Orlando, Miami, St. Augustine—many families have been there, done those. But there are some secret Florida vacation spots you might not know about—places with less-crowded beaches, throwback downtowns, and opportunities for some pretty wild animal encounters. We’ve rounded up the best secret Florida vacation spots to consider for your next getaway with the kids.
1. South Walton
South Walton’s 16 different beach neighborhoods are stretched out along 26 miles of sugar-white beaches on Florida’s Panhandle. They include the totally Instagrammable New Urbanist communities of Seaside, Rosemary Beach, and Alys Beach, and South Walton’s original beach neighborhood, funky and free-spirited Grayton Beach. There’s a beach neighborhood for every personality and vacation style, whether you want a luxe retreat or a relaxed getaway. Rent bikes from outfitters like 30A Bike Rentals to explore them all.
South Walton’s location on the Gulf of Mexico means there are lots of ways to spend a day at the beach and enjoy the Gulf’s turquoise waters. You can book family-friendly surfing or standup paddleboarding lessons or hire your own “sandcastle coach” through Beach Sand Sculptures for tips on constructing masterpieces on the sand. Scuba divers can head less than a mile off the coast to check out the seven sculptures by local and national artists at the Underwater Museum of Art. Sitting about 60 feet underwater, the museum was first created in June 2018 and will undergo its second installation in summer 2019.
The area is also home to 15 rare coastal dune lakes that serve as a habitat for all kinds of plants and animals. You can explore them by kayak or standup paddleboard on your own or as part of a guided tour.
Recommended Hotel: WaterColor Inn & Resort
2. Crystal River
Why go to the theme parks when you can swim with manatees in Crystal River, Florida?! Manatees are a major reason why folks head to this ecotourism hot spot in Citrus County in the Big Bend region of Florida’s west coast. Crystal River is the only place in the world where people can legally swim with manatees, and guided tours can take families to spots like Kings Bay, Three Sisters Springs, and Homosassa Springs, where the gentle giants hang out. In addition to simply swimming, other options for in-water manatee encounters include snorkeling, kayaking, and standup paddleboarding, with the time of year sometimes affecting choices and access to certain areas. You’ll see the most manatees in the winter months, when they’re taking refuge in the area’s consistently 73-degree waters, but you can still encounter them during the summer as well.
If you’d rather stay dry, you can observe manatees from the boardwalks that snake through Three Sisters Springs and Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. The Crystal River area is also a prime spot for fishing (especially in its saltwater flats), hiking, and biking the 46-mile Withlacoochee State Trail that runs throughout Citrus County. During the summer, folks flock to Crystal River for scalloping season. Local charters and guides will take families out into shallow waters to snorkel for the bivalves, which some local restaurants will even cook for you.
Recommended Hotel: Plantation on Crystal River
3. Deerfield Beach
Fort Lauderdale may get a lot of the attention in Broward County, but nearby Deerfield Beach shouldn’t be overlooked, especially by families who want vacations filled with beach days and water sports. Located in the northern part of the county, this secret Florida vacation spot features cove-like Atlantic Ocean beaches, where surf and skate shop Island Water Sports offers free surfing and standup paddleboard lessons every Saturday morning from 7 to 9 a.m. All ages are welcome, as long as they can swim on their own. The shop also rents gear for folks with more experience and hosts monthly Full Moon Paddle Tours.
See what’s biting (or catch the sunrise if your kids are early risers) from the 976-foot Deerfield Beach International Fishing Pier, which sells bait and rents rods. Within the city’s Quiet Waters Park, find 7 miles of biking trails, Splash Adventure water park (open seasonally), and Ski Rixen, one of the country’s first cable water ski parks. Families with kids ages 7 and older can sign up for lessons to learn how to glide across the water on wakeboards, kneeboards, or water skis. When it’s time to eat, there are oceanfront dining options plus casual restaurants in the downtown area. They include the Whale’s Rib, which has appeared on the popular Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.
Recommended Hotel: Embassy Suites by Hilton Deerfield Beach
Sebring offers the chance for a different kind of Central Florida vacation (and you’ll be surprised to know this secret Florida vacation spot is only about an hour from Orlando). Known as the City on the Circle, Sebring boasts a historic downtown that’s home to spots like Sebring Soda & Ice Cream Works, which stocks more than 300 kinds of craft sodas, plus 50 flavors of ice cream. In 2018, the city launched its Sebring Soda Festival, a new annual event that takes place in April and spotlights small-batch, craft sodas from across the United States. Attendees can sample more than 200 sodas, including ginger ales, root beers, and lots of unique flavors that aren’t usually found in stores.
Families can get back to nature during a Sebring vacation by visiting the 9,000-acre Highlands Hammock State Park, one of Florida’s oldest and largest state parks where alligator sightings are a common occurrence, and Archbold Biological Station, a working research site that offers walking trails and guided tours of its facilities. For an even wilder time, book an airboat ride on Arbuckle Creek and spot all kinds of wildlife as you whiz by.
Need even more thrills? Watch drivers navigate the famous hairpin turn at the Sebring International Raceway, where you can see everything from Ferraris to vintage race cars take to the track. You can even catch the action from a room at the newly re-imagined Seven–Sebring Raceway Hotel, situated at Turn 7 on the raceway.
Recommended Hotel: Inn on the Lakes
Bypass the busier sections of St. Pete Beach and head to the southernmost point of the barrier island to discover a real hidden gem in Florida: Pass-A-Grille. You can park your car and then travel by foot or bike the rest of the time you’re staying in this charming little enclave, which was first visited by European explorers in 1528. The free Gulf Beaches Historical Museum delves into that rich history through a collection of photographs and artifacts that’s interesting enough for mom and dad and manageable enough for the little ones. It also offers info for self-guided walking tours of the area.
Shops and galleries fill the historic buildings on Eighth Avenue, whose western end terminates at the Gulf of Mexico. There’s a weekend art market by the beach and waterfront dining options like Paradise Grille, which rings a bell each day at sunset. When the kids have had enough swimming and sandcastle-building at the beach, Pass-A-Grille also serves as the jumping off point for boat tours to Shell Key, an uninhabited island where visitors can hunt for its namesake treasures, and deep-sea fishing excursions. Families can also buy bait and rent rods to fish from the docks at the Merry Pier.
Recommended Hotel: Inn on the Beach
6. Seminole County
Old Florida meets the 21st century in Seminole County. The natural side of the Sunshine State is on full display at spots like Wekiwa Springs State Park, where visitors can paddle, snorkel, and swim in the crystal-clear springs that remain at 72 degrees year-round, and the Wekiva River, one of just two “National Wild and Scenic Rivers” in Florida. For a unique way to explore the river, head to Wekiva Island recreation complex and rent a cabana or canoe. Black Hammock Adventures’ airboat rides get folks out on Lake Jesup, home to one of Florida’s largest alligator populations.
Kids can pick strawberries at local farms, feed giraffes at the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens, and adopt a “newborn” at Judy’s Dolls. And parents won’t ever hear “I’m bored” at the new District Eat and Play in Oviedo, which includes escape rooms, “boutique” bowling with shorter lanes and smaller balls, and an arcade with 50 of the latest games.
Opening in 2019, Henry’s Depot food hall will be setting up shop in a former Sanford train depot built for the first railroad system in Florida. And the ever-popular Topgolf is opening a location in the Central Florida county in early 2020.
Recommended Hotel: Hampton Inn & Suites Lake Mary at Colonial TownPark
7. Punta Gorda
This Charlotte County city on Florida’s west coast pretty much has it all: a walkable downtown with interesting shops and restaurants, lots of ways to get out on the water (thanks to its location at the point where the Peace River and Charlotte Harbor meet), and a lineup of kid-friendly attractions offering laidback Florida fun.
Young artists will enjoy checking out the more than 30 large-scale murals that can be found throughout the city (depicting everything from a cattle drive to area aquatic life) and the whimsical artwork sprinkled around the Peace River Botanical & Sculpture Gardens. Animal lovers can visit with the bears, lions, and other rescued exotic creatures at the Octagon Wildlife Sanctuary and learn about how the Peace River Wildlife Center cares for injured birds, reptiles, and small mammals. And budding gearheads can check out the vintage Camaros, GTOs, and Corvettes on view at Muscle Car City.
Fishermen’s Village and Laishley Park aren’t just two good spots for grabbing lunch with a scenic waterfront view; they’re also departure points for sightseeing boat tours and fishing charters that explore the quiet Peace River and Charlotte Harbor, the 17th-largest estuary in the United States. If you’d rather stay on dry land, Punta Gorda is home to Florida’s first bicycle loaner program, with more than 40 bikes available for free rentals at several spots around the city, and nearly 18 miles of paved trails.
Recommended Hotel: Four Points by Sheraton Punta Gorda Harborside
8. Navarre Beach
Dubbed “Florida’s Most Relaxing Place,” Navarre Beach offers an easy-going escape from busy family life and remains under the radar, making it one of the best-kept secret vacations in Florida. Slow things down while snorkeling in the sparkling Gulf of Mexico at Navarre Beach Marine Park, which is also home to a Sea Turtle Conservation Center where kids can learn about some of the creatures living in those waters. Or enjoy a secluded beach day at Navarre Beach’s section of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, which includes several miles of non-commercialized sand bordered by the Gulf on one side and Santa Rosa Sound on the other.
Families can cast a line from the Navarre Beach Fishing Pier—the longest pier in Florida and on the Gulf of Mexico—or literally go with the flow at 600-acre Blackwater River State Park, where visitors can go kayaking, canoeing, or tubing in its namesake freshwater river. Bring lunch to enjoy on one of the 30 sandy beaches along the shoreline. For more family fun in this Florida Panhandle spot, head to Gulf Breeze Zoo and take the 15-minute train ride to spot rhinos, zebras, gorillas, and hippos roaming the 50-acre site, or fly above the treetops on the ziplines at Adventures Unlimited.
Recommended Hotel: Springhill Suites by Marriott Navarre Beach
9. Juno Beach
This spot on the Atlantic Ocean sits between the better-known destinations of Jupiter and West Palm Beach. But Juno Beach has its own pretty cool claim to fame: From May through October, Juno Beach is the densest sea turtle nesting ground in the world. Kids can learn more about the resilient reptiles by visiting the Loggerhead Marinelife Center, which works to rehabilitate sick and injured sea turtles. Visitors can join guided tours of the hospital facility year-round, while nesting season offers additional opportunities for experiences like guided beach walks and hatchling releases.
Head to the 990-foot Juno Beach Pier for scenic views and good saltwater fishing; the Pier House rents poles and sells bait (plus snacks if the kiddos get hungry). The pier is located within Juno Beach Park, which also offers 300 feet of guarded beach with a designated surfing area and picnic shelters. If the little ones still have energy to burn, visit the 569-acre Juno Dunes Natural Area. The maritime hammock preserve offers several miles of hiking trails and is home to a variety of wildlife and the highest natural point in Palm Beach County. Or rent electric bikes from Pedego Juno Beach. Teens 16 and older can pedal their own bikes, or mom and dad can opt for tandem bikes where younger kids can ride behind an adult.
Recommended Hotel: Hampton Inn Jupiter/Juno Beach
All the rolling green pastures and picturesque farms you’ll encounter driving through this Central Florida city and surrounding Marion County help explain why it’s known as the “Horse Capital of the World.” Equine activities for families include horse-and-carriage rides with operations like Horse Country Carriage Company and horseback rides and excursions with guides like Makin’ Track Trail Rides, which offers the opportunity for riders to go swimming with their horses in the Ocala National Forest. Families can also book tours that provide peeks behind the gates at farms like Gypsy Gold Farm, where kids can meet Gypsy Vanner horses that look like smaller versions of Clydesdales.
If your crew doesn’t know their way around a saddle, there’s still lots for families to do in Ocala. Head to Canyons Zip Lines for the highest, fastest zip lines in Florida and the longest zip line over open waters in the United States. (The facility was built upon phosphorous quarries to boost its elevation.) Or take a relaxing swim or snorkel in the turquoise, 72-degree waters of Silver Glen Springs. Glass-bottom boat tours at Silver Springs State Park—one of Florida’s earliest tourist attractions—show what’s going on beneath the surface of the crystal-clear waters. During the spring and summer, the kids can pick blueberries, blackberries, and peaches at local growers like Yancey’s Blueberry Farm and Blues Brothers Farm.
Recommended Hotel: Hilton Ocala