The Best of Florida: Fun Things To Do In The Sunshine State ~ Family Adventures on a Budget!
Updated: 14 hours ago
Family Adventures: The Best of Florida
Fun and free things to do in the Sunshine State - enjoy nature and native Florida places!
Florida may be best known for theme parks and touristy Orlando. I’m sure you’re already picturing mouse ears and magic wands while trying to figure out how much money you have to save if you’re traveling this way! And yes, Disney, Universal, Sea World, and any combination of theme parks could easily keep you busy for weeks and cost a small fortune. Of course, you would have a great time and make plenty of memories. However, that is not the only Florida attraction.
In looking for our own family adventures I was not able to find a great list of free or cheap adventures for a family in Florida. Which is what encouraged me to start this whole blog in the first place.
We live in central Florida on the East Coast. There are very few weekends (if any) that we are not out and about. As a family we stay active and I am always looking for new places to see on a tight budget. I will share with you some of my favorite locations for must see adventures. If I could plan your dream trip: you could start up in the panhandle and work your way down and across the state, exploring some of the amazing beaches, Kennedy Space Center, some of the hottest spots on the East Coast, enjoying a few days in Miami before going down to the Keys. On your way back up you'd hug the West Coast visiting Sarasota, Saint Pete, Clearlake and Tampa before ending in Orlando for a few days at theme parks and Springs. For this itinerary you would have to fly in to Pensacola and fly out of Orlando, however, any section of this can be segmented for your quality enjoyment.
Yes the driving time is long, but spread over many days would give you a very scenic adventure! So let's go :-)
Let this list serve as my favorite free or cheap family adventures and you can plan however you see fit!
Pensacola...(read more here) North/ West
A historic city with so much to see and do! The Panhandle area is known for beautiful beaches along the emerald coast. Why is it that color you can't take your eyes off? While you are here make sure to go to the Gulf Shores National Park and wander through Fort Pickins. If you are fortunate enough to catch a Blue Angels practice or show the sky above becomes a theater. In the evening, the Pensacola Beach pier and strip offer many food and social options and the Seville Quarter is a great district to explore. Historic Pensacola features many stops worth the visit and do a great job with hands on exhibits. Right down the street is Navarre, which competes with Destin for amazing beach places to visit. Those wanting mini golf and shopping will favor Destin, and those wanting more nature will love Navarre.
Florida caverns state park, Marianna Florida - (North West, toward panhandle) click link for more
For five dollars a vehicle every day until sundown you can check out this park featuring great trails and areas to play. The highlight of this place is definitely the caves! For $10.75/ person you can explore the caverns learning the history and significance of these living natural wonders. You could go on a flashlight tour into the caverns. Tours are about a mile long and 45 minutes but how awesome to see and hear about how the limestone caves formed and learn about stalagmites (rising from the ground) and stalactites (dripping from the ceiling). Weaving through the rooms observing all of the formations is a lot of fun, bring the family!
Devil's Den in Williston click for more (North/ Central/ West)
This amazing prehistoric spring is open only for snorkeling or scuba diving. Descend the steps and get your gear on, then jump into the water (72 degrees) which is 50 feet deep. There are some steps and a ramp, but as cold as it is it is easier to jump! You will be swimming with some fish and a turtle who lives there, but no alligators! There is a hole above the spring allowing the sunlight down, creating a beautiful light effect. You can also wave to those above and this is a great spot to take photos of your friends and family below. You do need to reserve your ticket before you arrive, as they are usually booked out up to a couple of weeks in advance. You will pay when you arrive, and if you bring your own snorkeling great you will not have to rent theirs. You are not permitted down the stairs if you are not snorkeling.
While you are in the area go next door to the Cedar Lakes Woods and Gardens. This place too is a one-of-a-kind heaven on earth! You won't regret it!
Here is a local summer favorite: Bob’s River Place (North, West)
*Currently closed until further notice
This little hidden gem is located in Branford Florida on the Suwanee River. It’s a privately owned swimming hole with rope swings, tree houses, waterslides, and a backyard feel for hanging in the river with all the amenities of home. They charge $10 a person to get in and you are free to bring in your coolers full of food and drinks however no alcohol. You can barbecue and grill out, sing karaoke, float in the river, or wander and explore native Florida. It’s like a theme park without the long roped off lines, and the people just self-regulate. It does not feel like a theme park, but there’s a nice crowd every day that will join you on a raft to play king of the Island! Big fun.
The Springs: There are so many cool Springs…. (around 700)
Our favorite = Rainbow River: (West Coast) As a family rafting down the rainbow river was one of our favorite adventures! For $15 a person you can see real Florida, and get completely caught up in the beauty all around you. Bring your coolers, pack your lunch and spend your money on those rafts! Float away leaving all your troubles behind! The water is cool and on a hot day this is oh so satisfying!
Blue Springs Orange City in Volusia County (Central, East), (click for more) has a unique float away that takes you about a quarter mile down to the end of the Spring. This place is home to many manatees in the colder months, and closes to swimmers when they are nesting. But because it is connected to the aquifer, a real bucket list stop. Nature trail, serenity, and natural Florida at it's finest.
Alexander Springs (Central) (click for more) is another gem. If you want a swimming hole surrounded by wooded preserve, this place will be the Calgon take me away your heart is seeking. The cold water is refreshing while watching the water emerge from the rocks below is a great science lesson. Immerse yourself into serenity here where the natural Florida really remains pure.
St. Petersburg: (Central/ West Coast)
This whole city is pet friendly and scenic to stroll through. Art, cafes, bars, shops and museums line the streets and all along the water front runs a park with huge trees to climb. It’s a little bit historic, it’s a little bit urban and a little bit secluded. Great upbeat energy and nice place to just go wander. Picnic areas, great places for playing ball or flying kites! This has the most amazing sunsets - find a spot to be outside and watch the sun disappear from site!
The Salvador Dali museum is right there and while it’s not the cheapest, there are discounted tickets in every local hotel or tourist book. It is an interesting museum with an outside maze, cool interactive displays and awesome exhibits. Surreal art and examining some of the illusions really make the brain happy! You can spend more or less time, and if the weather is rainy or too hot this really gets inviting!
Fort De Soto Park: if you like historical significance this is the place for you! All of the weaponry available to climb or take pictures with tells a story. Kids just like to pretend they are in the winning battle, or blind the cannons. And the beach is one of the highest rated in the country. And it’s free to drive right in. Although a bit out of the way.
Clearwater Beach and Pier 60 is also close by and this is a very cool family spot. Spend time taking in the sites, but whatever else you do- catch the sunset. Watch the sun sink suddenly and the sky’s dramatic transformation with the crowd.
The Venice Fishing Pier at Brohard Park is right in the heart of shark's tooth country if you want to go treasure hunting! Searching for sea glass and shark teeth are often rewarding. You can find them in many locations all around the peninsula at many beaches, and the Sarasota area claims to have more than any other stretch of shore line! I will say the beaches there are different. This is not “you’ve seen one beach you’ve seen them all” No, not all beaches are the same!
Tampa: (Central/ West Coast)
The Riverwalk Experience:
Winding along the Hillsborough River is a trail connecting parks, restaurants, attractions, public spaces, and hotels. The Amalie Arena stands by as well as the University of Tampa. Lots of foot traffic gathers here to exercise or wander, enjoying the color-changing LED lighting system adding nighttime color to the path and nearby bridges. It is specially lit for various events, such as green and gold for University of South Florida commencement ceremonies and blue for Tampa Bay Lightning games.
The Florida Aquarium is a huge family destination, attracting millions of visitors a year. The 80-foot-glass dome in their wetlands exhibit and 500,000-gallon Coral Reef habitat with awe-inspiring views of sea life must be seen to believe. Great hands on exhibits create environmental and community connections that inspire conservation.
Armature Works where a variety of eateries are available with delicious drink options and a nice social scene.
Pirate Water Taxi's are where you can rent paddle boards and arrange for additional water activities. The Water Taxi is quite a way to get around - offering 17 stops along the river at all the scenic locations along the route. Soooo much to experience in this one strip. This is a fun place for families as well as adults needing some quality time!
Jacksonville, (North East) (Click for more)
As the farthest north city on the east coast, Jacksonville is also the largest and most populated city of Florida, and with the most public park space! How much fun to visit some of their old historical areas and check out their beach lined parks. Amelia Island is an incredible place worth spending a long weekend. Each beach: Jax Beach, Neptune, and Atlantic, has a different vibe and great restaurants and shops to enjoy. Old world meets new world with beautifully designed neighborhoods and store lined streets. We especially loved Fort Clinch State Park, and looking for a trail from the fort down to the beach was awesome. Discovering the Willow Pond Nature Trail was a highlight. All of the massive live oaks dripping with Spanish moss set the tone for the day as being a fairy tale nature retreat into wonder. Each distinct area of Jacksonville has its own flavor, making for a unique city with some interesting history and beautiful nature.
Actual Downtown Jax was my home for a week while attending a strategic planning for Early Childhood. Great dinners every night and beautiful walks along the Saint John's River were a nice exchange for all the work we were doing. Each afternoon there is a food truck line up on the corner of the Marriott that we stayed in. We did not try their free public transport, the Skyway due to such a high presence of homeless. We had no problem Ubering and rather enjoyed learning more about the different neighborhoods through the eyes of our local drivers.
St. Augustine: (North East) (Click here for more)
This little gem of a city is not necessarily free, with a little planning you can make it inexpensive. Of course going and walking around is scenic and will not cost you anything, but all those temping spots will lure you in! There are several days during the year that the Castillo de San Marco‘s is free. National Park week is held once a year but there are also national holidays that offer free admission throughout the year. Anastasia State Park is also close by and this stop is great for all water sports. Enter for $8.00 per vehicle and you have the shore line with all the cool trails and trees at your disposal. Visitors can also hike the coquina quarries by the entrance. Camping is available. Without spending a dime, you can wander the streets and explore history walking through time. There are all kinds of historical relics and cannons line the roads, it feels like its from another era. There is a wooden playground we always parked behind, right by the visitor’s center. Even when my boys were 12 and 13 they were still running around playing here! Great place to explore!
Castillo De San Marcos National Monument - $15 for adults (16 and older), Free for children 15 and under (must be accompanied by an adult). Free with your America The Beautiful park pass. Tour the fort, walking through the history of Florida. The Spanish fort constructed from 1672 to 1695 that has been a key player in the colonial era of wars and struggles as countries around the globe fought for the ‘New World.’ It has never been conquered despite changing hands a number of times.
The St. Augustine Lighthouse -$14.95/ adults and $12.95 for kids. Historic tower, keeper’s house, look out building, and nature trail are all included and provide views of the whole area that you will appreciate. Sunset/ Moonrise tours book out weeks in advance so plan ahead - tickets $35.00. They also have some other awesome nightly tours and Christmas time specials. Definitely check their website.
Cocoa Beach (Central, East Coast) click for more
The Pier: there may be nicer beaches, (in fact the farther South you get the clearer the water gets) but if you’re in the area it is definitely worth a stop. For many coming to stay in the Orlando area it’s the best option and it does not disappoint. Kids can run around the pilings and parents can have a drink at the tiki hut at the end of the pier. Cost: whatever you eat or drink. The sun is free and the view is magnificent. Great pictures, and awesome souvenirs.
A1A water Sports offers a variety of rentals. If there is a launch while you are on the space coast, rent a bike and ride up to Jetty Park (Vehicles are $15/ day) to enjoy the view. Feeling the rumble of the rocket blast off while watching it soar into space makes you appreciate our technological advances and believe anything is possible! If you are trying to stick to the budget, you can walk to the park. Crowds to accumulate in the area however, which is why bikes are my favorite way to see the launch. Especially the night launches!
Do you like water sports? Have you ever paddle boarded?
The first time I paddle boarded was in the Keys, and it was a challenge due to the current and many boats creating a wake – If you are in the area, a great place to learn to SUP is Turkey Creek. A series of water trails/ canals that wind through the back side of the Indian River provide a wakeless flat paddling experience. You will see a ton of wildlife, manatees, turtles, birds, and fish, maybe an alligator! Scenic and quiet. Once you feel confident, try paddling out to some of those barrier islands. There is a whole different experience on a semi secluded island, many have different features making them attractive. Sunken boats, tide pools, exploring or setting up a hammock to relax are all perfectly viable options. If you don’t want to paddle out, kayak or canoes are available at many locations. But this is a GREAT way to spend a Florida vacation.
Jetty Park - 35 acres of beach and pier that run along the Port Canaveral waterfront. $15/ a vehicle, it is also a place to fish, camp, or explore in a less crowded space if that is what you are looking for.
Sebastian Inlet State Park: (East Coast, Central Fl) Click here for more $8.00 per car. Fishing off the jetty, snorkeling through the tide pool, wave surfing at the Ocean: so many great things to do here. And a day of watching the boats go by while enjoying all the collide of the Indian River and Atlantic Ocean. If you are looking for a place to lay on the beach and read a book or walk all around enjoying the view, this stop has it all! If you are lucky you will see some of the areas most treasured wildlife also. Dolphins, manatee, sea turtles, and sharks are all locals. This is a family favorite, and hard not to be impressed by. Nature's Beauty and strength at it's best.
If you have younger kids (or need some air conditioning mixed with learning):
The Environmental Learning Center in Vero Beach (East, Central) will give many hands-on learning opportunities daily. I think they charge $2.00/person. When there are events it varies a little. Walk along the lagoon, learn about mangrove trees and many other species native to the area. Interactive displays are designed to help children love learning about nature. Butterfly gardens, tools for water exploration and aquariums for beach life make everything interesting. On a hot day it’s nice to have the air conditioned options but still feel you are in Florida and able to explore. They even have story times. They do offer pontoon boat tours if you would like to know more, of course for a small fee! Yes you will most likely see dolphins and manatees!
The Nature Conservancy Blowing Rocks Preserve (East/ Central - South) For 2$/ person (children under 12 are free) this great beach/ barrier Island in Jupiter Inlet has a craggy limestone coast line that causes the water to shoot up through the air. Why is so much of the limestone above ground at Blowing Rocks? No one knows. The land here might have once been part of an exposed sand ridge or the top of a reef, or for some other reason higher than surrounding areas. Fun place to explore! It is totally different during high or low tide. Low tide will allow you to see all of the caves and wander the shore line. High tide will blow your mind with the great spouts!