Want to See Real Florida? These Day Trips Are a Fun Break From Disney World
I’m about to say something that might make me a ton of enemies: At a certain point, Walt Disney World just isn’t that magical anymore.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a born and bred Florida Man who can tell you the difference between the taste of the water in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at the Magic Kingdom and the Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros at Epcot. Don’t ask.
But here’s the thing: I live two hours away from Kissimmee, so I’m never subjected to weeklong tours of all the Orlando theme parks have to offer. But according to families that are, things can sort of drag the last few days.
Plus, everything in and around theme parks costs an arm and a (turkey) leg.
If my older brother brings his family from Chicago, I’d spend a day at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. I might even enjoy an overcooked steak at the kitschy Rainforest Cafe. (I say that with love; I’ve been a loyal and enthusiastic customer for decades.) But then I’m out of there.
Now, there are actually lots of fun things to do in the immediate vicinity of the big mouse-eared utility pole flanking Interstate 4.
There’s Cocoa Beach, where I once spent an extremely ill-advised spring break. There’s also Disney- and Universal Studios-adjacent stuff for adults, like Universal CityWalk or Disney’s Boardwalk.
But sometimes, if the kids seem to be able to handle a few hours in the car, it’s time to leave the magical grip of Orlando and hit the road — Florida style.
These 10 Day Trips From Orlando Will Save You From Another Disney Day
First off, when we say Orlando, we mean the region from Kissimmee north 20 miles on Interstate 4. Let’s call it theme-park central.
So, you don’t technically have to have spent the week touring Disney parks to enjoy these (sort of) short road trips.
1. Cedar Key
Cedar Key is on the opposite coast of Florida, an it’s just about as antithetical to Orlando’s theme park strip as possible.
Rolling over the bridges connecting the cluster of islands, you’ll see it’s as Old Florida as you can get. No giant water slides, towering Ferris wheels or massive roller coasters here. Just tens of thousands of birds, acres of winding mangroves and miles of waterways to explore via kayak or paddleboard.
It’s the perfect way to wind down a weeklong vacation of excessive expenditures and nonstop stimulation. Plus, you might even bring home some fresh-caught seafood to teach the kiddos that not everything in life is available at a themed cafeteria.
Drive Time: 2:38
2. Weeki Wachee
Ok, so you’ll start to see that I really dig Old Florida destinations. But this one even has real-life mermaids.
Yes, Weeki Wachee, with its population of 13, is certainly magical — and not in the animatronic way. You can swim, and even sort of bunk with majestic manatees in the river named after the town.
And if you need a little taste of theme park action, spend half that day at Buccaneer Bay, which is right in Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.
If you want a tasty snack to bring back home, try scalloping in the river. It might be the most Florida thing you can do.
Drive Time: 2:02
3. St. Augustine
A little bit of real history and a few tall tales are the bedrock of any historic Florida city (at least according to author Craig Pittman and his essential read, Oh, Florida).
St. Augustine, with its very fake Pirate Museum and very real Castillo de San Marcos fort, might be the quintessential example. But, this dichotomy also makes it perfect for a family trip.
Check out the baby albino alligators at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park, where you can zipline above all the critters for a quick thrill. And to recover from said thrill, parents, have a cocktail at the St. Augustine Distillery.
To give the kids a taste of culture after the traipse through Walt Disney World, you have to tour all the historical oddities at the Lightner Museum.
(Just a side note: I might be a little bit biased since St. Augustine, specifically the Lightner, is where I got married.)
Drive Time: 2:18
As you already know, Florida is weird. And if you’re ready to ditch the conformity of Celebration to find out just how weird we can get, you’ll have to hit up Cassadaga.
Known as the psychic capital of the world, this little town is just up I-4 from where you’re probably staying, and promises just as much “magic” as the Kingdom. Channel the unknown with a workshop at the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp.
Or, find out if the kids will behave in the car ride home with a reading from one of the hundreds of psychics in town. Listen, it’s not your average day trip, but it’s the best way to get your Florida Man or Florida Woman certification.
Drive Time: 1:12
5. Clearwater Beach
Quite a departure from some of the previous destinations, Clearwater Beach is a booming, sand-soaked barrier island on the Gulf of Mexico.
You’ll hit some traffic, but the beach is as laid-back as any in Florida. In fact, it’s been voted the No.1 beach in the country.
On your way there, you can stop by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and meet one of Florida’s most famous residents: Winter the Dolphin. But this day trip should probably best be spent soaking up the sun (don’t forget the sunblock!)
Drive Time: 1:54
6. Lake Wales
I came across this little Florida gem while trucking my wife to a horse show in Brooksville. It’s sort of in the middle of nowhere, but Lake Wales — and specifically Bok Tower Gardens — are totally worth a day trip.
The peaceful gardens will be music to your ears after a week in the crowded Orlando parks. Literally. The “singing tower” carillon is the highlight of the Central Florida attraction.
And, of course, to tie in Florida weirdness, you’ll have to roll up to Spook Hill, where an optical illusion involving the road will leave your jaw agape. Well, it’s sort of interesting, anyway.
Drive time: 1:04
7. Siesta Key
Home of another No. 1 beach, Siesta Key is another cheap option for relaxing after a week on the go.
The bleached-white, quartz sand is world-famous. And following a $21 million renovation a few years ago, the county park has plenty of food and fun for the family.
For a quieter locale and some awesome snorkeling, visit Point of Rocks or Turtle Beach at the south end of Siesta. And, after baking in the sun for a while, you can sip on a frozen drink at Daiquiri Deck Raw Bar in Siesta Key Village.
Drive Time: 2:15
I’m a Florida State University graduate, so it pains me to do this, but Tallahassee is just too far away for a nice day trip from Orlando. So, I have to send you to Gainesville.
Avoid the college area, and head out into some good old Florida wilderness to see Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park, one of the most unusual geological features you’ll see in our wacky state — a mini rainforest. Plus, it’s where Tom Petty used to go to make out.
If that sounds too risque, take the family to the Butterfly Rainforest at the Florida Museum of Natural History. And if you’re into spookier winged creatures, then visit the University of Florida Bat Houses.
Drive Time: 2:05
9. Merritt Island
It’s borderline criminal to visit Florida without swinging by the heart of the Space Coast. I mean, did you check out that SpaceX launch?!
It’s pretty expensive — between $40 and $50 a person — to tour Kennedy Space Center, (which is why it’s so far down on this list), but if you’re from out of state, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to take in everything NASA. And maybe you’ll even buy the kids some astronaut ice cream.
And the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge should supply you with enough alligator and manatee sightings to give you the Florida Woman or Florida Man certification we talked about earlier. But remember, please no riding the manatees.
Drive Time: 1:19
10. Plant City
If you flew into Tampa on your way to an Orlando theme park, you traveled through Plant City. And you most definitely saw Dinosaur World.
Yep, the giant brontosaurus peeking out over Interstate 4 will lead you to an archaeological theme park that costs a lot less than another day at Disney. Plus, it’s 100% Florida Weird-certified.
If you happen to be here in March, bring your sweet tooth to the Florida Strawberry Festival, a fair-like celebration of the year’s harvest — you might even get to meet the Florida Strawberry Festival queen. If not, antique shopping in downtown Plant City might yield cobwebbed treasures (I know, I know, the kids might get antsy. But they just had the time of their lives at Disney.)
Drive Time: 0:59
So when you’re over the magic of Disney, remember, there are tons of cool, weird and wild places that will give your family a real taste of Florida.
Alex Mahadevan is a data journalist at The Penny Hoarder. He’s trying to visit as many weird Florida places as possible this year.