Memorable Attractions are a Short Drive from Disney World

A statue of Alan B. Shepard Jr. greats visitors to the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame® at the Kennedy Space Center.

A statue of Alan B. Shepard Jr. greats visitors to the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame® at the Kennedy Space Center.

Story by Patricia Corrigan; photos by Charles Williams

Patricia is a journalist, photographer and book author based in San Francisco. Charles is the editor of Pursuits with Enterprise.

Extend your magical vacation with these road trips from Orlando.

When your trip of a lifetime at Walt Disney World ResortResort® ends, the fun doesn’t have to if you extend your visit to explore more of Florida. Short road trips from Orlando promise premium wildlife watching, parks where you can commune with nature and a special destination devoted to the exploration of space. Orlando is centrally located, so some attractions are less than two hour’s drive away.

Adventures on the Space Coast

Florida’s famed Space Coast, about an hour east of Orlando, is home to the famous Kennedy Space Center Complex on Merritt Island. Explore the rocket garden (real rockets!), try an astronaut training simulator and check out exhibits that cover everything from NASA’s origins to scheduled missions to deep space.

At Port Canaveral, a 40-minute drive from the Complex, the seventh-floor observation deck at the Exploration Tower offers a breathtaking view of huge cruise ships heading out to sea. Nearby in Titusville, the Valiant Air Command Warbird Air Museum features tours of more than 45 aircraft used in combat, dating back to World War I. Only 20 minutes away, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge hosts 1,500 species of plants and animals. Watch for shorebirds, alligators and river otters.

If time permits, continue driving south to Melbourne, which features beaches, surfing and fishing at Sebastian Inlet State Park. Like most zoos, the Brevard Zoo in Melbourne has a fine selection of animals, but here you can embark on a kayak tour around the giraffe enclosure.

Manatees, Birds and Nature Trails

A 90-minute drive west of Orlando, Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is a wildlife rescue center and one of the best places in Florida to see manatees. Thanks to an underwater observatory, visitors can peer beneath the spring's surface to see the aquatic mammals in their natural habitat. (If you long to establish a closer relationship with manatees, you may swim with them in the Crystal River, just 5 miles away.) Alligators, a panther, black bears, red wolves, Key deer, flamingos, whooping cranes and a 62-year-old hippo named Lu — none of them able to survive in the wild — also call the park home.

Nearby, Weeki Wachee State Park boasts the deepest known freshwater cave system in the United States.  A fun mermaid show and kayak trips also are available. Curious about the name? In the language of the Seminole tribe, “weeki wachee” means “little spring” or “winding river.”

Weekiwachee Preserve, about 10 minutes south of the state park, features another spot to relax among nature. The 11,206-acre preserve in Spring Hill offers hiking and bike trails plus fishing and boating.

For outdoor adventure, drive 45 minutes north of Orlando to reach Blue Spring State Park, known for canoeing, swimming, SCUBA diving and kayaking. In winter, water activities are not permitted because Blue Spring is a designated manatee refuge.

If plants appeal more than animals, Bok Tower Gardens lies just 90 minutes south of Orlando. The beautiful gardens are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors to the 250-acre contemplative garden and bird sanctuary praise the stunning landscapes, the impressive architecture and the lovely carillon music from the 205-foot-tall Singing Tower.

History, Beaches and Art

In St. Augustine, just 105 miles north of Orlando, a history lesson awaits. In 1565 — some 55 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock — the Spanish founded this city, now considered to be the first continuously occupied settlement in the U.S. Don’t miss a tour of Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, an old masonry fort. Today, some 18,000 people make the city their home. Just 20 minutes south, on Anastasia Island, St. Augustine Beach offers plenty of seaside restaurants and a fishing pier to catch your own meal.

Spend a little more time in the car (about 2 hours and 20 minutes) and you can reach Sarasota, 131 miles southwest of Orlando. This Gulf Coast city is blessed with miles of beaches, but it’s also known for performing arts companies, visual artists and craftspeople, and the Ringling Museum of Art, the official state art museum of Florida.

Any one of these side trips offers opportunities to build on the magical memories you’ve made exploring Disney World. What are you waiting for?


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