Theme parks and Gulf Coast beaches instantly say family holidays in Florida. So you might be surprised to find there are all sorts of ‘hidden gems’ here which don’t involve rollercoasters. Join Andrew Dent on an action-packed family adventure in Ocala and Lake County.
Of course holidays in Florida are always near the top of any family wish list. For most, it’s the lure of Orlando’s theme parks that tempt. Although the myriad beaches and road trips down the Florida Keys are equally appealing. Whichever calls, these options are amazing and I highly recommend you do them at least once.
However, it’s also worth exploring off the beaten track, as I recently found out in Ocala and Lake County, Florida.
Ocala County: dive into the Rainbow River
Ocala is in Ocala/Marion County, a 90 minutes drive north of both Orlando and Tampa, and you may not know it, unless you happen to be a world-class equestrian champion. More of that later.
Our first stop was Rainbow River, part of the KP Hole Park in Dunnellon. A National Natural Landmark, this is one of the most beautiful spots I have ever visited and I can highly recommend the Rainbow River Classic Tube Ride – a four-hour excursion on the crystal clear river.
Perfect for kids, it’s not too strenuous and much of the time you’re simply floating with the current. You can even head into some of the channels off the main river that immerse you in what could easily be an Amazon backwater.
The water temperature is a pleasant 22°, which in the heat of summer is perfect. Indeed, I spent much of the trip just floating down the water with my kayak attached to my ankle! There are some great family rental homes along the river too, so it’s worth checking out as a holiday base.
Add ziplining highs to holidays in Florida
Our next stop in the search for family fun was The Canyons Zip Line & Canopy Tours. Designed around a reclaimed quarry, the park offers a range of ziplining experiences, we went for the one and only Big Cliff Canyon tour! This adventure takes up to three hours and lets you tackle nine different ziplines including one of the longest in the USA at an incredible 300m! I can confirm soaring across the water, traversing sky bridges and rappelling serves up as great an adrenalin rush as any rollercoaster. Worth noting: the minimum age for the Big Cliff Canyon Tour is 10 years.
If ziplining is too adventurous, there are also horseback tours which run simultaneously and handily take about the same amount of time. So you can easily split your group and all meet up at the end to swap stories.
Drop in on the World Equestrian Center
Ocala is also home to the World Equestrian Center: an extraordinary mecca for everything horse. Not being a horsey sort of person, I had no idea anything like this even existed!
The largest such facility in the United States, the center has multiple indoor and outdoor arenas, plus a 248-room luxury hotel with all sorts of retail and dining options. The vast walls are covered with a stunning collection of paintings of horses and dogs, much like a modern-day Chatsworth House. And even if you have no interest in horses, I would definitely recommend a visit, or a stay.
All holidays in Florida need Silver Springs State Park
No trip to Ocala County is complete without a visit to Silver Springs State Park. Long before Walt Disney arrived in Florida, Silver Springs was already a bona fide leisure attraction and the Glass Bottom Boat tours, which are still popular today, have been operating since the 1920s.
In fact, Hollywood studios have used the stunningly clear waters to film a series of underwater scenes. No fewer than six Tarzan movies were made here, as well as the James Bond movie, Moonraker.
To make the most of your trip to Silver Springs, get out on the water yourself. There are paddleboards and kayaks to rent by the hour and although you can’t actually get into the water here – unlike Rainbow River – there’s plenty to see from your board. On a good day you’ll spot manatees, turtles, lots of fish and alligators (hopefully just dozing on the bank).
Ocala County isn’t well known, yet. That’s all part of the charm. But it’s an easy add-on to any Orlando trip, or to holidays in Florida generally. Although to be honest, it deserves a place on your to-do list all by itself.
Lake County: a natural wonderland just 45 minutes from Orlando
Lake County, Florida lies just a 45-minute drive north west of Orlando and it’s a veritable smorgasbord of family fun.
Here you can kayak, hike, sail, ride horses and get involved with all manner of eco-tourism. Kids will be thrilled to see alligators as well as flocks of colourful birds. And zooming across the lakes in mini catamarans is just as much fun, in its own way, as Orlando’s nearby theme parks.
Try the world’s largest outdoor 4 x 4 adventure
Our first stop was at The Showcase of Citrus in Clermont. A great experience for kids, the Monster Truck Tour here claims to be the world’s largest 4×4 outdoor adventure and gives you an amazing view of the working citrus farm and surrounding swampland. Keep your eyes peeled and you’ll almost certainly spy alligators basking in the sun. Then make sure to try a glass of the local orange juice before continuing on to Mount Dora.
Mount Dora brings charm to family holidays in Florida
Mount Dora is a charming little spot on the shore of Lake Dora, probably the best known of the Lake County lakes. We stayed at the historic Lakeside Inn which dates back to 1883 – old for America, let alone Florida! However, Mount Dora also offers a wide range of accommodation including a choice of family-friendly holiday home rentals.
Although, Lakeside Inn is great for families. Sitting right on the lakefront, it features a large swimming pool and is an easy walk to both Mount Dora town and Mount Dora Boating Center.
At the Boating Center you can take a ‘Catboat Tour’. This is basically a two-person water go-kart which lets you rip across Lake Dora and its neighbouring lakes, Beauclair and Carlton. During the 90-minute tour you get up close to all sorts of birds and wildlife, kids love it and adults do too.
Soothe or scuba dive at Alexander Springs
Another great activity for the kids in Lake County, Florida is a visit to Alexander Springs. A natural spring that gushes out 70 million gallons of water a day at a steady 22°, it’s like a massive natural swimming pool surrounded by subtropical vegetation. The springs are both deep enough to scuba dive and large enough to kayak. Take a picnic and stay for at least half-a-day, it’s well worth your time and, again, feels like a million miles away from Orlando.
Lake County is a real find and should certainly be considered as a bolt-on to an Orlando trip if you have the time. Or, even better, base your family here and visit the theme parks for the day and return to the charm (and relative good value) of Mount Dora.
How to plan alternative holidays in Florida
How to get there
Direct UK flights to Orlando take from 9 hours.
Ocala is 90-minutes drive from Orlando and Lake County is about 45-minutes.
Where to stay in Ocala
Hilton Ocala and the Equestrian Hotel. Seven nights fully-inclusive with intermediate car hire, including 5-nights room-only at Hilton Ocala and 2-nights B&B at the Equestrian Hotel. From £5,875. Based on 2 adults and 2 children and including return flights from Gatwick to Orlando on British Airways.
Where to stay in Lake County
Lakeside Inn, Mount Dora. Seven nights fully-inclusive with intermediate car hire or 7-nights room-only, from £5,740. Based on 2 adults and 2 children and including return flights from Gatwick to Orlando on British Airways.
Good to know
To find out more about Lake County go to Discover Lake County Florida
Take a closer look at Mount Dora Boating Center
Find out more about The Canyons Zip Line & Canopy Tours
Visit the World Equestrian Center
Discover another side to family holidays in Florida at Silver Springs State Park
Image credits: Visit Florida; Jason Frankle; Scott Wesson; Scott Sporleder; Forrest Mankins; Julie Fletcher