation deck, visit Salt Spring where the natural mineral rock the water passes through make it saline enough to support marine species such as blue crabs and mullet or take the kids on a glass-bottomed boat ride at Silver Spring. Snorkelling, kayaking, tubing and cave-diving are all possible – find out more – the Florida Springs website has plenty of good information.
Cycle the Shark Valley Loop
Let’s come clean – you are unlikely to see a shark on this family friendly trail. What you will find though is 24km of flat, paved track through the heart of the Everglades perfect for kids. Spot alligators, deer and herons, enjoy the views from the observation tower or take a short detour on foot through some tropical hardwood forest. Bike hire is available by the Shark Valley Visitor Centre, including childrens’ bikes and some bike seats for younger kids.
Visit the Key Deer
As well as pristine beaches, plenty of marine life, exclusive retreats of the super-rich and superb snorkelling, the famous Florida Keys are also home to a much more humble inhabitant – the Key Deer. A registered endangered species, the Key Deer are famed for their tiny size, making them extra appealing to the kids! Visitors can take a stroll on a short family friendly length trail through the National Key Deer Refuge at Big Pine Key. You are just as likely to find the Key Deer strolling the verges – Big Pine and No Name Key are recommended top spots for sightings.
Hit the beach.
Aside from its theme parks and the Everglades, Florida is best known to tourists as a top beach location, with city chic South Beach in Miami probably the most famous. The tropical paradise of Florida Keys is the glossy brochure image most people conjure up, with its fine sand, warm seas and Caribbean good looks. The Florida Keys are also the recommended place to put on your flippers and take the kids for a snorkel or dive to spot some great marine life. For families who prefer to be on top of the waves, Florida is a popular surfing destination. New Smyrna Beach is one of the most popular spots, famed for its consistent swells whilst Cocoa Beach is within about an hour of Disneyland and the Kennedy Space Centre. If you like your beaches as nature intended then how about trying the Canaveral National Seashore National Reserve? As the longest stretch of undeveloped shoreline in Florida, it is home to a wealth of wildlife including sea turtles and the whole stretch is within easy reach of some of Florida’s most popular visitor attractions.
Do you have any favourite family activities in Florida? Please do leave a comment and share your recommendations below!
This post has been sponsored by HolidayGenie.com. All words, work and opinions remain very much firmly mine, along with the fact that I spent half of last night explaining all the merits of Florida to my husband for an upcoming family holiday…