When visiting Central Florida for the first time, it’s hard to know where to begin in planning your vacation. Yes, the beach is spectacular, but there is so much more to do in this region. We asked our Florida Gnational Gnomad Kelly Stilwell from Food, Fun & Faraway Places to give us some ideas of things not to miss in this uniquely beautiful part of the state.
Central Florida has so much to offer for a vacation in the sun any time of year. Families from all over the world come to this area to visit the theme parks. Though the Disney World parks are definitely one of the top attractions, getting out and seeing the other areas will show you what authentic Florida is all about.
Things To Do in Central Florida All Year Long
When the weather outside is frightful in so much of the rest of the country, chances are pretty good, even in the dead of winter, that you’ll be able to enjoy all these activities and more in Central Florida. Start putting together your bucket list for a trip to the southernmost state in the U.S.
Swim with Manatees at Plantation Adventure Center
Most people who come to the Florida area dream of seeing a manatee in the wild. If you ask around, people will tell you there’s a chance you’ll see them in the canals and marinas. The first time I saw them in the wild was in the Gulf of Mexico right off Anna Maria Island when there was a pod swimming around us. Called gentle giants, you don’t realize how big they are until you’re right next to one.
At the Plantation Adventure Center, part of the Plantation on Crystal River, your chances of seeing a pod of manatees are very high. In fact, though there are about 40 resident manatees in the summer, that number sometimes grows more than ten times in the winter. The sea cows gather in Crystal River for the consistently warm 72º temperature. Though that sounds warm, we humans will probably want to wear wetsuits, and the Plantation Adventure Center has you covered. All gear and instruction are provided as part of your tour. Though it’s tempting, remember not to invade the privacy of the manatees, and touching them is never allowed. Visit Plantation Adventure Center at 9301 W Fort Island Trail in Crystal River.
See Native Wildlife at Three Sisters Springs
Here’s another chance to see a manatee, but without getting in the water. At Three Sisters Springs at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, you’ll find a boardwalk with viewing platforms. The water really is crystal clear, making it easy to see and even photograph the manatees from above the water. Three Sisters Springs is also home to a myriad of other Florida wildlife, such as the rare Red-cockaded Woodpecker and the Sandhill Crane, which can stand almost 4 feet tall. Take a hike on one of the trails to view King’s Bay, Lake Crystal, Magnolia Springs, and the wetlands. During manatee season, Three Sisters Springs National Wildlife Refuge volunteers offer guided tours every day. Take a trolley tour Friday through Sunday, April through November 14, and seven days per week November 15 through March 31.
You can also snorkel, dive, kayak, and paddleboard in summer. In the winter when the manatee numbers are higher, kayaking and paddleboarding are not allowed. Motorized vessels are never allowed. Three Sisters Springs is located at 123 NW US Highway 19 in Crystal River.
Take a River Paddling Tour
For water activities, river paddling on the Chassahowitzka River makes for a fun day. This area is paradise for outdoor enthusiasts, and Hunter Springs Kayak has everything you’ll need for a day of paddling in central Florida. Take a tour in one of their unique Clear Kayaks and you might see a manatee right beneath you as you paddle through Seven Sisters Springs. Kayaks are available as singles or doubles, perfect for families with children. Hunter Springs Kayak is located at 8600 W Miss Maggie Drive in Homosassa.
Wakeboarding is the perfect activity for those seeking adventure, and The Lift Adventure Park is just the spot for beginners or those with experience. Packages are available for first timers, but you will have to reserve your spot to ride behind the System 2.0. The Lift Adventure Park has your helmet, vest, and wakeboard ready for you. Summer camps are available, too. You’ll find the Lift Adventure Park at SunWest Park, 17362 Old Dixie Highway in Hudson.
See the Stilt Houses at Sunset
Florida sunsets are pretty amazing, and the Sunset Cruise to the stilt houses will give you a taste of old Florida. Though the history is unclear, the first stilt houses off the coast of Pasco County were built between 1916 and 1918 to shelter fishermen and store their mullet. Hurricane Gladys destroyed the stilt houses in 1968, but they were eventually allowed to be rebuilt. They are quite a site as you’re sailing along into the sunset. Book your cruise through Gill Dawg Marina at 5419 Treadway Drive in Port Richey.
See a Florida Sunrise in a Hot Air Balloon
Tom and Jessica Warren of American Air Balloon Rides have been flying balloons since 1998, and seeing the sunrise from above the trees is a spectacular experience. The first time I went up in a hot air balloon, I didn’t realize how much work went into getting the balloon ready. After that experience, I realized getting ready is all part of the fun! You will watch and participate in the balloon being readied for flight. Yes, it makes for an early morning, but the quiet of the winds and the beauty of the sunrise makes it all worth it. Reserve your flight with American Air Balloon Rides, located in Land O Lakes, by visiting their website.
If you’ve always dreamed of skydiving, Skydive City can make that dream come true. Many years ago, I had a few friends who wanted to skydive. We finally made the appointments and took the class together, which was so much fun to do as a group. In fact, the first time I flew in a plane, I jumped out! It’s easier than ever to skydive today, as your first jump must be tandem. With Skydive City, you’ll be up in their large turbine aircraft after just 20 minutes of instruction! Your guide will open the chute, but you’ll help guide the parachute to the designated dropzone, and it will all be caught on video. You’ll find Skydive City at 4241 Sky Dive Lane in Zephyrhills. Book your flight on the Skydive City website.
Visit the Historic Sponge Docks
Who knew there was a little piece of Greece in central Florida? The famous sponge docks at Tarpon Springs have been around since the early 1900s when natural sponge beds were discovered by Greek sponge divers. It’s fun to learn about the history of the sponge beds, but it’s even more fun to experience the Greek culture in Tarpon Springs. You’ll find shops with Greek goods from natural sponges to olive oil. Love searching for antiques? Walk just a few blocks to find a row of antique shops. And when you’re ready to take a break, you’ve got to check out the authentic Greek restaurants like Hellas and Mama’s Greek Cuisine.
Another great spot for a Florida sunset is Pier 60 in St. Pete Beach. Dig your toes into the white sand and watch the sky change from blue, to slightly orange, to deep orange, to a fireball in the sky. Watching the sunset in Florida isn’t something you do, it’s something you experience. Every night, for two hours before sunset, the Pier 60 Daily Festival presents a nightly celebration of artisans, crafters, and street performers. Seeing the sunset at Pier 60 is a wonderful way to end the day. You’ll find Pier 60 at 10 Pier 60 Drive in Clearwater.
See The Don CeSar
There’s no missing the Don CeSar when in St. Pete Beach. It’s the stunning pink palace on the beach. A Gulf Coast icon from Gatsby era of the roaring 20s, this hotel’s history is a fascinating read, from the days when it was the playground of the rich and famous to the years when it served as a sub-base hospital and later a convalescent center for airmen coming home from World War II. Eventually, there was a movement to Save the Don, making it possible to experience the Don CeSar today. If you’re looking for luxury in your stay in St. Pete Beach, the Don CeSar, located at 3400 Gulf Boulevard, is a great choice.
The Dali Museum
While you’re visiting St. Pete Beach, be sure to visit the Dali Museum. Fans of Salvadore Dali will marvel at the collection of his works hosted at this museum. Visitors who are new to Dali will be equally amazed at the more than 2,100 works of this legendary artist. From prints to photographs to paintings, the permanent collection at the Dali Museum is a must see. The beauty of this gallery is that even if you’ve toured the Dali Museum before, you’re bound to see something new with the visiting exhibits. Check the website for details of upcoming exhibits. The Dali Museum is located at 1 Dali Boulevard in St. Petersburg.
Stephen Sparkman was the region’s first congressman, and it’s because of his accomplishment of securing federal funding to dig the deep-water channels creating Port Tampa Bay that the cruise ships and other large ships are able to come close to downtown Tampa Bay. It’s only fitting that Channelside Bay Plaza was renamed and reinvented into Sparkman Wharf. Visit the Fermented Reality Biergarten featuring over 30 taps and celebrating Florida craft beer. Choose one of the ten restaurants in the Dining Garden for a bite in the relaxed waterfront setting. Check the website for the live music schedule. You’ll find Sparkman Wharf at 615 Channelside Drive in Tampa.
Another great spot where you’ll have a choice of restaurants is Armature Works, the fully restored storage and maintenance building used for Tampa Electric’s streetcars back in the early 1900s. Now housing Heights Public Market, currently featuring 15 places to dine from sushi to Cuban to Mexican, as well as Steelbach, the culinary choices are astounding. And according to the website, this is only the beginning. This innovative and fun spot at 1910 N Ola Avenue in Tampa has three new restaurants slated to open soonish. Visit the Armature Works website to learn more and decide where you’ll eat first.
See the Sunset at Tampa Riverwalk
Yet another great way to see the sunset is with Pirate Water Taxi. Sunsets at the Tampa Riverwalk are glorious, and you can hop on/hop off Pirate Water Taxi to see the sights all day for just $20 for adults and $10 for children, and 2-day passes are only $2 more! The Pirate Water Taxi route takes you to 15 different attractions like the Florida Aquarium and Joe Gasper’s Pirate Ship. (Admission to destinations is not included.) Beer and wine are available for purchase on Pirate Water Taxi, with drink specials during happy hour, Monday through Thursday from 4-7 p.m. You can purchase tickets onboard one of the Pirate Water Taxis or at their ticket booth located at Stop # 7, or online. Check out the schedule of events at the Tampa Riverwalk to plan your trip.
You’ll want to spend an entire day at Busch Gardens. With 15 of Florida’s best thrill rides to choose from, 12,000 animals from 300 species to see, as well as family-friendly shows with world-class performers, there’s a lot to do at this Tampa theme park. Try one of the animal experiences, like going behind the scenes to see the animals in the Care Center or actually taking part in the feeding of Busch Garden’s feathered or furry friends. Check out the special events, like live music and the Food and Wine Festival that takes place each year in March and April. See the Busch Gardens website for dates and more information. You’ll find Busch Gardens Tampa at 10165 McKinley Drive in Tampa.
Glazer Children’s Museum
For more kid-friendly fun, take the family to Glazer Children’s Museum. Their mission is to help parents raise an Imagination Generation by offering activities like learning how to farm or playing in the Engineer’s Workshop. Kids can even slide down a fire pole while pretending to be a firefighter. There’s also a mini climbing wall and indoor playground. Looks like someone will be needing a nap after all that play! Visit Glazer’s Children’s Museum at 110 W Gasparilla Plaza in Tampa.
Tampa Theatre is one the country’s most beautiful movie palaces. Visitors can experience world-class entertainment, with over 600 events each year. You won’t find many venues where you are seated under a realistic night sky including twinkling stars. Take a Balcony to Backstage Tour to learn more about this theater built in 1926. During the summer, Tampa Theater offers film camps. Check the website for more information and shows currently playing. Tampa Theater is located at 711 N Franklin Street.
For a cold local beer, head to the Ybor City neighborhood of Tampa to Coppertail Brewing Co. This independently owned craft brewery and tasting room has 18 beers on tap, all which are brewed at this location. Hungry? Coppertail Brewing has you covered there, too, with a menu that pairs perfectly with their beer. Try an appetizer of Korean Fried Shrimp, or order one of their handmade half-pound burgers. Work off some of those calories by taking a tour of the brewery. Okay, so you probably won’t really burn many calories, but it will be fun and informative! Coppertail Brewing Co. is located at 2601 E 2nd Avenue in Tampa.
Tabanero Cigars is passionate about restoring the once famous cigar capital of the world. Take a tour and learn about the cigar industry. Watch as the Cuban cigar rollers hand-roll the best Tampa cigars. Learn about the different varieties of Tabanero Cigars and purchase a few to take home, or make it easy and choose the sampler gift pack. Visit Tabanero Cigars at 1601 E. 7th Avenue in Tampa.
There is so much to do in Central Florida making it the perfect vacation destination any time of year. The only question is, where will you begin your vacation?
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Kelly Stilwell of Food, Fun & Faraway Places is an official Travelocity Gnational Gnomad. Gnational Gnomads is an exclusive group of high profile travel and lifestyle experts who offer tips and inspiration on behalf of Travelocity.
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