“WHAT’S THE DEAL with a flamingo wearing a top hat and puffing on a Cuban cigar or a mustached manatee strumming a guitar at a tiki party?” That’s what many travelers wonder when they come to the Sunshine State.
The answer is rather simple. From beaches and coral reefs to everglades and tropical islands, Florida is home to a diverse array of ecosystems. Toss in a balmy year-round climate, and it’s got habitats that spawn a dazzling display of marine life.
These amazing creatures are so beloved by Floridians that they’ve been integrated into the local pop culture in celebration of the state’s indigenous beasts. Native aquatic creatures are elevated into iconic symbols, reflecting the region’s diversity, unique groove and reverence for the water.
TRACK DOWN ICONIC IMAGES AND FEEL LIKE A FLORIDIAN
While you roam around Florida this season, you’ll likely visit the state’s many marine sanctuaries, research centers and protected habitats. But Marinalife also challenges you to join the local fun by finding caricatures, logos and iconic symbols that playfully incorporate these unique creatures into images directed at everyday life.
You’ll discover many of them on sports teams’ logos or mascots, bar napkins, restaurant menus, clothing (shirt, hat, etc.), pool floaties, ads for products, road signs, products in stores, souvenir shop merchandise, glassware, food and beverage labels, boats, flags and more.
These experiences are all part of a dream vacation to one of Florida’s famous theme parks. But the cool thing is that the Sunshine State offers these same topics as real, hands-on, family-friendly adventures. Here’s a Top 10 to try.
Kids who love dinosaurs will love this park. Founded in 1893, some of the oldest and largest alligators are in captivity here. Plus, the Land of Crocodiles exhibit features 24 global species including the African dwarf, rare Nile and familiar North American crocodile.
Beyond crocodiles, “Some visitors like the colorful parrots, others prefer our python cave, the nesting wading birds in our rookery, or our wildlife shows,” says John Brueggen, director.“The more adventurous enjoy zip lining over the animals.”
The NASCAR season kicks off on February 19, 2023, with The Great American Race – the Daytona 500. However, any day is perfect for a speedway tour. The hour-long tram ride hits the highlights from an infield stop at the start/finish line to a view from high atop the tower seating. At a stop at the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, kids can enjoy a wow moment looking at Michael McDowell’s 2021 Daytona 500 victory car.
“The Magic of Lights returns to the Speedway’s World Center of Racing in November through Jan. 1. It’s a dazzling display of more than 1 million sparkling lights and magical scenes, all viewed from the comfort of the guest’s vehicles,” says Russell Branham, Southeast Region director of track communications.
Chat with a real astronaut. Train on high-tech simulators inside the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Go behind the gates of a working spaceflight facility. Experience microgravity like inside the International Space Station. The 42-acre complex on Merritt Island brings to life the U.S. space program’s epic story in an up-close, hands-on way.
“Kennedy Space Center is best known for rocket launches like the historic Apollo and Space Shuttle programs. Now, it’s known for the commercial companies with rocket launches happening almost every other week,” says Rebecca Burgman, senior manager for public relations and communications. The Visitors Complex offers some of the closest public launch viewing locations in the area.
Lift a real gold bar at the famed treasure hunter’s museum in Sebastian, on the Indian River waterfront. “Kids especially like to look, touch and feel the weight of a solid gold bar from the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, the most famous and valuable shipwreck to ever be recovered,” says Nichole Johanson, the museum’s director and Fisher’s granddaughter.
“The bar weighs about five pounds, and you can still see the markings that tell its story like ownership, tax, purity, assayer and weight.” Kids get a fun and educational treasure hunt game to do while exploring the exhibits, with scavenger hunt items and riddles.
Oranges are Florida’s top agricultural product, and its freshly squeezed orange juice, soft-serve orange ice cream and orange slushies are some of the kid-friendly draws at this Vero Beach farm. Another is the Fall Festival and Corn Maze in October.
“There are activities such as a jumping pillow, kiddie zip line and air cannon, not to mention the maze and great food offerings,” says Cheryl Roseland, owner-manager. Kids and parents can U-Pick strawberries from the farm’s patch from December to February. Countryside operates its El Sid Taqueria on Ocean Drive in Vero Beach, a more convenient location to marinas for fresh citrus ice cream and slushies.
To ride on the wild side, travel less than an hour west of downtown Miami on Route 41, the Tamiami Trail. The chance to take an airboat tour through the Everglades National Park is well worth the time!
An airboat is a flat-bottomed open-air boat with an aircraft-like propeller in the back and a car engine for power that can glide over the waterways and sawgrass of the glades at speeds up to 40 miles per hour. On a half-hour tour, see wildlife, alligators and anhinga birds. Guides make stops to talk about natural and human history, such as how Native Americans used cat tails to make natural gauze.
The words “under the sea” have a whole new meaning when sight-seeing America’s first undersea park in Key Largo. At 70 nautical miles, it’s a huge natural water park. You can go canoeing and kayaking, fishing and swimming, or choose a glass bottom boat tour, or a scuba and snorkel tour.
“The snorkel tour is an excellent way for families to experience the Park,” says Tim Linafelt, communications manager for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Recreation and Parks. “After a 10-minute coaching session, swimmers can get up close and personal with coral reefs and marine wildlife.” Plan ahead by checking out the park’s new 360-degree coral cam that streams a live feed. Lemon sharks, parrotfish and angelfish have made on-camera appearances.
Play in a 19th century fort in this seven-island park located in the Gulf of Mexico. To get there, book a ride on the Yankee Freedom III, a high-speed catamaran that departs from Key West for the two-hour, one-way trip. Then, have kids watch for Fort Jefferson on approach.
“The enormity of the fort is indescribable. It’s the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere – made with 16 million bricks. It’s fun to explore with its endless halls,” says Piper Smith, VP of marketing for Historic Tours of America. Beside exploring the fort, it’s fun to swim or snorkel around the outside of the moat. The waters are filled with tropical fish, lobster, turtles and game fish.
Sharks, sea turtles and manatees, oh my! These sea creatures star in exhibits at this marine research organization’s aquarium in Sarasota. “Our resident turtles and manatees are much loved, each with its own personality, and they also provide valuable educational opportunities.
For example, green sea turtle, Hang Tough, resides in a specialty rounded exhibit after being blinded in a boat strike. Families can see and understand how Mote biologists care for her while also highlighting the negative impacts of unsafe boating,” says Sean Stover, communications coordinator. Make the visit extra special with an Adopt an Animal Program, which includes everything from sea turtles to sea horses plus jellyfish and octopus.
Florida’s northwest panhandle is a national center for military aviation. Pensacola is called the “Cradle of Naval Aviation” and is the official home of the Blue Angels. One hour east, this museum sits across from Elgin Air Force Base.
Kids whose favorite toys are airplanes will light up at the number of crafts on display during the drive into the grounds. Look for World War II, Korean, Vietnam and Gulf War aircraft, as well as the fastest plane ever built, the SR-71 Blackbird. Inside, please- touch displays include a fighter cockpit simulator.
Playing putt-putt Mini Golf is a ‘must- do’ shore thing on a Florida vacation. Best of all, many courses are near the beach. Lighthouse Cove Mini Golf in Jupiter is one block from the white sands. The two 18-hole courses weave around sea life, waterfalls and boats in a tropical fishing village theme. Play both! A new app lets golfers order drinks without leaving the greens.
Likewise, you can nearly see the sea from Fiesta Falls Mini Golf in St. Augustine. A 60-foot ship is a focal point, plus eight waterfalls make for cool fun. On the west coast near St. Petersburg, the Smugglers Cove Adventure Park in Madeira Beach is 18-holes around a pirate theme. That’s not all. Golf with gators! Win or lose, afterward you can stop to feed live alligators in an educational exhibit.
The twin sets of upward sloping on the superyacht, Thunder, looked to me like stairways to heaven. To say these were only a small part of the eye-candy features of this 164-foot Oceanfast, one of the largest yachts for sale on display at this year’s Miami International Boat Show, says a lot.
Inside, the master suite boasted a ceiling retractable Smart LG TV, chandeliers in the main salon were part of the $8.8 million asking price, and a 22-foot-long crystal blue pool surrounded by sun loungers on the foredeck proved irresistibly inviting on this warm February day.
Best of all to me was the upper deck dining salon and its floor-to-ceiling windows. I could imagine cruising the world and looking out at breathtaking ports from this perch. And it afforded an incredible view of the enormity of the Miami International Boat Show, which is spread out over six downtown locations. Last year, nearly 100,000 attendees walked the docks, and sales were just shy of $1 billion.
I wasn’t in the market for a new boat. Window shop yes; buy no. Still, I wouldn’t miss visiting the Miami Show and many others held in the Sunshine State each year. That’s because these marine events offer so much more.
“Like a festival for boaters, hundreds of exhibits display a variety of vessels, from kayaks to luxury yachts. Food vendors and entertainment attract audiences of all ages. Several large boat manufacturers or brokers host hospitality events on board luxury yachts or in air-conditioned tents, catering to clientele who love to talk about boats,” says Andrew Doole, president of the U.S. Boat Shows division of UK-headquartered Informa Markets, a leading global exhibitions organizer that owns and operates five major Florida shows. “The shows present a way to see the latest in marine products and how to enjoy life on the water.”
Second to Alaska, Florida boasts the most coastline of any U.S. state at 1,350 miles. Add a year-round climate conducive to boating, and it’s easy to see why the marine scene is big here. Each year, the state hosts close to two dozen boat shows. The calendar runs from September to April, corresponding to the top tourism months for visitors from the north.
In September, there’s the three-day Daytona Beach Boat Show, and the Suncoast Boat Show closes out the season in April. In between, Informa hosts its shows: Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show in October, St. Petersburg Power & Sailboat Show and Jacksonville Boat Show in January, the Miami show in February, and Palm Beach International Boat Show in March.
“Record-setting attendance at the St. Petersburg and Sarasota shows in the past year now rivals the big shows in Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach and Miami. In fact, the annual boat show held in downtown St. Petersburg’s waterfront is the second largest event in the city, behind the Firestone Grand Prix in terms of attendance, revenue and logistics,” says Cindy Dobyns, president and owner of AboveWater Public Relations & Marketing, who handles press for the show.
What’s Happening under the Tents?
Beyond boats for sale, you can discover so many things to see, do, eat and drink, toe-tap and clap for at Florida’s boat shows.
One of the most fun sights at the Miami Boat Show was watching a professional flyboarder in action at Pride Park in AquaZone. Standing on a skateboard-size board attached by a hose to a jet ski below that powered the water toy, dual jet streams of water propelled the rider some 15 feet in the air above the 40,000-gallon freshwater pool.
Pros also gave the public a wakeboard experience via a simulator. Crystal Kayaks, Seabobs and Hobie Cats were brands featured for a demo at the Fort Lauderdale Show. In Palm Beach, the intercoastal waterway served as the natural aqua zone. eFoil electric surfboards were an especially big hit.
New last year, the St. Petersburg Boat Show partnered with the Annapolis School of Seamanship to offer one-hour on-water training sessions held multiple times daily. Topics included Women at the Wheel, Basic Boat Operator and a Junior Captains Program. All were free. The only catch is buying tickets ahead of time and pre-registering for the sessions.
Seminars are a sought-out reason to attend boat shows. Every show offers them, and many shows invite local celebrity speakers. A good example is the Jacksonville Show, where last year Captain Tim Altman of HooDoo Sportfishing Charters and founder of the Wahoo Junkies brand gave two talks on wahoo trolling with bait and high-speed trolling.
One of the best-known seminar presenters on Florida’s boat show circuit is Captain Don Dingman, star of the Hook the Future TV show. Dingman hosts interactive fishing clinics full of demos for kids ages four to 16. At the Fort Lauderdale Show, each kid received a free Hook the Future/Carolina Skiff custom rod and reel combo. It shows how boat show seminars can hook the whole family.
Fred’s Shed is worth the cost of admission if you’re a DIY fan. Launched over a decade ago by the Chicago- headquartered National Marine Manufacturers Association, this up close and personal educational experience is held at NMMA events like the Miami Boat Show. Topics range from installing marine electronics to detailing and service and maintenance tips.
Food and entertainment make shows extra festive. There’s no need to leave the fun. On-site at the St. Petersburg show, for example, you can gobble up everything from stone crab claws to Greek gyros, street tacos and wood-fired picanha steak.
The Windward VIP Experience at several shows includes an open bar, wine and spirit tastings, gourmet food such as oysters on the half shell, as well as early access to the show and a shady air-conditioned oasis to sit and relax. Most shows feature live bands with oldies, classic rock and top 40 hits on tap.
View the Boats
Of course, it’s the boats that float these shows. “All types of watercraft are featured, including fishing boats, cruisers, ski boats, pontoons, inflatables, personal watercraft, and more,” says Erin Johnson, administrative director of the North Florida Marine Association that puts on the annual Jacksonville Show.
Vendors, from national brands to local shops, exhibit and sell all the boating go-withs. There are nearly 100 of these at the Suncoast Boat Show, and more than 1,000 at shows such as in Fort Lauderdale.
Mega and superyachts are here too, just like Thunder. You’ll find the bulk of the 100- to 200-foot-plus vessels at the Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami shows. All it takes is the price of a show ticket to walk the docks and dream.
A great white heron stretches its wings across a dazzling sunset while swooping into blue waters for its next meal. Rivers flow through miles of mangroves and tropical foliage. A manatee peaks its nose above the water’s surface. These are some magical sites you may see when exploring the wonders of Florida’s coastal state parks.
With more than 175 state parks, the Sunshine State is packed with so many seaside gems that it merits a two-part series. Hike trails for all levels, enjoy watersports along gorgeous beaches, sightsee historic lands and camp out on the coastline at these national treasures. Here we explore some of the top state parks along Florida’s Atlantic Coast.
Overlooking the St. Mary’s River along the Florida-Georgia line, an historic fort lies within this 1,400 acre-park. Stroll the beachfront and catch monthly Living History Weekends, where you can see re-enactors work in the blacksmith shop or bake bread.
“When you tour the fort, it feels as if if it were still functioning at the height of the Civil War, so you get to experience going back in time,” says Kelli Akers, administrative assistant and former park ranger at Fort Clinch. “We have a three-mile-long covered canopy road, so even driving through the park under the live oak and Spanish moss is quite charming.”
What to Do: History tours, camping, biking, birdwatching, shelling, shark-tooth hunting
Just south of Fernandina Beach within Florida’s sea islands, these two parks neighbor one another along the coast. Launch your boat, rent kayaks or hike to the shoreline on Blackrock Trail, or cruise to the marsh on Big Pine Trail. Minutes away, discover ancient dunes on Little Talbot Island’s five-mile stretch.
Bordering the parks along the southwest side, the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve spans 46,000 acres of wildlife habitats, wetlands and stunning waterways.
What to Do: Hiking, biking, birdwatching, boating, camping, fishing
Located in the oldest city in the nation, Anastasia is rich in history and abundant with wildlife. With more than 196 identified bird species, this region is a major stop on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail. Spot colorful roseate spoonbills and various species along the white sand beaches. Hike the Ancient Dunes Nature Trail, bike along the beach and stay overnight at one of the 139 campsites. Be sure to visit the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum at the northern tip of Anastasia Island.
What to Do: Camping, hiking, biking, birdwatching, picnicking
Timucuan Native Americans once dwelled on this land before Spanish explorers showed up in the early 1600s, and European disease eventually wiped away the native population. The site is now a preserved sanctuary with a boat ramp for easy access to the Tomoka River. Enjoy water activities and the historic grounds where the Nocoroco Village, plantations and indigo field once stood.
Situated along the Space Coast between New Smyrna Beach and Titusville, here you find majestic waters that are home to one of Florida’s largest manatee and sea turtle habitats. Dock at the park’s 24-hour ramp, hike Castle Windy Trail and watch rocket launches from the beach. The local area is packed with museums and attractions such as the Kennedy Space Center.
What to Do: Kayaking, fishing, hiking, sightseeing
Cruise to this lovely island that’s only accessible by boat and dock for a $3 entry fee. Discover a huge sea turtle nesting home, hike a half-mile trail, or head below surface level to witness 3,500 acres of unspoiled waters and protected coral reef. Look for loggerhead and leatherback turtles and wading birds such as great blue herons, egrets, ibis, sanderlings and purple plovers.
“There’s only four boat slips right now but we’re in the process of adding 10 more,” says Park Services Specialist, Emily Harrington. “What amazes people the most here is how much beach you have all to yourself, which is so rare in Florida. You can go out there and be completely on your own for long stretches of time — it can be very peaceful.”
What to Do: Swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, surf fishing
Where to Dock: St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park Boat Ramp
As the largest state park in southeast Florida, this coastal haven provides plenty of natural wonders to get lost in. Named for a merchant whose vessel shipwrecked nearby in the 1600s, this historic site was home to Camp Murphy, a top-secret radar training school during WWI.
Visit the mysterious Trapper Nelson Interpretive site, climb to the top of the Hobe Mountain observation tower, or rent kayaks, canoes and motorboats to journey through century-old cypress trees and Spanish moss along the Loxahatchee River. Better yet, take a park equestrian tour when the horses arrive around late October and stay until April.
What to Do: Horseback riding, riverboat tours, fishing, mountain biking
Just outside the hustle and bustle of Miami, a tropical escape awaits at Key Biscayne’s southern tip. Witness a birds-eye, panoramic view of Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic Coast from the top of the Cape Florida Lighthouse, the oldest-standing building in Miami-Dade County. Dock your boat overnight in No Name Harbor and canoe or kayak along Biscayne Bay’s seawall.
Spanning 70 nautical miles of marine splendor, this underwater state park is one of Florida’s best-kept treasures. As the country’s first underwater park, the mangrove-lined waterways are known for snorkeling and scuba diving alongside colorful coral reefs and marine wildlife. Explore the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and take a Glass Bottom Boat Tour on the flagship vessel, Spirit of Pennekamp.
What to Do: Snorkeling, scuba diving, boat tours, camping
This region of the Keys holds geological treasures rooting back to Florida’s 20th century history. Eight foot-high walls and stones made of ancient fossilized coral make up a quarry that was used to build Henry Flagler’s railroad in the early 1900s. The quarry operated until the 1960s, and you can still witness some machinery preserved at the park. Hike tropical trails through a hardwood hammock to see more than 40 species of native foliage and historic remnants of Key Largo limestone.