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Image: David Vega

There’s a lot more to Florida than theme parks, beaches, and the Everglades…

It’s true that the Sunshine State is largely known for these three things—it is the home of Walt Disney World, after all. Visitors who choose to venture beyond “the Disney bubble” have a lot of options, particularly if you’re planning on incorporating a road trip into your vacation.

If you attempt to research road trip destinations in Florida, the same options often appear over and over again—other theme parks like Universal Studios or Busch Gardens, experiences similar to theme parks like Medieval Times, wildlife parks, or Kennedy Space Center, and bustling beach towns like Daytona, Cocoa, Melbourne, New Smyrna, and Clearwater take up much of the list.

What if you want to explore beyond the usual suspects though?

It would be difficult, to say the least, to put together an exhaustive list of unique road trip destinations within two hours of Walt Disney World. For the sake of brevity, we have left many of the above options off, both obvious choices and those we’ve covered at length elsewhere like these Orlando-area attractions Disney fans will love. Instead, we wanted to highlight some of Florida’s more curious road trip destinations that will delight and inspire theme park fans while offering wholly unique experiences that don’t always show up at the top of blogs and popular lists.

Ready for a road trip? Here are 7 fully unique destinations within two hours of Walt Disney World you won’t want to miss…

1. Springs, springs, springs!

Blue waters of Rainbow Springs, Dunnellon
Image: Flickr, Rain0975 (license)

You cannot talk about epic Florida road trip destinations without mentioning springs—indeed, we could easily spend an entire article on this topic alone.

Florida is home to over 700 freshwater springs—that’s more than any other location on the planet. Stepping into any of these feels a bit like discovering the Garden of Eden or the Fountain of Youth. Florida’s springs are all rich with otherworldly beauty and opportunities to swim, kayak, and explore. Even within two hours of Walt Disney World, you could easily map out an entire trip visiting nothing but Florida springs.

Two good examples to highlight are Rainbow Springs in Dunnellon and Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River. Rainbow Springs is a well-known destination for its crystal clear waters, as well as for opportunities for tubing and kayaking down the nearby Rainbow River. Like all Florida springs, the water remains around 72 degrees all year round. The spring’s sandy bottom gives it the distinct feel of a natural swimming pool, and you’re likely to see turtles and other wildlife in the area.

Around 20 minutes towards the coast lies Crystal River on King’s Bay. Guests can find a number of diversions in this small town ranging from fishing to airboat tours to scalloping in the gulf, but we mention Crystal River for one specific reason…

It is the only place in the Sunshine State where you can legally swim with manatees.

Manatees in Three Sisters Springs
Image: Flickr, Hotel Kaesong (license)

Three Sisters and Hunter Springs in Crystal River are two of the top spots for seeing manatees in the colder months. When the oceans cool, manatees migrate up the bay to congregate in the warmer springs. Three Sisters, in particular, is famously beautiful and only accessible either through a trolley and boardwalk (for viewing only) or via small watercraft. There are rules for how to swim with the manatees (a reputable boat company will have all of these in place), mostly surrounding not touching them or doing anything that would alter their natural behaviors and staying out of specifically marked refuges. You can get specific information from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

As for other springs throughout Central Florida, the sky is the limit. Blue Spring State Park is the most well-known near Orlando, the largest spring on the St. Johns river with a long boardwalk for visitors to explore. De Leon Springs is another nearby option, offering opportunities for snorkelers to explore underwater artifacts in a historic site. Juniper Springs, Alexander Springs, Silver Springs, and Salt Springs all offer unique experiences of Ocala National Forest, each with a different character and activities (such as Silver Springs’ glass bottom boats or Alexander Springs kayaking trails). Explore them all and let us know which you like best!

2. Ponce De Leon Inlet Lighthouse

Ponce Inlet lighthouse under blue skies
Image: David Vega

Enjoy history and aren’t afraid of heights? Have we got a destination for you…

We stumbled upon Ponce Inlet Lighthouse largely by accident—we were trying to see how far we could travel down one of coastal stretches of highway A1A before having to turn inland. Ponce Inlet marks the end of one of these stretches, south of Daytona Beach if you keep going south as it turns into S Atlantic Ave. At the southernmost tip of this narrow peninsula, you’ll find Lighthouse Point Park, a 52 acre pedestrian-only beach park with a strong wildlife presence ($10 admission).

The place we really wanted to highlight, however, comes just before that park: Ponce De Leon Inlet Lighthouse & Museum.

I’ll be honest that we didn’t expect much from the lighthouse except for it to be cool to look at. It certainly is a site, towering 175 feet above the ground in splendor. What we didn’t realize were two important facts: first, this historic lighthouse is still fully operational (and has been for over 130 years!), and visitors can climb it!

View from Ponce Inlet Lighthouse
Image: David Vega

Ponce De Leon Inlet Lighthouse is one of the last remaining historical lighthouses still in operation, marking the entrance to the only inlet between St. Augustine and Cape Canaveral. You don’t have to climb the lighthouse to enjoy a visit here—the grounds contain a series of museum buildings chronicling the history of the lighthouse, as well as the technology used by historical lighthouses (the lantern and lens building was particularly interesting).

If you’re looking for a truly unique experience, however, climbing the lighthouse is the way to go. It is not an experience for the faint of heart or fitness--you’ll climb 213 steps on a narrow spiral staircase to reach the top with a few opportunities to stop and catch your breath.

The view is well-worth the effort—a spectacular 360 degree view of Florida’s Atlantic coast, particularly of the narrow islands and preserves north and south of New Smyrna Beach. We were absolutely blown away (fortunately, not literally) by being able to see Florida’s beauty from such a unique vantage. It is an experience I would recommend to anyone with a love for history and a taste for adventure.

3. Bok Tower Gardens

Bok Tower Gardens Singing Tower
Image: Jett Farrell-Vega

Speaking of stunning towering structures, we’d be remiss if we didn’t revisit a favorite Florida destination we’ve mentioned before: Bok Tower Gardens.

Located about an hour south of Walt Disney World, Bok Tower Gardens is an expansive botanical garden surrounding a 205 foot “Singing Tower”, named such for the massive carillon bell chamber housed inside. Throughout the day, visitors to the gardens will hear the bells ring out over the gardens with mesmerizing concerts of music.

The garden started out as the dream project of Pulitzer Prize winning author, Edward W. Bok, who wanted to design a bird sanctuary atop one of Florida’s highest hills. The resulting garden is considered one of the nation’s wonders--250 acres lush with natural and cultivated plant life like flowering camellias, sabal palms, jasmine, and countless others. Charming themes tied to Aesop’s Fables can be spotted throughout the park, and you’ll find plenty to do on your visit, from exploring nature trails to letting kids play in a fairytale children’s garden. Guests can also visit the nearby Pinewood Estate for a tour at an additional fee.

One important difference between Bok Tower Gardens and Ponce Lighthouse—you probably will not be able to get into the tower at Bok Tower Gardens. Admission inside is reserved for caretakers, the carillon bell players, and the park’s most generous donors. Still, you’ll find plenty to do, and we would go back to Bok Tower Gardens in a heartbeat.

 
 
 
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