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5 Orlando Day Trips Worth the Drive

Need a break from theme parks? Explore these Florida locales

Crystal river and its company of Manatees

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Ask any Floridian about Old Florida, and it will trigger a smile. Why? Because if refers to the slow-paced parts of the Sunshine State where life is about strolling through hundred-year-old oak groves, gazing at majestic native birds or taking a boat ride past grand landscapes.

A quick side trip from Orlando provides all that — plus kitschy plastic flamingos and freshly squeezed orange juice — and more.

1. Sarasota: Go beaching and spot sea turtle nests

With famous silky white sand, sand-sculpting contests and sea turtles galore, there’s a lot to love about Sarasota’s beaches. From May through October, mama sea turtles (up to 6,000 of them) make their way to Sarasota County for nesting season, and you can tag along with a turtle patroller to play citizen scientist for the morning. Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium staff takes guests on turtle walks on Longboat Key in June and July. You’ll help spot turtle tracks and check nests for hatches.

Afterward, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens is great for plant lovers. With gargantuan banyan and bamboo trees, waterfront views and a cafe of delectable light bites, you can easily spend the whole afternoon in botanical bliss.

Drive time: Approximately 2 hours

2. St. Augustine: Get a dose of history with a side of nature

Rich history and natural beauty make quite the combo in this 453-year-old city, the nation’s oldest. One of the best ways to take it all in is by getting out on the water. St. Augustine Eco Tours show guests the less-explored areas of this scenic city. And there are plenty in the 73,000 acres of gorgeous protected landscapes, from salt marshes to mangrove estuaries. Plus, dolphins, spoonbills and turtles often make cameos.

Have your camera ready when you pass by the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, which used to protect St. Augustinians from invading British troops. Featuring four bastions (diamond-shaped corners) and rows of cannons, it’s the only extant 17th-century fort in North America and one of only two fortifications in the world made of coquina limestone.

Come nighttime, unwind at Ice Plant Bar, an ice plant back in the 1920s that now specializes in handcrafted cocktails and farm-to-table cuisine.

Drive time: Approximately 2 hours

3. Weeki Wachee: Meet real-life mermaids

Drop into a Florida fairytale at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park where mermaids (think: synchronized swimmers with slip-on tails) have been entertaining folks — including Elvis Presley and Jimmy Buffett — since 1947. Just pop into the (wheelchair-accessible) underwater theater and be amazed as mermaids gracefully glide through the water. Afterward, take a dip in the clear, natural springs where the water temperature is a refreshing 72 degrees year-round. Or take a riverboat cruise where it’s not uncommon to see bald eagles, blue heron, wild turkey and brightly colored fish.

Drive time: Approximately 2 hours

4. Merritt Island: Experience nature’s glow-in-the dark light show

There are only a few places in the world where you can witness the magic of bioluminescence — and Merritt Island is one of them. From June to late September, SoBe Surf offers tours through the glowing waters of the calm Banana River Lagoon via kayak. This incredible phenomenon is all thanks to a large concentration of single-celled bioluminescent organisms that light up like fireflies in the water. The organisms leave a sparkly swirl of blue as your paddle cuts through the waves, creating an unforgettable glow-in-the-dark light show. Be prepared: Manatees love to pop up alongside, and jumping mullet occasionally will land in your kayak. (Wheelchair and walker users can be accommodated, with the paddling done by guides.)

Drive time: Approximately 1 hour

5. Crystal River: Swim with manatees

Flipper-kicking your way alongside these underwater beauties is a must-do. Your best bet for an up-close encounter? Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge near the Gulf of Mexico. From November through March, when the surrounding sea temps are chilly, you will see hundreds of the burly creatures (some tipping the scales at 1,500 pounds) taking refuge in the 72-degree springs. Don’t worry: If you visit during a different time of the year, you still have a shot at seeing manatees — just not as many. It’s known as the manatee capital of the nation, after all.

Prefer to stay dry? Opt for Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, a 200-acre preserve that is nearby. Here you can take a leisurely boat ride through the rain forest and potentially spot the park’s four resident manatees — Ariel, Lorelei, Electra and Betsy. Keep your eyes peeled for flamingos, blue herons and otters. The (wheelchair-accessible) boardwalks lead to more wildlife-spotting opportunities.

Drive time: Approximately 2 hours

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