Pair a Trip to Disney World With a Beach Vacation

Siesta Key Beach features powder white sand and plenty of space.

Siesta Key Beach features powder white sand and plenty of space.

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.

The Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf Coast are easy drives from Orlando.

You’ve explored all four theme parks, enjoyed each ride marked as a “must” on your list, dined well — and often — and maybe even met a famous character or two at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. If your vacation allows for it, consider extending your trip to spend a few days relaxing on one of Florida’s world-renowned beaches.

Because Orlando is centrally located, you can be on an Atlantic beach in just an hour. Steer your rental car west to the Gulf of Mexico, and you’ll be spreading out your towel on the sand after an easy drive of about two hours and maybe some change. Like the song says, it’s a small world, after all!

Ready? Pack up those Disney souvenir beach towels and make the most of more time in the Sunshine State.

Relax on Florida’s 'Space Coast'

The Cocoa Beach area, 55 miles east of Orlando, attracts visitors who like surfing, sailing or science. Surf shops, restaurants and bars line the 800-foot-long Westgate Cocoa Beach Pier. If you want to get out on the water, book a fishing trip on one of the charter boats docked about 7 miles north at Port Canaveral. Cocoa Beach is also the gateway to the ever-fascinating Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

About an hour north from Cocoa Beach, New Smyrna Beach, known for quiet, secluded beaches, boasts 17 miles of shimmering white sand. Looking for something livelier? Daytona Beach is home to a world-famous raceway and a busy boardwalk that features rides, arcades, shops and free summer music concerts.

Seaside restaurants, a fishing pier and opportunities to play sand volleyball all beckon visitors to St. Augustine Beach on Anastasia Island, 103 miles northeast of Orlando. Drive another 20 minutes north to explore the city of St. Augustine, founded by the Spanish in 1565. It was the first continuously occupied city in what much later became the United States.

Chill on Gulf Coast Beaches

Florida’s famous Gulf Coast, a 90-mile drive west from Orlando, offers an abundance of beaches. The calm sea off Clearwater Beach — often hailed as the best beach in the U.S. — draws sunseekers, jet skiers and those who delight in stand-up paddle boarding. St. Pete Beach, 17 miles south of Clearwater, offers the longest stretch of undeveloped public beach on the Gulf Coast. Set on a barrier island west of the resort town of St. Petersburg, St. Pete Beach is perfect for lounging, or you can catch a boat to Shell Key, a nesting site for seabirds and turtles.

Looking for a laidback beach in what those in the know consider “Old Florida?” Anna Maria Island lies between Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Three cities dot this barrier island — Anna Maria, Holmes Beach and Bradenton Beach — and each offers visitors a distinct personality. Anna Maria boasts popular restaurants, Holmes Beach is known for cute shops and Bradenton Beach claims the best nightlife. None of the public beaches disappoint. From Orlando, the drive to Anna Maria Island takes about two hours and 20 minutes.

Hungry? If you’ve got the time, Cedar Key — just over two hours northwest of Orlando — serves up fresh seafood, clam chowder and Key lime pie, all well worth the drive if you need a break from fun in the sun. This small island city with a laidback vibe juts 3 miles into the Gulf of Mexico.

Hunt for Seashells

You won’t get a guarantee in writing, but if beachcombing appeals, you'll likely find seashells on the beaches at Siesta Key, about 90 minutes southwest of Orlando, or on Sanibel Island, a 3.5-hour drive. Siesta Key is known for quartz sand beaches that stretch along the Gulf’s turquoise waters, and Sanibel attracts serious shell-hunters familiar with the “Sanibel Stoop.” Or, you can practice your “Captiva Crouch” at the beach on the island of the same name, 27 miles north of Sanibel.

Wherever you go, drink lots of water, wear sunscreen and protect your head with a hat. Mickey Mouse ears will do nicely, too.


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