Central Florida is more than just Disneyworld and beaches
If you Google “Top sights in Central Florida,” you’ll likely find six Disney-related attractions. After some digging, you’ll learn that Ocala is the horse capital of the world, Tampa is now an ideal place for an urban staycation, and Kissimmee offers a variety of outdoor activities with more affordable accommodations than neighboring Orlando. And then there’s the little-known Sports Coast where you can cruise the scenic Cotee River by paddleboat, scooter through New Port Richey, take a speedboat ride out to the Anclote Keys, and hike Starkey Wilderness Park.
So for this piece, we’re giving Mickey and Minnie a much-needed vacation, staying clear of Clearwater Beach, and focusing on some of the other reasons to visit Central Florida. Here are eight outdoor activities in the heart of the Sunshine State.
A similar version of this piece first appeared on Matador Network.
Silver Springs State Park
Big Cliff Canyon
The Paddling Center
JW Marriott Tampa Water Street
Busch Gardens Tampa Bay
Enjoy a glass bottom boat ride at Silver Springs State Park
Glass bottom boat rides at Silver Springs State Park are a fun activity for all fitness levels. The highlight of the tours is seeing the three leftover props from I Spy, which rest at the bottom of the Silver River. You’ll also see Native American artifacts and a row bow from early Spanish settlers. Each boat is named after a different chief. The rides are narrated by the captain, who stops at the key finds and usually gives everyone a warning when it’s time to snap a pic. If you’re looking for more of a workout and want to spend more time, the park also has hiking trails, kayak rentals, and camping options.
Fly over lime rock quarries at The Canyon Zip Line and Adventure Park
Here, you can try some of Florida’s fastest and highest zip lines. Tours range from one to three hours and can take you as high as 155 feet in the air. The Big Cliff Canyon Tour is the most popular. This one is guided and takes thrill-seekers across nine different lines over the course of a few hours. Practice zips included.
If you’re not an adrenaline junkie, you’ll also have the option to rent a kayak, where you can watch the zip liners from a safe distance. And it wouldn’t be Ocala without a horseback riding tour, which takes aspiring equestrians through Big Cliff Canyon at sunset and ends with fireside wine and s’mores along the lakefront.
Explore downtown by scooter
New Port Richey and Tampa are just a couple of Central Florida cities that have scooters for rent. In Tampa, Bird, Lime, and Spin are all available. You can grab a scooter and get your bearings along the 2.6 mile Tampa Riverwalk, which abuts the eastern shore of the Hillsborough River, before winding around along the Garrison Channel. For those who want a more traditional cycling experience, Coast Bike Share is also available in Tampa and St. Petersburg.
eCarve rents and sells scooters in New Port Richey, which is located in Florida’s largely undiscovered Sports Coast.
Pick your own berries at Starkey Farm
If you’re visiting Central Florida between March and June, check out Starkey Farms along the Sports Coast. While most go there to pick blueberries between late March and early May, they also have an acre of strawberries and blackberries, which are in season before and after the blueberries. Everyone gets their own small bucket and heads off into the sun to look for the darker berries. If you’ve never picked your own berries before, don’t worry. The team at Starkey will give you a crash course on how to get the sweetest ones.
There’s also a market one mile north of the farm, where you can get homemade seasonal ice cream, fresh vegetables, and some of the quirkiest pasta you’ve ever seen. Ever tried dark chocolate linguine? Or sweet potato pappardelle? The Barn next door has a small bar and kitchen where you can get light appetizers, craft beers, wines, and ciders.
Go Paddleboarding in Downtown Tampa
In Tampa, Urban Kai‘s guided tours start near Water Works Park and flow south along the Hillsborough River, climaxing with views of the still-developing downtown, where cranes hover among modern skyscrapers. You’ll feel a sense of accomplishment when you’re still vertical after the water taxis pass by and send some waves your way. If you’re not comfortable with paddleboarding, kayaks are available for rent as well. While paddleboarding is a better workout, it’s easier to snap Instagram pics from a kayak.
For a completely opposite kayaking experience, check out The Paddling Center at Shingle Creek. It’s located off the busy Highway 192 in Kissimmee. It does not make sense that such a serene place could exist less than two miles from a local airport and a seemingly endless row of resorts, souvenir shops, and chain restaurants. But this three-mile round trip journey will have the most urbanized among us in awe at the near-perfect reflection of the local greenery on the glass-like water. If you’re looking for mirror shots, try to get ahead of the group, so their waves don’t upset the natural reflection.
Go on a safari!
Wild Florida has a drive-thru safari park adjacent to the eastern shore of Cypress Lake. Most visits to the park start with a one-hour airboat ride across the Headwaters of the Florida Everglades. Here, you’ll see partially submerged cows grazing, often just a few yards from large gators. Although alligators love meat, don’t expect to see any gators feasting on raw beef. They don’t attack anything that they can’t swallow whole. But the boat ride is a surreal experience, especially when the capital stops to narrate. If you plan to do any recording, ask your captain when the best time will be. You’ll have great opportunities to shoot timelapse videos on the lake.
We suggest doing the drive-thru safari last. Between the boat ride and safari, check out Alligator Park, where you can meet Guy (the resident sloth) and watch Crusher (the largest Wild Florida gator) feast on raw chicken without getting semolina poisoning. Also, in Central Florida, Tampa’s Busch Gardens has a safari park as well. Those tours are guided, whereas Wild Florida’s are self-guided.
Join an outdoor fitness class at Sparkman Wharf
Tampa’s waterfront has recently undergone an extreme makeover. There are now indoor European-style food halls as well as the outdoor Sparkman Wharf, which is a combination of food stalls, retail stores, and outdoor fitness classes. You can do F45 classes on the lawn, which overlooks the Garrison Channel. Afterward, you can head to Fit Bowl and cool off with a post-workout acai bowl.
Play equestrian for a day in America’s hose capital
The horse industry in Marion County generates more than 2 billion in annual revenue. The main airport is private and handles more horses than people. Ocala is the county seat and largest city in Marion. It’s also home to the largest equestrian center in the country, which includes a hotel with most of the amenities you’d expect in a casino, without the poker tables and slot machines. You can also tour one of the more than 900 horse farms in the county. If you want to spend more than a day in this area, the Hilton Ocala is a more cozy lodging option. Here, you’ll get to meet Buddy, the resident Clydesdale. Buddy greets many guests outside the main lobby, and everyone is given a snack bag to feed him.
Explore the Pithlachascotee (Cotee) River by paddle boat
These human-powered party boats glide leisurely along the scenic Cotee River to the sounds of whatever music you can convince the co-captains to play. Lucky Booty Cycleboats currently operates four daily two-hour cruises from Sims Park in Downtown New Port Richey. For $35/person, you can kick back and enjoy the scenic Sports Coast, along with the only Florida stilt houses outside of Miami. There are also some life-size dinosaur statues in one of the back yards along the route.
It’s BYOB, with bathroom breaks at the riverside bars available upon request. The captains will provide coolers and ice as well as Bluetooth pairing. Although each center seat has its own pedals, cycling is optional. It’s best to bring a jacket, especially if you’re doing an evening cruise outside of summer.
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All pictures were shot with a Panasonic Lumix ZS100 4K Point and Shoot Camera.
Have you tried any of the activities in this list? If so, which one(s)? How did you enjoy? Leave a comment below!