Looking for a unique Florida vacation or staycation? I’ve got you covered! This past spring break I spent a week wandering several of the hidden gems in Florida. As a peninsula over 440 miles long, the wandering is richer than one may think. Many of the hidden wonders in this state are spread out and one road trip is definitely not enough. You know about the beaches and theme parks, but Florida’s rich nature is more vast and just as spectacular. The locals refer to it as “The Real Florida.” I was traveling alone with my little man so I had to make sure to be efficient, drive in daylight, and ensure we were both safe and aware. I also pride myself in being a thrifty traveler so I’ll tell you how we ate and slept to keep costs down. Here is my itinerary and my tips for making the best of your Florida road trip this summer.
Jupiter Island, The Blowing Rocks Preserve
On my way up from Miami I needed a pit stop for my son to stretch his legs. I decided to stop in Jupiter Island near Hobe Sound Beach in Palm Beach county. A friend had mentioned The Blowing Rocks Preserve, and although it was a bit off my route, I figured I would give it a try. ZERO regrets, what an amazing beach and natural treasure. It was the best beach hike I have had in a while. Many beaches in Florida were more coral than sand before developers started changing the landscape for the tourism industry. Luckily this is a preserve and as such it is practically untouched, a place to experience Florida’s natural beauty in all its wonder. Pathways along sea-grape trees, climbs along corals and sandy dunes, plus a gorgeous landscape make this destination a great stop on any northbound journey.
Special tip: The stretch of land that is Jupiter Island is really small and the entrance to the preserve is easily missed. There is a park for the kids nearby in case you need the kids to blow some steam before heading in. You pay in cash $2 per person and leave it in a box. Do the right thing and pay!
Food stop: To save funds and to keep going at a good rate, we always stop at the Port St. Lucie Service Plaza. It’s an easy in and out plaza that has several options for food, healthy and junk alike.
Winter Haven, Legoland
I had to make a theme park stop, after all Florida is the epicenter of the world’s most amazing ones! We wanted something low key during the busy vacation week and opted for Legoland. The park rarely fills up and lines are rarely over 40 minutes long. The annual pass for Floridians is but $10 more than the regular park admission and it includes the water park. Most of the information you need you can find on their site. There’s very little else to see in the surrounding areas and the trip there includes a pass through the now dead Yeehaw junction and a long interstate through lots of country. I would not suggest you drive in or out at night unless you have great cell reception, a AAA membership, and a group with you. I could tell you all our favorite rides and how nerdy we got around all those Lego structures, especially when it came to Star Wars, but I’d rather tell you about the amazing natural views. Believe it or not the lake in Legoland is not only a great place for a picnic during lunch with a sandwich from the restaurant nearby while you catch the great water ski pirate show, but also a great place to catch the sunset! The sunset image is unfiltered and taken with my phone. Gorgeous!
Special tip: Wear your swim suit and bring a change of clothes. The water park is right inside the park and can be enjoyed the same day you do all the other attractions. My son also went bonkers for the driving test ride where they get a Florida drivers license at the end.
DeLand — Blue Springs State Park
I happen to have family in DeLand so I had the nice opportunity to get to know some of the parks in the area. It turns out it contains one of country’s most beautiful state parks: Blue Springs State Park. There are many springs in central Florida but there is something truly magical about this park. There you can take a cruise along St. John’s river, the longest in Florida. It takes a couple of hours but you will see a lot of Florida including gators and all types of birds that are unique to the region. You can learn all about St. John’s River Cruises on their site. Right before you board there is a park for the kids to blow off some steam before being seated for that long. The cruise has a restroom and they also sell snacks. However, I would take care of both before boarding. The best part of the park is the lazy tubing and swimming in the fresh water. You can rent a tube but you can also bring your own gear. You can snorkel as you will be swimming with several different species of fish. I suggest you bring a good suit to swim in the cold water. I also bring water shoes for my son; it makes it easier to descend on the moss-filled stairs. If you make it to the park early enough try to catch some breakfast, you can make your pancakes right on the table.
Special tip: The swimming hole could be closed if there is a gator sighting. Keep your eyes open for warnings and call the park before heading out. Be assured though that they will only allow you to swim if it’s really safe. Gator attacks are rare and are usually caused by the negligence and ignorance of humans.
Other nearby natural wonders you may want to explore on your way include:
- Ocala National Forest: This enormous and lush forest has something for every outdoor lover.
- DeLeon Springs: If you make it to the park early enough, try to catch some breakfast. You can make your pancakes right at the table. The Old Spanish Sugarmill is well-known for having griddles right on the table where you can make your own pancakes.
- Silver Springs: Known for historical underwater photos it has become a favorite pastime for visitors, this breathtaking park is home to crystal clear waters
- Rainbow River State Park: Cave diving, all-day kayaking trips, swimming and hiking are just some of the activities you can enjoy in this gorgeous state park near Ocala.
A Quirky Pit Stop: Pierson, Florida is a tiny town that has less than 1,500 people and has the most charming and fun yard art and produce stand. It’s a great place to stop, stretch your legs and buy a doohickey or a ginormous statue for your crazy lawn. The place is called Barberville and your kids will love exploring the place.
The Devil’s Den
This place was on my travel bucket list; a hidden gem in Florida. A prehistoric underground spring that doesn’t look like much on the outside but is amazing on the inside. READ THIS very important tip. The only way you can go in to swim or even photograph the place is to scuba or to snorkel down there. The rental and entrance fee alone for two people was almost $50. I suggest you purchase a mask and fins before you come. This will also prevent waiting in VERY long wait line to use their equipment that is simply quickly dipped in disinfectant and passed on to the next person. They have limited equipment and no child under six is allowed to swim in the den. Visit their site and plan your visit before you head out. This camp is in the middle of nowhere; there’s barely any cell service so come prepared. They do have WiFi on premises. Make sure you bring a waterproof cover for your cell phone or a GoPro camera. They don’t allow cell phones without said cover and they charge an arm and a leg for it on site. There’s also no place to put your cell while you swim after you take your pics. Most people leave their belongings on picnic tables right outside the entrance. I went in, took the pictures I wanted, then I took the phone back out to my car and then just enjoyed the snorkeling.
Weeki Wachee Springs
Real Florida mermaids: a water park inside that lands on a real spring and a boat ride through nature; that’s what Florida’s original theme park is all about. Weeki Wachee Springs is a great place to take kids of all ages. The underwater mermaid show is one of a kind and the slides in Buccaneer bay are so much fun. It’s all available under one entrance fee: under $15 for adults and under $10 for kids. Just keep an eye out for show cancellations based on weather. I went on a really gray day and we still experienced it all. So long as there are no thunderstorms, everything goes on. The live animal show is educational and fun to watch too. One of my favorite parts was the photo ops with the props and beautiful peacocks roaming the park.
Food tip: Get a hearty breakfast before you head to the springs at the Breakfast Station nearby. The Captain Crunch toast is not the healthiest option but it tastes great. Chocolate chip Mickey pancakes are also available for the littles. There aren’t many places to eat around there so this is probably your best shot. All the locals go there, so get in early.
Sanibel Island: On our way back we wanted to see one of the west coast beaches on the gulf so I decided to revisit the island where I spent one of my favorite family vacations as a kid. Sanibel Island is a quaint, unique island near Fort Myers, Florida. So close that I stayed in Ft. Myers and just drove in. The island is knows for it’s countless shells. Collecting shells is one of the favorite things for tourists to do on the island. Interacting with wildlife on the island is expected; we spotted unique birds and turtles.
The ride back was a pleasant drive through Alligator Ally. It was a great trip! If you want to follow our adventures and travels follow me on Instagram @MaviSays and you can also follow my kid, Angelo: @angelo.toto.