6 Theme-Park Alternatives for Your Florida Visit
Happy 2013! After a brief hiatus, Florida Culture returns.
Florida Culture enjoys the Sunshine State’s famous theme parks as much as other visitors. However, the high price tag and the crowds can wear down even the most patient tourist. So, we share here some ideas on alternatives to theme parks, popular beaches, and outlet malls. We cull these ideas from our two years of blogging for this site, our more than three years of living in Central and South Florida, and our experience as an agricultural columnist for Central Florida’s Agri-Leader.
1. Visit a farmer’s market. Fresh produce—it’s better for you and better tasting. That’s the biggest draw for a farmer’s market visit. Not staying long enough to stock up on lettuce? A visit to your local farmer’s market still will bring some rewarding experiences. You might discover new produce items (fennel or malanga, anyone?), try delicious honey or olive oil, indulge in a local specialty (like the massive strawberry shortcake served seasonally at the Parkesdale Farm Market in Plant City), and find handmade jewelry or craft items. You will likely even glimpse a small sliver of where your food back home comes from, depending when you visit. That’s because in the dead of the winter, a large number of the produce items in the U.S. grown domestically come from the Sunshine State. To find out where your nearby farmer’s markets are, go to www.localharvest.org. Or, search online for “farmers market” and the name of the town where you are staying.
2. Make time for an agricultural visit. In Orlando and certain other areas of the state, you can get your share of low-price/low-quality buffets and cheesy (although admittedly fascinating) dinner shows. However, these don’t give you a sense of the “real” Florida, much of which centers around marine life and agriculture. Depending on where you are in the state, you can visit an orange juice visitor’s center (Florida’s Natural Growers in Lake Wales), a you-pick citrus grove (Showcase of Citrus in Clermont), a citrus grove and wildlife center (Mixon Fruit Farms in Bradenton), a dairy farm (Dakin Dairy Farm in Myakka City), find out how tupelo honey is made in north Florida, or even embark on a full agriculture tour of several sites, like those offered by Gulf Coast Ag Ventures or the sugar cane tours available seasonally further south in the state. (The list here is obviously not exhaustive.) In the winter and early spring, you’ll have more than your share of ag-focused visits from which to choose. With the Florida heat, the choices are more limited in the summer and early fall.
3. Search for sharks’ teeth. Florida Culture has focused a few times on searching for sharks’ teeth in Venice, Fla.—click here and here for links. If you’re not already familiar with the concept, sharks’ teeth from millions of years ago seem to have settled in the Venice area, leading many visitors to arrive on local beaches with their “Florida snow shovels” to find teeth. Although the megalodon teeth are harder to come by than before, we’re told, you can still see samples of the larger-than-you-can-imagine teeth at local gift shops or during the Shark Tooth Festival in April.
4. Become a fan of other Orlando attractions. We particularly like I-Drive’s Ripley’s Believe It or Not Odditorium (which has another location in St. Augustine)—as the name promises, you can see some of the weird, wacky, and incredible finds of Mr. Ripley. The exhibits sometimes change to incorporate new items. Also on I-Drive is Wonderworks, an interactive science museum great for kids of all ages that also has an arcade, ropes course, laser tag, and 4-D ride (and which recently added a dinner show). A visit to Ripley’s is about $19.99 an adult and $12.99 for a child. Wonderworks is slightly more. Affordable, but make sure to check tourist guidebooks and online for discount coupons before you visit. In fact, you’ll pay less at Ripley’s if you buy your tickets online.
5. See gators. Alligators are obviously their own tourist trap in the state. However, you can get up close and personal—without really getting up close and personal—at places like Orlando’s Gatorland, a smaller theme park with an old Florida feel. During our visit in early 2013 to Gatorland (not our first—see our archives for previous entries), we experienced no crowds, friendly staff members, and the interactive animal experiences in their aviary and petting zoo (petting farm animals, not gators). For $21.99 per non-resident adult and $9.99 per Florida resident certain times of the year for non-residents, the entrance fee is a steal compared to the larger parks. You can pay more for additional experiences, such as the zip line or spending time with a gator trainer.
If you’re not near Gatorland, try out an airboat ride for an up close view of gators and other animals.
Options abound online—they’re loud and not for the touchy-feely type (don’t touch that gator!), but you’ll likely get great nature views.
6. Drink wine. Florida Culture has profiled a number of wineries (and will continue to do so), for good reason. Aside from the pleasure of a full cup, Florida wineries must fight against challenging growth conditions, so it’s fascinating to learn how they make their product. Wineries often use different types of grapes (like muscadine) compared with other states, and they tend to offer more sweet varieties. To be sure, most of the wineries offer drier varieties, too—they may not compare to your classic dry varieties, but at least it’s something.
Some wineries, like Florida Orange Groves and Winery in St. Petersburg, experiment with various fruit varieties—tried honey wine, tomato wine, or mango or key lime wine? In addition to Florida Orange Groves and Winery, we like Keel and Curley in Plant City, Lakeridge Winery in Clermont, San Sebastian in St. Augustine, and Rosa Fiorelli Winery in Bradenton. Search the website http://www.tryfloridawine.com/ or http://www.fgga.org/brochure.htm for more winery names within the state.
In 2013, we’ll continue to bring you ideas that reflect classic Florida Culture and tourism.