Florida is perhaps the most ubiquitous state for domestic travel. Whether you'd more inclined to laze on beaches like Miami and Clearwater, enjoy the family fun on offer at Disney and Universal Studios, or watch a morning blast-off from the Space Coast, chances are you probably have an idea what you'd like to do in Florida, even if you've never been there.
Meanwhile, a spate of strange attractions you won't find in most guidebooks sits just behind the palm trees—and not just Donald Trump's infamous Mar-a-Lago mansion!
If there's one word that generally describes a stay in Orlando, it's "hot"—you get all the high temperatures and humidity the rest of the Sunshine State enjoys, without immediate access to beaches. To be sure, while the home of Mickey Mouse does get legitimately chilly on December and January days every other years or so, it's truly odd to feel cold here, which is part of what makes Orlando's ICEBAR such a strange addition to the city's nightlife. From now on, Orlando shopping malls air-conditioned to refrigerated temperatures won't be the coldest places to spend time in the city!
Traditional wisdom would state that in order to enjoy the best Tampa Bay vacation, you need to sleep on Clearwater Beach. That's not a bad idea, actually, but if you want to trascend the ordinary litany of attractions on Florida's west-central coast, head southward to the city of Bradenton, in Manatee County, where you'll find the ruins of a castle—yes, a castle in Florida. Bear with us for a moment!
Built in 1850 to protect a Floridian family from native American attackers (it failed), Braden Castle represents a vision of Florida you've never seen before, in more ways than one. It isn't made of a sand, but based on how it stood up against the onslaught it faced, it might as well have been!
Panama City's Plexiglass Animals
If there's one Florida destination that screams "normal," it's Panama City, whether you're Spring Breaker or a family on summer vacation. There's a great deal of quirkiness on Florida's Emerald Coast, however—much of it is surprisingly conspicuous.
In particular, local architects seem to have a fascination with terrifying-cum-ridiculous animals made of plexiglass, from "Big Gus," a 20,000-lb cow, to a pair of giant sea mammals (a shark and a whale), who devour tourists as the enter into the gift shops for which they serve as entrances. You'll never think of Florida's panhandle the same way again!
A Hurricane-Proof Home
The only visitor Florida sees as frequently as tourists is hurricanes, so the next time you find yourself doing the tourist thing in the Floridian city of Pensacola, take a drive past a home that's not only an architectural marvel, but one built for the express purpose of withstanding tropical cyclones.
Set your GPS 1005 Ariola Dr, but remember: This is a private residence, so don't attempt anything more than a drive-by viewing. If you're not a hurricane, you're not welcome here!
JFK's Cold War Bunker
Most people realize the island of Cuba is just 90 miles off the coast of Florida, but what younger Americans in particular might not remember are the implications of this fact as it related to the Cold War. Indeed, while West Palm Beach isn't quite as close to the land of Castro as, say, Key West, it was here that the government built a bomb shelter for JFK on Peanut Island, just outside the city center off the Intercoastal Waterway.
If you thought you knew Florida before, you definitely don't know—and this article has only scratched the service! Just as Disney World is the "Happiest Place on Earth," its home state of Florida might well be one of the weirdest, even though it's among the places in the US most travelers feel they know best.