From theme parks in Orlando to street art in Miami, Naomi Richardson shares her tips on fun in the Florida sun
You could be forgiven for thinking Florida is just one big rollercoaster, a playground for tourists and the retired alike.
Then there’s the wall-to-wall sunshine to cope with, extensive coastline to explore and a certain gateway city forever preserved in the TV memory thanks to Ferrari-driving cops in pastel-coloured suits…
But it’s not all fast-paced. There is plenty to charm and educate in Florida too, from baby alligators (and their parents), red-shouldered hawks, barred owls, ancient trees and exotic flowers along the boardwalk at the tranquil Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary (corkscrew.audubon.org) to the thrill of being at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral 50 years since the Apollo 11 moon landing (see below, kennedyspacecenter.com; from $57/$47).
Fancy taking an airboat ride (wootenseverglades.com) in the Everglades? You can and feel the thrill of zipping across the brackish water in search of alligators and their newest neighbours, snakes.
And ok, yes… there are theme parks with rides that leave you feeling a little or (a lot) green. You can read our top tips for Disney and Universal, or see more below.
Sink a glass of butterbeer at the Leaky Cauldron in Diagon Alley after escaping from Gringotts vault in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios (universalorlando.com; three-park Explorer tickets from €320/€312pp for 14 days unlimited access to Universal Studios Florida, Universal's Islands of Adventure and Universal's Volcano Bay water theme park). The attention to detail will leave even the most sceptical of muggles astounded.
Afterwards, make your way to Platform 9 and 3/4s and set out for more magic at Hogwarts. Be sure to stock up on chocolate frogs at Hogsmeade – just don’t forget to eat them before they melt!
For something a little more off the beaten track, dive into shawarma on the Haulover Sandbar (facebook.com/shawarmathaulover) in North Miami. You can make your way there by kayak, paddle board, or boat and dip in and out of the warm waist-high water where your feet will find soft sand underfoot.
It’s hard to miss the only floating food boat in Florida when you get hungry. Feast on shawarma, hot dogs, fries or just good ol’ ice creams. You might even see dolphins swim nearby if you’re lucky.
Check out the murals at Wynwood Walls in Miami. You can enter for free and wander around taking in the street art which comes in a kaleidoscope of colours, patterns and themes (thewynwoodwalls.com).
Another touring tip in the city? Try a guided walk around Little Havana, sipping a minty mojito en route with with Urban Adventures (urbanadventures.com; €52). You'll see cigars being rolled, scoff a Cuban sandwich and maybe even catch some salsa... all within a few steps of each other on Calle Ocho.
Want more? Before you hit Miami, try Lake Placid (visitflorida.com/en-us/cities/lake-placid). The town has 50 murals and counting and is worth a detour if you’re driving from Orlando to the Everglades. It makes a change from the frantic pace of life in Florida. Mosey round the town, get an ice cream and soak up the atmosphere.
Visiting Kennedy Space Center?
Make sure you take the free bus tour ride first thing after arrival as queues form quickly. You don’t want to miss seeing Launch pad 39A (where it all happened) and the Saturn V center which houses mission control where they guided Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the surface of the Moon.
Leave yourself plenty of time to take the launch simulator too at the Space Shuttle Atlantis zone (kennedyspacecenter.com/explore-attractions/shuttle-a-ship-like-no-other) where you’ll be pinned back in your seat by G-forces similar to what astronauts go through in real life.
Elsewhere, forking out for Express tickets at Universal is definitely worth the money ($69.99pp). No one wants to queue but it’s even worse in the beating heat during the summer months.
If you want to cool down in a hurry though take Dudley Do Right’s Ricksaw Falls ride at the Island of Adventure. You’ll be soaked from head to toe but you’ll have cooled down nicely.
Download Universal’s app for handy guides, ride wait times and maps.
If you’re going to visit the Everglades, be sure to pack insect repellent… and a complete change of clothes.
Being caught in one of Florida’s sudden downpours while out on an airboat ride that zips along at up to 65kph you get soaked to the skin pretty quickly!
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies direct from Dublin to Orlando, or you can fly indirect with several carriers, including American Airlines (americanairlines.ie), for example, via Charlotte.
In Florida, Naomi was a guest of Universal, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and Wooton's Airboats.