Brochure images of tanning tourists and Mickey Mouse give an inaccurate and incomplete picture of Florida. Although the aptly nicknamed “Sunshine State” is indeed devoted to the tourist trade, it’s also among the least-understood parts of the USA. Away from its overexposed resorts lie forests and rivers, deserted strands filled with wildlife, and vibrant cities within reach of primeval swamps. Contrary to the popular retirement-community image, new Floridians tend to be a younger, more energetic breed, while Spanish-speaking enclaves provide close ties to Latin America and the Caribbean.
The essential stop is cosmopolitan, half-Latin Miami. A simple journey south from here brings you to the Florida Keys, a hundred-mile string of islands known for sport fishing, coral-reef diving and the sultry town of Key West, legendary for its sunsets and liberal attitude. Back on the mainland, west from Miami stretch the easily accessible Everglades, a water-logged sawgrass plain filled with alligators, a symbol of the state that can be found on college campuses (well, as a game mascot, anyway) and innumerable billboards. Much of Florida’s east coast is heavily built-up – a side effect of the migration of so-called “sunbirds” seeking to escape the cold climes of the northeast USA. The residential stranglehold is loosened further north, where the Kennedy Space Center launches NASA shuttles. Further along, historical St Augustine stands as the longest continuously occupied European settlement in the US.
In central Florida the terrain turns green, though it’s no rural idyll, thanks in mainly to Orlando and Walt Disney World, which sprawl out across the countryside. From here it’s just a skip west to the towns and beaches of the Gulf Coast, and somewhat further north to the forests of the Panhandle, Florida’s link with the Deep South.
The first European sighting of Florida, just six years after Christopher Columbus reached the New World, is believed to have been made by John and Sebastian Cabot in 1498. At the time, the area’s one hundred thousand inhabitants formed several distinct tribes: the Timucua across northern Florida, the Calusa around the southwest and Lake Okeechobee, the Apalachee in the Panhandle and the Tequesta along the southeast coast.
In 1513, a Spaniard, Juan Ponce de León, sighted land during Pascua Florida, Spain’s Easter celebration; he named what he saw La Florida, or “Land of Flowers”. Eight years later he returned, the first of several Spanish incursions prompted by rumours of gold hidden in the north of the region. When it became clear that Florida did not hold stunning riches, interest waned, and it wasn’t until 1565 that conquistador Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded St Augustine. In 1586, St Augustine was razed by a British naval bombardment led by Francis Drake, and the ensuing bloody confrontation for control was eventually settled when the British captured the crucial Spanish possession of Havana, Cuba; Spain willingly parted with Florida to get it back. By this point, indigenous Floridians had been largely wiped out by disease. The Native American population that was left largely comprised disparate tribes that had arrived from the north, collectively known as the Seminoles.
Following American Independence, Florida once more reverted to Spain. In 1814, the US general (and future president) Andrew Jackson – with the intention of taking the region – marched south from Tennessee, killing hundreds of Native Americans and triggering the First Seminole War. Following the war, in 1819, Spain ceded Florida to the US, in return for American assumption of $5 million of Spanish debt. Not long after, Jackson was sworn in as Florida’s first American governor, and Tallahassee selected as the new administrative centre.
Eleven years later, the Act of Indian Removal decreed that all Native Americans in the eastern US should be transferred to reservations in the Midwest. Most Seminole were determined to stay, which ignited the Second Seminole War; the Native Americans were steadily driven south, away from the fertile lands of central Florida and into the Everglades, where they eventually agreed to remain. Florida became the 27th state on March 3, 1845, around the same time that the nascent railroad system first brought prosperity to the area.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the country’s newspapers extolled the curative virtues of Florida’s climate, and northern speculators invested their fortunes. These early efforts to promote Florida as a tourist destination brought in the wintering rich: the likes of Henry Flagler and Henry Plant extended their railroads and opened luxury resorts here. After World War I, everyone wanted a piece of Florida, and chartered trains brought in thousands of eager buyers. But most deals were only as solid as the paper they were written on, and in 1926 the banks began to default. The Wall Street Crash then made paupers of the millionaires whose investments had helped shape the state.
What saved Florida was World War II. During the war, thousands of troops arrived to guard the coastline, providing a taste of Florida that would entice many to return; postwar, the government expanded its facilities in and around Jacksonville, Tampa and Pensacola, bringing in thousands of residents and billions of investment dollars. Furthermore, in the mid-Sixties, the state government bent over backwards to help the Disney Corporation turn a sizeable slice of central Florida into Walt Disney World. Its enormous commercial success helped solidify Florida’s place in the international tourist market.
Behind the optimistic facade, however, lie many problems. Gun laws remain notoriously lax, and the multimillion-dollar drug trade shows few signs of abating – at least a quarter of the cocaine entering the US is said to arrive via Florida. Recently, too, the environment along Florida’s Gulf Coast was imperilled by 2010’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill. While the area has largely recovered from the disaster, the state filed suit against the oil company and its contractor in 2013, hoping to recoup some of the estimated billions of dollars it lost in tax income.
Florida’s East Coast presents a tremendously built-up mix of hotels, resorts, beaches and affluent developments north of Miami all the way to St Augustine. This is not to say this section of Florida is without merit, but it’s a lot less laidback than the state’s western Gulf Coast. Fort Lauderdale, no longer the party town of popular imagination, is today a sophisticated cultural centre with a bubbling, increasingly upmarket social scene. To the north, Boca Raton and Palm Beach are quiet, exclusive communities, their Mediterranean Revival mansions inhabited almost entirely by multimillionaires. Beyond Palm Beach, the coast is less developed; even the Space Coast, anchored by the extremely popular Kennedy Space Center, is smack in the middle of a nature preserve. Just north, Daytona Beach attracts race car- and motorcycle-enthusiasts with its festivals and the Daytona International Speedway. Just south of the Georgia state line, St Augustine is the spot where Spanish settlers established the first permanent European foothold in North America.
By car, the scenic route along the coast is Hwy-A1A, which sticks to the ocean side of the Intracoastal Waterway, formed when the rivers dividing the mainland from the barrier islands were joined and deepened during World War II. When necessary, Hwy-A1A turns inland and links with the much less picturesque US-1. The speediest road in the region, I-95, runs about ten miles west of the coastline, and is only worthwhile if you’re in a hurry.
Forty miles north of Daytona Beach, US-1 passes through the heart of charismatic ST AUGUSTINE. Eminently walkable, with a densely packed city centre and a Mediterranean feel, it bucks the daunting sprawl of much of Florida’s East Coast. The oldest permanent settlement in the US, with much from its early days still intact along its narrow streets, it also offers two alluring lengths of beach just across Matanzas Bay.
Bordered on the west by St George Street – once the main thoroughfare and now a tourist-trampled, though genuinely historic, pedestrianized strip, its entrance anchored by the eighteenth-century City Gate – and on the south by Plaza de la Constitución, St Augustine’s Old Town holds the well-tended evidence of the town’s Spanish period. It may be small, but there’s a lot to see: an early start, around 9am, will give you a lead on the tourist crowds, and should allow a good look at almost everything in one day.
Though Ponce de León touched ground here in 1513, European settlement didn’t begin until half a century later, when Spain’s Pedro Menéndez de Avilés put ashore on St Augustine’s Day in 1565. The town developed into a major social and administrative centre, soon to become the capital of east Florida. Subsequently, Tallahassee became the capital of a unified Florida, and St Augustine’s fortunes waned. Since then, expansion has largely bypassed the town – a fact inadvertently facilitating the restoration programme that has turned this quiet community into a fine historical showcase.
The Kennedy Space Center is the nucleus of the US space programme: it’s here that space vehicles are developed, tested and blasted into orbit. Merritt Island has been the centre of NASA’s activity since 1964, when the launch pads at Cape Canaveral US Air Force base, across the water, proved too small to cope with the giant new Saturn V rockets used to launch the Apollo missions. With the shuttle Atlantis in 2011, NASA concluded its manned launch programme for the foreseeable future; hundreds of workers were phased out and the area businesses that catered to them have taken a bit of a hit.
Crowds are thinnest at weekends and in May and September – but at any time, allow an entire day to see everything. The various exhibits in the Visitor Complex – mission capsules, spacesuits, lunar modules, a mock-up Space Shuttle flight deck – will keep anyone with the slightest interest in space exploration interested for a couple of hours. Afterwards, be sure to watch the two impressive IMAX movies and take a stroll around the open-air Rocket Garden, full of deceptively simple rockets from the 1950s, cleverly illuminated to show how they looked at blast-off. The newest attraction is the Shuttle Launch Experience, a simulation ride where passengers get to see what it’s like to be an astronaut, vertically “launching” into space and orbiting Earth aboard the Space Shuttle. The remainder of the visit is comprised of a two-hour guided bus tour, which passes the 52-storey Vehicle Assembly Building (where Space Shuttles are prepared for launch), stops to view the launch pad and winds up with an opportunity to inspect a Saturn V rocket and witness a simulated Apollo countdown. For the dates and times of real-life launches, check the website, or sign up for event reminders by email.
Near the Space Center, on Hwy-405 in Titusville, the Astronaut Hall of Fame (included with regular admission) is one of Florida’s most entertaining interactive museums, where exhibits allow you to experience G-force and a bumpy ride along the surface of Mars.
One of the country’s most celebrated natural areas, the EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK is a vast, tranquil wildlife reserve, with a subtle, raw appeal that lies in stark contrast to America’s more rugged national parks. The most dramatic sights are small pockets of trees poking above a completely flat sawgrass plain, yet these wide-open spaces resonate with life, forming part of an ever-changing ecosystem that evolved through a unique combination of climate, vegetation and wildlife.
Though it appears to be flat as a table-top, the limestone on which the Everglades stands tilts very slightly towards the southwest. For thousands of years, water from summer storms and the overflow of nearby Lake Okeechobee has moved slowly through the Everglades towards the coast. The water replenishes the sawgrass, which grows on a thin layer of soil formed by decaying vegetation. This gives birth to the algae at the base of a complex food chain that sustains much larger creatures – most importantly alligators. After the floodwaters have reached the sea, drained through the bedrock, or simply evaporated, the Everglades are barren except for the water accumulated in ponds – or “gator holes” – created when an alligator senses water and clears the soil covering it with its tail. Sawgrass covers much of the Everglades, but where natural indentations in the limestone fill with soil, fertile tree islands – or “hammocks” – appear, just high enough to stand above the floodwaters.
In the nineteenth century, the Seminole and Miccosukee Native American tribes were forced to live hunter-gatherer existences in the Everglades, and still maintain a sizeable presence here. By the late 1800s, a few towns had sprung up, peopled by settlers who, unlike the Native Americans, looked to exploit the land. As Florida’s population grew, the damage caused by hunting, road building and draining for farmland gave rise to a significant conservation lobby. In 1947, a section of the Everglades was declared a national park, which today affords federal protection to a comparatively small area at the southern tip of the Florida peninsula. Urban development over the last century has edged the Everglades’ boundaries further south, and unrestrained commercial use of nearby areas continues to upset the region’s natural cycle. The 1200 miles of canals built to divert the flow of water away from the Everglades and toward the state’s expanding cities, the poisoning caused by agricultural chemicals from local farmlands, and the broader changes wrought by global warming could yet turn Florida’s greatest natural asset into a wasteland.
Warm sunshine and blue skies are almost always the norm in Florida. The state does, however, split into two climatic zones: subtropical in the south and warm temperate in the north. Orlando and points south have a mild season from October to April, with warm temperatures and low humidity – this is the peak tourist season, when prices are highest. Conversely, the southern summer (May–Sept) brings high humidity and afternoon storms; the rewards for braving the mugginess are lower prices and fewer tourists.
North of Orlando, winter is the off-peak period, even though daytime temperatures are generally comfortable (although snow has been known to fall on the Panhandle). During the northern Florida summer, the crowds arrive, and the days and nights are hot and very humid. Bear in mind that June to November is hurricane season, and there is a strong possibility of major storms throughout the entire state.
Encompassing a broad and fertile expanse between the east and west coasts, most of Central Florida was farming and ranching country when vacation-mania first hit the state’s coastal strips. From the 1970s on, this tranquil picture was shattered: no section of the state has been affected more dramatically by modern tourism. A clutter of highway interchanges, motels and billboards now arch around the sprawling city of ORLANDO, which welcomes more visitors than any other place in the state. The reason, of course, is Walt Disney World, the biggest and cleverest theme-park complex ever created, along with Universal Orlando and a host of other attractions, though the downtown area still holds the city’s best nightlife.
Accommodation in Orlando Theme Parks
If you’re on a budget, or want to spend time visiting the other parks, you’d do best to stay outside Walt Disney World. The chain hotels on International Drive are close to universal orlando and seaWorld orlando, with numerous restaurants and shops within walking distance. Plenty of hotels are dotted around disney property in an area called Lake Buena Vista, while budget hotels – and even a hostel – line Hwy-192 (also close to disney). Downtown Orlando has a handful of charming, privately run hotels and B&Bs.
An animal-conservation theme park with Disney’s patented over-the-top twist, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park was opened in 1998. The park, home to 250 species and some 1700 animals, is divided into seven “lands” – Africa, Asia, Discovery Island, Oasis, Camp Minnie-Mickey, DinoLand U.S.A. and Rafiki’s Planet Watch – with Africa and Asia being the most visually impressive, each re-creating the natural landscapes and exotic atmosphere of these two continents with admirable attention to detail.
The best-realized attraction is Africa’s Kilimanjaro Safaris, where a jeep takes you on what feels very much like a real African safari, to view giraffes, zebras, elephants, lions, gazelles and rhinos, as well as take part in anti-poacher manoeuvres. Elsewhere in Africa, the troop of lowland gorillas at the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail are definitely worth a look. Crossing over to Asia, you’ll get an astounding up-close look at the healthiest-looking tigers in captivity at the Maharajah Jungle Trek. DinoLand U.S.A.’s Dinosaur is a slower but still exciting ride full of small drops and short stops in the dark while scary dinosaurs pop out of nowhere.
The pick of the locals’ eating haunts are downtown and around; most visitors, however, head for International Drive’s inexpensive all-day buffets and gourmet restaurants. you are not allowed to take food into any of the theme parks, where the best restaurants are in Epcot’s World Showcase – particularly the French- and Mexican-themed establishments.
The closure of the nightclubs at Disney’s shopping and entertainment complex, Downtown Disney, several years ago means that orlando’s nightspots are now concentrated in two main areas, each with a quite different atmosphere. Citywalk, part of universal orlando (6000 universal Blvd; citywalkorlando.com), consists of thirty acres of restaurants, dance clubs and shops wedged between universal studios and islands of adventure. away from the theme parks, downtown Orlando has a large, eclectic and much more appealing crop of bars, lounges and clubs. most of the after-dark action happens along orange avenue.
One of Orlando's big-three theme parks, SeaWorld offers acres of ocean-related attractions, whale and dolphin shows and thrill rides, attracting some five million visitors a year. However, since the release of the 2013 film Blackfish, an exposé on the dangers and questionable ethics of keeping killer whales in captivity, it has been embroiled in an epic PR disaster. Visitor numbers and stock price have both been hit, and several airlines, tour operators and performing artists such as Willie Nelson have ended their ties with the brand.
Given the global opportunities to watch whales and dolphins in the wild, SeaWorld's use of these fiercely intelligent marine mammals for entertainment seems increasingly anachronistic; its recent pledge to invest more money in research and enlarge its killer whale enclosures is unlikely to see a U-turn in public or corporate opinion any time soon.
When the brilliant illustrator and animator Walt Disney devised the world’s first theme park, California’s Disneyland, he left himself with no control over the hotels and restaurants that quickly engulfed it, preventing growth and erasing profits Disney felt were rightly his. Determined not to let that happen again, the Disney corporation secretly bought up 27,500 acres of central Florida farmland, acquiring by the late 1960s a site a hundred times bigger than Disneyland. With the promise of a jobs bonanza for Florida, the state legislature gave the corporation the rights of any major municipality (via a special jurisdiction called the Reedy Creek Improvement District), empowering it to lay roads, enact building codes and enforce the law with its own security force.
Walt Disney World’s first “land”, the Magic Kingdom, opened in 1971, and was a huge success. Unveiled in 1982, the far more ambitious Epcot represented the first major break from cartoon- based escapism – but its rose-tinted look at the future received a mixed response at the time. Partly due to this, and to some bad management decisions, the Disney empire (Disney himself died in 1966) faced bankruptcy by the mid-1980s. Since then, the corporation has sprung back from the abyss, and steers a tight and competitive ship that encompasses broadcast networks, publishing and movies – as well as a substantial merchandising arm. It may trade in fantasy, but when it comes to money, the Disney Corporation deals in the real world.
For some years, it seemed that TV and film production would move away from California to Florida, which, with its lower taxes and cheaper labour, was more amenable. The opening of Universal Studios in 1990 appeared to confirm that trend. So far, though, for various reasons, Florida has not proved to be a fully realistic alternative. Even so, this hasn’t stopped the Universal Studios enclave here, known as Universal Orlando, from becoming a major player in the Orlando theme-park arena. Though Disney World still commands the lion’s share of attention, Universal has siphoned off many visitors with its high-tech movie-themed attractions and the excellent thrill rides at Islands of Adventure. And with all the nightclubs at Disney now closed, CityWalk has become the main competition to downtown Orlando for nightlife dollars . Furthermore, Universal has achieved fully fledged resort status with its three luxurious on-site hotels.
As significant as air conditioning in making the state what it is today, WALT DISNEY WORLD turned a wedge of Florida farmland into one of the world’s most lucrative holiday destinations. The immense and astutely planned empire also pushed the state’s media profile through the roof: from being a down-at-heel mix of cheap motels, retirement homes and alligator zoos, Florida became a showcase of modern international tourism overnight.
Disney World is the pacesetter among theme parks. It goes way beyond Disneyland – which opened in Anaheim, California, in 1955 – delivering escapism at its most technologically advanced and psychologically brilliant, across an area twice the size of Manhattan. Its four main theme parks are quite separate entities and, ideally, you should allow at least a full day for each. The Magic Kingdom is the Disney park of popular imagination, where Mickey mingles with the crowds – very much the park for kids, though at its high-tech best capable of captivating even the most jaded adult. Known for its giant, golfball-like geosphere, Epcot is Disney’s celebration of science, technology and world cultures; this sprawling area involves a lot of walking, and young children may grow restless. The smaller Disney’s Hollywood Studios takes its inspiration from movies, TV and music, offering some good thrill rides and live shows that will appeal to all ages. The newest of the four, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park, brings all manner of African and Asian wildlife to the theme-park setting.
Along with the main parks, other forms of entertainment have been created to keep people on Disney property for as long as possible. There are two excellent water parks, Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon, a sports complex called Disney’s Wide World of Sports and Downtown Disney, where you can eat, drink and shop to your heart’s content.
Rubbing hard against Alabama in the west and Georgia in the north, the long, narrow Panhandle has much more in common with the states of the Deep South than with the rest of Florida. Hard to believe, then, that just over a century ago, the Panhandle was Florida. At the western edge, Pensacola was a busy port when Miami was still a swamp. Fertile soils lured wealthy plantation owners south, helping to establish Tallahassee as a high-society gathering place and administrative centre – a role which, as the state capital, it retains. But the decline of cotton, deforestation and the coming of the East Coast railroad eventually left the Panhandle high and dry. Much of the inland region still seems neglected, and the Apalachicola National Forest is perhaps the best place in Florida to disappear into the wilderness. The coastal Panhandle, on the other hand, is enjoying better times: despite rows of hotels, much is still untainted, boasting miles of blinding white sands.
In the three hundred miles from the state’s southern tip to the junction with the Panhandle, Florida’s West Coast embraces all the extremes. Buzzing, youthful towns rise behind placid fishing hamlets; mobbed holiday strips lie just minutes from desolate swamplands; and a world-class art collection competes with a glitzy theme park. Surprises are plentiful, though the coast’s one constant is proximity to the Gulf of Mexico – and sunset views rivalled only by those of the Florida Keys.
The west coast’s largest city, Tampa, has more to offer than its corporate towers initially suggest – not least the lively nightlife scene in the Cuban enclave of Ybor City, and the Busch Gardens theme park. For the mass of visitors, though, the Tampa Bay area begins and ends with the St Petersburg beaches, whose miles of sea and sand are undiluted holiday territory. South of Tampa, a string of barrier-island beaches run the length of the Gulf (including those on beautiful Anna Maria Island), and the mainland towns that provide access to them – such as Sarasota and Fort Myers – have enough to warrant a stop.