Disney World is great and all, but there's so much more to one of the longest states in the U.S. If you live in or are visiting Orlando, there are a number of day trips you can take to switch up the scenery and get a different side of the Sunshine State. Dive into the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, or explore St. Augustine, the oldest, continuously occupied European settlement in the country. With options for groups of gal pals, couples, and young families, these day trips are fun for everyone.
It’s not uncommon to spot manatees floating around this Gulf of Mexico river. Just an hour and a half northwest of Orlando, Crystal River's warm, blue waters are perfect for snorkeling and scuba diving. Local dive centers such as Crystal Lodge Dive Center and Seadaddys Dive Center offer equipment and guided tours. Besides swimming, you can also fish on the lakes or plan a nice picnic in a shaded area.
A little more than two hours north of Orlando, St. Augustine is a mecca of sorts for history buffs. Founded in 1565, it is the oldest city in the U.S. Hit up the museums, the lighthouse and castle, forts, national monuments, and an alligator farm for a bit of quirk. San Sebastian Winery is a guaranteed good time as are all the little shops and quaint cafés on St. George Street. Learn about the first Spanish settlers at Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, a 15-acre waterfront park with an on-site archaeological dig and Spanish and Timucuan dwellings.
If you get tired of walking, hop on and off the local trolley for a self-guided tour, or head to the beach for some restorative sunshine. And you'd be remiss to skip out on a ghost tour—this is America's oldest city, after all. During the tour, you will get to experience the Old Jail, Potter’s Wax Museum’s Chamber of Horrors, the Old Drug Store, and more. Ghosts & Gravestones is a popular tour company, but there are many others to choose from.
Merritt Island's claim to fame is the family-friendly Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, where adults and children alike can learn all about the history, current state, and future of space travel. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. you could technically spend all day at Kennedy Space Center—but if you want to pack in as much as you can, there are a few other local attractions worth visiting.
The Brevard Zoo and Museum of Dinosaurs & Ancient Cultures are both must-sees, while the world's largest surf shop and Cocoa Beach Pier are fun stops on the way to or from Orlando. If it’s a spa experience you’re craving, there are quite a few to choose from, as well as yoga studios and a yoga surf school.
If you have children, this one’s for you. The LEGOLAND Florida Resort in Winter Haven is just 45 minutes from Orlando and includes more than 50 rides, shows, and attractions on a 150-acre property.
While it’s ideal for kids aged 2 to 12, LEGOLAND is more than an amusement park. Step into this dreamland and you’ll discover a botanical garden and water park. There are shopping and dining options on-site, too, and let’s not forget the hotels. With three LEGO-themed hotels to choose from (including Beach Retreat and Pirate Island), there’s no reason not to extend your short visit and stay for a night.
Clearwater Beach is so relaxed and laid-back, you could easily spend an entire day lounging on the soft white sand with a cocktail in hand. For those who prefer an action-packed day at the beach, try your hand at water sports such as jet skiing, parasailing, paddleboarding, and tubing.
The beachfront promenade is home to tons of fresh seafood restaurants and cute cafés; rent a bike or throw on some skates to explore it in style. Around sunset, head to Pier 60, where street performers show off their skills and vendors sell locally-made arts and crafts every day of the week. For something a bit more quiet, make your way to The Edge Hotel. Have your camera ready: This is one view you’ll want to cherish for years to come.
Also known as Lake Toho, this 22,700-acre lake is one of the most famous in the U.S. for bass fishing. Tournaments are held here on a yearly basis, but you can also come to the lake for a day of swimming and birdwatching. There are plenty of animals to see, including gators, water snakes, and turtles. A little more than 30 minutes' driving distance from Orlando, pack a picnic and plan for an airboat ride around the lake.
With 4,200 acres of protected nature, the Everglades offer all the outdoor activities you can only find in Florida. If you want a tour, slather on the bug spray and schedule an airboat ride. There’s a sightseeing pier and boardwalk here, too, as well as a hands-on live alligator demonstration for those in awe of our reptilian friends. Local restaurants serve up barbecue dishes like gator tail and frog legs, and—for the less adventurous diners—pulled pork, ribs, and smoked chicken. In the Everglades, you’ll also find wildlife exhibits with zebras, deer, tropical birds, tortoises, and more.
Tampa is about an hour and a half drive from Orlando, with plenty of parks and trails. Don’t miss brunch at the Oxford Exchange, a design lover’s paradise with a crowd-pleasing menu. Of course, Cuban food is also a must; some say Tampa is home to the best Cuban sandwiches in the state, while others will even insist they're the best in the country. Craft beer, in general, is abundant in the city. Do a tasting if possible so you can get a feel for the local flavors infused into Tampa’s brews. And, if you’re looking for a day of fun, head to Busch Gardens for roller coasters galore.
New Smyrna Beach
Just south of Daytona, New Smyrna Beach is known not only for its beaches and national sea shore, but also its cute shops, art galleries, and museums (like the Mary S. Harrell Black Heritage Museum, located inside a church built in the 1800s). Spend a day here filling up your cultural cup, or sign up for some surf lessons.
An hour south of Orlando, this 250-acre garden features a 205-foot Art Deco and neo-Gothic Singing Tower, a Mediterranean-style mansion from the 1930s, and a Reflection Pool that welcomes more than 120 bird species, squirrels, and other garden critters. Spend a day perusing the Olmsted-designed wonder and taking in all the glorious colors and scents on display—especially in springtime when azaleas, camellias, magnolias, and other gorgeous Southern flowers are in bloom. Sit under a palm or oak tree with a book and glass of lemonade at The Blue Palmetto Cafe; open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., they sell boxed lunches for takeout as well as soups, salads, sandwiches, wraps, and desserts to enjoy inside or out. Beer and wine is also available for an even more pleasurable experience.
A north Florida university town mostly known for its high energy and team spirit, Gainesville is under two hours from Orlando by car and offers its visitors much more than just tailgating and rowdy student gatherings. Spend some time at the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention, the Harn Museum of Art, or the Florida Museum of Natural History. If you prefer to bask in the fresh outdoor air, check out Millhopper State Park or Morningside Nature City. Animal lovers should make a point of visiting the Carson Springs Wildlife Conservation Foundation, an animal sanctuary that’s home to exotic animals and rehabilitated local wildlife. The center offers educational tours (keep this in mind if you’re traveling with children or in a group), and all money from tours goes directly to the animals.