Only 35 miles east of Orlando is genuine adventure: space exploration at Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center. Visit NASA’s space shuttle launch and landing facilities, gawk at the giant Saturn rocket, check out space flight in a simulator and sign up to meet a real astronaut. The Canaveral National Seashore offers unspoiled barrier island habitats, and young surfer dudes and dudettes can visit the Cocoa Beach Surf Museum (parental spending at the original Ron Jon’s Surf Shop not included.)
Truly a U.S. national treasure and a World Heritage Site, the enormous 1.5 million acre “sea of grass” boasts nine distinct habitats and teems with hundreds of species of mammals, birds, and fish. There are ranger-guided tours and activities, mangrove coast boat tours and tram tours on a fifteen-mile loop; check individual sections of the Park for specific activities. Miles of both land and water trails tempt walkers, hikers and canoe/kayak enthusiasts. The December through April dry season is the least humid, most bug-free time to go, but is also the most crowded, so reserve early.
The gray “gentle giant” manatee is a popular symbol of Florida, but in the wild, these aquatic mammals only congregate in a few coastal areas during the winter (November to March.) To guarantee seeing one year-round, visit Homosassa Springs State Park on the Gulf Coast of southwest Florida. Very family-friendly and walkable, the 210-acre park houses numerous native species that are rescued or in rehabilitation, and offers narrated educational Manatee Encounter programs three times daily, plus an underwater observatory in its million-gallon natural spring.
Many visitors to Florida drive right past spectacular natural beauty as they speed south. Try slowing down and investigating the spring-fed wonders of the north central part of the state. The lively college town of Gainesville is a good “base camp” location, and don’t miss the comprehensive Florida Natural History Museum on the University of Florida campus, whose walk-through butterfly rainforest is a magical treat for children. The Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park proves that if a sinkhole is big enough, it creates its own geological ecosystem. Just south of Gainesville is the Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, where visitors can walk through the lush hammock and look for the bison herd. Just watch for gators! The Cracker farmhouse belonging to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (author of The Yearling) is in Cross Creek, and there are numerous sparkling natural springs in the area for everyone to plunge into and cool off at the end of the day.
Disneyworld is only one of the many attractions to be found in Florida. So next time you're thinking of heading down through the Sunshine State, take some time to explore the history and natural wonders at hand. Who knows, your child may end up loving a manatee more than Mickey.