Top 10 things to do in Florida

By Alison Roberts-Tse for British Airways

Title photography by Corey Rich

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May 2018

With consistently pleasant weather, beaches for days and outdoor activities aplenty, Florida holidays are always a good idea. You can flee to Florida during dreary winter days or round up the family for fun in the summer sun. Whether you’re looking for an adrenaline rush at theme parks, a secluded island getaway or a low-key road trip, you’re bound for a memorable break when you visit Florida. This guide will help you decide what to do in Florida to make the most of your time in the Sunshine State.

1. Visit Thrilling Theme Parks

Orlando reigns as the theme park capital of the world, so it’s no wonder that Walt Disney World and Universal Studios are the most-frequented Florida attractions. Fulfil your childhood Disney dreams – and watch the magic bloom in front of your children as they meet their animated movie idols. For an extra special souvenir, carry an autograph book through the park to collect signatures from their favourite furry friends. With thrilling super-sized rides, dazzling performances and over-the-top (yet incredibly realistic) sets, a trip to the theme parks will transform into a treasured family memory. And if you’re worried about interminable queues – fast passes have changed the game. They’re the best Muggle alternative to Hermione’s time turner. To maximise your fun at each theme park, check that fast passes are included in the package when you book your Florida attraction tickets.

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Join the enthusiastic countdown to lift off, and keep your eyes on the sky until the rocket’s fiery trailing plume disappears. Rocket launches occur sparsely throughout the year, so check the launch schedule before you arrive.

2. Enjoy the Everglades

Continue your ‘happily ever after’ as you drive from Cinderella’s iconic blue-roofed castle to Everglades National Park. Designated as both an International Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site, this sprawling subtropical wilderness famously houses an abundance of alligators – and the endangered American crocodile. You can discern alligators from their large reptilian brethren by their characteristically wide, u-shaped snout. The area is great for birdwatching; and if you are lucky, you may spot Florida panthers, bobcats or white-tailed deer. Airboats typically tote earmuff-clad tourists through the Everglades, whipping through the shadowy scenery with an enormous roar. The experience is much like zipping through a subdued Monet – until the engine cuts and you can savour quiet moments, finding beauty in the muted, murky environment. Make sure to visit during the dry season from December to April; and set up camp in a tent or RV if one day in the glades isn’t enough.

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  • Nighttime lights at Hogwarts Castle in Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter. © 2018 Universal Studios.

    Pure magic

    Maximise your fun in Orlando's theme parks with fast passes for the family. They’re the best Muggle alternative to Hermione’s magical time turner.

    Book tickets

3. Island Hop the Florida Keys

There’s no easier place to island hop than the Florida Keys because you don’t even need a boat. With cheap car hire in Florida, it’s a lovely drive from Miami to Key West. Once you reach Key Largo, the expansive ocean views on either side of the bridge will soothe your soul as you continue further south. The six islands of Isla Morada make for a great pit stop… Tumble out of the car. Use the toilet. Then why not stay and snorkel the reefs in search of vibrant marine life? Scuba charters are also available. After you hit the road again, you’ll eventually arrive at the slightly kitschy, but also endearing Key West, Florida. The very artsy and pro-LGBTQ community creates a welcoming atmosphere for you to explore the Southernmost Point of the continental USA, the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum and the spirited bars that line Duval Street. When in Key West, congregate at Mallory Square for nightly sunset celebrations that commemorate yet another beautiful day in paradise. Arrive early to see the varied acts of zany street performers.

4. Mix it Up in Miami with Cuban Culture & Beach Life

Make your way to Miami to experience Havana’s heritage without leaving the States – in Little Havana. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans settled in Miami, and their culture is most apparent on Calle Ocho (aka: SW 8th Street). Pick up a Cuban sandwich, which is heavy on pig with ham and roast pork, and seek celebrities featured on the ‘Hollywood-esque’ Walkway of Stars. Weave in between the large, uniquely painted chicken statues and check out some serious gaming by determined retirees at the Maximo Gomez Park Domino Club. If you’ve not maxed out on pork, scout out the Cuban national dish ‘ropa vieja’; and spend evenings puffing premium hand-rolled Cuban cigars. For a change of pace, drive off the mainland to Miami Beach Florida. Spend nights sipping frozen Miami Vice cocktails or boozy Cuba Libres in the upscale clubs, representative of glam South Beach. You’ll be salsa dancing before you know it.

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5. Witness a Rocket Launch

While there are plenty of places to visit in Florida with abundant natural beauty, take your holiday out of this world at the Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral. Although the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has discontinued the Space Shuttle programme, you can still witness rockets shoot into space at tremendous speeds on site. Join the enthusiastic countdown to lift off, and keep your eyes on the sky until the rocket’s fiery trailing plume disappears. Rocket launches occur sparsely throughout the year, so check the launch schedule before you arrive. When you book, you can choose from four different viewing areas. Unfortunately, even scheduled launches are dependent on weather conditions, but there’s always plenty to see at the space centre. Peruse the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, explore the International Space Station via virtual reality and experience astronaut training. Stellar.

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  • Signpost in Key West. © cristianl.

    Key West directions

    Although this signpost gives directions to other unique destinations, you will be more than content to hang out in cool Key West.

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  • Rocket at  Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.  © Pgiam.

    3, 2, 1 … Lift off!

    Rocket launches are rare, so check the launch schedule before you arrive to participate in the epic countdown to lift off.

    Book tickets
  • Kayaking through Mangroves, Everglades National Park. © Saracino.

    Paddle along

    Keep your eyes peeled for fish, crustaceans and marine birds as you glide through an enchanting maze of mangrove forests.

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6. Seek Seashells

America exaggerates with the superlatives like ‘the biggest’ and ‘the best’ – but Sanibel Island really reigns as the seashell capital of the world. Just west of Cape Coral on the Florida Gulf Coast, seashells wash up on this barrier island in enormous piles. Children crouch in the sand, searching for tiny coquina shells that look like pastel butterflies when opened, while adults tend to assume the infamous ‘Sanibel stoop’. They hunch down, poring over a myriad of magenta scallops, smooth olives and comely conch shells. The natural beaches in Sanibel are great for finding free souvenirs since you can collect uninhabited seashells. While barefoot beach walks are lovely, do bring sandals or water shoes with you. Your may need them to scamper over the sands scattered with shell fragments. To learn more about seashells, stop in at the island’s Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum.

7. Celebrate Sand Art

Channel your inner architect to construct a fabulous sand castle on the best beaches in Florida – and attend one of the Sunshine State’s sand sculpting competitions for inspiration. The entire family will enjoy roaming these laid-back art galleries on the beach with an ice cream cone in hand. If you attend on one of the first days, you can see the sculptures take form as artists scoop and file the compacted sand with a variety of tools. At the festivals you can also pick up sculpting techniques during workshops and watch miniature pieces evolve during speed sand demonstrations. Quite a few Florida beaches host sand sculpting competitions. The American Sand Sculpting takes place in Fort Myers Beach, the Pier 60 Sugar Sand Festival pops up in Clearwater Beach, and the ‘Sanding Ovations’ Sand Sculpting Championship takes over Treasure Island.

8. Admire Manatees Up Close

Dolphins playfully leap behind large boat wakes, but gentle manatees are more difficult to spot. These mammoth herbivorous mammals belong to the order Sirenia and were occasionally mistaken for mythical mermaids and Sirens by seafarers… But they must have been spotted from afar because these creatures can weigh in up to 600 kilograms and their snouts look more alien than human. Although these mammals travel around the south eastern coast of Florida state for nearly half the year, it is easiest to encounter this threatened species at their favourite hangouts: Blue Spring State Park, Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Centre and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. If you prefer to observe manatees from a kayak, check out Three Sisters Springs or Lee County Manatee Park. But remember, it is illegal to feed and touch manatees, so don’t be tempted.

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9. Kayak through Mangroves

Like most beach destinations, Florida offers a variety of water sports: jet-skiing, parasailing, kitesurfing and even futuristic jetpack-like flyboarding. Although not high speed, kayaking through the mangroves proves a more memorable aquatic activity. Slip over glasslike water, surrounded by the serene mangrove forest as you watch for fish, birds and crustaceans. There is plenty of wildlife to spy, so place your smartphone in a waterproof pouch around your neck for easy camera access. The mangrove forests and swamps are easily distinguished by their tree roots that rise above the water’s surface. It may be difficult for children to paddle through the narrow waterways, but families can rent tandem kayaks. An aquatic excursion through the shaded mazes of these ‘walking trees’ is ideal when you need a break from the sun – but be sure to bring a cap, shades and sunscreen on board to explore the open waters around rookery islands.

10. Fish for Florida Favourites

Trade a balmy Florida beach day for an afternoon out on the high seas. Glide across the ocean waves or putter around saltwater flats in attempt to angle big game species, such as the legendary tarpon – nicknamed the “silver king of sportfish”. Reeling in these big fish isn’t easy, though, since these behemoths can grow eight feet long and weigh more than 120 kilograms. The local guides will lead you to their trusty fishing spots, where you may land a plump Florida Pompano, some snapper (red and yellowtail) or a gaggle of Grouper. If you book a charter, the fishing guide can fillet your catch for you to fry up in your vacation home. You’ll surely relish in the supreme satisfaction of catching your meal when you enjoy the state’s freshest seafood, DIY-style. The world class fishing isn’t limited to saltwater, either. Florida’s freshwater fisheries include lakes, ponds, reservoirs, streams and canals.

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