Best Family Stopovers On The Way To Orlando
Road tripping soon to Orlando? Consider these top spots for a stopover en route or the way home: Places to refresh and recharge, since Disney, Universal, Sea World, and their like local amusements are often much more taxing, physically and mentally, than most people expect. Be sure to take a good floppy sun hat, eye shades, SPF lotion, and your swim trunks! Listed here are our top picks, in order of personal preference, for investment of both family time and a little fun money.
Florida Panhandle West
Known in the region as the Redneck Riviera, the stretch from Pensacola east to Panama City is fun to drive with plenty of pull-outs for beach access when you need to take a swim break. Hotels and RV parks run the gamut from economy to luxury suites, but most of the accommodations are mid-range and that usually includes waterfront property. Those of you just driving through will like the many boardwalk trails from public parking areas, over sea grass and protected dunes, that offer nice photo spots near the water. This area is frequented by many Southerners and Snow Birds (Yankees that winter here), and is in generally good shape after the BP oil spill clean-up (not hit as hard as the greater New Orleans and Biloxi sections of Gulf coast). You will want to watch weather reports, as the Panhandle has been a direct target in recent years of some very bad hurricanes - which unfortunately destroyed a few of the better hotels and restaurants. Hint: Avoid the annual Spring Break weeks if you can, when the college throngs flood the fun zone; not the best family time if there with little kids.
Even with old Navy battleship groups to tour, new water parks and restored beaches, the coast of Mississippi and Alabama runs at a considerably slower pace than the Florida Panhandle, making it a welcome respite from the hectic pace of the Sunshine State. The casinos in Mississippi may seem a deterrent to family fun, but they offer cheap family eats (no kids in the casino unless walking to the food or video game room) and have actually buoyed the vibrancy and economy of an area that not that long ago was thought to have had its best days during World War II. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was long and hard, and rebuilding continues, but the people of this area are just as hospitable as ever, if somewhat tired of the not infrequent storm damage. Prices here are moderate across the board, there are nearby golf and shopping opportunities, and don't miss the day ferry excursions to some barrier islands the kids will really enjoy.
This is Old Florida, and many think the best Florida. If you won't be going to Puerto Rico - or Ybor City in Tampa (see below) - any time soon, you'll be hard pressed to find a better historic rest stop than St. Augustine. This is one of the oldest inhabited places on the continent, of determined European background, and it shows in the fortress architecture which was built to last these many years. If you have to pick between Daytona and St. Augustine, pick St. Augustine for the relaxed pace and quieter vacation experience. Great nearby beaches too, with gorgeous ocean drives.
Big, bright, beautiful beach in northeast Florida. All of Jacksonville is much improved from 30 years ago when it was considered simply too dangerous to visit for family vacations - or even casual travel - but the beach has always been great here, and the city as a whole much improved in temperament and facilities. This is an easy pit stop when heading north or south along the coast, and a good choice for an evening beach stroll if you only get to have one ocean walk during your trip.
OK, this is not a small sleepy enclave (not much along any Gulf city section is it seems) but it is pretty relaxing when you get out of the vehicle, and definitely less hectic than negotiating I-4 around Orlando. Ybor City is famous for Cuban cigars and food, and music, and dancing, and cigars, and food - but a walking tour during the day with the kids is no problem and you'll find it much more authentic than the concocted culture places elsewhere in the vicinity. The beaches of Clearwater are clean and quiet, if not always the easiest to access for parking (lots of skinny walkways through cramped condo properties), but very much worth the effort. The peninsula south of St. Pete is another Gulf access area that few frequent but all will enjoy; the state parks in Florida are well run and great dat tripper deals compared to what you'll pay for an oceanfront room in Fort Lauderdale. You'll also want to take time for an hour or two to hit the iconic St. Pete downtown waterfront, with the pier that the kids will like as much as the local pelicans (do). Like all of Florida it often gets very humid, so bring some drinking water and watch the peak late day sun.
Busch Gardens Tampa
This deserves a separate slot from the Tampa notations above: Busch Gardens, for a theme amusement park, is almost perfect in tone and content, combining wild rides with remarkable animal habitat areas - an open-spaces model now copied by many major zoos throughout the world. They've been doing it for decades, long before Disney World opened their own animal park, and it continues to wow millions of visitors each year. If you're an elephant not in Africa or Asia this is about as good as it gets for gated community outdoor living. Don't forget to count all the flamingos before you leave. Look for the pink things on straws.
Mississippi is famous for Elvis and Vicksburg, and lately casinos and hurricanes, but an overlooked area is the north-central lake district. Grenada is a pretty, wooded town (just off the interstate that bi-sects the state north to south from Memphis to I-10) and like too many near-national-highway communities rarely seen aside from the restroom stops and gas stations, but here you'll find a great recreational lake with RV spaces and rentals cabins, that could cover your entire vacation time if you were so inclined (any maybe you should be). Clean and friendly, and worth at least a half-day to enjoy. Or maybe a lifetime.
Florida Space Coast/NASA
Florida is full of fantasy, but this is no fantasy, just an American and world treasure that everyone should visit (add to your bucket list of seeing West Point, Niagara Falls, Glacier, Yellowstone, and the Pacific coast). It represents hard dreams won, and what we're capable of doing when we put the collective good above simple personal recognition. Much of the future in space exploration may be scattered and uncertain, but this is where it all started for serious heavenly science. Allow at least a full day, two if you have time, for the full tour and numerous exhibits.
Six Flags Over Georgia
What? ANOTHER theme park? Yes, and a great theme park - big, beautiful, well-run, with great staff and great rides. This classic near-Atlanta property in the Six Flags chain (about a 20-minute car ride west of the city) is walkable by fun-seekers of every age, and while hilly is easily used by stroller and wheelchair vistors too. There are moderate hotels within walking distance, or you can live it up in town at night for the sports events, and then spend the day here. Allow a full day to hit most of the major rides.
South Of The Border
You've all seen the signs along I-95 inviting you to this faux-Mexican town near the NC-SC border, and likely immediately dismissed it as an unworthy or tacky diversion, but we beg to differ: It offers some of the cheapest fuel on the interstate, plenty of hotel rooms for crashing, cheap food, more souvenirs when you need more souvenirs, and a bunch of frankly inspired roadside attractions that make you wonder Why Didn't Atlantic City Do That? This may appear to be highly politically incorrect, but WE LOVE THIS PLACE (especially at night when lit up like a giant neon piñata) and always stop here to at least gas up and grab a quick snack. Ole!
There you have it, our 10 Best Stopovers For Florida Road-Trippers going the distance. Your mileage may vary, sure, but these are tested destinations with low shock value and high vacation value for families aiming to maximize every moment of their great Southern vacation days.
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