Believe it or not, Florida existed long before Disney World. Decades before Walt set his sights on Central Florida, the Sunshine State was a beacon of tourism, born of the post-World-War-II rise of the middle class, the sedan, and the “Great American Road Trip.”
Though airplanes may have given road trips a run for their money – and though Disney World has long eclipsed all other destinations in Florida – there are still places far beyond Mickey’s reach to explore in the Sunshine State… Today, we’re offering a handful of can’t-miss classics that might just be worth setting aside a day of your Florida trip and spending it beyond Orlando’s major theme parks. Have you visited any of these memory-making, money-saving classics? Locals, sound off in the comments – which of these do you recommend?!
Image: GatorlandDistance from Disney: 15 minutes
It really doesn’t get more “real Florida” than Gatorland. When the Spanish arrived in Florida in the 1500s, they’d never seen anything quite like the nine-foot long lizards (“el lagatro”) that inhabited its waters. Florida’s “oldest residents” have been around since the dinosaurs, and appropriately, the theme park dedicated to them has been a Florida classic since before the mouse moved in.
Gatorland opened in 1949, and remains to this day a tourist icon. The experience of visiting the “Alligator Capital of the World” begins by walking into the historic jaws of a roadside-style alligator head. From there, the 110-acre facility is something of a mix between a wildlife park, a botanical garden, and a good ole’ fashioned tourist trap. We actually took a full tour of the history of Gatorland in our standalone Roadside Wonders: Gatorland feature if you want all the details…
Image: Gatorland… but among its lineup, guests can find “Gator Jumparoo” shows (luring the creatures to show their incredible vertical leap from the water with raw chickens), free-flight aviaries, an off-roading monster truck ride through Florida wilderness, a swamp-set boardwalk, the Screamin’ Gator zip line, countless animal interactions, and of course, “world famous” gator nuggets. (Yes, they’re real alligator; no, they aren’t from the park’s collection.)
Some might argue that you haven’t really been to Florida until you’ve been to Gatorland. And in case you need another incentive, single day admission to the park is about $30 for adults and Annual Passes are just $50, meaning that you get an entire year of Gatorland for the price of Genie+ and a single Individual Lightning Lane at Walt Disney World.
2. Weeki Wachee Springs
Image: Florida State ParksDistance from Disney: 1 hour 45 minutes
Weeki Wachee Springs is probably less on the radars of Central Florida visitors because it’s nearly a two hour drive from Orlando, far out west past Spring Hill. However, for fans of retro theme parks, Americana, roadside attractions, and mythology, there’s no better place to be.
Like Gatorland, we dedicated an entire Roadside Wonders: Weeki Wachee Springs feature to the history of this iconic, historic roadside attraction. In short, Weeki Wachee Springs was born from the same road trip mentality as Gatorland, but embraced Florida’s other bountiful, natural resource: crystal clear natural spring-fed waterways filled with the state’s unique flora and fauna. Countless springs exist across the state, and many have leveraged their natural beauty and wildlife as nature parks with glass bottom boats, nature hikes, and more…
Image: Florida State Parks… but only Weeki Wachee features “real, live mermaids.” A clever roadside attraction that’s become an enduring treasure, Weeki Wachee’s tradition of tail-and-seashell clad beauties wooing visitors from the highway like sirens of old has continued since 1946. But these mermaids aren’t just there for family photos. In fact, they’re incredibly strong, incredibly talented athletes who perform underwater ballets in front of a 500-seat audience sunk 16-feet into the crystal clear lagoon, breathing from air hoses as they perform.
The whole thing is a mix of retro-cool and astonishingly magic. The mermaids are just the beginning, of course, with glass-bottom boat tours, camps, wildlife shows, and the white sand Buccaneer Bay waterpark with its two waterslides into the springs themselves. The point is, Weeki Wachee is must-see for any family with a would-be mermaid or merman, and by being absorbed into the Florida State Park system in 2008, the park looks to be forever preserved like the gem it is. More to the point, it’s a great getaway for $13 for adults.
3. LEGOLAND Florida
Image: LEGOLANDDistance from Disney: 45 minutes
Always listed among the most iconic of Florida’s must-see road trip destinations was Cypress Gardens – a Sunshine State staple since 1936. Renowned for its botanical gardens, iconic water ski shows, and the beautiful “Southern Belles” who walked its grounds greeting guests, Cypress Gardens was a true gem, famous for the countless celebrities who visited on their own Florida vacations. However, Cypress Gardens had a tough time finding its new footing when Disney World opened an inconvenient 45 minutes away. The park struggled to find a new identity until tragically closing in 2008.
Image: MerlinThen, in a surprise 2010 announcement, the U.K.-based Merlin Entertainments (the second largest amusement park operator after Disney by attendance) announced that it intended to purchase the remains of Cypress Gardens for $22 million… and re-make them as the fifth in its growing international chain of LEGOLAND Parks.
LEGOLAND Florida opened in late 2011, vastly expanding and re-dressing what remained of the original park (but retaining its botanical gardens, now filled with Southern Belles… made of LEGOs). LEGOLAND Florida is a fantastic theme park… but more to the point, it’s a fantastic resort. Merlin seems to have found the key to luring guests away from Orlando by way of the LEGO brand, and in the last fifteen years, LEGOLAND has managed to revive and build on the remains of Cypress Gardens’ waterpark, construct three hotels, and open the unique, standalone Peppa Pig Theme Park.
Increasingly, families seem to be figuring out that the 45 minute drive from Orlando is worth it… or maybe, that LEGOLAND can be an entire, multi-day destination in its own right. Not only does the park manage to expand upon and preserve Cypress Gardens’ legacy; it also adds a compelling and cost-saving alternative to Disney. Three day tickets that include the theme park, waterpark, and Peppa Pig park are just $130 – less than a single-day ticket to Magic Kingdom.
And that’s just the start… Continue on to the next page…