Florida has certainly become a destination in and of itself, which is why I am dealing with here as a separate entry. Whether it is Disney World and the other entertainment venues in the Orlando area, or Florida’s incredible beaches, or the nightlife of Miami, or the warm weather in the winter, there are a multitude of reasons for travelers to visit the "Sunshine State." Here are my favorite Florida attractions. The discussion below will be followed by a photo album in the near future.
1. Disney World & Orlando
Orlando, Florida is an important destination for any tourist because it has attracted some of the premier amusement parks in the world. Its initial success, with Disney World has created a spiraling type of growth, with new venues moving in to capitalize on the overflow from the more established parks.
Disney World is the world’s most popular theme park for many reasons. It offers so many options that it is truly a complete vacation destination. It is certainly not just for kids, although there is probably no place that kids would rather go. Because of its popularity, the entire area around it has developed into a major tourist area, with many venues surviving on the “leftovers”. Besides the “Magic Kingdom”, the original theme park, fashioned around the places and characters found in Disney movies and cartoons, there is Epcot, a combination theme park, focused on technology and education, and world showcase, which features miniature world travel destinations allowing the visitor to experience a mock visit to that particular country. There is also a Disney-MGM theme park which is based on the movie industry and Animal Kingdom, which is basically a combination zoo and theme park portrayed with Disney style and imagination.
Besides these areas, there are additional places, such as Blizzard Beach, Typhoon Lagoon and River Country (three separate water parks), the Wide World of Sports Complex, which allows the visitor to participate in various sports, Downtown Disney, an entertainment, shopping, and restaurant complex, and Discover Island, another zoo of sorts. Add to all this the Disney Resort Hotels which also revolve around various themes and which offer many activities for their guests, and the five championship golf courses, Fort Wilderness Campground, and more, it is easy to see why this is a world travel destination for more than Americans.
Must-sees in Disney World include the following:
1. Cinderella’s castle in the Magic Kingdom (a great experience is to eat lunch in the castle, since waiters and staff are in knightly costume and the interior is decorated like a medieval castle).
2. The “Tree of Life” in the Animal Kingdom has over 300 animals carved into its bark and is both interesting for kids (try to find as many creatures as possible) and impressive to adults who often cannot believe the intricacy and cleverness of the carvings.
3. “Tower of Terror” dominates the skyline of Disney-MGM because of its height, and comes with the inevitable screams of delight and terror from the riders of the free-fall elevator.
4. World Showcase in Epcot offers a look at Mexico, China, Norway, Germany, Italy, Japan, France, Morocco, England, Canada, and the USA and visitors can sample them all by foot without leaving Florida. The buildings are replicas of attractions or typical villages of the countries, and food stalls and restaurants offer native dishes and snacks.
Sea World is one of the premier adventure parks in the world. Like Disney World, it attracts people of all age groups. The basic theme here is the marine environment and many marine organisms are featured. There are several venues around the country: Orlando, Florida, San Antonio, Texas, and San Diego, California.
Perhaps the most popular activities involve the sea mammals, such as killer whales and dolphins. The organization which operates Sea World, besides being in the entertainment business, has also established educational and conservation links.
For the best experience at any of Orlando’s theme parks, get to the parks early (when they open) and head for the most popular exhibits first before the crowds arrive. Save the browsing and less popular places for later in the day.
If you are staying in Disney World, take a break (especially if you have kids) during the heat of the day and then return around suppertime when many people leave.
Always check out the daily events, such as parades, fireworks, special shows, etc. and get to these places early for the best seating.
Some events or eating establishments require reservations. If you are interested in any of these, make plans early in the day.
For an interesting and somewhat different type of theme park, make a day trip to Cypress Gardens, in Winterhaven, Florida, which offers a variety of activities for people of all ages. There are water-skiing shows in the lagoon, museums, demonstrations, indoor shows, and a world-famous botanical garden with plants from all over the world as well as beautiful topiaries.
While in Cypress Gardens, Take the narrated boat ride through the botanical gardens to get oriented, then return by foot to particular areas for photographs and close-up looks.
Another great excursion from the Orlando area is east to the Kennedy Space Center, in Cape Canaveral, Florida, the major spacecraft launch site in the United States. It has become a major tourist destination because it pays tribute to the US Space Program and its many milestones and accomplishments. Take the Red Tour to see Complex 39 and the launch pads. The Visitor Center offers IMAX films which pertain to space. Outside are full-size rockets on display which detail the history of the space program.
2. Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park, in southern Florida, preserves a vast wetland complete with an incredible variety of wildlife, including alligators, crocodiles, manatees, Florida panthers, and a tremendous number of birds. A boat cruise is the only way to see much of the park, because water predominates. There are also many walking trails. Don’t visit in the summer since the mosquitoes are ubiquitous and extremely aggressive.
3. Key West
Key West is the southernmost city in the continental USA and, besides its fantastic weather and climate, has drawn tourists for many years due to its devil-may-care residents and their strange activities. Ernest Hemingway lived here for many years and the Hemingway House is a major tourist spot. Also noteworthy is the Conch Tour Train, a wheeled train that takes visitors on a narrated tour of the major sights. Actually, it is a great way to begin a visit since it provides a wonderful orientation.
Duval Street is the main street in the tourist area. On the corner, near the waterfront is Sloppy Joe’s Bar, a “must” on every tourist itinerary, for drinks and people-watching. Another mandatory experience for all visitors is watching the sunset from Mallory Square. There are numerous shops in the vicinity of the square for browsing.
Also of note, while in Key West, are the southernmost house, a distinctive two-story Victorian-type mansion, and southernmost point, marked by a colorful conical structure.
Check out the polydactyl cats at the Hemingway House.
4. South Beach, Miami
South Beach, Miami, Florida is the nightlife capital of the USA these days. Besides the many art deco buildings, lit up in the evenings with multi-colored neon, and the many bars and nightclubs, there is a long white sandy beach, frequented by the “beautiful people” so that they may obtain and show off their tans.
The city of Miami, because of its large Hispanic population, has street signs in both English and Spanish, but it has little to offer the tourist.
The estate of Vizcaya claims to be Miami‘s most popular tourist attraction but may not be worth the hefty admission.
Nearby is Biscayne National Park, located south of Miami, which preserves several of the off-shore habitats of this area, including mangrove swamps and coral reefs. The park is primarily underwater, so visitors are encouraged to experience the reef environment in various ways. Boat rentals are available, as well as tours such as glass-bottomed boat tours.
Just off South Beach on Meridian Avenue, is the Miami Holocaust Memorial, a giant sculpture of an arm with many people clinging to it, as well as a perpetual flame and wall of names of holocaust victims. It is quite dramatic and moving.
5. St Augustine
St Augustine, Florida is the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the United States. Its occupation began with Ponce de Leon’s landing here in 1513. It was primarily a Spanish territory, but was ceded to England for a short time in the late 18th century. The Spanish influence is still prominent with its Spanish fort, Castillo de San Marco, and many homes with Spanish architecture. The city experienced another boom during the late 1800’s when Henry Flagler initiated the development of a winter resort area, by connecting the area via train tracks with the rest of the east coast. Flagler’s influence is still apparent when one visits Flagler College, in the city. The wealth that once financed hotels and playgrounds for the rich is still evident in a tour of the college and its buildings.
Take a walking tour of the Old Town to be transported back into St Augustine’s colorful past.