Great Day Trips
There's More to Orlando than Mickey Mouse
by Anne Sponholtz
Six road trips out of Orlando, Florida, offer a kind of magic that can't be found in the fantasy worlds of Disney World. It is the magic of adventure found in exploring the highways and byways of the Sunshine State, a real world of beaches, mermaids, manatees and outer space.
Travel time: 50 minutes
Three, two, one, blast off! There is nothing quite as thrilling as watching up close and personal the space shuttle blast off to outer space. The parks, roadways and campgrounds in Titusville offer some of the best spots in the state for watching liftoff. Be sure to pack the lawn chairs, a cooler and maybe even a beach umbrella and small grill so you can enjoy some tailgating while waiting for the big moment. If you take along a laptop, you can hook up to a WiFi connection and tune into NASA. Here you can watch the astronauts as they talk to their families on their cell phones or wave at the camera as they prepare to board the shuttle. They are so nonchalant they seem to be out on an afternoon stroll.
It does take a little luck to be on hand for a shuttle launch since space shots are often delayed -- sometimes for hours, sometimes for days. Nevertheless, it is worth the gamble for a chance to see this part of history. If it's not a launch day, head across the river to Kennedy Space Center, where you can take a tour or buy advance tickets for viewing shuttle and rocket launches from the Space Center.
Silver Springs, Fla.
Travel time: 1 hour 15 minutes
The famous glass bottom boats at Silver Springs give visitors a rare underwater peek at the type of springs that make up so much of Florida's landscape -- without having to put on a wet suit and air tanks. The crystal clear water at this "nature theme park" seems to turn emerald green at times, as visitors discover a variety of fish, underwater artifacts and even remains from one of the movies shot here. The park operates a petting zoo for youngsters, and shops and restaurants fill an open-air mall. Concerts early in the year feature stars such as The Beach
You can cruise down the Silver River or enjoy the wildlife exhibits on shore; either way it's an education. One recent Florida transplant, who thought alligators were green, soon learned that most alligators are grayish-black, except for the rare albino alligators, like the two at Silver Springs, which are white. The botanical gardens offer a quiet respite along lovely paths where you can walk in the footsteps of Native Americans who occupied the area 500 years ago. Check the hours and days of operation, as some days Silver Springs is closed.
Flagler Beach, Fla.
Travel time: 1 hour 10 minutes
Flagler Beach is reminiscent of what Florida was like before condominiums and high-rises began creeping up the coastline from Miami. There are no malls or fast-food restaurants here, just a few shops and restaurants scattered through the tiny town. Fruits, vegetables, local seafood and fresh baked goods draw large crowds to the farmers' market on Fridays and Saturdays.
Sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway, Flagler Beach is the perfect day trip for those looking to enjoy some sand and surf or to take in a little fishing away from the hustle and bustle of the more popular Florida beachfront towns. The unusual reddish sand is the product of an offshore coquina shelf, and you can enjoy it in peace since the beach is often deserted and vehicles are prohibited. The beach is easily accessible from the fishing pier, from up and down Scenic and Historic A1A Coastal Byway, and from Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area at Flagler Beach, where a small fee is charged.
Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
Travel time: 1 hour 25 minutes
One of the most fascinating creatures to make its home in the waterways of Florida is the manatee, and there is no better place to see manatees than at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. The springs are home to manatees undergoing rehabilitation from injuries or those otherwise unable to return to the wild. It is a place where many wild manatees stop by for a visit, drawn to the spring waters and food sources of the Homosassa River. Manatees can grow to 13 feet, weigh in at a hefty 3,000 pounds, and are extremely slow moving. Because they are marine mammals, they must surface to breathe, and there are, at times, reports of manatees injured or killed by speeding boats.
This is a wildlife park in every sense, giving visitors a real peek into natural Florida and the animals that roam, crawl, swim and fly in this state and beyond. Although the waters look inviting for fishing, pleasure boating and swimming, none of those recreational activities is permitted. There is an entrance fee and some restrictions do apply at the park, so be sure to check out the park's Web site ahead of your visit. When you see that manatees swim by, it will "Ah!" moment.
Tarpon Springs, Fla.
Travel time: 2 hours
If you have a desire to visit Greece, but don't feel like hopping on an airplane and crossing the Atlantic Ocean, you might satisfy that yearning with a visit to Tarpon Springs, on Florida's west coast. You won't get to walk up the rocks at the Acropolis to see the Parthenon, but along the historic sponge docks, you will find a touch of Greece around every corner. It was the discovery of sponges in the Gulf of Mexico off the shores of Tarpon Springs that brought Greek sponge divers to the community more than 100 years ago.
Tarpon Springs is not a polished city, but rather like a well-lived-in home. Greek restaurants feature such items as dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), spanakopita (spinach pie) and, my personal favorite, moussaka (an eggplant dish). Walk up and down the narrow streets and discover wonderful shops packed with colorful clothes, unique gifts and unusual sponges for practical and decorative uses. Take a cruise down the Anclote River or just sit on a bench enjoying homemade fudge or Greek pastries and take in the sights, smells and sounds of this intriguing Greek community.
Weeki Wachee Springs
Travel time: 1 hour 35 minutes
Weeki Wachee Springs is a whimsical place where, at least for a moment, you can believe in mermaids. The crystal clear water of the springs comes alive as talented, captivating "mermaids" perform amazing underwater feats, at times even enjoying a soft drink underwater. Audiences watch underwater shows, such as "The Little Mermaid" performance, from a 500-seat theater embedded in the side of the springs, 16 feet below
The park also features cruises down the Weeki Wachee River, animal shows and, in summer, the Buccaneer Bay water park, billed as Florida's only spring-fed water park (it even has white sand beaches). Weeki Wachee Springs has seen many changes in its 60 years in the entertainment business, and more changes may be in store. If things go as planned, Weeki Wachee Springs may become Florida's 162nd state park, a move that would likely make Florida the only state with mermaids on its payroll. Be sure to check the dates and times of operation and the fee schedule for admission.
Everybody Loves the Mouse
Orlando is the gateway to many exciting theme parks, and Mickey Mouse, who introduced theme parks to Florida, conjures up smiling faces on young and old alike. But I hope you enjoy these road trips beyond the glitz and glitter of the more popular theme parks, giving you a chance to see some of Florida that has been around long before the mouse came to town.