Home » Florida » How to Enjoy the Sunshine State – 14 Epic Orlando Day Trips

Have you ever ask yourself how to best enjoy the Sunshine State? Florida is more than Disney World and theme park attractions. If your goal is relaxing away from the theme parks, here are 14 epic Orlando Sunshine State day trips that are easy and affordable. Whether you are traveling as a couple or with the entire family, Central Florida is the ideal hub to begin your itinerary.

There are a plethora of activities to experience in the Sunshine State. Is playing in the great outdoors your idea of an adventure? Take a moment to plan a successful family hike-just get outside and try something new! On flip-side, Florida has plenty of pristine beaches to soak up the sun. These are a few of our favorite things to do other than theme parks.

This post may contain affiliate links, meaning if you purchase something through one of these links, we may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you! Read the full disclosure policy here.

Timeless Cedar key at Sunset
Timeless Cedar Key

1. Timeless Old Florida – Cedar Key

There is nothing like the Old Florida feel of this charming historic town. The Cedar Keys are a cluster of islands connected to the mainland by bridges. We found it a quiet spot to chill, spending our evenings watching the sunset into the Gulf of Mexico. Early morning walks to the pier often results in seeing dolphins frolicking in the wake of fishing boats.

Mangrove Kayaking
Mangrove Kayaking

The best way to see the bay is to rent a kayak or take a Tidewater tours cruise. The Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge comprises 13 islands accessible only by boat. The calm waters of the bay protect seagrasses and mangroves that line the shore. They provide an ideal habitat for endangered white pelicans, frigate birds, and other nesting birds. Prime viewing happens during the months or March & April.

On these islands are some of the most beautiful, secluded beaches. One of the most popular islands is historic Atsena Otie Key, located a mile offshore. The island is most renowned for Faber Pencil Company. Hurricanes destroyed the settlement in the late 1800s. You can walk the hiking trail to the remnants of the mills stone cistern and old civil war cemetery. Be sure to bring your DEET-based repellant, sunblock, snacks, camera, and refillable water-bottle after all, it is the Sunshine State.

2. Fort De Soto – Harbors a Secret

Cannons @ Fort DeSoto Park
Cannons @ Fort DeSoto Park

A 2-hour drive from Orlando in St. Petersburg, Fort De Soto, is a peaceful day trip. Named “America’s Best Beach ” for families, it harbors a hidden secret. Stashed behind a large sand bunker is the parapets of a fortification. Built-in 1894 during the Spanish American war, they protected the Tampa harbor. Huge old mortar emplacements and some other heavy guns remain on site. You can follow the self-guided historical trail and see artifacts in the small museum. We found its military history fascinating.

Fort Desoto Beach Sunset
Sunset on Fort Desoto Beach

The shallow beach waters are excellent for shelling. Kids love finding a multitude of sand dollars, or starfish. The beach seems to keep going. You can walk forever. Kayak the clear turquoise waters, or bike/hike the nature trails. The mangrove bays are teeming with wildlife, including manatees, turtles, and wading birds. You can rent fishing equipment at the base of the Fort De Soto Fishing Pier. Try your luck at catching a snook or tarpon. Catch the Hubbard’s ferry to Egmont Key State Park, perfect for nature lovers looking for quiet.

Fort De Soto North Beach
Fort De Soto North Beach

3. A Garden Walk at Bok Tower

This is a veritable treasure only 30 minutes from Orlando. First, peruse the museum. It is worth spending some time here as it explains the history of the tower and gardens. The Bok Sanctuary is an oasis of tranquility. It lies on Iron Mountain, the highest point in the state near the small town of Lake Wales. In the heart of Central Florida, this is a perfect day-trip away from the bustle of the theme parks.

The carillon bells tower lies as the focal point of the gardens. The “Singing Tower” eclipses its surroundings. Set among towering oaks surrounded by a shallow water moat. The carillon bells play every 1/2 hour, and a televised concert at 1 and 3 pm every day.

Bok Tower reflected in the water
Bok Tower Reflection

History of Bok Tower

Designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. It’s easy to spend a leisurely couple of hours here, meandering on the garden paths exploring the trails. There are plenty of photo ops, so bring a camera. Wear comfortable walking shoes for the trails. Enjoy sandwiches at Blue Palmetto café for a reasonable price. Picnic tables are available if you prefer to bring your own lunch.

We would recommend adding the Pinewood Estate tour to your entrance ticket. In 1932 C. Austin Buck, vice-president of Bethlehem Steel Company, built the Mediterranean style home as his winter residence. This place is beautifully decorated during the Christmas season. They uniquely designed each year with a specific theme and each room with that theme in mind.

Bok Tower Gardens Koi Pond.
Bok Tower Gardens Koi Pond.

4. Historic Saint Augustine, Florida

Founded in 1565, St. Augustine, Florida is the oldest continuously inhabited European-established settlement in the contiguous United States. They established it 55 years before the Pilgrims by Spanish explorer Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles of Spain. Amazing landmarks fill the historic downtown. The Colonial Quarter is a living history, taking you back in time. This authentic reenactment is just off St. George Street. This kid-friendly attraction walks you through 3 centuries of history showcasing, blacksmithing, shipbuilding, and a musket drill reenactment.

Castillo De San Marcos National Monument-Cannons
Castillo De San Marcos National Monument

Castillo De San Marcos National Monument

This fort is a beautiful, iconic structure. Designed with 5 bastions similar to those found on other forts on the east coast, like Fort Clinch, on Amelia Island. We recommend doing a self-guided walking tour of the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument. The in period costumed volunteers through-out the grounds helps make history “come alive.” The upper deck has magnificent views of Matanzas Bay, and there is a cannon firing demonstration several times a day. They made the 35 feet thick walls of coquina a mixture of sand, crushed shells, and mortar. The intriguing nature of the coquina is that it absorbs cannon balls and bullets, and does not shatter on impact. Never defeated in battle, this fort has withstood many attacks.

NOTE: If you have America the Beautiful pass you gain free entry.

The hallmark attractions to visit in St. Augustine are:

Tiger on a log
Wild Tiger Image: Pixabay

St Augustine’s Wild Reserve

The St. Augustine Wild Reserve is a hidden gem, a must-do for animal lovers. The admission fee goes towards supporting the care of the animals, the facility, and grounds. It takes about 2 hours for the feeding tour. You literally stand five feet from the lions, tigers, leopards, panthers, mountain lions, and wolves. Seeing the big cats take bubble baths and interact with the volunteers was so incredible! They truly love each of their charges and take the time to explain the history of each animal, their behaviors and their amazingly distinct personalities. This is a once in a lifetime experience at a very reasonable price.

The Festival of Lights is a holiday tradition-a radiant Christmas light display that set aglow the city center. A million twinkling lights turn St. George’s street into a sparkling winter wonderland. What better way to enjoy the sights and sounds than a horse-drawn carriage ride? The ride starts with the giant Christmas tree at the Plaza de la Constitución and finishes at Historic Flagler College. A truly memorable holiday experience!

Wekiva River
Wekiva River

5. Explore Crystal Clear Waters of Wekiwa Springs

Central Florida has incredible natural springs. Wekiwa Springs State Park is in Sandford and is one of the most popular state parks in Florida. The park entrance is very inexpensive – $6 a carload. You can go swim in the springs at a constant temperature in the 70s all year-round. Outdoor lovers will enjoy the hiking trails, canoeing, kayaking, or paddle boarding. There are charcoal grills and picnic areas, so you can make a day of it. If you want a longer stay, there is a campground.

Wekiwa River Solitude
Wekiwa River Solitude

 First, I would advise to get there early to beat the crowds. It’s a long 8-mile paddle. Kayaks/canoes are available to rent. In the beginning, the current will carry you easily carry your downstream so you can be laid-back and just enjoy the solitude. The river passes under moss-draped cypress trees, and over lush green lily pads. This is true Florida! The crystal clear water is perfect on any day. It seems like a tropical world away.

Florida Alligators Sunning  Wekiva Springs
Florida Alligators Sunning Wekiwa Springs Image: Pixabay

Solitude at its Best

On our first canoe experience, we had a 6-foot alligator launch over the top of our canoe in his effort to catch a fish. The crystal clear waters are home to a large population of invasive SailFin catfish (plecostomus) that alligators love to feast on. Kids will enjoy casting a line to hook a nice bass.

It is important to remember they don’t have a shuttle service to pick you up when you’re done, so you have to paddle back upstream. This is not as easy as it sounds, so plan accordingly. Florida has many other springs in the same area. Blue Springs, Rock Springs, or DeLeon Springs have much to offer on a hot day.

Tarpon Springs Historic Sign
Tarpon Key Sea Sponges

6. Dive into Tarpon Springs

The “sponge capital of the world” is on the gulf side of the Sunshine State. Notably, they named the town after the tarpon seen jumping the river. This charming Greek village is an ideal day trip taking only 2-hours. The sponge industry began in the 1880s with a important influx of Greek divers and crew members. Soon becoming one of the leading maritime industries in Florida and the most important business in Tarpon Springs, generating millions of dollars a year.

Visitors can stroll the quaint shops along the Sponge Docks on Dodecanese Boulevard. If you want a taste of Greece without leaving the states, Tarpon Springs might just be the ticket. The area is famous for its fine Greek restaurants and delightful bakeries. We can never resist a tempting Greek pastry at Hellas Restaurant.

Sponges on Tarpon Springs Susie Sea Boat
Sea Sponges

What Activities Can I do?

If you prefer, you can book a fishing trip, a sightseeing cruise, island excursion, or a dolphin encounter. All at reasonable prices with experienced operators. The St. Nicholas’ authentic dive tour will actually take you out to the sponge beds, where a diver dawns almost 200 pounds of traditional diving gear, including helmet, breastplate, boots, and body weights leaping into the water to scour the ocean floor harvesting sponges.

Dolphin Tour Sign

The Tarpon Springs Aquarium has the usual marine creatures and a surprising 200 lb. Goliath Grouper. The classically beautiful St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church is worth a visit. The doors are always open during daytime hours. Probably the biggest event the church hosts is the Epiphany celebration on January 6 each year. Feel like going to a more secluded beach since Fred Howard Park is just a few miles away. It’s white sands, gorgeous Gulf waters, and the opportunity to rent fun water sports equipment. What a way to end your day.

Weeki Wachee Springs, Florida
Weeki Wachee Springs, Florida Photo Credit: FWC Karen Parker

7. Paddle Weeki Wachee Springs

Weeki Wachee Springs is 45-minutes north of Tampa and 2-hours west of Orlando. Weeki Wachee is quintessential Old Florida, with the mermaid show being the first original roadside attraction. Kids will love the Buccaneer Bay Waterpark. However, the most popular pastime is kayaking or canoeing the emerald spring water, meandering slowly to the Gulf of Mexico.

I’ve paddled many rivers, but this one is by far my favorite: the dazzling spring-fed waters are a great place to unwind. This is a first-magnitude spring, the head spring is in Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. You can rent kayaks (book online) through Weeki Fresh Water Adventures. The shuttle will pick you up 6-miles downstream at Rogers Park at a designated time (3 hrs). Bring a dry bag to keep your lunch and valuables safe.

NOTE: The park does not permit disposable containers of any kind, and no alcohol on the river.

Manatee-Weeki-Watchee spring
Manatee-Weeki-Wachee Spring Image: Pixabay

Wildlife You Will See!

The West Indian Manatees sometimes frequent the headspring grazing on grasses, so keep a keen eye. Nearby Blue Springs State Park has a higher concentration of manatees during cold weather events. For the first few miles, the river flows fairly quickly, so there is very little paddling. The water is the perfect temperature for cooling off on a hot summer day. Stop on a sandbar for a light lunch or a little fishing. We got to see a small family of river otters swimming and playing. The river clarity changes the closer you get to the gulf, more residential housing, and the boat traffic increases. The last stretch of the river requires a hard paddle. Still, I can’t believe that this is so close to all the other hustle and bustle of a town the size of Orlando. This is the real Florida. 

Kennedy Space Center-Saturn Rocket Engine
Kennedy Space Center-Saturn Rocket Engine Image Pixabay

8. Kennedy Space Center – Out of this World

It is about 30-minute from downtown Orlando on the Space Coast. So much to experience in a day. Great for the entire family. This is not Disney, more of an educational experience. The admission price is a tad expensive, however, if you are a full-time Florida educator you are eligible to receive a 12-month Educators Pass. Other discounts are available for those over 65 and military personnel. The facility is open daily from 9 am to 6 pm.

The first building to experience is the Early Space Exploration Hall. The timeline starts with the Mercury and Gemini programs beginning in 1958. The original Mercury & Gemini capsules and actual Mission Control Center are on display. You get the true scope of the American space program and how early failures reshaped the program, eventually landing a man on the moon. Take a self-guided tour of the rocket garden with all the old rockets from Mercury to Gemini and Apollo missions.

Back outside, view the Astronaut Memorial. It is a quiet, somber area to reflect on the human cost of spaceflight. It leaves you feeling a little humble after seeing all the inscribed names.

Exciting Ride for the Kids

Become fully immersed with a visit to the Space Shuttle Atlantis with Shuttle Launch experience, starting with an introductory video before ending with an actual mind-blowing “ride” in the Shuttle Launch Experience simulator.

VAB-Kennedy Space Center
Vehicular Assembly Building Credit: NASA.gov

Have a Blast on the Bus Tour

Don’t miss out on the 2-hour bus tour to the Apollo Rocket Center. They include this with general admission. Your NASA guide gives an informative running commentary on the drive-by the Vehicular Assembly Building (VAB), historic Launch Pads 39A & 39B, and the new Space X site. We learned a few interesting facts:

  • The American flag painted on the VAB is 24 stories high.
  • The crawler transport has a speed of 1 mph, taking 5 hours to reach the launch pad.
  • Launch Pad 39B the flame trench is 450 feet long, equal to the length of one and a half football fields.

A nice bonus if you are not a Florida native is the driver will point out the wildlife. Egrets, alligators, and eagles thrive in the canals at the center. Enter the building through the firing room where you get to experience an Apollo launch, enter the hall, see the 3 complete Saturn V rockets, the Apollo 14 Command Module “Kitty Hawk” and Alan Shepard’s EVA suit. Be sure to touch an actual moon rock before returning to the visitor’s center. There are more exhibits to see, a multi-day ticket is a better value if you want to see it all. Truly dedicated NASA is expanding our knowledge of what lies beyond the confines of our atmosphere.

Cocoa Beach Sand and Waves
Cocoa Beach Sand and Waves

9. Cocoa Beach – More Than A Beach

A trip to the Sunshine State is not complete without a visit to the beach. Cocoa beach is a gorgeous getaway 1 hour from busy Orlando! Enjoy an array of watersports that include parasailing, jet-skiing, fishing, or boogie-boarding. A top-notch beach for surfing enthusiasts. Just stroll the beach in search of shells or watch the waves decompressing after a trip to the theme parks.

Cocoa is a lovely, rustic seaside town. The famous Ron Jon Surf Shop is a must-do for finding beach gear. A great place for an evening out is the pier, a historical landmark it hosts restaurants, shops, and fishing. Re-ignite a love affair with the ocean and venture to Cocoa beach.

View of Clearwater Beach Cabanas
Clearwater Beach Cabanas

10. Stroll Clearwater Beach – Rated Florida’s #1

Best know for its seamless stretches of sugary sand and warm gentle waves, Clearwater beach is 90-minutes from Orlando. A simple day trip, it has the perfect blend of tourist attractions, shopping, and local eateries. On the Gulf of Mexico, the beach has amazing sunsets, a palette of gorgeous hues of red, orange, and yellow reflecting in the ocean. They rate the beach #1 for good reason-clear sparkling water, the fresh smell of the ocean, and gentle breezes! Better than the beaches of the Florida Keys.

The beach has lifeguards on duty, info boards with safety rules and weather info, shower units, and Pier 60. You can fish off the end of the pier, but it will cost you a dollar. You can rent cabanas, umbrellas, and chairs for the hour or a day.

Clearwater Beach Pier
Clearwater Beach Pier

HINT: Cheaper after 3 pm.

The beach is great for couples, the sand between your toes feels fabulous. You can see dolphins on the beach. Families will find the time passes quickly with so much to do, like collecting shells and building sandcastles. Kids will love the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, home of Winter, the dolphin from the Dolphin Tale movie. Water activities like parasailing, jet skis, paddleboards, kayaks are available. 

Santa Rosa Beach Sunset
Beach Sunset

11. Experience Florida Wilderness at Fakahatchee!

The Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park is Florida’s largest state park, covering 85,000 acres. Its unique swamp habitat makes it an ideal place for those seeking solitude. This isolated jewel is just a short 3-hour drive from Orlando. Visit one of the few places in South Florida where you may see the extremely rare Ghost Orchid or find an elusive Florida panther. Hike the “Old Florida” trails to experience true adventure.

Guzmania, or Fuch’s bromeliad (guzmania monostachia)
Guzmania, or Fuch’s bromeliad (guzmania monostachia)

We began our exploration of the park by taking the Janes Memorial Scenic Drive. Once we arrived at the park, there was a sign showing the East Tram Trail, a stunning hike to a hunting cabin named ” Fakahatchee Hilton “. The lake here is teeming with alligators. There were a lot of birds, including anhinga’s, ibis, herons, and pileated woodpeckers. Bring plenty of water, a hat, and comfortable shoes that you don’t mind getting wet or dirty. Mosquitoes are a nuisance, so bug spray is highly recommended. From December through March, the Friends of Fakahatchee offer guided swamp walks and tram tours at the park.

If you’re looking for a shorter hike, visit the Big Bend Cypress boardwalk, a 0.5-mile walk off the Tamiami Trail. It winds through a virgin cypress strand, then ends at a small gator hole. Markers point out the varied flora and fauna you’ll find there.

Vintage Fakahatchee Hilton Cabin
Fakahatchee Hilton Cabin

12. Be a Pirate on the Buccaneer Trail

This trail starts at Amelia Island and traverses the coast through Big and little Talbot Island, crossing the St John’s River at Mayport, and Atlantic Beach before ending near St Augustine Beach. The Buccaneer Trail travels along A1A, it was touted as a way for tourists to avoid city congestion. Although it is no longer promoted in brochures, the Buccaneer Trail is still a worthy drive. This area was frequented by pirates looking for safe haven during the 17th and 18th centuries. At one time, they handed a pirate map to children as a guide to hidden treasures.

On Amelia Island, the historic Fernandina Beach historic district is a great place to start your tour. The trendy store fronts and old Victoria homes are a delightful walk. A small detour through Fort Clinch State Park to see the civil war era Fort Clinch, where you can imagine being back in the year 1864. On the birders trail, the Amelia Island beach is an ideal place to hunt for sharks’ teeth or view nesting bird or turtles.

Amelia Island beach dunes view
Amelia Island beach dunes view

Hidden Treasure found on Barrier Islands

Turning south, you will cross over the George Crady Bridge and fishing pier. Immediately after the bridge, you enter Big Talbot State Park. The parking lot on the south side of the bridge has ample parking for those wishing to bike the 6.3-mile Timucuan Trail or follow the boardwalk along Spoonbill Pond, observing wading birds feeding on the low tidal flats. A mile further up the road is the Bluffs Picnic area. Here, a short trail will take you to the most amazing beach. Boneyard beach is a hidden gem. Amongst the bleached tree skeletons, you can easily find solitude. No bones about it. We walked without ever seeing another soul. Black rocks at the end of the beach area unique feature-not rocks but hardened mud. A good place for the kids to enjoy the tidal pools created by the low tide. We found hidden creatures in the pools.

Bleached Oak Tree Skeleton
Boneyard Beach-Bleached Oak Tree Skeleton

Passing through Little Talbot Island, you see the salt marshes as a unique ecosystem. Pirates frequented these islands, hiding their treasures. Little Talbot has magnificent swim beaches too! If time permits, turn left at Fort George Island Cultural State Park. The narrow road to the Ribault Club wanders through salt marsh before arriving at a historic building that was once a thriving resort in the early 1920s. Lovingly restored, the club is now the visitor center providing historical insight for the Kingsley Plantation.

Kingsley Plantation Slave Quarters
Kingsley Plantation Slave Quarters

Step back in Time-Kingsley Plantation

A picturesque dirt road weaves its way to the Kingsley Plantation. Those that lived here have a story to tell. Listen to the audio tour where this place comes alive with the narrations of the characters that lived here. This is the oldest remaining plantation in the State or Florida.

The ferry across the St Johns River to Mayport is only a 5-minute ride from Fort George Island. Continue south along A1A, stopping at the Fort Caroline in Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve before moving through to St Augustine. St Augustine is a historic gem. The trail continues on A1A passing Fort Matanzas National Monument before ending at Daytona Beach.

Beach View over Cumberland Sound
Beach View Fort Clinch

13. View a Brave New World-DeSoto National Memorial

DeSoto National Memorial is a U.S. National Park Service site in Bradenton, Florida. An easy 2-hour drive from Orlando. The memorial commemorates the 1539 expedition of Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto and his encounters with the indigenous peoples of Florida.

Camp Uzita at De Soto National Memorial
Camp Uzita at De Soto National Memorial

The memorial features a visitor center with exhibits on the history and culture of the indigenous peoples who lived in the Tampa Bay area. The exhibits also cover the De Soto expedition throughout the southern states and its impact on the region.

A Living History of a New World

One of the main attractions at the memorial is a re-created 16th-century village that provides a ” living history.” The Living History program involves teaching and displaying items in an interactive manner to help visitors engage with history. The village includes replica structures where re-enactors travel through 500 years of Florida’s story. We explored the village and learn about the daily lives and customs of the early settlers. Demonstrations include weapons firing, blacksmithing and

Manatee River DeSoto National Memorial
Manatee River De Soto National Memorial Trail

The memorial also has a nature trail that winds through a mangrove swamp and offers views of the Manatee River. Along the trail, visitors can see wildlife such as birds, fish, and turtles, as well as native plants such as saw palmetto and mangroves. If you seek more trails a short mile south, Robinson Preserve has over 7 miles of hiking and biking trails that wind through the preserve’s wetlands and forests. The trails are well-maintained and offer stunning views of the preserve’s natural beauty.

Throughout the year, the memorial hosts special events and programs, such as Hernando de Soto landing reenactment, guided tours, and cultural festivals, that offer visitors a chance to learn more about the history and culture of the park.

Sunset-Big Cypress Hammock

14. Fort Pickens Expedition: A Day of History, Nature, and Beach Bliss

A day trip from Orlando to Fort Pickens in the Gulf Islands National Seashore was a fantastic way to experience a mix of history, nature, and beach relaxation. Fort Pickens is also home to several species of birds and animals, making it an excellent spot for birdwatching and wildlife viewing. Visitors can also explore the remains of the old batteries and the nearby maritime forest.

Fort Pickens is a historic military fort with roots dating back to the 19th century. Exploring the fort allows visitors to learn about its role in various wars and its architectural significance. While Orlando is known for its theme parks and attractions, a day trip to Fort Pickens offers a change of pace. Kids will love being able to learn history. It’s a good family friendly destination.

peeking out the window embrasures of Fort pickens
Fort Pickens Gulf Islands National Seashore

Final Thoughts on 14 Epic Orlando Day Trips

If you have more time on your itinerary, consider a visit to one of Florida’s National Park or State Parks. The river of grass in the Everglades is a unique ecosystem that only exists in the Sunshine State, snorkel the brilliant blue waters of Key Biscayne or visit historic Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas.

Looking for spring break options in Florida during March or April? State parks in Florida offer a plethora of outdoor activities such as hiking, biking, camping, swimming, boating, fishing, and wildlife watching. There’s something for everyone, from leisurely strolls to adrenaline-pumping adventures.

Whichever adventure you choose to enjoy in the Sunshine State, one of these epic Orlando day trips will give you a chance to recharge and escape.

What is your favorite day trip from Orlando? We would love to hear about your experiences in the Sunshine State. Please SHARE in the comment below.