Think outside the Amusement Park

Not your typical family holiday in Florida

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Jennifer Richardson

Jennifer Richardson
HomeAway travel expert


Family fun in FloridaBetween Disney and Universal alone, there are no fewer than eight theme parks to visit in the Orlando area. It’s enough to fill not just one but several holidays to Florida. And that would be a shame, because, as any native Floridian—including this one—will tell you, there’s much more to the Sunshine State than roller coasters and water slides. No trip to Florida would be complete without an experience of both the state’s unique natural landscapes and the inventive people and places that gave the state its reputation for quirkiness that still thrives today.


A sampling of this innovative landscape starts in the gulf coast town of Fort Myers, where Thomas Edison acquired a home in 1885. A more artistic inventiveness arrived in the 1920s, when Ernest Hemingway took up residence in Key West and the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus did the same in Sarasota. Then, in 1969, Apollo 11 launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and changed the world forever. The center remains a hallmark of technological achievement not just for Florida but for all of the United States. And so, from the Kennedy Space Center to Key West, here are five fabulous family outings beyond the Magic Kingdom.


 

Beyond the Magic Kingdom


   

Fly Me to the Moon Fly Me to the Moon

An hour’s drive due east of Orlando takes you to Merritt Island, home of the Kennedy Space Center. Every NASA manned space flight has launched from this spot, and you can experience your own ascent into orbit at the visitor center’s acclaimed Shuttle Launch Experience®. Mingle with astronauts, experience the International Space Station via IMAX, and inspire your own little astronaut with a half day of NASA-designed training. If your timing is right, you may even catch one of the unmanned launches taking place next door at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Take that, Space Mountain.

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Under the Big Top Under the Big Top

Head to Sarasota on the left coast to immerse yourself in something more earthly but equally fantastic. In 1927, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus took up winter quarters here and the city’s moniker, "Home of the American Circus," was born. Visit the Ringling Circus Museum where clowning around, whether squeezing into a clown car or walking a tightrope, is encouraged. The Ringling complex also includes 66 acres of gardens and Ca’d’Zan, a grand Venetian-style palazzo built by John Ringling and his wife in the late 1920s. The more adventurous may opt for a flying trapeze class at The Circus Arts Conservatory.

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It's Electric It's Electric

Farther south, the Thomas Edison and Henry Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers offer inspiration for budding inventors in the family. Visit the lab of the man who invented the light bulb and the phonograph, and wander in the botanical gardens. Every Saturday there’s a Young Inventors’ Tour or, for a longer stay, check out their roster of youth summer camps, which run the gamut from robotics to video game design. For a true hometown experience, visit in February for the city’s annual tribute to Mr. Edison, the Edison Festival of Light, which culminates in the Grand Parade downtown.

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Crocodile Spotting Crocodile Spotting

Continue south from Fort Myers to discover one of Florida’s true treasures, the Everglades National Park, a World Heritage Site populated with manatees, American crocodiles, and Florida panthers. For an immersive experience, try slough slogging, a ranger-led off-trail hike through the wetlands. For a drier option, an airboat ride through the swamp— technically a river—is always a crowd-pleaser. The Everglades are also home to the Miccosukee Indian Village, which has thrilled visitors for years with live alligator demonstrations.

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Relax on the Reef Relax on the Reef

At the tip of both Florida and the continental United States is Key West, bastion of fishing, snorkeling and relaxing, and the place Ernest Hemingway once called home. Papa’s former quarters have been converted to a museum and habitat for the descendants of his polydactyl cats, but the real attraction of Key West is beneath the sea. Engage a snorkel charter service to visit the reefs located a few miles offshore, or enjoy the scenery closer to shore from Key West Marine Park on the south side of the island. The Mel Fisher Heritage Museum brings treasures from the deep to dry land, showcasing loot from shipwrecks and other underwater archaeology.

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Fly me to the moon by Official U.S Navy Images
Under the big top by Clyde Robinson
It's Electric by Surreal Name Given 
Crocodile Spotting by Bill Morrow

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