Are you wondering what to do on your next Orlando vacation when you can’t stand another second at a theme park? Let’s face it, the Land of the Mouse can be draining, but there are so many incredible day trips from Orlando that you could home-base your holiday with the budget hotels and cheap flights while you discover Florida with the best things to do around Orlando.
Swimming with Manatees in Crystal River
Every winter, Manatees from Texas to Rhode Island return to Florida soak in the warm spring waters. Now, 71-degree water bubbling up from underground springs might not seem like a hot tub to you, but it’s just enough for manatees to survive. They can not survive in water temperatures below 68 degrees. That means from early December through mid-February, these gentle giants will be congregating in spring heads throughout Florida.
There are many places you can see manatees from Blue Springs State Park to warm water effluents from power plants, but only one place in the world you can swim with manatees—Crystal River Florida. Manatee tours are best early in the morning in the middle of the week, but if the weather is cold enough, experienced guides can find them in and around Crystal River at any time.
Every manatee tour begins with an educational video on manatee manners. You learn the right and wrong way to interact with these beautiful creatures. Then, you boat a boat and look for manatees. Once you’re in the water, you want to stay as still as possible, and maybe if you’re lucky, they’ll come up to visit you. Even if you just watch them sleep and breath, it’s an epic experience to be in the water with them. The education and awareness from these tours have significantly reduced boat strikes and have helped to bring manatees back from the brink of extinction.
Select Crystal River Eats: Vintage on 5th is a Park Avenue restaurant in small-town Florida. The she-crab soup is simply divine with a rich, nutty flavor.
Scuba Diving in West Palm Beach
There’s a secret that not many people know about diving in Florida. The Florida Keys aren’t the only place for destination quality diving. The Florida Reef Tract from West Palm Beach to Miami offers coral reefs and over 500 commercially dove shipwrecks with extremely short boat rides and incredible marine life. You can book an afternoon dive trip and be home in time for the Disney Fireworks. It’s well worth the drive to Palm Beach to take advantage of the excellent visibility and the start of coral reefs.
There’s more than one way to dive West Palm Beach too. South Florida is the world’s largest Loggerhead Turtle hatchery, so it’s quite likely you’ll see turtles if you’re diving from May through September. In late fall, the Goliath Grouper gather in mass on the wrecks just outside of the Gulf Stream. Speaking of the Gulf Stream, West Palm offers dark water diving. This is where you motor out to the Gulf Stream at night, and watch bioluminescent creatures beyond description float by. There are hundreds of wrecks off West Palm, but the Governor’s River Walk stands out because there are four wrecks placed right next to one another.
The “must do” dive in West Palm Beach is the Blue Heron Bridge, the “Best Shore Dive in the World.” It’s a muck dive in the shallows beneath Blue Heron Bridge at Phil Foster State Park. Fish surveyors routinely spot over 100 species of fish on a single dive. Perhaps the most unique is the toadfish, which look like a cross between a muppet and a fish. Many divers spend years between sightings, but you’ll find them routinely at the BHB. Diving Blue Heron Bridge takes careful planning to enter and exit the water during high slack tide. This is the only time you’ll have decent visibility and be free from the current flowing in and out of the lagoon. If the tides are right, you can even do a night dive at Blue Heron Bridge and discover an entirely new set of animals.
Select Palm Beach Eats: The Breakers Palm Beach is an old school Florida hotel where the rich and famous from the East Coast have been coming since 1896. Inside Breakers is the Flagler Steakhouse, serving the best steaks in Palm Beach for over 100 years.
Surfing Cocoa Beach
Every child of the 80s remembers Ron Jon Surf Shop and Kelly Slater, both of which got their start in Cocoa Beach, Florida. Today, Ron Jon’s is open 24 hours a day, just in case you need a pair of boardshorts at 2am, and every surfer you talk to has their story of when they were in the line-up with Kelly Slater.
Even if you don’t want to take surf lessons in Cocoa Beach, it’s still the closest beach to Orlando with lots of cool stuff to do. You can use the Atlantic Coast waves for body surfing and boogie boarding, as well as longboarding. On the inland side, you can find kayak trips through the mangrove tunnels or during summer nights, exploring the bioluminescent bays along on the Indian River. You can also take a ride out on casino boats into international water to test your luck, but if you’re really lucky, you’ll be in town to watch a space launch from the Cape.
Kennedy Space Center is just outside of Cocoa Beach, making it a perfect one-two combination for an Orlando excursion. You can explore the history and future of the US Space Program from flight simulators to authentic equipment like the Saturn V Rocket and the Space Shuttle. A trip to Mission Zones of the Kennedy Space Center will inspire you with the best of mankind.
Select Cocoa Beach Eats: Technically, Dixie Crossroads is in Titusville, which is a half-hour north of Cocoa, but just outside the gates of the Space Center. It offers all kinds of seafood, but you have to try the locally grown seasonal rock shrimp and their cornbread dusted with powdered sugar.
Visiting the Beaches of Clearwater / St Pete
The Gulf beaches of St. Petersburg and Clearwater are the sunset to the Atlantic Coast sunrise. The Gulf is warmer and calmer than the Atlantic. Instead of surf breaks, you’ll find jet ski rentals, parasailing, and banana boat rides. If you’re a little less daring, boats of every flavor—from pirate ships to floating ice cream parlors—take you out onto the water to cruise the coast and look for dolphins.
These beaches are in the greater Tampa Bay area, which offers plenty to do besides the beach. With world-class art installations like the Dali Museum, the extensive Chihuly exhibits, or the hip and happening River Walk, Tampa stakes its claim as the coolest cities in Florida. If you’re into history, you can explore the sponge docks of Tarpon Springs or the gilded age splendor of the Don Cesar Hotel. The urban vibe of Tampa is the perfect complement to the beaches of St. Petersburg.
Since you’re on the west coast, you have to stay for sunset. From the Mallory Square inspired sunset celebration at Clearwater’s Pier 60 to rooftop bars to sunset cruises, there’s no bad way to the end of the day. Sunset and dinner on the coast will also help you avoid the I-4 traffic on the way back to Orlando.
Select Clearwater Eats: There are so many good choices here; it’s hard to pick just one. Waterfront dining at The Bait House on Clearwater Beach speaks to the seafood lover, especially if you’ve already found parking for sunset at Pier 60. If you’re looking to get a head start home, the wings at Dunedin Brewery, Florida’s oldest microbrewery, are outstanding.
Exploring the Sarasota Beaches
Clearwater and St Pete aren’t the only beaches on Florida’s Gulf coast you can reach from Orlando. You can reach Clearwater in a hair under two hours from Orlando and Siesta Key in just over two. Clearwater is touted at the best beach city, while Siesta Key is known as the best beach. The salient difference is the word ‘city.’ If you want all the amenities, go to Clearwater / St. Pete. If you wish to kick back on endless beaches of snow-white sand, go to Siesta Key. The silica sand, aka sugar sand, is so pure at Siesta Key, it squeaks under your feet.
Just a little bit past Siesta Key is Venice Beach. Not to be confused with LA’s Venice Beach, Florida’s Venice Beach is very quiet. Its claim to fame is that it is known as the ‘Shark Tooth Capital of the World.’ If you know how to find shark teeth at Venice Beach, you can gather fifty or more in a single day. In short, you go at low tide, rent a sieve basket at the pier, and shift through the sand in knee-deep water. Once you find the spot, you’ll get a tooth in almost every scoop.
Siesta Key Eats: You’d be remiss to miss the flavors of Made in Rome Gelato on a hot summer day, but you’ll need more sustenance to make the drive back to Orlando. The Billionaire Burger at the Cottage in the heart of Siesta Key will do the trick. It’s satisfyingly savory in a delightful venue.
Kayaking Silver Springs
Silver Springs is Florida’s oldest tourist attraction, drawing visitors since the 1870s. A half-century before black and white Mickey debuted in Steamboat Willie, and glass bottom boats cruised the springhead at Silver Springs. The spring run exemplified the American tropics and served as the backdrop for numerous films included the original Tarzan movies. Cruising down Silver Springs will transport you in time and space.
Adding to the spatial distortion is a troupe of wild monkeys who escaped from a 1930s jungle cruise attraction. You can kayak with monkeys at Silver Springs down the 5.5-mile spring run. Along the way, you’ll see alligators and maybe even manatees. You’ll feel like your floating through the tropics and be transported back to old Florida at the same time.
Select Silver Springs Eats: Let’s be honest, Silver Springs / Ocala is small-town Florida. However, El Toreo offers legit good Mexican food and generous margaritas that are the perfect complement to a day on the water.
Tubing Rainbow River
Orlando locals flock to the springs to beat the summer heat. Rainbow River stands out amongst the multitude of choices because it’s not just one massive springhead. Over a dozen boils and vents discharge cool, clear spring water from the springhead at the State Park to KP Hole County Park. The water is so clear, in fact, that you can take a scuba float trip from KP Hole park that you’ll be able to see from the bottom to the surface along the entire dive. It’s a unique dive for every certified diver, for the rest of the population, there’s tubing.
There are two distinct options for tubing the Rainbow River, a two-hour trip, and a four-hour trip. The shorter run starts from the State Park goes to a little past KP Hole with faster and clearer water. The longer option starts at KP Hole and runs to the town of Dunnellon. Either one is a great way to escape the crowds and heat of Florida in the summer.
Rainbow River Eats: Rainbow River flows through the little town of Dunnellon, where you’ll find several Florida style riverfront restaurants. Swampy’s is a local favorite where you can watch the crowds float and paddle down from KP Hole Park. If you’ve never tried fried alligator bites, now’s your chance.
What’s the Best Day Trip from Orlando?
The best day trip from Orlando depends on what you’re looking for. You can hit the beaches from Orlando to Cocoa for surfing, St Pete / Clearwater for beach cities, and Siesta Key for the best sand. You can head to the springs and take the glass bottom boats at Silver Springs or go tubing on the Rainbow River. You can even explore underwater snorkeling with manatees in Crystal River, diving in West Palm Beach, or experience a unique drift dive down the Rainbow River. No matter what you choose, these excursions from Orlando give you a chance to escape the crowds, recharge your spirit, and discover the wild side of Florida.
By Jenn and Ed Coleman
Hi! We are Jenn and Ed aka Coleman Concierge. In a nutshell, we are a Gen X couple sharing our stories of amazing adventures through activity driven transformational and experiential travel. We advocate for sustainable and ethical tourism and truly believe in the power of travel to transform both ourselves as well as the world around us. Our tagline is amazing adventures for ordinary people because we contend that you don’t have to be super rich, super fit or super anything to have an amazing adventure. Expanding your comfort zone and trying new things will pay huge dividends in both health and happiness. You can follow on Instagram or Facebook.