Discover the hidden magic of old Florida at one of these under-the-radar and perfect-for-families destinations.
I'm an Orlando native who feels hashtag-blessed to call Florida home. From cool cities to gorgeous beaches to the “happiest place on earth,” we’ve got it all. But when my daughter and I are restless and in desperate need of a vacay, you won’t catch us anywhere near roller coasters or touristy spots. Instead, we’ve discovered the hidden magic of old Florida, kept secret by generations of protective locals: the seemingly empty beaches where you can watch your kids frolic before Instagram-worthy sunsets, or the places that let you get up-close and personal with wildlife—all without feeling claustrophobic or going broke (praise-hands emoji). When you venture off the path of Florida’s same ol’ vacation destinations, you’ll find adventures that’ll have travelers young and old coming back year after year. But shhh: You didn’t hear about these places from me, k? It’s our little secret (wink).
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1. Rosemary Beach
Why Go: This idyllic community located in Inlet Beach, just over 20 miles from Panama City along the Panhandle’s coastline, boasts sugar white-sand beaches, charming cottages, and an old-fashioned main street that makes relaxation feel like second nature.
What To Do: One of the best parts of vacationing at Rosemary Beach is that everything is within a fiveminute walking distance (biking is the community’s preferred way to get around). If your accommodations don’t include ’cycles, rent some from Bamboo Bicycle Company. Then arrange for the Beach Service to set up umbrellas, beach chairs, and a table for the duration of your stay ($55 a day) so you don’t have to lug gear back and forth. Wake up early one morning and stroll over to neighboring Alys Beach to grab some hand-rolled donuts at the Charlie’s Donuts food truck before they run out, usually by 11 a.m. Then let the kids burn ’em off at the nearby splash pad. Oh, and while we’re talking sugar, fair warning: Your kids will likely beg for treats and milkshakes from The Sugar Shak (850-231-3655) on the daily. Also check the summer calendar for puppet shows, moonlight movies, live bands, and more.
Where To Stay: To take advantage of the neighborhood vibe and its amenities, rent a cottage through HomeAway, VRBO, or Airbnb—some have adorable wraparound porches and even pools!
Take a Road Trip: Drive an hour inland to Seacrest Wolf Preserve in Chipley for a rare opportunity to meet gray, British Columbia, and Arctic wolves. You’ll tour several fenced habitats and come face to face with different wolf packs that have been hand-raised by humans to act as ambassadors to promote conservation through education. Don’t miss the group howl!
2. Lake Wales
Why Go: Only an hour south of Orlando—just in case you want to wave to the mouse on your way in—you can escape the hustle and bustle of city life and unleash your inner cowboy (true story: the OG American cowboys were from Florida, not the Wild West). The Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo is an authentic dude ranch surrounded by 400,000 acres of protected land.
What To Do: With most activities on the property, you’ll get more use out of a pair of cowboy boots than a rental car (but renting a golf cart during your stay can ward off whining). Younger kids will love the petting farm and pony rides, while your older kids will practically live at the Adventure Park, which features a bungee jumper, zip line, rock climbing wall, mechanical bull, and mini-golf. You’ll spend your days horseback riding through plains (they’re more flat and grassy than the Western version) where buffalo still graze (yes, they’re native to Florida too), learning trap and skeet shooting, and safely exploring the gator-filled swamps and lakes on an airboat and swamp buggy. There’s even a Saturday Night Street Party, where you can amuse (or mortify) your tweens with some line dancing.
Where To Stay: Although the ranch offers cowboy-themed abodes for every budget (including tent camping, rail cars, rooms in the lodge, twobedroom cabins, and luxury—read: pricey—Native American–themed tepees), the unique glamping tents are not to be missed. The canvas, airconditioned tents sleep four with a king bed and two twins, come with a private bathroom and shower facility, and even include your own personal concierge, who will prepare a nightly campfire so you can end your day under the stars with s’mores and ghost stories. Glamping rates start at $265 per night.
Take a Road Trip: Every Saturday night, the resort is home to one of the longest-running championship rodeos in the U.S., where you’ll see riders of all ages (even kids) trick riding, bull riding, calf roping, and barrel racing in a 1,200-seat arena. There are crazy clown antics and even an opportunity for your kids to participate in a “calf scramble,” where they try to remove a ribbon from a calf’s tail. (Call ahead to make sure your little one gets a spot; 863-692-1321.)
3. New Smyrna Beach
Why Go: Locals call it NSB, and it may just be the “best” beach you’ve never heard of. It’s eclectic, artsy, family-friendly, and down-toearth. Just about an hour from Orlando, its 13 miles of uncrowded shoreline will have you living like a beach bum in no time.
What To Do: Spend the days lounging while the kids boogie board and play “I spy” with the dolphins and surfers who regularly put on a show for onlookers. You can level up your experience by enrolling the whole fam in surf lessons at Jimmy Lane’s Surfing Academy. At lunchtime, head over to JB’s Fish Camp to chow down on fresh oysters and clams and sample their legendary hush puppies. Get there early so you can fish off the dock (they’ll even sell you bait). You might just catch a glimpse of a manatee! Don your fanciest flip-flops for a stroll down Flagler Avenue, lined with independently owned surf shops, coffeehouses, and restaurants.
Where To Stay: Florida locals often rent homes or condos (we prefer the ones on the secluded no-drive stretch of beach at Saxon Drive), but if a B&B is more your speed, consider the Black Dolphin Inn—a boutique hotel located inside a picturesque restored mansion with stunning views of the Halifax River. Fishing poles, bicycles, and beach chairs are complimentary, but the ridiculously scrumptious weekday breakfast is what sets the place apart (a full Southern-style brunch is served on weekends; be sure to try the shrimp and grits). Rates start at $169 a night.
Take a Road Trip: If your travel dates are flexible, add some out-of-this-world excitement to your trip. Kennedy Space Center is close enough that watching rocket launches from the beach is quite a spectacle (especially if you catch a night launch!). Don’t forget to check the schedule before you book.
Why Go: Located about a half hour from the Palm Beach International Airport, Jupiter was named one of the happiest seaside towns in the U.S. by Coastal Living. And we know why: Water temperatures are near-perfect all year (averaging 79 degrees) and it boasts a gorgeous shoreline with a plethora of outdoor activities.
What To Do: Spend a morning at DuBois Park, swimming and snorkeling in crystal-clear water, with a lifeguard helping you keep tabs on the kiddos (they’re on duty from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day from Memorial Day until school resumes in August). Pack a cooler of goodies to enjoy lunch at one of the picnic benches while the kids have fun on the playground. Afterward, climb the 105 steps to the top of the lighthouse or play a round of mini-golf. Cap off the day at Guanabanas, a waterfront restaurant situated under banyan trees and tiki umbrellas. Also, be sure to explore the trails at the nonprofit Busch Wildlife Sanctuary, where you and the kids can gawk at eagles, panthers, bears, otters, and more. For an adrenaline rush, try diving with sharks on a tour with Florida Shark Diving. If you’d rather stay onboard, they also do viewing trips where you’ll see dolphins and other wildlife along with the sharks.
Where To Stay: Be careful! You may not ever leave the hotel if you stay at Jupiter Beach Resort & Spa, where the rooms are comfy and the views from the private balconies are breathtaking (especially at sunset). You’ll have access to their private beach, and the kids will love swimming in the pool during the day and watching movies poolside at night. Rates start at $165 a night.
Take a Road Trip: Take a 30-mile car ride to neighboring Loxahatchee for the drive-through Lion Country Safari, where you’ll see giraffes, zebras, lions, and 900 other animals roaming their habitats (behind fences, thank goodness).