The 10 Craziest Things To Do On A Florida Vacation

Most of the 100 million people who visit Florida come for the beaches, the amusement parks, the sunsets, and most of all the warmth of days when the weather is ugly elsewhere.

People scooter along in Key West’s Billy Ocean Underwater Adventures

But more and more people want adventure vacations and some even want to engage in extreme sports and wild experiences.  One of the books I will be publishing soon will cover an almanac of all these activities.  In my research and travels, I have discovered so many things that would have tempted me when I was younger and some I would avoid even in my youth.

Here are 10 of the most crazy things you could ever do on a Florida vacation:

(Not in any specific order to danger)

CAVE DIVING – This sport is more dangerous than rock climbing without a rope and Florida’s delicate limestone walls makes partner diving with ropes essential. Only certified divers can even take courses at places like THE DEVILS DEN in Williston, the VORTEX BLUE SPRINGS in Ponce de Leon, and the AMIGOS DIVE CENTER in Fort White.

Most Florida underwater caves are restricted to the top divers.

Although there are caves at many Florida spring locations, most are blocked off if they are dangerous.  A special dive team entered the complex at Wakulla Springs and went 41,000 feet into the underwater cave system.  That is higher than Mount Everest!

BE DOPEY AT THE WALT DISNEY WORLD MARATHON – From December to March, Florida becomes the marathon center of the nation, with many races serving as qualifiers for the top Boston Marathon runners.  Florida may be flat, but racing up and down several bridges in the heat id not fun.

At the gigantic WALT DISNEY MARATHON you should take up the Dopey Challenge of running a 5K, 10K, Half-Marathon, and Marathon in the four day event.

TANDEM SKYDIVE OVER 14,000 FEET – Florida is one of the best places in the world to skydive and thousands do tandem diving, but experienced people want to go higher and higher. (And fall longer and longer)  SKYDIVE SPACECENTER in Titusville has a record 18,000-foot tandem dive.

At Skydive Sebastian you get a good Atlantic Ocean view.

Some of the most experienced and skillful skydive and parachute centers are SKYDIVE CITY in Zephryhills, SKYDIVE SEBASTIAN, and JUMP FLORIDA SKYDIVING in Lake Wales and Plant City.

ZIPLINE ALL OF FLORIDA’S TOP SIGHTSThis is more fun than dangerous and in the flattest state in the USA you might not think this will be exciting.  In Orlando’s Gatorland you can zipline over a pond of hungry alligators.  That is cool, but I would suggest you travel to Ocala’s CANYONS ZIP LINE AND CANOPY on CR25Awith real cliffs and step ravines or FLORIDA ZIPLINE ADVENTURES in Milton off FL87.

In Ocala Canyons Zipline is really about canyons and cliffs.

Closer to my Tampa home is ZIPLINE TAMPA BAY inOldsmar’s Bayou Wilderness, where for more than two hours you climb 70-foot poles, fly 3000 feet over bridges and water, and do a death survival jump.

Challenge Florida’s MOST DARING OFF-TRACK BIKE TRAILS.   Don’t be tricked about Florida for we have turned old phosphate quarries into scary trails and that doesn’t include those dangerous tree roots that stick out and low-hanging branches.

Florida doesn’t look so flat at Santos Trailhead.

Near me is ALAFIA RIVER STATE PARK in Lithia with three-rated courses built into pits and jumps and sharp curves.  Their Gatorback trail actually has a wild alligator.  MARKHAM PARK down in Sunrise off FL84 shows that Southeast Florida can be bike scary. SANTOS TRAILHEAD off US441 in Ocala has 25-foot Vortex dirt jumps.

HANG GLIDE AT WALLABY RANCH not far from Disney World in Davenport. These are the people who invented tandem hang gliding in 1991 and their school only does this sport. Out West you have to go up a mountain to glide, but in Florida you let an airplane put you way above the clouds.

FLY A WORLD WAR II COMBAT AIRPLANE at Florida Warbirds, located at Kissimmee Gateway Airport just off US192 in Central Florida.  If you are an experienced pilot or just want to go for the flight of your life, this is a neat adventure.

In Florida you can pretend you are in World War II.

POWER A 100 mph SUPERBOAT FROM MIAMI TO KEY WEST thanks to those wild people at INCREDIBLE ADVENTURES (800-644-7382) in Sarasota.  They have in Miami access to a super-catamaran and a cigarette speeder with 1000hp Bulldog Twin Engines.

You should visit the Incredibles just to see what “out-of-this-world” adventures and extreme sports they have developed.  You can play with sharks in the Bahamas or go into space.

STAY AT THE JULES UNDERWATER HOTEL in Key Largo.  This old stand-by is still open for divers to stay or have lunch underwater or take scuba lessons.

Pizza delivery is more limited when your hotel room is underwater.

TAKE UP THE SPORT OF FREEDIVING.  Scuba divers know that training is important and at Lake Park’s FLORIDA FREEDIVERS and at IMMERSION FREEDIVING in Fort Lauderdale you can be trained first in their tanks and then in the ocean to go down from 66 to 100 feet underwater without an air tank.  Let me know if you see Aquaman.

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Greatest and Dumbest Myths About the State of Florida

When I hear Florida residents at restaurants and attractions talking about Florida, I often cringe, for while I was conceived here, I spent my childhood up North; but as a historian and writer I realize that there are so many myths and false narratives about Florida.

And you don’t have to be the Chamber of Commerce to promote dumb Florida information – the entire population lives by many of these myths.

MYTH – Florida (we) are the “Sunshine State.”

REALITY – It is a nice logo, but there are four or five other states with more days of sunshine than Florida.  The good news is that all those states face sunny days with snow on the ground and freezing winds.  Florida is really “the Warm State” and that is why we’ll always get winter visitors.

MYTH – Florida is “tropical.”

REALITY – You might feel you are in the tropics if you are standing in line at Walt Disney World in July, but as a geography minor, I can vouch that the climate of Florida is officially “subtropical.”   That does not mean to stop using sunscreen lotion.

MYTH – Florida is the “endless summer.”

REALITY – I never thought a surfing movie or license plates could influence so many silly P.R. comments.  Key West is the only place in Florida that has NOT experienced freezing temperatures.  It has snowed even in Miami!  When I lived in Tallahassee I left the city one morning at 26 degrees and arrived in Fort Myers hours later at 77 degrees.

OK – I hope you are a surfer.

MYTH – Florida’s state tree is the “Sabel Palm.”

REALITY – Sadly the statement is correct, but the logic is lost.  Palm trees have no bark, shallow roots, and can not grow new tops (they die).  Palm trees are grasses.

The Sabel Palm is “the state grass.”  It was selected for it can live anywhere in Florida so it was s safer choice than the regal Royal Palm, a better looking “grass.”

MYTH – Florida is the “southernmost state.”

REALITY – Even the people in Key West have labeled their famous buoy correctly (see photograph), but I guess people don’t read or just prefer to brag about their travels.  Any global map will show that Hawaii is the southernmost state.

Floridians communicate lots of incorrect superlatives like Saint Augustine is the “oldest continuous city in the USA.”    That is a good try – but it is the oldest continuous European city, because New Mexico has older Indian pueblo cities.

MYTH – Ponce de Leon discovered Florida in 1513.

REALITY – This, of course, is right down my ally.  There are two maps showing Florida as part of a “North” America that predate Ponce de Leon’s visits.  One, in 1507 by Waldseemuller (see photo) is an incredibly good global view based upon Spanish and Portuguese trips.

Ponce de Leon’s journals even show he had no interest in locating any Fountain of Youth and only on the way back, he sent two sailors in a lifeboat to stop at Bimini, a possible fountain location.

MYTH – Chief Osceola was the great Seminole leader.

REALITY – It is difficult to fault people although the statement is filled in incorrection. Osceola “led” the Seminole forces in the Second Seminole War, but his mother was Choctaw and his father was a British fur trapper from Mobile.

He wed a Seminole and his knowledge of English gave him the knowledge that the entire Treaty of Fort Gibson was not revealed to the tribal leaders.  It should be noted that the Seminole casinos correctly describe the life of their greatest leader.

(DUMBEST) MYTH – Love bugs was a Florida Department of Agricultural experiment gone wrong.

REALITY – People driving south on I-75 near Gainesville might believe this when a wall of love-bugs smash into your windows.  Automobile dealers even use special anti-bug paints in Florida. 

The love bugs are not man-made. And they are found in other states.  They live deep into tall grasses so people only see them during their short-lived mating season.  Love bugs will NEVER be the state bug of Florida.

(NEXT DUMBEST) – Tourists coming to Florida for the first time should fear X.

REALITY – There are many versions of this, although the dumbest is a rumor that Florida has “toilet spiders” – a species that lurk just under the toilet seat.  I caused a professor of biology far over laughing on that one.

I have never done this even in a zoo.

Other choices include real but rarely seen Florida creatures: coral snakes, black widow spiders, rattlesnakes, and tarantulas. In fifty years, I have only seen them in zoos and nature exhibits.  I have seen alligators, sharks, and barracudas, but I assume you will not swim at midnight nor jump madly off the end of a Florida dock.

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Don’t Kiss The Manatees At Crystal River Kings Bay

Florida manatees which are the West Indian manatees are easy to love.  They are like slow-moving islands, 12 to 15 feet in length and up to 1500 pounds. 

As a vegetarian and docile creature, people in Florida want to be near manatees.  The best place in Florida to explore the life of manatees, both on and under the water, is at Crystal River in Citrus County.

But, please do not swim up to a manatee and kiss it. You might scare them, but even more dangerous is the possibility you will get between a mother manatee and its calf. Manatees can ram a shark with the power of a torpedo.

There are lots of places in Florida, particularly in the bays with springs on Florida’s West Coast to meet manatees.  In winter, the manatees head into the bays and springs and rivers where the water temperature is higher.

The huge number of springs surrounding Kings Bay around the Crystal River makes the area the ultimate all-year residence of a large number of the 2,500 known manatees in the Sunshine State.  Crystal River is located on US19, 3 hours from Tampa-St. Petersburg, Orlando, and Jacksonville.  It is a great weekend vacation spot.

Crystal River is not just a place with scuba and snorkel diving, it has fishing and boating, and the largest Indian mound site at the Crystal River Archaeological State Park.

Indians have lived at this site for hundreds of years.

HOW TO GET THERE: Crystal River is just 66 miles from Tampa on toll-road FL 589 to US19, but longer for Saint Petersburg people who must drive north on US19 with heavier urban traffic. Orlando people taking the Florida Turnpike to I-75 and west on US44 will arrive in under 100 minutes (86 miles).

US19 is lined with modern chain restaurants and motels, which are acceptable stays but are not scenic choices. There are some things to do that are not outdoor adventure such as visiting HERITAGE VILLAGE just north of US19 on FL405 (Citrus Avenue), with its wonderful local art FRANKLIN ANDERSON GALLERY, General Store, BBQ restaurant, and other stores in old buildings. South of US19 on Citrus Avenue is the COASTAL HERITAGE MUSEUM in a stone building which was City Hall in the 1920’s.

While Kings Bay is huge, people follow the manatees.

The big land excursion in Crystal River is visiting the 61-acre riverside CRYSTAL RIVER ARCHAELOGICAL STATE PARK, north of town off US19.  Occupied by Indians for 1600 years the huge plaza is surrounded by burial mounds and earthworks.  The most popular attraction is the large 55-step Temple Mound, which gives a fine view of the Crystal River.  There are some picnic grounds and an educational museum, but no food facilities.

There are so many snorkel, scuba, and kayak tours offered on Kings Bay in TripAdvisor and other online sites, I suggest you study the websites with their exciting photographs and make reservations for excursions and adventures. The THREE SPRINGS BOARDWALK to Crystal Lake with its springs is beautiful, but kayak access is only from tours or HUNTER SPRINGS PARK.

If you arrive in town without reservations, you will probably have to pick one of the US19 chain motels like the Hampton Inn, but it would be better to stay on the Bay in a full-service location.  The most upscale is the historic PLANTATION ON CRYSTAL RIVER (352-795-5411), a 232-acre eco-friendly resort with a golf course, full marina and restaurant and Plantation Adventures with Kings Bay Scenic cruises and several swim with manatee tours. Less expensive is the PORT HOTEL and MARINA (342-795-3111), seven acres of recreation services, boat and kayak tours, and the popular waterfront MARGARITA BREEZE restaurant.

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The Best Dog Friendly Towns and Beaches in Florida

I read the other day that Tampa was selected by a national dog group as Florida’s most dog-friendly city.  I will not dispute that honor, but I must state that pets have it pretty good in many Florida places.  There is no forcing the poor pet into the snow like I did in growing up in Massachusetts.

Florida has dozens of  restaurants with year-round patios where dogs (and I guess cats) are allowed.  With tourism as our primary industry, Florida has to offer hotels and resorts that accept pets in order to meet a large market demand. 

Here are some of my comments and choices:  

My TAMPA BAY is a family-oriented tourist area with all the elements mentioned in the last paragraph. Down the street from me is Hyde Park Village, a shopping area where all the restaurants have open pet-friendly outdoor patios. All over the place are dish bowls with fresh water. One of the distinctive features of Florida is that so many dog parks have water access.  My local spot is the David Island Dog Park, actually named for our first family vet. It has two fenced in areas: one with lots or grass and one with a bay beach.

                Pinellas County has perhaps the most glamorous salt water beach dog park in Fort DeSoto County Park , voted one year as the best beach in the United States.  St. Petersburg Beach’s most glamorous resort, the historic Don Cesar Resort allows pets and even once promoted doggie massages.  Honeymoon Island State Park in Dunedin allows dogs on a leash on the huge beach, something not allowed in most beach state parks.

FLORIDA STATE PARKS:  Florida has 700,000 acres of nature in its state parks and while the parks have leash laws due to the wildlife, many have large enclosed dog parks and accept pets in the campgrounds.  I know some people with pets that travel from park to park every winter.

AMUSEMENT PARKS:  At Walt Disney World, only the Fort Wilderness Campgrounds have facilities for pets on leash, but at Universal Studios, four of the big resorts are Loews hotels which allow for dogs in certain rooms and have dog parks.

                We were dog-sitting a relative’s golden retriever, who had a serious operation, and we stayed at the Portofino Bay Resort.  When  I took Mugsy for a walk, I put a shirt on him to cover the large bare shaved square on his side.  We were suddenly surrounded by excited kids who thought the dog was the retriever in the movie Air Bud!  I did not have the heart to tell the kids, but Mugsy loved the attention.   Services dogs, of course , are allowed in all of Florida’s amusement parks.

GREAT DOG PARKS and TOWNS:  Dozens of dog parks in Florida have won honors, but here are some you might consider if you and your pet is traveling in the area.  While every area of Florida has hotels and motels that take pets to truly enjoy a pet vacation you need areas to stroll with your pets on a leash and fortunately some of Florida’s best restaurant areas have many outdoor patios and welcome pet mats.  A more serious problem is to combine these facilities with a nearby dog-friendly beach.

KEY WEST is the kind of funky town with a lot of dog-friendly bed and breakfast spots like Chelsea House and Courtney’s Place and along DuVal Street lots of animals on leash heading for restaurants and bars.  You can bar hop with pets – I saw more animals than people at the patio of Louie’s Backyard.  Higgs Beach Dog Park is beautifully shaded, but it needs to change its name for there is NO beach.

ORLANDO AREA: While there are lots of restaurants with pet-friendly outdoor facilities, they are too spread out.  My pick is to walk your pet in downtown Winter Park and afterward visit Florida’s best dog park: the People’s Park.

MIAMI BEACH:  You can walk your pet along the Art Deco district and find some pet-friendly outsoor stops, but if you want your pet on the beach you have to  up to North Shore Park and the Bark Beach, which unfortunately charges $25 to non-resident tourists.  Loews Miami Beach Resort is the best pet-friendly spot on the beach.  Dogs can swim along the openings on the Rickenbacker Causeway like Tampa Bay’s Courtney Campbell Causeway, but a lot of people want to be near food and bathrooms.

PALM BEACH COUNTY:. One of the state’s best beach parks is the Jupiter Beach at A1A and Mareinski.  It is free and wonderful set up for dog lovers.  It is a drive to motels and hotels and restaurants.

COCOA BEACH:   Despite having dog surfing contests Brevard County does not want a ton of dogs on leashes around the famous pier, but I noticed as you got away from the crowded sections, a lot of dogs owned by resort residents took leashed dogs down to the Atlantic.

FLAGLER BEACH is my choice for the best small town beach community with a large section of public beach open to pets, some patio restaurants, and enough motels and small hotels accepting pets.

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Its is SUMMER TIME and this is the main tourist season for PANAMA CITY BEACH, the beach center for the so-called “Redneck Riviera.”  I first saw PCB as a student at Florida State University and I was amazed at the pure white sand and the friendliness of everyone in the hotels and restaurants.  The beach was not just oriented to bikers and college students, it is packed with families in the summer and the town has enormous amusement parks and activities to attract everyone. And despite the virus, the beach has its crowds, many now condo renters.

Yet it too me thirty years to realize that Panama City Beach is NOT Panama City, the place where most full-time residents live and where people live normal lives.  Many of the servicemen of nearby Tyndall Air Force Base come back to live or retire here.  The town has enough all-year action to satisfy most while Panama City (not the beach) has small town charms.

Most visitors who vacation on Panama City Beach, barely visit the real city of Panama City. Compared to its glamorous beachside little sister Panama City Beach, the town of Panama City is a large bayside residential community serving Tyndall Air Force Base to the east and the booming beach and bay suburbs to the west side. Panama City is the largest town between Pensacola and Tallahassee and, if you are staying in the area, worth a drive into the downtown area. Large buildings and fancy condos are not part of downtown Panama City which has a small town laid-back appearance and an almost empty-looking waterfront except for the large marinas.

TOURING PANAMA CITY by automobile is usually easy for there are lots of parking spaces along the main drag of Harrison Avenue and at key public buildings. To reach downtown from the hotel strip of Panama City, drive east over Hathaway Bridge, continue east on US 98 (W 15th Street) and turn right (south) on Harrison. Use the map once you get to the marina at the end of Harrison to decide what to do – you have already driven past the downtown shops.

The town obtained its name in 1900 when developer George West discovered his bayside site was about halfway between his native Chicago and Panama City, Panama. He was never thinking the beach would dominate the potential farming and lumbering in the region. HERE ARE SOME OF THE SIGHTS TO LOCATE:

PANAMA CITY HALL at 9 Harrison has parking if there is lunch time traffic in the downtown area. Across the way is the large PANAMA CITY CIVIC CENTER which hosts most of the big attraction events in the region.

JOSEPH DYER BUILDING at 13 Harrison next to Harrison House Furniture is a non-descript 1910 white building brought to the site from Sandy Creek by boat to become the first brick structure in the town. At 39 Harrison is the ELLIS & COLEMAN BUILDING, redesigned in 1933 to become the Bay Theater.

Across the street in the next block at 100 Harrison is the two-story 1911 WILKERSON BUILDING, used as the first town bank, a post office and the town telephone company. Opposite it at 101 Harrison is 1915 terra cotta FIRST NATIONAL BANK with its famous 1926 street clock, a symbol for downtown. A few doors down is the 1933 ROY VAN KLEECK BUILDING (131 Harrison) with its original pine flooring.

A National Register building is the lovely 1934 W. C. SHERMAN ARCADE at 228 Harrison Avenue with a nice two-story atrium. Opposite it is the 1926 COMMERCIAL BANK, built with buff brick and Indiana limestone in an unusual Georgian Colonial Revival style. At 318 Harrison is the 1926 two-story brick FLEMING FOLKES BUILDING, with a facade almost original to the Land Boom days.

You could go East of 4th Street (see map options), but we’ll finish Harrison since the 400 block has two main structures. The RITZ or MARTIN THEATER at 409 Harrison was built in the Art Deco style and today houses an art and performance center. The J S. WILSON FURNITURE and HARDWARE BUILDING (1926) is a three-story brick building that houses the City Information Bureau.

If you drive down 4th you won’t miss the OLD CITY HALL, a 1926 Mediterranean Revival beauty which is headquarters for the Visual Arts Center. The J. ED STOKES BUILDING at 18 East 4th Street was the law office of the long-time State Senator. The 400 block is the 1915 BAY COUNTY COURTHOUSE, probably remembered by many as the site of the Gideon case.

Third Street starts more residential homes and the JUDGE J. MERCER SAPP HOUSE (1916), with its first elevator and hot water, is the most impressive home in Bay County. At 17 East 3rd Street is the 1909 ROBERT McKENZIE HOUSE, a two story-clapboard frame. Both of these homes are on the National Register of Historic Places.

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READY OR NOT: Saint Petersburg’s New Downtown Pier Is Open

After years of complete civil war in downtown Saint Petersburg and $92 million dollars of cost, downtown Saint Petersburg’s Pier has finally opened.  As expected, the pier will continue to get mixed reviews for decades since the old pier (actually #3 in history) was the place for thousands of memories.

The shark modern design and condensed space will shock people used to the towering inverted pyramid.  There is no aquarium or Columbia Restaurant.  The clustered carnival atmosphere of gift shops and commercial promotion has been replaced with a clean, almost museum-like atmosphere.  This will draw divided feelings from people who remember the old Pier.

The only people I found without an opinion were the pelicans.  They did seem confused where to find a food handout.

Instead of a long asphalt runway with adjacent parking lots, people will find a unified park-like setting complete with a statue finally informing people that commercial aviation began here when a by-plane delivering some meat and St. Petersburg’s daring mayor landed from Tampa. The plane flew so low and so slow that trolling for fish could have been an added activity.

As a historian, I am glad that the integrated design should benefit the St. Petersburg History Museum that stands at the start of the pier. The layout is more park over water than tourist district.

Some of the immediate concerns is that while the new parking lots do not resemble the ugly mass that used to exist, I think in the middle of the winter tourist season there is not going to be sufficient parking.  Most visitors do not realize the location of the town’s efficient downtown bus service to parking lots and garages.

When my family came over from Tampa, a visit to the pier mainly meant a stop at the Columbia Spanish restaurant and a lot of camera photographs.  That restaurant is gone and the upscale restaurant on the fourth floor, called TEAK, is rather expensive for a menu loaded with standard dishes.  The lobster invested Surf and Turf burger was the big winner although the restaurant was designed more to maximize great views than win fussy eaters..

The ground floor DRIFTWOOD CAFÉ resembles a “grab and go” spot at a resort hotel.  If you want a ten-inch pizza and a cold drink to sit at the pier than this place fits that spot.

I thought the SPA BEACH BISTRO, despite a neat location by the splash pool, was the least impressive dining experience.  More pizza and comfort food at vacation prices.

PIER TEAKI on the roof is the sunset romance spot for couples, who expect the fancy drinks pay for the view of downtown Saint Petersburg.  It will be very popular and crowded at night for the active crowd. More than my Tampa, St. Pete’s downtown has more scenic rooftop food stops.

DOC FORD’S RUM BAR and GRILL is a waterside spot not in the Pier Point and Floridians will recognize it is named after the popular character created by local writer Randy Wayne White.  It is one of those seafood, funky places that serves a semi-Caribbean seafood menu, has a glorious bar, and looks like they bought every nautical item that Jimmy Buffett couldn’t locate.

And, guess what?  It works when the seafood is good and the atmosphere feels like you are in a vacation at least within driving distance of a white sand beach.

The Pier Point is very attractive at night, but it appears like a long walk for seniors.  That is in part that it isn’t as gigantic as the old pier and the amount of landscaping in the pier park is great in daytime but darkens in the evening.

It will certainly become the most photographed spot in downtown Saint Petersburg. (Sorry – Dali Museum)

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The Florida Keys Are Not Just Scuba – Try Snorkel

A lot of people over the years have told me that the Florida Keys may be a wonderful place to boat and fishing and scuba dive, but there are no places to snorkel.  They do not realize that many scuba-diving boats also include snorkel dive spots.

In fact, if some of your family members are good at scuba while others are not interested in learning scuba, there are places in the Florida Keys where you can combine both and many boating firms offer dual scuba/snorkel trips. 

Here are some of my choices for snorkeling at some top spots:

Carysford/South Carysfort Reef –   4.6 nautical miles off Key Largo )GPS N 25-12-20 W 80-13-56) is a 4-25-foot deep double-ledged spur abd groove reef at the foot of a 113-foot 1848 lighthouse.  Locals call the area “the fish farm” for its abundance of tropicals, grunt fish, and pork fish.

John Pennekamp Copral Reef State Park – off Key Largo at MM 1002.5 features many sites including the famous Christ of the Abyss (GPS N 25-06-91/ W 89-18-20).  Off the beach is a good training spot for beginners and low tide offers more inshore locations.

Molasses Reef – off Tavarier in the Upper Keys has a wide series of reefs with the shallowest at Lighted Marker 10.  Snorkel around Sand Island.  This spot requires some veteran snorkelers since there are giant moral eels and a wide range of drop-offs.

Founders Park Islamorada – off MM 86.5 at 86500 Ocean Highway, is a decent snorkeling area just outside the rope area of this community beach.  It is rarely packed with divers and a great stop for small kids..

Conch Reef – some four nautical miles south of Tavenier Key at GPS N 24-56-55/ W 80-28-43 is a large snorkeling area with the three buoys north of Marker 12 the best for visibility.

Alligator Reef – located off Islamorada at GPS N 24-51-07/ W 80-37-21 has depths ranging from 8 to 50 feet and lots of fish.  Resist the temptation to swim right next to the 136-foot lighthouse since it’s a favorite for schools of barracuda.  You won’t find any gators – the spot is named for the USS Alligator schooner which sank in 1822.

Indian Key State Historic Site –  On the bayside off Islamorada is the site of a major Indian massacre in the Seminole Wars.  Rent a canoe at MM 77.5, visit the site via the boat ramp, and cruise the backside of the island where fish teem in five foot water.

Bahia Honda State Park – The best area is on the Atlantic side at the south end of the Park and there are dive flags.  The park facilities and beach are better than the snorkeling sites but the area is safe and well-managed and a good beach set-up for families..

Looe Key off Ramrod Key – offers a very popular snorkeling area with water from 5 to 40-foot depths around GPS N 24-33-19/ W 81-24-77.

Cottrell Key – eight miles west of Key West at GPS N 25-26-20/ W 81-55-58 in just 3 to 15 feet of water and lots of mooring buoys is the best site adjacent to Key West.

#mcbobleonard   Some of this content will be part of an e-book I am producing that is an almanac for adventure travel and extreme sports in Florida.  Continue to watch this website for free offers and more information.

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Vacationing and Taking Trips In The Era of the Virus

Enjoying Florida in the New Normal

The rapid spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) has had an enormous impact on the vacation plans and travel activities of Americans and people all over the globe.  With concerns about future outbreaks, the effectiveness of vaccines, and the reality that some virus strains can find ways to mutate, it is unlikely that people will quickly revert to their old habits.

I live in Florida, the only state that gets over 100 million visitors per year and is the home of the world’s greatest family entertainment complex of amusement parks and attractions.  Walt Disney World and Universal may be opening slowly but with so many restrictions and limitations one may wonder if a visit is essential.  And besides, visitors coming and going face the possibility of 14-day isolations.

As a person who writes about travel and history, I question what I recommend in selecting vacation and trip activities.  What skills and options should I include? As a college history professor for fifty years, I tend to look at what might be long term trends and changes in our society and culture.

Let me state then the approach I will take in more and more of what I write and why I will orient my present and future writing.  These may reflect some of the trends which I think may be more part of “the New Normal” in vacations and trips:

DRIVING TOURS and EXPERIENCES:  I have always been impressed how European cities provide maps, guidance, and options for all types of people. My mother-in-law had health issues and little money while raising five kids so on the weekends she would pack a picnic lunch, take a full-day trip in the old automobile, sight-see and only stop if something met her criteria, and dine in a park.

Kayaking and Snorkeling Provide Independent Social Distancing

I think many people will be leery about going to a restaurant or any attraction without observing the present options.  Indoor activities such as museums, galleries, and even sporting events will  be looked at in a different way than in 2019.  Safety will join cost and value when I write about any spot in Florida.

The OUTDOORS and ECO-TOURISM, I believe, will become more popular and more important as an option to visitors and residents.  A kayak or snorkel trip is a pretty safe choice for exercise and learning about your destination.  Soft adventures like boardwalk tours and zip lines allow for social distance control in a safer setting.

Florida has one of the most diverse and best State Park Systems and it has been underused by a large segment of our tourist population.  For every famous park destination, there are two or three park options that will be practically deserted on the weekdays.

INSIDER ADVICE in articles usually emphasizes the best food or the most popular attraction, but it should now include options and ideas that relate to health concerns.  Long before the virus I told people that instead of standing in a luncheon crowd to get into a Walt Disney Magic Kingdom restaurant, take the monorail to one of the hotels or the boat to Wilderness Lodge for the lakeside patio restaurant by the Villas.  Better meal, same price, and less crowded and rushed environment.

This summer I will inform you of several new e-books and PODs about Florida travel options, including the dates when these publications will be part of free downloads or reduced prices.

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Florida has 670 miles of beaches located on two major bodies of water: the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.  Yet, if you want to avoid being wall-to-wall with other people or hate beach noise, it may seem there is no place to go.

Part of the problem is the local Chamber of Commerces obviously promote more those public beaches surrounded by restaurants, hotels, and shops, while just listing beaches often only utilized by residents.   The big problem with a lot of websites noting lesser used beautiful beaches is they have limited parking, few if any facilities, and long walks to the sands.  Officially, all of Florida’s coastline to the high-water mark is public beach, but beach access and parking eliminates miles and miles of beach.

So here is my choices listed in the mode of the popular food books: “Eat This – Don’t Eat That.”

Atlantic Ocean Southward:

Instead of Jacksonville Beach – consider Atlantic Beach to the North and if you really like a full-day excursion, I love Amelia Island’s Main Beach Park.  Both of these beaches have long, wide beaches where you can avoid crowds.  Look at Google Maps, and you will see Amelia has many Beach Access points.

Atlantic Beach Is More Laid Back

Instead of the madhouse that is Daytona Beach – consider going north to Ormond Beach’s Andy Romano Beachfront Park. It is somewhat “Daytona Beach Light” with lesser crowds, but recreation facilities and food options. 

Or how about a drive northward to an Old Florida style beachside town like Flagler Beach, complete with a pier, tremendous surfers, and low-cost food and recreation options.

Flagler Beach is a trip into Old Florida beachside

Instead of moderately packed New Smyrna Beach – consider a southward drive into vast Canaveral National Seashore.  There are many parking spots, but stop spot at the Ranger place and besides paying the fees, get maps for there are great hiking and nature spots that people often miss.   Playalinda Beach is great but sometimes people forget their bathing suits.

Instead of Cocoa Beach with its huge Orlando visitations – consider driving south to Vero Beach, which has several beachside parks, decent food and recreation areas and even a Disney Beach Resort, which will probably soon open.  Sebastian Inlet State Park is a great choice although it lacks facilities.

Instead of tiny city of Palm Beach – consider the low key dunes of Delray Beach with its Atlantic Dunes Park and its Gulfstream ParkThese are strictly recreational beaches, but the town beach is a nice option.   With Juno Beach and wonderful John D. MacArthur State Park, Palm Beach County has some less packed spots.

Delray Beach makes a nice vacation trip.

Instead of Fort Lauderdale Beach or Hollywood – consider these places although on the weekends in summer, some get somewhat crowded: the southern tip of the main beach is residential and away from the action, my laid-back Fort Lauderdale by the Sea (smaller condos and resorts), Deerfield Beach, and Pompano Beach.

Instead of South Beach Miami Beach and Crandon Park – consider Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, just a mile from the Crandon crowds.  Look up North Shore Open Space Park and if you don’t mind a bayside beach, consider Oleta River State Park.

Cape Florida is minutes from overcrowded Crandon Park.

Instead of the Key West Beaches – consider the fact that the Florida Keys is more for diving and fishing than beaching. Hidden Fort Zack Taylor State Park is your best bet.  Calusa Beach on Big Pine Island and shallow Anne’s Beach in Islamorada also get my picks.

Annes Beach is a hidden gem in the Florida Keys.

Gulf Beaches Southward

Instead of Pensacola Beach – consider going west to Perdido Key toward Fort Clinch where there is the same beach but without the restaurants and hotels.

Instead of Panama City Beach, the center of summer action – consider less commercial, more low-key Miramar Beach, South Walton, or Santa Rosa Beach. St. George Island and St. Joseph Peninsula State Park are wonderful, but are limited in places to stay.

Anna Maria Island does not have a wall of giant condos.

Instead of Clearwater Beach and Saint Petersburg Beach – consider Caladesi Island and Pass-A-Grille Beach.  I will confess you must take a ferry to get out to the island and Pass-A-Grille has limited parking so go early and park away from restaurants/shops.

Instead of Bradenton Beach and Lido Beach and Siesta Key Beach – consider the north end of Anna Maria Island and Venice Beach, particularly Casparsen Beach.

If you really want a walk on an empty beach, go to Stump Pass, Englewood Beach.  I used to live there.

Instead of Fort Myers Beach – consider Lovers Key State Park with its winding layout of coves and spots and also look at Bonita Beach.

Tigertail Beach on Marco Island is a giant “tigertail”.

Instead of not-that-crowded Naples Beach – consider Tigertail Beach on Marco Island.

There will be some more New Florida Vacation Guides in this Series.

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One of the greatest business challenges to adjust to “the New Normal” in the entire nation is the problems that Walt Disney World and Universal Studios will have to transition toward opening the parks and resorts in July in various stages.   It is particularly painful to the folks at WDW for 2021 is the 50th Anniversary of the Mouse empire in Florida.

Already, the news of the changes, some temporary and some that may become permanent, are getting more than a little flack from some of the park’s regular and long-time customers.   People fear change.  Many people find it difficult to adjust, particularly if they involve serious family issues.

I understand this for in 2021 WDW may celebrate a 50th anniversary but my wife Barbara Ann and I will also be celebrating a 50th anniversary.  One of the first trips we took as a married couple was to Walt Disney World and to the Contemporary Resort.  Back then the California Grill was a Top of the World restaurant and nightclub. We payed $4.50 for admission and ride tickets and spent out “E” tickets on Haunted Mansion and the Jungle Cruise.

Crowd Events May Be Delayed For Months

Let’s look at some of the areas where the first rule changes are causing a crisis mode for some Florida travelers:

Booking restaurants and other matters will NO LONGER be done up to 180 days for park hotel guests. The new rule will be just 60 days.

This rule change doesn’t bother me probably because: (1) I live 60 minutes away from WDW; (2) Even semi-retired (sic), I can’t make 6-month reservation plans.

This policy change does level the playing field and will upset mainly those who have the money and ability to make long distance plans.  I have never been turned down from 90% of the top restaurants at WDW if I have 60 days.  WARNING: until WDW restaurants and hotels can operate at 100% capacity, there will be fierce competition for the most popular places. It should be noted that ”Very popular” does not necessarily mean the place is worthy of its status.

Social Distancing Will Be A Major Issue

The Disney Dining Plans are gone for 2020.  They may not come back.

People who had reservations with the Disney Dining Plans were offered package discounts of 35% but a lot of people are more than angry about that.

Most people on the Disney Dining Plans “lost money”, meaning the plan cost them more money than the food they actually purchased – about $27 per adult on a three-day counter service type plan and about $40 on a three day counter-table service plan.  Only the deluxe plan which was selling for $150+ per day saved money.

The only good reason for the Dining Plans is you arrive at WDW with most of your food expenses prepaid.   WHAT CAN YOU DO NOW?  Start buying discounted Disney gift cards

At Sam’s, Target Red Card, BJ’s Wholesale etc.  Only accept places where you get a 4-5% discount on the price.  You can use Disney gift cards for food, gifts, and everything else. Use them to have a prepaid vacation.

San Angel Inn: Overcrowded Seating & Dark Rooms Will Change

INSIDER’S FACT: Just about everyone in the WDW food business hated the Disney Dining Plan including thousands of visitors who felt they had to select the most expensive items on the menu to get their money’s worth.  I know a family that forced their 10-year old kid (treated as an adult at WDW) to order a giant Surf and Turf plate at a two-credit restaurant.

INSIDER’S FACT:  Chefs at WDW owned restaurants are under budget and profit pressures. Popular but costly items have been eliminated from menus.  Lsss expensive vegetables have been added to dishes.   I have gone fishing a few times in my life and I have NEVER caught a “sustainable fish” – what do they look like?

Fastpass+ strategies will be drastically shaped by WDW rule changes and may gradually change in a new manner, but most visitors planning ahead will be in the dark until the last minute.

When will all of WDW’s 70.000 “family members” return?

FASTPASS+ do help some people plan their visit to the parks, but its main purpose was to spread people out quickly in the parks, get people eating food all over the park, and improve data collection about customer preferences and trends.  

Due to the virus such popular Fastpass+ attractions as meeting the characters will not open as the parks open.  This could be a killer to some families with small kids since most popular rides have height restrictions.   The problem with character meetings is clear: people stand in various lines and kids want to hug Ariel and Elsa.  At least Mickey and Donald have built-in masks.

How will WDW Deal With Young People From Around the Globe?

IF YOU THINK THESE ARE THE MAIN ISSUES … think of all the others.  The World or International section of Epcot is manned with young people from all-around the world, including the People’s Republic of China.  Will we have people “substituting” for the REAL thing?

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