7 Florida Attractions That Are Just as Much Fun as Disney and Universal

As a Florida resident and mom, these are my top recommendations for unique things to do in Florida.
Kids building sandcastles at the beach (Photo: Chayantorn Tongmorn / Shutterstock)
Photo: Chayantorn Tongmorn / Shutterstock

Florida might be home to the “The Most Magical Place On Earth,” but look beyond the Orlando theme parks and you’ll find a treasure trove of other places to visit and unique things to do in Florida, each of them more than worthy enough to inspire a Florida vacation the whole family will enjoy.  

From powdered sugar sands of the Panhandle to the watery wonderland of South Florida’s swamps, there’s no shortage of attractions for every personality, budget, and comfort level. As a Florida resident and mom, these are my top recommendations for places to visit in Florida beyond the theme parks, along with some truly unique things to do in Florida with kids and teens.

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1. Float or Swim Your Way Down a Natural Lazy River

A clear kayak at Rock Springs in family-friendly Kelly Park, Florida (Photo: Get Up and Go Kayaking)
A clear kayak in the turquoise water of family-friendly Rock Springs, Florida (Photo: Get Up and Go Kayaking)

Florida is home to vast network of freshwater swimming holes, grottos, and protected wildlife, but Rock Springs in Kelly Park stands out for its family-friendly natural “lazy river” and shallow swimming area complete with crystal-clear turquoise water year-round. Tubing and clear kayaks are two unique ways to experience the Narnia-like oasis of Rock Springs (you’ll need to go through a tour operator like Get Up and Go Kayaking to reach some areas).

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There are also hiking trails open year-round and, during peak season, a safe swimming area overseen by lifeguards. Other perks include capacity limits to prevent overcrowding and a strict alcohol policy that preserves the park’s relaxed atmosphere. As for wildlife, deer and turkey are the most frequently spotted inhabitants, though some visitors to this serene Florida attraction have reported seeing bears, monkeys, and alligators as well. 

Outdoorsy families can elevate their Rock Springs experience with primitive camping on site (with the peace of mind that comes with knowing you’re less than thirty minutes from Disney World). Note that like many of the other unique things to do in Florida, this attraction requires a bit of planning, as it’s open to visitors only on a first-come, first-served basis.

2. Immerse Yourself in a Winter Wonderland with Millions of Lights

The Nights of Lights festival in St. Augustine, Florida (Photo: Florida's Historic Coast)
The Nights of Lights festival in St. Augustine, Florida (Photo: Florida’s Historic Coast)

Trading in snow angels for sand castles is one of the many joys of vacationing in Florida during the winter holiday season. For families who seek to escape looming polar vortexes but still want that magical feeling you get from resplendent light displays and gingerbread house-style buildings, head to St. Augustine for its Nights of Lights festival. One of the more unusual things to do in Florida, this annual affair is a tribute to the storied past of America’s oldest city, dating back to the old Spanish tradition of placing white candles in windows during Christmas.

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But the Nights of Lights festival takes it to the next level, with a spectacle of more than three million lights and, on select days, illuminated boat parades. Make sure you set aside time to explore Castillo de San Marcos National Monument and Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth, or plan a day trip to nearby Amelia Island. If you’re set on those sand castles, add Ponte Vedra Beach and Anastasia State Park to your Florida vacation plan.

Bear in mind that St. Augustine is located in the northern part of the state, meaning winters can bring cooler temperatures (by Florida standards). You can still get in plenty of good beach time, but you’ll want to pack appropriately. Weather aside, St. Augustine’s location makes it easily accessible for a Florida road trip if you’re coming from the east coast or another part of the state.

3. Snorkel a Biodiverse Estuary, Then Have Lunch on a Small Tropical Island

Peanut Island with Blue Heron Bridge in the distance (Photo: The Palm Beaches)
Peanut Island with Blue Heron Bridge in the distance (Photo: The Palm Beaches)

If your kids have ever dreamed of exploring under the sea through The Little Mermaid’s eyes, Blue Heron Bridge located near West Palm Beach is the perfect place to try it. Named one of the world’s best dive sites by Sport Diver magazine, the bridge towers over an estuary treating snorkelers and scuba divers to crystal-clear water, myriad marine life, and vibrant coral reef formations. Tropical fish, octopuses, and rays account for the usual suspects, while lucky sightings include seahorses, sea turtles, and even manatees.

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This unique Florida attraction offers easy water access from a small beach, and parking nearby is plentiful. For the best visibility and conditions, plan to get into the water roughly one hour before high tide. It’s also a good idea to book a guided tour through a local dive shop to ensure you stay along the famed “Snorkel Trail” and get the most out of your experience. Time it well and you can buy yourselves about two hours of exploring. 

To cap off a day of unique things to do in Florida, take a packed lunch and rent kayaks to explore the lagoon to Peanut Island (be sure to follow the safety guidelines as boaters share these waters). This small slice of paradise can easily make you feel like you’re somewhere in the Caribbean and is perfect for picnicking, nature walks, beach bumming, and even more snorkeling. 

4. Hunt for Scallops Along the Gulf Coast

Hunting for scallops is one of the unique things you can do along Florida's Gulf Coast (Photo: Discover Crystal River Florida)
Hunting for scallops is one of the unique things you can do along Florida’s Gulf Coast (Photo: Discover Crystal River Florida)

You’ll need to make a plan in advance for one of the truly unique things to do in Florida: snorkeling for your own scallop dinner along the Gulf Coast of the Sunshine State. With scallop season running anywhere from 10 days to several weeks, depending on the location, the experience is like a treasure hunt for both kids and adults as you forage through shallow seagrass while keeping your eyes peeled for scallop shells and tiny, bright blue eyes. 

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Getting to the seagrass beds is easy. For starters, you should charter a boat with a valid saltwater fishing license to avoid doling out cash for individual licenses you’ll use only once. Your captain will take you to all the bay scallop hot spots, where the water is no deeper than a swimming pool. Once anchored, you’ll slip into your snorkeling gear (bring snorkel gear for the kids and adults in your group to avoid renting used gear), jump into the water, and collect as many critters as you can until you reach your bucket limit.

The scallops are harmless but not easy to catch at first; miss one, and it will quickly flutter a few feet away from you, adding more fun to the chase. Wrap up the day with lunch and water games on a sandbar, and look forward to the feast that awaits. Staying in a vacation rental? Bring back the scallops and whip up a delicious seafood dinner from scratch. You also can take your bounty to a local restaurant, where a chef will prepare your scallop meals for you.  

5. Escape to Untouched Paradise on the Florida Panhandle

The pristine sands of Navarre Beach, Florida (Photo: Visit Florida)
The pristine sands of Navarre Beach, Florida (Photo: Visit Florida)

On Navarre Beach’s untarnished sugar-white sand beaches, emerald-green waters hug a majestic stretch of shoreline along Florida’s panhandle. The water is some of the clearest in the state, but the hidden gem of Navarre Beach affords a whole other level of beauty and tranquility. Fittingly called “Florida’s Most Relaxing Place,” Navarre Beach is not your typical Florida beach town. It’s free of big-name dining establishments, kitschy souvenir shops, and densely lined hotels. Instead, you’ll find one-of-a-kind restaurants, unique accommodations and family glamping resorts, and arguably the most unspoiled beaches in the state.

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Need a break from beach bumming? Take the kids to the Navarre Beach Fishing Pier, the longest pier not only in the Gulf of Mexico but in all of Florida. There, you’re guaranteed to spot schools of fish, and if you’re lucky, stingrays and dolphins too. Other unique Florida attractions such as the Adventures Unlimited Outdoor Center and Gulf Breeze Zoo also make for fun day trips. And with its proximity from southern states like Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, Navarre Beach makes for an ideal Florida road trip.

6. Have Lunch with an Astronaut and (Maybe) Catch a Rocket Launch

Families have the unique opportunity to share lunch with astronaut such as Jon McBride (Photo: Kennedy Space Center)
Families have the unique opportunity to share lunch with astronaut such as Jon McBride (Photo: Kennedy Space Center)

Aside from Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, and the water parks in Orlando, a rocket launch is one of most bucket list-worthy things to see in Florida. You can plan around one (your chances of seeing a rocket launch are actually pretty good) but understand that these unique events are not your typical Florida attractions and are subject to be canceled at a moment’s notice. That said, it’s smart to fill your vacation itinerary with other Space Coast experiences that will wow your kids and make the trip worth it, whether or not the launch takes place. 

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A must-do for astronomy-loving little ones is having lunch with a NASA astronaut. Generally included as part of a larger tour package, this rare opportunity invites visitors to meet an astronaut and hear his stories over a meal and concludes with a chance to snag photos and autographs. Packages also tend to include the popular DISCOVER KSC (Kennedy Space Center) bus tour and an “up close and personal” look at the Space Shuttle Atlantis. If you want to up your chances of seeing a launch, however, make sure to tack on a few extra days after any other planned activities. Rocket launches usually get rescheduled for a day or two after their original date. 

Kennedy Space Center is about an hour from the top Orlando attractions, also making it an easy-to-reach destination whether you travel by train, car, or plane.

7. Soak in the Culture and Timeless Beauty of Key West

Hemingway Home in Key West, Florida (Photo: Laurence Norah / Florida Keys News Bureau)
Hemingway Home in Key West, Florida (Photo: Laurence Norah / Florida Keys News Bureau)

Every island in the Florida Keys is worth seeing, but what makes Key West one of the best places to visit in Florida is its culture, quirkiness, and plethora of family-friendly attractions. If you’re embarking on a Florida road trip, even better: You have the advantage of stopping at different islands like family-friendly Key Largo and Duck Key along the way. And while Key West’s famed Duval Street undoubtedly has a party scene, the “5 o’clock somewhere” vibe won’t put a damper on family fun (as long as you don’t plan your trip during any wild festivals). 

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Family-favorite museums include the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory, Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum, and Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum. There are also several iconic Florida attractions in Key West that are worth stopping by, even if only to snap a photo. Among them are the Southernmost Point landmark and the Curry Mansion, which may or may not be the birthplace of the famed key lime pie.

Some of the best ways to experience Key West with the family, however, aren’t as obvious. A sunset cruise, ghost tour (if you have older kids in tow), or fishing charter in the Back Country are all fun and unique things to do in Florida. You might also consider a day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park, a series of small islands about 70 miles off the coast of Key West that are accessible only by boat or seaplane. 

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Gina Kramer
Flip through Gina's passport and you might be surprised to see that her extensive stamp collection excludes a lot of major cities. It's a reflection of her appetite for exploring more underrated destinations. From climbing the remote mountains of Bosnia and Herzegovina to town-hopping in Tunisia, Gina is always on a mission to take the road less traveled . . . even if it's shared by Burmese pythons, rabid dogs, and other precarious creatures. Her solo-traveling days might be over, but the search for humbling moments and "Indiana Jones" adventures still serve as inspiration for future travels with her husband and son.