Next time you're thinking about escaping to the Sunshine State, don't focus your fun solely on the likes of Miami, the Keys or Orlando. Florida has much more to offer. From dude ranches to alligator farms to one-of-a-kind exhibitions, there's something extraordinary to entertain you off the beaten path. Here are some ideas to get you going:
Located just south of Stuart, Jonathan Dickinson State Park (floridastateparks.org/jonathandickinson) feels like old Florida, with nearly 11,500 acres of wilderness to explore. Activities include biking, horseback riding, fishing, hiking, swimming, wildlife viewing and geo-seeking ("treasure hunting" with GPS). Rent a boat and paddle down the scenic Loxahatchee River. Or take a ranger-guided tour of the 1930s pioneer homestead of Trapper Nelson. For the full experience, pitch a tent in one of two primitive backpack camps. Two full-facility campgrounds and 12 cabins are also available.
Edison & Ford Winter Estates/Paradise Coast
Did you know Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were snowbird neighbors? Check out the Edison & Ford Winter Estates (edisonfordwinterestates.org), which includes their adjacent vacation properties in Ft. Meyers. In addition to hundreds of inventions, artifacts and special exhibits on display, you can tour nine historic buildings, including Edison's Botanic Research Laboratory, and more than 20 acres of botanical gardens.
Round out your visit to the area with a trip to Florida's Paradise Coast (paradisecoast.com), which includes Naples, Marco Island and the Everglades. Spend a day browsing the upscale shops, boutiques and art galleries of Naples, stopping for a bite at one of the diverse restaurants, then spend the night at the Ritz-Carlton, which recently underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation. Marco Island offers family fun, and outdoor adventures await in the Everglades.
Holiday Boat Parades
New Yorkers are no strangers to parades. But how many of us have seen a boat parade? Florida is full of them this December. The mother of all flotillas takes place Dec. 14 in Ft. Lauderdale, where nearly 200 decked out boats will travel a 12-mile route in this year's Winterfest Boat Parade (winterfestparade.com). Or watch a stream of lit-up vessels float down the Intracoastal Waterway in the Boca Raton Holiday Boat Parade (561-393-7807) on Dec. 7. Other area parades take place in Palm Beach (Dec. 7), featuring a traveling fireworks display, and Pompano Beach (Dec. 8), one of the nation's oldest holiday boat parades. For a list of more statewide spectacles, visit floridabywater.com.
While in the area, spend a night at the Boca Raton Resort & Club, where you can take surf lessons one day and skate on pink ice the next.
Florida's newest theme park, Legoland Florida (legoland.com), is just 45 minutes from Orlando and Tampa. The 150-acre park is also the world's largest Legoland. Visitors can enjoy more than 50 rides, shows, attractions, restaurants and shops. Take in the extraordinary Lego models throughout the park, including a replica of Albert Einstein's head. And if you need to take a break, there's a botanical garden to explore. Last year, Legoland added a water park, where guests can build their own Lego rafts to float around in. This past summer, it added a section dedicated to The World of Chima.
Footprints in the Sand
Delve into the natural beauty of Florida's Panhandle by following the new Footprints in the Sand Eco Trail (www.visitpensacolabeach.com/eco-trail) along Pensacola Beach. Signs posted at 29 key locations address ecological topics: Learn about why the sand is so white, the importance of coastal barrier islands and the difficult journey of sea turtles. Many signs feature quick response (QR) codes that offer more information online. And a virtual passport program lets users check in with Foursquare at designated locations to earn points toward prizes that can be picked up at the Pensacola Beach Visitors Information Center.
Everglades Alligator Farm
If you're heading down to the Keys by car, stop off at Everglades Alligator Farm (everglades.com) in Homestead. The area's oldest alligator farm is just 10 miles from the main entrance to Everglades National Park and showcases the regions well-known gators and grassy rivers. Enjoy one of the hourly alligator or snake shows, or just follow the farm's walking trail to see more than 2,000 alligators, crocodiles, caimans, local and exotic snakes, and other fascinating wildlife. Top off you day with an exhilarating airboat ride as you skim and spin on the shallow waters of a grassy river.
Kennedy Space Center
Although U.S. space shuttle missions ended two years ago with the final landing of Atlantis, Kennedy Space Center (kennedyspacecenter.com) remains a Florida fixture. Located 45 minutes from Orlando, the facility still offers unmanned rockets launches; in-depth tours; a first-hand look at real vessels in the Rocket Garden; and the simulated Shuttle Launch Experience. Visitors can even have lunch with a veteran astronaut. This past summer, an interactive Atlantis display was added. The famed shuttle hangs at an angle 30 feet in the air, making it appear like it is floating in orbit.
While Leonardo DaVinci had many brilliant ideas, some of them were never realized -- until now. The DaVinci Machines Exhibition (discoverdavinci.com) at the Bradenton Municipal Auditorium showcases 60 inventions built from the artist/inventor/scientist's 500-year-old designs. You'll see creations such as the DaVinci bicycle, hang glider and air screw, a precursor to the helicopter. Also on display are two of DaVinci's robotic inventions. Reproductions of DaVinci's drawings accompany each model. The show runs through April and is just 30 minutes from St. Petersburg.
Kelly Seahorse Ranch
Known for its 13 miles of beach, clear water and native wildlife, Amelia Island offers a relaxing getaway just 40 minutes north of Jacksonville. If you're looking for a novel way to take in all the natural beauty, head to Kelly Seahorse Ranch (kellyranchinc.net). Located on a 200-acre preserve, the family-run facility welcomes visitors to explore the white sandy shores of Amelia Island State Park on horseback. Hop on one of the gentle, well-trained horses for a one-hour guided ride along a walk-only beach trail. For the most dramatic photo ops, take a sunset ride.
Westgate River RanchAn hour south of Orlando, in Central Florida's cattle lands, Westgate River Ranch (wgriverranch.com) is the largest dude ranch east of the Mississippi. The authentic cowboy-themed resort occupies 1,700 acres, including land once roamed by the nation's first cowboys, the Florida Crackers. Keeping that spirit alive, the ranch offers horseback riding, hayrides, cookouts, a petting farm, trap and skeet shooting, and a full championship rodeo every Saturday. A recent renovation upgraded accommodations and added a ropes course, rock climbing wall, zip line, mechanical bull and bungee trampoline.