Welcome to the USA‘s Sunshine State, where children’s theme parks and blissful weather dominate public image. Of course, both of these warrant a visit to Florida in their own right, but there’s so much more to it than just Disneyland. We’ve picked out five of the very best things to do, designed to make unforgettable holiday memories — you’ll be booking the next flight to Miami in no time.
Pay NASA a visit
Almost every kid grew up wanting to become an astronaut some day. It’s a career and lifestyle so prestigious, that the same child-like sense of wonder often lingers into adult life and, with its abundance of mega theme parks, Florida is surely the place to be a big kid. Indulge the curiosity of your inner cosmonaut with a trip to Cape Canaveral and spend the day at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. A half-day astronaut training experience designed by veteran astronauts will see you tackling state-of-the-art space flight simulators and taking on a mock shuttle exploration mission.
Time your visit to the Cape right and you can even bag front-row seats to a real space launch. At least once a month NASA launches a shuttle from one of the many sites, with the Kennedy Space Center offering an epic, unrivalled viewing experience. Haven’t quite had your fill of ‘out of this world’ adventure? If you’ve a spare few grand (and a strong stomach), experience weightlessness without having to leave the atmosphere on a zero gravity flight. G-Force One, a Boeing 727 modified by Zero-G, flies queasily in parabolic arcs, allowing you up to eight full minutes of complete weightlessness.
Take a road trip
Spend a few weeks leisurely driving the length of the state, stopping at every beach town that takes your fancy. The sun-drenched scenery is guaranteed to be as fabulous as the weather, especially when you reach the sparkling waters of the south. Florida’s geography lends itself to circular route, skirting down the eastern shore to follow the curve of the southernmost tip before continuing back up along the Gulf of Mexico coastline of the west.
There is one place that every road trip should include, however. The spectacular Overseas Highway stretches over 100 miles, extending Route 1 from the mainland to connect the Florida Keys island chain. A bridge like no other, the highway rises from the water to stand alone — a magnificent feat of engineering that gives you the bizarre but exhilarating feeling of somehow cheating nature and driving on water.
Eye up the local critters
Alligators and crocodiles (more affectionately known as ‘gators and crocs) are everywhere in Florida, from the coastal regions and golf courses to the roadside drainage ditches. They even grace a few menu cards. But one of the best places to get (safely) up close to these scaly, prehistoric giants is around the lakes and swamps of the Everglades National Park, covering Florida’s southernmost tip. Thanks to the hot and humid year-round climate, alligators crowd here in their thousands.
If you opt to cycle around the pathways of the park, chances are you’ll spot a few basking in the sunshine on the edges of the trails, and they aren’t too phased by cyclists (you’ll be pleased to hear). One of the best ways to see them in their natural habitat, however, is by air boat. Sign up for an exhilarating afternoon spent skimming over the swamp water with a guide who knows all the best croc hangouts and can steer you to just metres away from some of the Everglades’ biggest inhabitants.
Take to the water
Not only is Florida one massive peninsula, surrounded almost entirely by water, the relentless sunshine and gorgeous heat can leave you feeling desperate for a dip several times a day. Sure, you could rent a villa with a pool, but that’s just the easy option. Instead inject a sense of adventure into your day and cool off with some form of water-based activity. The beach is, of course, the obvious answer; lie back in the sun and become a beach bum for the day or even a week, it’s up to you.
Around The Keys, Florida’s alluring chain of picture-perfect islands, strap on a water tank and go scuba diving to discover lost shipwrecks, artificial reefs and a thriving host of colorful marine life. Later, catch some rays and test your balance with a paddleboarding lesson. You can even kayak around the northern reaches of the Everglades, testing your skills navigating winding waterways and passing through tall reeds. While you’re at it, set off on a whale-watching tour to spot Southern right whales, plus Atlantic spotted and Bottlenose dolphins.
Chase theme park thrills (just not Disney World)
Despite being known as the ‘east coast home of Mickey Mouse’, Disney World is far from the only intoxicatingly exciting theme park in Florida. Instead head to Orlando and dive into some of your favourite films like Terminator and Men in Black at Universal Studios, or combine an African safari with adrenaline-pumping roller coaster rides at Busch Gardens.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a must-visit for anybody who grew up worshipping the ground that JK Rowling walked on. If you waited eagerly for the post on your 11th birthday, then you wouldn’t be doing your childhood justice if you didn’t explore Hogwarts, sample a glass of butterbeer at the Three Broomsticks or learn to fly with dragons. After all you didn’t power-read the books the day/night they were released for nothing, did you?