Moving on in a similar tangent as the Disney World series, it’s time to cover all the glories that Florida has to offer. Time to break out my trusty copy of 1000 Places and go through where I have been.

-Daytona Speedway

-Kennedy Space Center

-The Everglades

-South Beach

-The Florida Keys

-Sanibel & Captiva Islands

I’ll include links to the Disney World series here since it is on the 1000 Places list.

When & Where to Stay

Magic Kingdom

Epcot

Hollywood Studios

Animal Kingdom

Miscellaneous

 

Daytona Speedway is on the Atlantic coast north of Orlando, located in the city it’s named after, Daytona. It’s the Indianapolis 500 of NASCAR. And for those completely out-of-the-loop when it comes to car races, that means they are the biggest races of the season. There is a museum called the Daytona 500 Experience, where you can ride simulators, catch an IMAX movie about the race and learn more about NASCAR. There is also a Richard Petty Driving Experience here if you want to take a spin around the track. I’m personally not a big fan of NASCAR, but my father is so we went there as a family when I was younger. Will I go back? Probably. There is also a great beach there that is heavily visited for Spring Break, as well as Bike Week. If you choose to go for either Spring Break or Bike Week, expect crowds. Bike Week in Daytona is second only to the Sturgis Bike Week in terms of attendance, with almost half a million bikers visiting Daytona Beach.

A little over an hour south of Daytona Beach on the Atlantic is the Kennedy Space Center. Named for JFK, the president who launched the Apollo program, it is the home of a plethora of space-related activities. With the space shuttle program a thing of the past now, it’s only used for satellite launches. I was young when I went with my family, so I don’t remember much about the visitor center. When we went we were however lucky enough to see one of the shuttles on the launch pad, an image that has remained with me ever since. If you want an idea about how massive the Vehicle Assembly Building is, FL-528 runs along the south side of Kennedy heading to and from Cocoa Beach, and I’d say it is a good 5 miles away. You can see it easily from that far away. Now, about the center itself. The visitor center has a collection of rockets from the very early days of NASA, including the ones that put the first US astronauts in space and other significant memorabilia from the 50 years of NASA’s existence. There is also the launch simulator and an IMAX theater. And while there won’t be any shuttle launches, they are flying the shuttles to their new homes around the country, from New York City to Los Angeles within the next few months. So you may want to see them take their final flight to their new homes. The highlight of any trip to the Kennedy Space Center is obviously the tour of the grounds. You load up on a bus which takes you around to see the launch sites of the Apollo program and the shuttles, the assembly area for the ISS and the Vehicle Assembly Building amongst other things. If you are planning on visiting, I would see if there are any upcoming satellite launches. If memory serves, certain areas of the center are blocked off for security reasons. I say this because I think we weren’t able to get close to the launch pad while we were there because of the upcoming launch. Both Daytona and Kennedy Space Center are excellent day trips if you are going on a trip to Orlando since they are about an hour away.

A further 3-4 hours south on the Atlantic coast (depending on your final destination) is the Florida wetlands known as The Everglades. Once covering most of southern Florida, the sawgrass prairie that defines the Everglades is now mostly confined to the area south of I-75 as it goes east-west across the peninsula. The quintessential Everglades experience is an airboat ride through the grass. Home to alligators, turtles, herons and a plethora of other animals, the airboats take you out into the Everglades to get up close and personal with the animals that call this land home. The best way to get to most of what the Everglades has to offer is to take Route 41 or via Homestead, south of Miami. Off Route 41 is Shark Valley, which offers 2-hour tram rides into the heart of the park as well as a hiking and biking trail. For a nominal fee, you can drive your car in a short distance to a parking lot and look through the surrounding wetlands for alligators. One of the most spectacular views of the park is from the observation deck at the south end of the trail loop. All along Route 41 you will see many places to take airboat rides as well, but probably the best place to find them are in Everglades City on the gulf coast. If you are truly an intrepid adventurer, there is also Flamingo. Currently a ghost town which serves as a base for the rangers of the Everglades National Park, there is also a marina and seasonal cafe, as well as a visitor center and campground. I’ve always enjoyed visiting the Everglades, even if it was just a drive through it on the way to Miami or the Keys.

Also on the Atlantic Coast is Miami, home to the hedonistic South Beach. Located on the Miami Beach barrier island, South Beach is a neighborhood that lies south of Indian Creek and Dade Blvd. South Beach is also home to Joe’s Stone Crab, which is also on the 1000 Places list, however I’ve never been there. Known for the LGBT community and art-deco architectural masterpieces, South Beach never sleeps. Between the beach during the day and the clubs at night, there is enough to keep you busy. Most of what you associate with the iconography of South Beach is on Ocean Dr. near Lummus Park – art deco hotels and cafes festooned with neon lights at night. The first time I was here was before my family left for a cruise when I was younger, so we just took a stroll on the beach and got lunch at a cafe. Perfectly harmless during the day. At night, South Beach is a different monster. The last time I was here was New Year’s Eve. Granted it was a special holiday, but Ocean Dr. was shut off because of the amount of people partying. Normally it is really difficult to get into the clubs on Ocean Dr. for tourists, but we had no problems getting into Mango’s Tropical Cafe, which was the hotspot that night. All we had to do was buy a $200 bottle of champagne to enjoy through the evening. I felt bad for the huddled masses in Times Square because we were having the time of our lives in South Beach. To help calm down, we went to the Keys a couple days later.

I could really devote a whole post to the Keys, that is how much I love them. If I were to win the lottery, I’d buy what land I could and buy a self-sustaining/hurricane-resistant house and would probably rarely leave. With that in mind, I will do a quick run-down. Driving down US-1 is one of the best drives I’ve ever done. You start off with Key Largo in the north and end with Key West in the south and are blessed with views of palm trees and turquoise waters. In between, you will pass an overabundance of hotels, marinas and roadside cafes as you drive through the islands that dot this archipelago. You will not find many beaches, as the wave activity needed to create sandy beaches is pretty much non-existent. Most beaches you find there are man-made to appease tourists staying at local hotels.

If you want beaches, travel to Sanibel and Captiva islands on the gulf coast near Fort Myers. My grandparents owned a home in Fort Myers, which they have left to their children and grandchildren, so I have been lucky enough to visit these islands multiple times. Home to some of the best seashell pickings in Florida (maybe even the world), the public beach by the lighthouse is a popular destination. There is a very small parking lot for access to this beach, so arrive early if you want to visit. There are other public beaches on the islands, but most have the same small parking lots, so they get crowded early. Another popular activity is the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge. There’s a drive through the wildlife refuge with plenty of places to pull off and snap pictures of all the wildlife. There are herons, egrets, roseate spoonbills, anhingas, storks and alligators – a lot of the animals you would hope to see in the Everglades. There are also sailing tours you can take around the islands, which are very relaxing. You may even spot a stray manatee or dolphin!

One thing I highly recommend doing while you are in Sanibel and Catpiva is lunch at Cheeburger Cheeburger. Aside from a Dairy Queen and Subway there aren’t any fast food or chain restaurants, thanks to a local law prohibiting them. And while Cheeburger Cheebuger is technically a chain restaurant now, the one on Sanibel is the first. They specialize in cheeseburgers, shakes and malts and is themed after 50’s era burger joints. The food is delicious and their list of toppings for the burgers and shake and malt flavors is HUGE. And if you are one of those “Man vs. Food” types that enjoy food challenges – their famous full-pound burgers. If you can finish it off, they will take your picture and add it to their Wall of Fame. My only relative who’s been successful in this challenge is one of my cousins. We usually only stick with the “Semi-Serious,” which is only a 1/3 of a pound. We always stop here whenever we visit the islands!

So there you have it – the Sunshine State in a nutshell. Check back later for a post on the Keys, my favorite place in the whole state. Yes, I like it even more than Orlando and Disney World!

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