Nighttime Activities and Adventures in the Sunshine State
By Kevin Mims
Fun in the sun is what Florida is known for, but there’s more to see and do when the sun goes down.
Whether it’s family-friendly camping and stargazing, overnight stays at popular zoos and theme parks, fishing in the Gulf, or touring the Everglades under the moonlight, the options are endless for Florida nighttime adventures.
Stargaze all night long
For the best views of Florida’s night skies, you have to get far away from the hustle and bustle—and light pollution—that comes with urban life. Some of the best places to see planets and stars glittering from above are within Florida’s state parks. Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, north of Okeechobee, is Florida’s first designated dark-sky park. The park is loved by astronomers from all over the country who flock to the remote park in winter, camping in RVs and tents and staying up late into the night for dazzling views of the ink-black sky.
Farther south, Everglades National Park is an astronomer’s dream. There you’ll find some of the wildest landscapes and darkest skies in Florida, and the park offers a variety of night-sky programs. In the Florida Keys, the Southern Cross Astronomical Society hosts an annual Winter Star Party, where stargazers can glamp and take in views not found anywhere else.
In north Florida, near Gainesville, Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park is a popular spot for watching the night sky. The park is also unbeatable for wildlife viewing and is home to wild horses and bison who freely roam the prairie.
Explore Shark Valley Trail by moonlight
Deep in the Everglades and 30 miles west of Miami, Shark Valley beckons to nature lovers and outdoor adventurers alike. By day, ride or walk Shark Valley’s 15-mile paved trail and you’ll find an abundance of wildlife along the sawgrass prairie and blue sky as far as the eye can see. Watch for deer, turtles, wading birds, alligators, and more, and check out the observation tower halfway along the loop trail for spectacular views. Bike the same trail by the light of the full moon and you’ll encounter a whole other side to Shark Valley—one that’s full of sights and sounds you won’t find during the day. During the ranger-guided nighttime tour, make sure you have a flashlight because you’ll need to see what’s ahead of you, which might even include an alligator lying on the warm pavement. Be sure to make a reservation ahead of time. Bike rentals are available for daytime use but you’ll need to bring your own bike for the guided tour at night.
Take an Everglades nighttime airboat tour
For many visitors, an airboat ride is the most thrilling part of visiting the Everglades. Speeding along the seemingly endless landscape of sawgrass marsh is exciting at any time of day, but nighttime airboat rides take the experience to another level. Tours usually last about an hour and allow participants to see and hear all manner of wildlife that stirs in the Everglades at night. Listen to the chorus of frogs while your captain uses a flashlight to spot alligator eyes in the dark. It’s a unique opportunity to learn about this unique ecosystem in a whole new way.
Take a ghost tour in Florida’s most haunted city
For thrills of the supernatural variety, head to St. Augustine, which is known for its haunted history and many ghost tours. The city, which is more than four centuries old, is home to many spooky locales, especially around the historic downtown area, and tour guides and storytellers are available to take you to them on foot and by trolley. To get started, check out one of the many tour operators in town, including Secrets of St. Augustine Ghost Tours, Ghosts and Gravestones, and Sheriff’s Ghost Walk Tour. The Dark of the Moon Ghost Tour, which takes place in the St. Augustine Lighthouse, offers a lesson in the real history of the lighthouse.
Don’t want to go on a tour? Explore some of these haunted places on your own:
The Old Jail: Built in 1891, the Old Jail housed the area’s most notorious criminals.
Tolomato Cemetery: The site of more than 1,000 burials, this cemetery dates back hundreds of years. The oldest marked grave is from 1798.
Watch an evening bat emergence
When the sun goes down, some of the University of Florida’s best-loved winged residents take flight. The Gainesville university is home to the world’s largest occupied bat houses, where roughly 500,000 bats live. Their population is made up of several species, including the Brazilian free-tailed bat, the Southeastern bat, and the evening bat. Visitors can view the spectacle of the bat emergence, which is best seen from spring through early summer, just after sunset and before dark. It’s a sight unlike any other when the animals set forth from their houses and darken the sky as they head out for a night of feasting. In one night, these bats consume 2.5 billion insects, which include mosquitos, moths, and midges. The spectacle takes place in a span of 15 or 20 minutes. After the bats have gone, head over to one of Gainesville’s popular eateries to end the evening. Try The Top or Ember’s Wood Grill.
Sleep under the stars
The ultimate nighttime adventure might just be the oldest and simplest: camping. For generations, Florida’s state parks have played host to family gatherings under the stars and remain a favorite way to spend a family vacation any time of year. Whether you’re camping deep in the woods, at a spring, at a beach, or on an island, it’s hard to beat a night of roasting marshmallows and sitting around by a fire.
All of the Florida State Parks that allow camping can be found here. Check out these picks from around the state.
For a special nighttime event, book a campsite—or a cabin—at Blue Spring State Park in springtime, when it’s firefly season and the glowing bugs put on a spectacular display. This park, which is located in Orange City, has a campground with 51 campsites and is excellent for manatee viewing in winter and swimming and paddling in the summer.
For a more urban experience, combine a theme park visit and camping trip into one vacation. Camp at Walt Disney World’s Fort Wilderness Resort, which has RV and tent sites and all the comforts of a regular campground coupled with amenities that all of Disney’s other resorts are known for. Take Disney transportation to the theme parks by day and at night, watch Magic Kingdom fireworks from the campground. Nighttime activities also include outdoor movies and a big campfire for roasting marshmallows.
Tackle an adventure course by moonlight
Ready for nighttime to reach new heights? Try an adventure course when the sun goes down. Many of Florida’s adventure parks have evening packages that let you climb, glide, and zip-line through the treetops in the dark.
At Zip the Canyons in Ocala, take the 90-minute Treetop Express tour under the cover of darkness. Soar over Gator Lake during this course, which includes two sky bridges and five ziplines. On Friday and Saturday nights, Treehoppers in Dade City stays open late for a Cosmic Night Climb. All nine of the park’s adventure courses are lit in colorful lights and the music is turned up for the ultimate family adventure night.
On select weekends, head to Zip On Tampa Bay for Moonlight Canopy Tours and you can experience the dark side of Mobbly Bayou Wilderness Preserve from 70 feet in the air. Through the end of July, Orlando Tree Trek Adventure Park in Kissimmee invites guests to adventure after dark. The park, which is set in a pine forest, features zip lines, 50-foot rope ladders, and hanging skateboards.
Mini golf under the moon
It’s a staple of family entertainment and miniature golf is even more fun after the sun sets. Congo River Golf has locations throughout the state. Its Africa-themed courses feature waterfalls, caves, and more.
Fantasia Gardens and Fairways Miniature Golf offers a unique opportunity for family fun at Walt Disney World that doesn’t involve theme park admission. The 18-hole course, located at the Walt Disney World Swan Hotel, is based on the animated film “Fantasia” and costs $14 for adults and $12 for children, making it an economical way to spend time at Disney.
Step into Tarzan territory and search for treasure at JungleGolf Adventure Golf in Fort Myers Beach, which has a lagoon and a tropical atmosphere. Fiesta Falls Miniature Golf in St. Augustine features an 18-hole course, 65-foot Spanish ship, ocean views, and waterfalls. Pirate’s Cove Adventure Golf in Lake Buena Vista and Orlando has several options to choose from, including an 18-hole adventure course and 36-hole adventure.
Hunt for ghost crabs
On summer nights, pale little crabs get active on the Gulf and Atlantic beaches of Florida. Ghost crabs, whose bodies are just about two inches across, come out from their burrows to scavenge and hunt in the evening, which makes for great family fun. It’s easy enough for young children and engaging for parents and teens, and all you need is a beach, a light, and your sense of adventure. This hunt is strictly catch-and-release—ghost crabs are not for eating. They can be picked up—carefully—and examined before you put them gently back where you found them.
Remember: while looking for ghost crabs, it’s important to be respectful to the natural area and other wild animals in the vicinity. Flashlights should never be used where sea turtles come to nest.
Go for a bioluminescent kayak tour
Imagine paddling into the night and everything around you is dark—except for the water where your paddle and kayak have touched, which is glowing bright blue, as if there are electric lights under the surface. It might look like something out of a sci-fi movie, but it’s bioluminescence: a natural phenomenon caused by a chemical reaction of living organisms. In Florida dinoflagellates and comb jellies produce this light when the water is disturbed.
You can experience it for yourself on Florida’s Space Coast, and the best time of year to go is between May and October and on nights when the sky is darkest.
BK Adventure offers a variety of options for bioluminescent experiences in the Indian River Lagoon, from clear kayaks that allow a full view of the water underneath you to bioluminescent paddleboarding and rafting. A Day Away Kayak Tours in Titusville has packages that include clear-kayak and dino-luminescence tours. Florida Adventurer on Merritt Island offers several nighttime tours, including clear-kayak and comb-jelly tours.
See nesting sea turtles
From May until October, there are special opportunities to see sea turtles nesting on Florida’s beaches. All of Florida’s sea turtle species—loggerhead, leatherback, and green—are either threatened or endangered, but guided group walks allow visitors to see them up close as they lay eggs on shore.
Here are some places to check out if you want to register for a turtle walk: Coastal Connections in Vero Beach, the Florida Oceanographic Society in Stuart, and the Sea Turtle Preservation Society in Indialantic.
On a guided walk, you’ll learn all about these animals and their nesting habits. If you go to the same spots on the same beach year after year, it’s possible you’ll see nests from the same turtle—female sea turtles are known to return to the same places to dig their nests each year. Because light is harmful to nesting sea turtles, it’s important to keep the beaches where they nest dark this time of year.
Go fishing after dark
In Florida, you can fish any day of the year, all day long. But the fun doesn’t end at sunset.
At Hubbard’s Marina in Madeira Beach, you can book a 12-hour fishing trip that begins at 7 p.m. Ride 90 minutes out into the Gulf of Mexico and you’ll be ready to reel in mangrove snapper, black sea bass, porgies, and yellowtail. Bring your own gear or rent some from the marina.
Florida Keys Fun Fishing in Islamorada offers four-hour night fishing tours that backcountry evening trips March through September and night tarpon trips mid-March through June. Besides tarpon, you can expect to find trout and snapper on these excursions.
In addition to night fishing, Panhandle Charters and Guide Service in Pensacola has kid-friendly flounder gigging charters and frog gigging on the river from sunset until midnight. Panhandle Fishing Charters in Destin offers dock-light night fishing for snapper, red fish, black drum, flounder, and sea trout. Sunset bowfishing is also an option.
To do some pier fishing on your own, visit Skyway Fishing Pier State Park in St. Petersburg. The pier is lit at night and with any luck. The list of species you might catch is long and includes Spanish mackerel, king mackerel, snook, red snapper, black sea bass, tarpon, grouper, cobia, and sheepshead.
Spend a night at the museum—or the zoo
Most of us who have visited museums and zoos have been there during daylight hours. But did you know they can be even more fun at night?
If your family or friends group has at least 10 people, you can book an after-dark sleepover at Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, where you can see your favorite wild animals at night, after most visitors have left. You’ll have the option of sleeping indoors at one of two locations or you can tent camp outdoors and sleep under the stars. Packages include a pizza dinner, breakfast, entertainment activities, and animal encounters.
Over in Sanford at Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens, you have several after-hours options to choose from. Kids Night Out, a children-only event for ages 5 to 12, lets youngsters explore the zoo by flashlight and enjoy games and activities just for them. With Snooze at the Zoo, which requires a minimum group size of 20 guests, you can curl up in your sleeping bag after dark at the Wayne M. Densch Discovery Center and spend the night among your favorite animals.
Zoos aren’t the only places where you can stay up after bedtime. Many Florida museums have evening programs, some for the whole family and others just for kids.
With South Florida Science Center and Aquarium’s Nights at the Museum program, which happens the last Friday of select months from 6 to 9 p.m., visitors of all ages can view exhibits and planetarium shows and participate in interactive activities and crafts.
Kids Night at the Museum at the Orlando Science Center, for kids ages 5 to 12, lets participants see the museum in a whole new way, with interactive live-science shows, special programming, exhibits to explore, and even a pizza party. The program runs from 6 to 10 p.m.
Explore theme parks after dark
One of the most loved and most familiar nighttime events on Walt Disney World property is the nightly fireworks that happen every evening at Magic Kingdom. Stand in front of Cinderella’s Castle and watch the 18-minute show, which is accompanied by a soundtrack of favorite Disney music and uses lights, lasers, and special effects.
Fireworks are just the beginning of what you’ll find when you visit Florida’s theme parks after dark. At Busch Gardens, if you couldn’t get enough of the park during the day, you can stay all night. Have a sleepover with the wild inhabitants of the park, take part in a scavenger hunt, see endangered tigers, play games, and talk to zookeepers.
For a wilder night excursion, check out the Gator Night Shine tours at Gatorland in Orlando, where you can visit an alligator breeding marsh in the dark, guided only by flashlight. Listen to the sounds of the marsh as you find the eyes of alligators in the dark. Gatorland provides you with flashlights, insect repellant, and gator food—all you need to bring is your sense of adventure.
Fly through the night sky
How better to view the beauty of Central Florida’s city lights from above than from the seat of a helicopter at night? Book a helicopter ride with Maxflight Helicopter Services and you’ll get to see the sparkling lights of the theme parks and other famous places from high in the air, including SeaWorld, Universal Studios, Magic Kingdom, and Animal Kingdom. Maxflight has several night flight options to choose from that range from 15 to 30 minutes in length.
Florida’s West Coast beach sunsets are spectacular, and watching from the air is a special treat when you book a tour with Vertical Flight in Clearwater. See the colors change as the sun dips behind the Gulf of Mexico and catch glimpses of dolphins, stingrays, and manatees in the water.
The bustling nightlife of Miami is a sight to behold when you see it from high above during a nighttime helicopter ride by Miami Plane Tours. See the lights of the city and activity along the Miami Skyline, North Miami Beach, or South Miami Beach.
More end-of-day aerial adventures await farther south in Key West with 30-minute private flights by Air Adventures. Toast with champagne at sunset as you take in the sights of the island’s famous landmarks.
If you want to soar but you’re not into flying, check out the giant Ferris wheel at ICON Park in Orlando. While you’re not actually airborne when you climb aboard the 400-foot tall observation wheel, you might feel like you are as you look down at the dark cityscape below.