Driving to Florida: Houston to Orlando

    By Kevin McGeever

    What if I said that on this Florida vacation you could camp on a beach, see Blue Angels fly, paddle in a coastal dune lake, catch a red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico and have it prepared for dinner at a dockside restaurant, slurp ice cream drizzled with Tupelo honey, ogle half-ton manatees in a clear-as-glass natural spring, and zipline 10 stories above a phosphate canyon?

    What’s more, what if I said that you could fill this road-trip bucket list before you reached Orlando, the Theme Park Capital of the World?

    Here’s the thing: When you cross the state line and stop at the Official Florida Welcome Center in Pensacola for a stretch of the legs, you’re still 450 miles from your final destination. That’s 450 miles of inspiring, educational, eye-opening, adrenalin-pumping things to do.

    Woman emerges from Gulf of Mexico surf and runs on Seaside beach

    Seaside, a Northwest Florida town built from scratch in the 1980s, is the standard for New Urbanism, a design movement that emphasizes an organic marriage of street life, local businesses, and neighborly gathering spots. The beach is pretty extraordinary, too.

    - Kevin McGeever

    THE ESSENTIALS

    Distance from Houston to Orlando:  approximately 966 miles (1,555 kilometers)
    Driving time: 14-15 hours
    Best route(s): I-10 east to I-75 south to Florida Turnpike.
    Fuel costs: use this calculator.
    Charging stations: plot your course on Plugshare.
    Rest areas: Interstate 10, Interstate 75 in Florida.
    Alternative transportation: Megabus and Greyhound. Travel time 14-20 hours.

    PLACES TO STOP ALONG THE WAY

    There are beaches

    Shimmering pearls really, on a 200-mile Gulf-coast string from west to east. The color palette at Pensacola Beach and Destin and Seaside and Panama City Beach transitions from brilliant white sand that massages the feet, to Gulf of Mexico surf that appears glass-bottle green then emerald, to a backdrop of blue sky.

    There are Florida Scenic Highways

    Twenty-six in all, but six are a worthwhile side trip from your route to central Florida. The 220-mile Big Bend Scenic Byway encompasses the Gulf-front dunes and shoreline at St. George Island, the dense hardwoods of Apalachicola National Forest, the flora and fauna of St. Marks National WIldlife Refuge, plus two of the Forgotten Coast’s remaining lighthouses.

    There are dozens of state parks

    Paynes Prairie Preserve has bison and wild horses. At the site of San Felasco Preserve, Spanish colonists established a mission and made contact with the native Potano-Timucua in 1606.  

    There are 700 freshwater springs

    Natural miracles arise from the subterranean Floridan Aquifer, pumping millions of gallons of 72-degree water -- a Sunshine State exclusive for paddlers, divers, snorkelers, and not-a-care-in-the-world inner-tube passengers. Your drive will take you through these fountains of youth among others: Vortex, Wakulla, Ginnie, Ichetucknee, Silver, Juniper, Rock, and Wekiwa.

    There are cities and small towns

    That are worth a day or two or three of exploration:

    - Pensacola. The history is thick here … the first Spanish colonial settlement in 1559. A critical chess piece in the Civil War. During segregation and Jim Crow, a welcoming destination on the Chitlin’ Circuit for black artists. The home of Top Gun, the flight school for fighter pilots at Naval Air Station.

    - Tallahassee. Politics and higher education are in great supply here. This is the state capital and home to two major universities, Florida State and Florida A&M. The Seminoles and Rattlers are perhaps most often associated with championship-level athletics, but proud alums might be quicker to mention the world-renowned Mag Lab and the Black Archives. Tally’s rolling hills and oak-canopied roads lower the heart rate. Places like Bradfordville Blues Club and Bradley’s General Store feed the soul.

    - Gainesville. The University of Florida dominates the landscape and welcomes visitors to natural attractions such as the Butterfly Rainforest, Devil’s Millhopper, and the Bat Colony. Gainesville also is minutes from many freshwater springs such as Devil’s Den, an underground wonder with 33-million-year-old fossil beds.

    - Ocala. Florida can rightfully stake claims as the global capital for sunshine, beaches, theme parks, citrus, fishing, golf, and manatees. Ocala/Marion County is the Horse Capital of the World. The U.S. Equestrian team trains here. Triple Crown race winners were born and bred here. Local farms welcome visitors.

    - In small-town Florida, visitors can tour ancient caverns in Marianna, savor fresh seafood in Apalachicola, hear worms grunt in Sopchoppy, see GatorWorld in Wildwood, land a plane on a lake in Tavares, and drink orange juice in Clermont, the heart of citrus country.

    So take your time on the drive to and from Orlando. Add a couple days at the front and/or back end of this Florida road trip. You can create your own travel itinerary with the VISIT FLORIDA planning tool.

    All aboard the Hogwarts Express at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley

    All aboard the Hogwarts Express at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley

    - Universal Orlando Resort

    WELCOME TO ORLANDO

    Let’s get some introductions out of the way first, shall we?

    That’s Mickey and Minnie, Harry and Hermione, Minions and Autobots, Captain America and Spider-Man, and the men (and women) in black. Over there, that’s T-Rex and the Cat in the Hat, some bottlenose dolphins and orcas, and the crew of the Millennium Falcon and the pirates of the Caribbean.

    If you feel an urge to laugh, gasp, shriek in delight, and/or burst forth in song, go ahead. You’re not alone.

    The attractions of Orlando and Kissimmee are legion and legendary.

    At Disney World, Universal Orlando, SeaWorld, and LEGOLAND alone, there are 15 distinct parks. An endless alphabet of thrills awaits at such tongue twisters as Humunga Kowabunga, Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, Rise of the Resistance, and the Mako hyper-coaster. Adrenalin junkies also can vouch for attractions such as Orlando Watersports Park and Fun Spot America.

    Entertainment districts such as Disney Springs and International Drive combine the lure of theme parks, the giddiness of retail therapy, and cuisine for all palates. Think NBA Experience plus Anthropologie plus Chocolate Kingdom.

    Or, if you prefer immersive shopping, there are outlet malls and dedicated neighborhood options.

    In an international destination where there are attractions and entertainment centers and resort hotels and James Beard-nominated chefs, there are abundant food choices. When you add established African-American, Hispanic, and Vietnamese neighborhoods, the food choices are abundant and interesting.

    Good food inspires journeys outside what is familiar into communities that have forged their own identities through their good works as restaurateurs, retailers, craftsmen, and artists. In Orlando, some of those districts are SoDo, Audubon Park, Thornton Park, and Little Vietnam. In the greater metro area, the names are Winter Park and Winter Garden, Minneola and DeLeon Springs, Mount Dora and Maitland.

    Live performance often comes before or after the food.

    For sports fans, Orlando City Soccer and Orlando Magic basketball games cover much of the calendar year. There are also annual weekend spectacles devoted to the National Football League’s Pro Bowl, multiple college football bowl games, and the PGA’s Arnold Palmer Invitational Tournament.

    For culture fans, the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts stages 300 shows a year -- musicians and comedians, ballet and Broadway productions. Museums and gallery spaces include the most comprehensive assemblage of Louis Comfort Tiffany pieces at the Hosmer Morse and the African-American heritage collection at the Wells’Built. In February, the annual Zora! Festival celebrates Eatonville and the life and works of the celebrated anthropologist and author (Their Eyes Were Watching God).

    There is plenty to do in Orlando -- and along the way. Enjoy the ride.

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