When you look at all the fantastic holiday destinations you can get to from the UK, why would you choose Florida? In this article I will run through some of the Pros (and a couple of Cons) to holidaying in Florida.
The Sunshine State
Firstly the weather. Florida is known as the ‘Sunshine State’ and for good reason as its sub-tropical climate offers plenty of sunshine all year round. The climate is moderated somewhat by the fact that most of the state is only a short distance from the sea, although the southern part of Florida is more typically tropical than the north. The amount of sunshine and the fact that Florida is the warmest state in the country attracts visitors desperate to escape the colder temperatures of the rest of North America or indeed increasingly, the UK. The visitors from North America, particularly Canada, are known as ‘Snow Birds’ for their inclination to migrate south for the winter.
Having said all that, being a tropical climate means that Florida does have a rainy season which stretches from June through to September where you can expect an average of 7 inches of rain per month. If you are in Florida during this time, you can expect rain on just about a daily basis, although the rain does tend to arrive in heavy bursts during the afternoon, rather than the steady all day drizzle you often get in the UK. If you are in Florida during the rainy season and are out and about visiting the theme parks, probably wise to bring some water proof clothing (you can pick up a cheap poncho from Wal Marts for next to nothing).
In terms of what to wear, due to the climate, Florida is a very relaxed place, dress wise with shorts being acceptable just about everywhere. If you are there during the winter months, November through to March, although sunny and warm (and usually dry) during the day, the evenings can get a little chilly so bring a jumper or jacket.
Florida Theme Parks
Most first time visitors to Florida (and many repeat visitors) will want to visit Walt Disney World and some of the other major theme parks. This is particularly true if you arrive in a family group, but even as an adult there is a lot to entertain you at the parks. Disney World has a number of hotels on site if you want to fully immerse yourself in the Disney experience, but the bulk of visitors stay in hotels or rented accommodation in the Orlando area.
Walt Disney World, rather than being a single park is actually a number of separate theme parks. The Magic Kingdom is perhaps the most famous and a must for small children with plenty of rides and a number of parades featuring all the classic Disney characters. The level of organisation needed to get the huge numbers of visitors in, around and out of the park again needs to be seen to be believed! As well as the Magic Kingdom, there is Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom as well as Epcot (which stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) and is a concept park showcasing Disney’s view of how people will live in the future. Disney also has a couple of water parks, Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach.
There are a number of other major theme parks in the area. Universal has two, Studios and Islands of Adventure, the latter featuring The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. There is also SeaWorld, which as its name suggests focuses on sea life, but also has a number of exciting rides (e.g. Manta) as well as the expected whale and sea lion shows.
Florida Water Parks
Perhaps you are looking for a family day out and have already done (had enough of?) the major theme parks? Well why not try a water park. These are great days out for the family with a whole series of water based entertainment including rides, some of which focus on the younger members of the family while some are for the more adventurous thrill seeker. Disney offer their own versions of water parks in Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard beach, but to get away from Disney for a while, why not try Wet ‘n Wild. This is probably the biggest of the water parks and offers the full range of wave machines, rides and areas for relaxing, including Lazy River, a slow moving stream which meanders slowly around the park, allowing you time to relax while drifting along in a giant rubber ring! While the entrance fee for Wet ‘n Wild isn’t particularly cheap, once you have paid you can come back to the park anytime over the next two weeks at no extra charge, which is fantastic value if you return on more than one occasion.
Other Florida Attractions
Besides the theme parks Central Florida has a lot of other attractions worth taking time out for. Here are a couple;
Alligator references are everywhere in Florida and it is quite common to see them while driving around in the wetter parts of the state. If you want to get a little closer, try Gatorland, an alligator themed park and wildlife preserve, established in the 1950s. This has a large number of alligators of varying sizes and ages and visitors are encouraged to feed them with food bought from the park. There are also a number of shows including alligator wrestling and a feeding frenzy where (dead) chickens are fed to the gators. The entrance fee is considerably cheaper than the theme parks and is good value for 3 to 4 hours of entertainment.
When you say Florida to people and ask for associations, Air Boats and the Everglades will come quite high up in people’s responses. There are a number of venues offering Air Boat rides but Florida Wild is right up there and is not too far from Orlando (about one hours drive). The boats themselves take 10-12 people and you need the ear defenders they hand out as they can be quite noisy. The experience lasts about an hour and as well as an exhilarating ride you also get a close up of a variety of wildlife including, if you are lucky, alligators (although they do tend to be quite shy!).
Due to its shape you are never that far away from a beach when in Florida, and anyone basing themselves in the Orlando area can get to either the west coast (Gulf of Mexico) or the east coast (Atlantic) in a couple of hours.
On the east coast, north of Jacksonville, is the island of Amelia, with 16 miles of beautiful beaches and further on down you encounter Daytona Beach, a lively resort, probably more famous for its association with NASCAR motor racing. Following the coast further you get to the Gold Coast, over 50 miles of fantastic coastline, incorporating Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach and Boca Raton.
The west coast enjoys the warmer waters of the Gulf of Mexico and there are some beautiful beaches around Tampa, including Longboat Key, Indian Shores and Clearwater beach. Further along the west coast you come to Naples, a wealthy enclave favoured by retired pensioners from the north-west USA.
Golf in Florida
The climate in Florida is very conducive to playing golf, particularly if you are used to UK conditions! During the summer months early tee times are recommended as it gets very hot around midday and there is always a risk of a downpour in the afternoon. During the rest of the year the conditions are just about perfect, although you might want to bring a jumper in case you are unlucky enough to get one of the occasional cold fronts passing through.
There are literally hundreds of golf courses in Central Florida and the comprehensive motorway network enables the visitor to get around quickly to even those that are some distance away. Many of the golf courses have been designed by famous golfers and they range in difficulty and type so there is something for every golfing taste. As well as the many top class courses there are also a number of municipally managed courses which are a bit easier on the pocket!
Daytona Beach Golf – a couple of good options including Legends Course, designed by Arthur Hills, and Grand Haven Golf Club designed by Jack Nicklaus.
Space Coast Golf – Gary Player’s Baytree National and Arnold Palmer’s Majors Golf Club are two courses of note.
Kennedy Space Center
Located on the Atlantic coast, near Cape Canaveral, this really is worth a visit for anyone staying in the Orlando area (90 mins) and who has any interest in space exploration and mankind’s first tentative steps off this planet. The center (American spelling!) was named after President Kennedy in recognition of his key role in America’s space program as it was he who set the challenge of putting an American on the moon ‘by the end of the decade’ (1960s). That challenge was met (1969) and the visitor center at KSC contains a lot of the hardware that was used to achieve it, including a giant Saturn V space rocket. Not a venue for the thrill seeker, nonetheless awe-inspiring for all that, KSC demonstrates exactly what man is capable of when we put our minds to it.
Wildlife in Florida
Florida is home to a vast array of differing species of wildlife and there are many opportunities to see some examples, whether in controlled environments (zoos, reserves, etc.) or actually in their more natural state. A couple of the more notable species;
American Alligator – as previously mentioned these can be seen close up at Gatorland. Alligators only exist in the wild these days in the south-eastern corner of the USA and in China, with the Chinese variant being much smaller and currently considered endangered. The American alligator was also at one time considered under threat but co-ordinated conservation policies have led to an impressive recovery. Adult males grow to 16 feet or more and can be found in any of the freshwater environments common in Florida (rivers, swamps, lakes etc.).
Florida Manatee – their low metabolic rate and lack of natural body fat to conserve heat result in this species staying predominantly in tropical climes, with Florida being about as far north as they will migrate. Although they appear to be slow-moving, lumbering creatures, they can be surprisingly agile when in their natural environment, often to be seen somersaulting and rolling. To see them gather in large numbers go to the Crystal River and Blue Spring regions.
The choice of restaurants and eateries in Florida, particularly in the predominantly tourist areas, is at times overwhelming. If you make your way along Highway 192 (off which you find Walt Disney World and most of the main attractions) you will see hundreds of restaurants lining the highway. Many of these are part of chains, some familiar to us in the UK (e.g. MacDonalds), some not so familiar. Many of these restaurants appear several times, just a couple of miles apart. Here are just a few to consider.
Millers Alehouse – my favourite bar off the H192, has an outside bar if you want to smoke. A large square bar with dozens of draught beers, this has that unique ‘American bar‘ feel to it. Can get a little busy early evening, particular Friday’s when the occasional coach party can turn up!
Denny’s – great for breakfast, giving that American Diner feel. Several of these along Highway 192, busiest time seems to be Sunday morning when a fair chunk of America seems to like eating out.
Buffalo Wild Wings – a big American style sports bar, with TVs everywhere, very good burger. You will not encounter a bar like this in the UK! Again just off the 192.
Longhorn Steakhouse and the Outback – two more decent restaurants serving a good selection of food, the darker decor of Longhorn making it more suitable for an evening venue.
Golden Corral – cheap and cheerful, mainly self-service. Not my cup of tea, but good if you have a few kids with you.
Shopping in Florida
Shopping is an enjoyable leisure activity for many, and Florida has more than its fair share of shopping opportunities. Here are a couple of the larger offerings;
Florida Mall – Allegedly one of the largest shopping centres in Central Florida this huge mall has all the major shops and department stores all under the one roof. It would take all day to do this place justice, so taking a break in the Food Court is essential. Those of us from the UK can only wonder at the variety of shops on offer, and then wonder again at how everything seems to be so much cheaper than at home. Gets very busy at the weekend, so try and make your visit Mon-Thurs.
The Mall at Millenia – very upmarket, so take your credit card. A host of stores including Jimmy Choo, Gucci, Chanel and Louis Vuitton.