By Kevin McGeever
After roughly 850 miles of driving I-95 from Philadelphia to Florida and then a stretch of the legs at the Official Florida Welcome Center, it would be perfectly understandable to say aloud to no one in particular:
“One hundred sixty-five miles to Orlando. Let’s go!”
Who can blame you? Theme Park Capital of the World. Exponential thrills. Lifetime of memories. And so close.
But hang on a second. Might we suggest some restraint and further research? A day or two at the front or back end of your Orlando vacation to see and experience some of the many other remarkable things to do on your drive through Florida?
Consider these far-from-the-madding-crowd possibilities along I-95 and I-4 between the Florida state line and the City Beautiful:
- At least two dozen state and national parks and forests with beach, marsh, and hardwood ecosystems; with paddling, horseback riding, and snorkeling opportunities; or a lazy float on a clear-as-glass Florida spring.
- Florida’s Scenic Highways. There are at least seven side trips available, dreamy cruises that straddle the Atlantic coastline and tunnel through oak and pine canopies.
- Tour any one of the five historic fort sites that tell the story of Florida’s place in the American story -- from the Timucuan (the original Floridians), to European colonization, to the original sin of slavery, to the Civil War.
- Play golf where the pros play in the golf capital of the world. The PGA and LPGA headquarters and the World Golf Hall of Fame are within easy reach of I-95. But if you brought your sticks, then you owe it to yourself to dare the golf gods at TPC Sawgrass’s No. 17 island green. Or risk the ocean breezes at Hammock Beach. Just swing away.
- Find a beach that suits your personality. Popular destinations such as Jacksonville and Daytona Beach may remind you of Wildwood and Margate. Laid-back towns such as Flagler Beach might evoke Cape May. Or something completely different: the raw, undeveloped 24 miles of Canaveral National Seashore.
You can create your own travel itinerary for driving from Philly to Orlando with the VISIT FLORIDA planning tool, but here are some more thought starters on what you can appreciate on your road trip through Florida, and what to expect when you reach Orlando.
Distance from Philadelphia to Orlando: approximately 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers)
Driving time: Two full days minimum
Best route(s): I-95 south to I-4 west
Fuel costs: use this calculator
Charging stations: plot your course on Plugshare
Rest areas: Interstate 95
Alternative transportation (train or bus): Wanderu and Greyhound. Travel time: two days.
PLACES TO STOP ALONG THE WAY
Here are some Florida things to do from north to south, as well as the distances from Orlando and the addresses of each point of interest, so you can program them into your GPS.
Did you know that Jax has the nation’s largest urban park system, plus more shoreline than any other American city? Neighborhoods such as Riverside, Five Points and Downtown are destinations for art walks, fine dining, and the Jax Ale Trail.
Time allowance: 2-4 hours or 2-4 days.
Distance from Orlando: approximately 141 miles (226 kilometers)
Kennedy Space Center
Florida is the world’s launchpad for manned space flight. Mercury. Gemini. Apollo. The space shuttle. At the Kennedy Visitors Center, you can stroll through a garden of rockets or watch one rise into the blue.
Time allowance: 1 day.
Distance from Orlando: 52 miles (83 kilometers)
Florida’s first luxury estate also is a resident on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1886 for hatmaker John B. Stetson, the 10,000-square-foot mansion is “the epitome of the Victorian era.” Around the estate are multiple fountains, a putting green, gazebo, pool, and meditation garden. Inside are some of the most intricate parquet floors in the world. Take a tour.
Time allowance: 2 hours.
Distance from Orlando: approximately 40 miles (64 kilometers)
Under the heading of quirky roadside attractions, a Florida list might start with the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp. George P. Colby, a medium from New York state, founded the camp in 1894. According to the Cassadaga website, “Many of the Camp’s residents are mediums and healers who offer their services from their homes or apartments.”
Time allowance: 2-4 hours or an afterlife.
Distance from Orlando: approximately 35 miles (56 kilometers)
Florida’s 700-plus natural springs are a vacation experience available in few other places on the planet. 72 degrees year-round. You can dive and snorkel and explore. Or you can just float and forget. Wekiwa can be appreciated on foot, bicycle, and horseback, in a kayak or canoe.
Time allowance: 4 hours.
Distance from Orlando: approximately 17 miles (27 kilometers)
WELCOME TO ORLANDO
Every day here, no one is too old, or too young, to wear Mickey ears or wave a wand and cackle in delight.
There are attractions that tap into your love affairs with comic-book heroes and galaxies far, far away, and leave you screaming at every free fall and splashdown.
I-Drive in Orlando is 11 miles of sensory overload such as the Wheel at ICON Park and WonderWorks. Disney Springs combines shopping, dining, attractions, and live entertainment. Think Kate Spade plus NBA Experience plus Chef Art Smith’s Homecomin’ plus Cirque du Soleil equals everybody’s happy.
Professional sports teams include the NBA’s Magic and Major League Soccer’s Orlando City SC.
Zora Neale Hurston’s Eatonville
Jodi Mailander Farrell wrote: “Some celebrities are so famous they need only one name. In Florida, it’s Zora. That's for Zora Neale Hurston, the celebrated Harlem Renaissance author, best known for her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Visitors can celebrate the literary icon at the January festival bearing her name and year-round by exploring the first incorporated all-black city in the nation
Orlando is also a theme park for shoppers with major malls, designer outlets, and walkable outdoor shopping districts. The Mall at Millenia is minutes from Universal and SeaWorld. The Florida Mall is 25 minutes from Disney World and the airport. Winter Park’s cobblestoned, tree-lined Park Avenue is a movie-worthy main street of boutiques, museums, and fine dining.
In Orlando, like any major American city, eating out is a smorgasbord of exquisite experiences: James Beard chefs, concentrations of cultures such as Vietnamese and Puerto Rican, fan favorites, and local color.
VISIT FLORIDA’s Lauren Tjaden wrote: This sport promises “beauty – from the balloons gathering heat and taking shape in the early-morning field to the views the low, slow flight provides. … When ballooning there is no sense of flying whatsoever – it’s like standing in your living room, since you are moving at exactly the same speed as the wind.” Here’s a list of Florida balloon companies.
Driving from Philly to Orlando is a road trip full of possibilities. The Orlando theme parks and entertainment centers may be your ultimate destinations, but along the route there are Florida memories to make. Enjoy the ride.
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