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Things to do and see in Florida besides Walt Disney World

Kids finding treasures on a Florida Gulf Coast beach near Naples (courtesy tlindenbaum at Flickr CC)Although I’m from a Navy family and feel as though my home is “anywhere on Planet Earth,”  I was actually born in Key West, Florida.

Therefore, as an official Conch, I do feel an affinity for the Sunshine State.

This is where I recommend taking kids in Florida if I didn’t want to deal with theme parks and Disney (although here are my tips for the Walt Disney World parks, if you insist.)

Gulf Coast beaches

No, they are not all oil slicks. Once you’ve been spoiled by Florida beaches, it’s hard to put up with grungy sand or chilly water elsewhere (except, yes, OK, I’ll admit maybe Hawaii gives them a run for the money.)  The Atlantic coast has pretty good choices in Daytona, Cocoa Beach and Jacksonville/St. Augustine, but my vote goes to the Gulf Coast because the water’s warmer, the sand is usually nicer and the wave action is gentler for younger kids.

Try Clearwater/St. Pete for lively urban beaches, nearby Caladesi Island State Park for isolated beauty or Siesta Key near Sarasota, an all-around winner.  The northwest Florida Panhandle and Pensacola have lovely sand and clear, warm water; sometimes I roll my eyes at the occasional tacky commercialization there, but my kids LOVED stuff like mini-golf. Shut up, Mom.

Clear, cool freshwater springs

They are all over the state and they’re marvelously refreshing – a real Old Florida moment when you jump in! For example, Wakulla Springs State Park is perfect for a stop-off between Tallahassee and Jacksonville.  The park is home to a massive freshwater spring, one of the delights of northern Florida and a great excuse to go swimming.

Take one of the glass-bottom boat tours to get crystal-clear views of spring wildlife below the boat. The comfy Lodge in the middle of the Park was built in 1937, and still welcomes guests for meals or an overnight stay.

The Everglades

Truly a U.S. national treasure and a World Heritage Site, the enormous 1.5 million acre “sea of grass” boasts nine distinct habitats and teems with hundreds of species of mammals, birds, and fish.

There are ranger-guided tours and activities, mangrove coast boat tours and tram tours on a fifteen-mile loop; check individual sections of the Park for specific activities. Miles of both land and water trails tempt walkers, hikers and canoe/kayak enthusiasts. The December through April dry season is the least humid, most bug-free time to go, but is also the most crowded, so reserve early.

Gainesville and funky Cedar Key

In addition to the University of Florida Gator hoopla in Gainesville, there’s also the Butterfly Rainforest at the Florida Museum of Natural History.  Join the other lepidoptera fanatics of all ages walking gently through hundreds of colorful butterflies.  You can also observe human researchers at work, but it’s more interesting to watch baby winged ones struggle valiantly to escape cocoons.

Just south of town is Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.   Sweeping open prairie grasslands and marshes contain wild bison and horses.  Look for hundreds of bird species (including Sand Hill Cranes) from the many marked trails.  There’s even the hulk of an 1800’s steamboat from the days when this was Alachua Lake.

Cedar Key on the Gulf of Mexico.  The Old Florida atmosphere makes this a perfect day trip from Gainesville.  Nope, that tiny public beach is not what you came for.  Wander the art galleries, chow down on fresh seafood, then kayak out to Atsena Otie Key offshore, just before the vermilion sunset.  Check with Adventure Outpost in High Springs for guided kayak outings here and all over north central Florida.

The Florida Keys and Key West

You don’t have to drive all the way down the Overseas Highway to Key West (although “Cayo Hueso” it is more kid-friendly than you’d think) but there’s something about the Keys that makes everyone kick back a little more and relax. In Key West, the whole family will enjoy the hokey-but-thorough Conch Train Tour, but hit it in the morning for cooler breezes and smaller crowds.

After the tour, you’ll know where to return later on bike. Spare yourself the headaches of driving and parking here; the main attractions lie within a few square miles.

Kid-friendly places to visit include the live-action fun at the Shipwreck Historeum, the small AquariumMallory Square festivities at sunset and treasures at Mel Fisher’s Maritime Museum. There are also local sailing trips and day trips to the nearby Dry Tortugas.

Older kids who are writers or history buffs (or who must live with annoying parents who are) might like Hemingway’s House or President Truman’s Little White House.

What are your Florida favorites?

Let us know down in the comments!