Need to get the kids (and yourself) out of the house for the day? Try one of these day trips and unique tours for a new view on Florida.
Quick side-trips and short outings are great for families traveling or living in Florida. These family road trip ideas are personal recommendations that are educational and fun-- and best of all, they're not too long that the kids get restless, and not too short that you don't enjoy a sense of adventure.
Florida Natural’s Grove House
A visit to the Sunshine State wouldn’t be complete without a taste of Florida’s Natural brand orange juice. The company’s Lake Wales grove in central Florida offers a private glimpse of its juice-making and provides a history lesson for the kids in the guise of a fun stop.
Take a break from highway driving and relax on a front-porch rocker as you test the native citrus juices at the Grove House.
The cracker-style visitor center houses a theater, where guests watch a 14-minute how-to video about making OJ – from choosing the right orange to cleaning and packaging. The history of Lake Wales is also highlighted for visitors.
In the museum, mementos and artifacts help trace the history of Florida’s Natural juices. Some family road trip ideas for the younger set, there’s a button-pushing machine that demonstrates the squeezing process. And, of course, all kids like to push buttons (no pun intended)!
Gift items like lemon trees, orange trees, Florida’s Natural T-shirts, and other citrus-themed gifts are all on hand so you won’t go home empty-handed. These make great souvenirs for teachers and friends back home.
A Train Ride to Remember
There are some scenic routes in Florida that can only be viewed by rail. What a good excuse to hop aboard the Seminole Gulf Railway, which owns and operates the Murder Mystery Dinner Train in Fort Myers.
This unique dining experience offers the opportunity to view the Caloosahatchee River from the railroad's 75-foot steel drawbridge. But the view is not restricted to the outside. Inside the train a full murder mystery play unfolds while passengers enjoy a full service dinner. The Murder Mystery Dinner Train departs from Fort Myers Wednesday through Sunday year round. Travelers are treated to a 3½ hour performance during which they get to play detective while enjoying their five-course meal.
The train departs at 6:30 every evening but Sunday, when it leaves at 5:30. Cost, including dinner, is $69 every day except Saturday, when it’s $75 (beverages not included).
Florida Family Travel Tidbits
Dollar Rent-A-Car now offers prepaid tolls for its Florida rentals. Instead of reaching for change, visitors can sign up for the Pass24 prepaid toll service for $7.99 per day for all Florida toll charges. Check www.dollar.com for details.
Hertz has a similar program. For a daily service fee of $2.95 (up to a maximum of $14.75 a month) customers enrolled in Hertz’s PlatePass can get their actual Florida tolls added to their credit card after they turn their car in. To find out about the offer, see www.PlatePass.com
Tampa’s first dedicated kosher hotel kitchen opened at the Tampa Airport Marriott under the supervision of a local rabbi. Jewish families celebrate 52 Sabbaths and 13 holidays per year. Information at www.marriott.com.
The Fairytale Traveler
I live in Bradenton, and have spent countless hours barefoot on its sandy shores, hiking through its mangroves and exploring its history. It’s one of Florida's most popular destinations for its turquoise coast and laid-back vibe.
It’s also rich with the history and culture of the Calusa Indians, the Native Americans who preceded us, even if their footprints are a bit blurry. There are few written remnants of tribal culture, and what we have primarily are tools, jewelry and a few archaeological sites.
But here are some facts about the native Calusa Indians that Ranger Daniel Stephens at De Soto Memorial National Park shared with me:
- They died out in the late 1700's/early 1800's from tribal conflicts and European diseases
- They are known as the "shell Indians" and did not make pottery but used shells for tools, jewelry and mounds -- even building entire cities on shell middens
- They were sailors and traveled by dugout canoes along the many waterways in southwest Florida. In Bradenton they sailed the Manatee River
- They were fierce fighters and responsible for the deaths of Ponce de Leon and Christopher Columbus
Here are some places to further explore Calusa culture in and around Bradenton:
I love visiting the De Soto National Memorial. It's pet-friendly, breezy and has winding sandy trails for you to explore the shores of the Manatee River. It's the site of an ancient Calusa village and would have been the scene of a large society of natives who spent their days going from this shore to the Portavant Temple at Emerson Point Park in their intricate canoes.
This is a free park open to the public. It has a living history exhibit, which goes from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. (4 p.m. on busier days). The park itself is open 7 days a week from 9 a.m.-5.p.m.
For more information on booking a kayaking tour, and other things to do, check out their outdoor activities.
Tip: If you ask a ranger you can get a guided tour and they will point out the archaeological sites to you.
Portavant Temple at Emerson Point Preserve
A key point on the trail of Native America in Bradenton, Emerson Point is a stunning and serene blast into Florida's native landscape. With a front seat along the brackish waters of the Manatee River and the Gulf of Mexico, from its tower on a clear day you can see the massive Skyway Bridge, which connects this region to south St. Petersburg. Its winding boardwalk trail will lead you through sweeping moss and palm trails along inlets where you will get a front seat to the wild side of Florida nature.
The South Florida Museum
Located just a few minutes from De Soto National Memorial, the South Florida Museum is home to a large collection of Native Florida Indian artifacts, including shells, pottery, jewelry and depictions of their early life. You'll also find early marine and mammal fossils and archaeological material on archaic and pre-contact cultures.
There's a planetarium and an aquarium as well, so plan to spend at least 2-3 hours here.
Additional Points of Interest
These are both very much worth the drive. Plan to spend an entire day to do both, half a day for one. Bring water and good shoes.
- Historic Spanish Point - about 30 minutes south into South Sarasota
- Indian Mound Park - about 45 minutes south into Englewood
Things to Know About Visiting Bradenton
- It gets very busy from December through May because it’s a second home to our part-time residents and seasonal tourists from points north
- The weather is almost always warm with a couple of "cold snaps" here and there over winter (and by winter I mean from January to the end of March)
- Summer is hot but it's easy to stay cool when you're by the beach or the Manatee River. Just remember sunblock, bug spray, sunglasses and light colored clothes
- There are lots of budget-friendly things to do in the area to add to your adventure
Where to Stay
I highly recommend you stay somewhere off the beach to save on spending; most beach places are weekly rentals.
I can also highly recommend you stay at Palmetto Riverside Bed & Breakfast. It is an absolutely pristine historic place to stay right in the middle of everything and just 15 minutes from Anna Maria Island. It's located on the Manatee River with a front seat to where Native Americans would have sailed in their canoes hundreds of years ago. It's also located across from the Regatta Pointe Marina, where at The River House Reef & Grill you can enjoy dinner, brunch or just drinks on the water. Catch a Florida sunset or take a sunset sail; it's truly amazing.