9 Top-Rated Day Trips from Orlando
Even die-hard theme park fans need a break from Mickey and Minnie, and luckily, Orlando offers plenty of other fun diversions a short hop from all the Disney hype. Kennedy Space Center is one of the top day trip destinations, with its popular shuttle launch experience and impressive rocket and space-related exhibits. If you're a history buff or foodie, St. Augustine is a must-see. The oldest European-settled town in the US features cobbled streets, old forts, museums, and excellent restaurants. Nature lovers will also find plenty of thrills - especially on the Gulf Coast, where you can swim with wild manatees or visit a popular wildlife park, and you don't have to venture far from the city for an adrenaline-fueled airboat ride through the headwaters of the Florida Everglades. Beach fans can also get their fix. In less than an hour from Orlando, you can be basking on the sand, surfing some waves, and swimming in the clear, cool sea.
1 Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex
About an hour's drive east of Orlando, the Kennedy Space Center is one of the most popular day trips from the city. You don't have to be a budding astronaut to appreciate the excellent attractions at this famous NASA facility, from rocket exhibits and launch pads to astronaut encounters, 3D IMAX films, and a poignant memorial to NASA's fallen heroes. Favorite exhibits include the Space Shuttle Atlantis, with a two-hour Shuttle Launch Experience; the 30-minute Rocket Garden tour; and the two-hour bus tour of the Kennedy Space Center and Apollo/Saturn V Center. Fun upgrades include up-close tours and astronaut training experiences. Arrive at the center as early as you can, as there's enough here to keep you busy for at least a full day. Pint-sized astronauts can burn off energy at the children's Playdome, and everyone can refuel at the on-site cafe.
Address: SR 405, Titusville, Florida
2 The Manatees of Crystal River
If you're a wildlife lover, few experiences are more thrilling than a face-to-face underwater encounter with an endangered 1,500-pound West Indian manatee. These gentle giants, sometimes called sea cows, swim in the warm waters of the Crystal River, about 90 minutes by car northwest of Orlando. Tours led by wildlife experts include a chance to swim and snorkel with the animals in their natural habitat. You can usually spot them at any time of year, but November through March is the prime time, when they come here to escape cooling sea temperatures. Since the animals are wild, sightings are not guaranteed. Those who prefer to stay dry can view the manatees during winter from the Three Sisters Springs boardwalk in the Crystal River Wildlife Refuge. Another popular place to see manatees in winter is beautiful Blue Springs State Park, about 50 minutes north of Orlando.
3 Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
About a ten-minute drive from the Crystal Springs National Wildlife Refuge, the 210-acre Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is a fun place to see and learn about the region's wildlife, both in the water and on land. Florida panthers, bobcats, black bears, white-tailed deer, and birds such as blue herons and flamingos are just some of the resident species here, and you can view other wildlife from the special underwater observatory at the main spring. Aquatic species include manatees (best viewed in the winter), river otters, crocodiles, and alligators. The park is even home to a rescued hippo. Walking trails wind through the lush riverine habitat, and little ones can learn about Florida ecosystems at the children's education center, with interactive exhibits. Access to the park from the visitor center is by tram or a fun boat ride along the river, with the chance to spot wildlife along the way.
Address: 4150 S Suncoast Blvd, Homosassa, Florida
4 St. Augustine
About a two-hour drive from the glitzy attractions of Orlando, St. Augustine is the oldest European-settled town in the US, founded in 1565. If you're a history buff, this is a must-do day trip, but everyone will enjoy strolling along the cobblestone streets in the National Historic Landmark District, browsing the local museums, and soaking up the Spanish colonial charm. Top attractions here include Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, the 17th-century fortress built to protect St. Augustinians from invading British troops; Fort Matanzas; Flagler College; Lightner Museum; the tranquil Mission of Nombre de Dios; and the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum, with breathtaking city views. The hop-on hop-off trolley is a great way to explore the town and learn about its history. You can also hop aboard a cruise around Matanzas Bay to visit some of the top sites. Shopping is another popular pastime here, and you'll find plenty of cute boutiques and gift shops, as well as some superb restaurants. After a busy day of sightseeing, you can relax with a cool dip at one of the town's white-sand beaches.
5 Airboat Rides
Zipping at high speed through Florida's swampland habitats is an exhilarating way to get a taste of nature. About 25 miles south of Orlando, Spirit of the Swamp Airboat Tours is one of the closest to the city and offers rides through the headwaters of the Florida Everglades on six-seater boats that are small enough to venture into the narrow backwaters. The captain provides a fascinating narration as you look for wildlife such as birds and alligators. High-tech headsets are provided, and tour lengths vary from 60 minutes to two hours. Boggy Creek Airboat Rides is also close to the city and only 25 minutes from Orlando attractions. About 45 minutes by car from the theme parks, Wild Florida Airboat Rides also offers thrilling rides around the swamps and marshes. Afterwards, you can visit the Gator and Wildlife Park to see lemurs, wild boars, sloths, zebras, and other charismatic creatures from around the world. Ranch buggy tours around the working cattle operation add to all the fun.
6 Daytona Beach
If you're looking for some beachside biker and motorsports action, Daytona Beach is an ideal day trip. Home of the famous Daytona 500 and the birthplace of NASCAR racing, this lively beach town is also a hot spot for spring breakers, who come here to bask and hoon along 23 miles of hard-packed blonde-sand beaches - it's one of the few places in the country where you're allowed to drive along a public beach. High-rise apartment blocks loom along some areas of the coast here, so you'll find plenty of accommodation within a stone's throw of the sand. In addition to the season opening of the Daytona 500 in February, Bike Week in March and Biketoberfest in October are popular events here, when leather-clad bikers descend on the town. If you can't make it to the famous Daytona 500, you can join a tour of the Daytona International Speedway or sign up to drive a race car along the track. The Daytona Beach Boardwalk provides family-friendly diversions, with carnival rides, games, shops, and restaurants.
7 New Smyrna Beach
About a one-hour drive from Orlando, New Smyrna Beach is a popular coastal escape for Orlando locals. The biggest draw here are the dozen or so miles of broad soft-sand beaches lined by vacation cottages and apartment buildings. Fishing, surfing, and swimming are popular activities along the coast, and vehicles and bicycles are also allowed on the hard-packed sand along the beach. At night, from May through November, you have the chance to see baby sea turtles hatch and scuttle down to the water at the Canaveral National Seashore, about 30 minutes drive from New Smyrna. The Marine Discovery Center is another popular attraction, with guided kayak and dolphin-spotting boat tours around the Indian River Lagoon.
8 Clearwater Beach
Frequently voted one of Florida's best beaches, Clearwater Beach, on the Gulf of Mexico, is a popular coastal escape with a relaxing feel. About 2.5 hours' drive from Orlando, this glamorous strip of soft, sugary sand, lapped by jade waters and backed by resorts and residential areas, stretches for about 2.5 miles along the outer edge of a barrier island. Most visitors come here to plonk down on the soft white sand and swim in the calm waters, but if you're looking for a little more action, the Clearwater Sea Screamer offers an adrenaline-packed one-hour speedboat ride around the bay. Deep-sea anglers can also embark on a trip from here to catch species such as tarpon, sea bass, snapper, and grouper. At one end of the beach, Pier 60 is a popular fishing spot, with souvenir shops, restaurants, street performers, and live music at sunset. Nearby Sand Key Park is another beautiful stretch of sand. Those who are still seeking some theme park action on the coast can head to Busch Gardens Tampa for fun rides and roller coasters, garden exhibits, animals, and live shows.
9 Legoland Florida
Just when you think you've done the theme parks, Legoland beckons, about an hour southwest of downtown Orlando. Kids two through 12 will love this 150-acre ode to all things LEGO, with more than 50 rides (many suitable for younger kids), live shows, and even a botanical garden. And of course, LEGO is everywhere. The park includes LEGO building activities and a DUPLO-themed area for toddlers. In season, you can also keep cool at the water park, with a wave pool, water slides, and Build-A-Raft lazy river.
Address: 1 Legoland Way, Winter Haven, Florida