Plan the ULTIMATE Florida Road Trip
By Helen Wright
From beautiful beaches to quirky towns, foodie hotspots and theme parks galore, the Sunshine State is the perfect place to jump in the car and start exploring. However, with so many great destinations and over 65,000 square miles to choose from, planning a Florida road trip can be daunting. There is so much to see and do. Where do you start?
We recently followed the sun and hit the road for a two-week Florida road trip and had the best time. Travelling with our children, Finn, 5, and Isobel, 3, it was the biggest road trip we’ve done as a family of four. We did wonder if moving from place to place might be a hassle with two young kids, but it was quite the opposite. They had a blast! Changing destinations every few days meant they were constantly exploring new and exciting places or trying different activities, so there was no time to get bored.
Below, I have detailed our tried and tested Florida itinerary, which I think is perfect for your first Florida road trip. Not only do you get to experience Florida’s natural beauty and native wildlife, but some of our favourite spots were lesser-known Florida destinations (especially to us Brits) that turned out to be amazing places to visit. Leaving from Orlando, we stopped at Cocoa Beach, Florida’s Space Coast, Crystal River, Tampa and Anna Maria Island, making for the perfect mix of beach days, fun attractions, beautiful sunsets and great food. If you want to extend your trip or try something different, I have also added some extra suggestions and alternatives at the end too.
For our itinerary, you need 16 days (including travel days). It can be done in less, but for maximum Florida fun and to make the most of every place, we recommend allowing a couple of extra days for your two-week Florida road trip if you can.
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The ultimate Florida road trip itinerary
FLY TO: ORLANDO INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
We flew from London Heathrow to Orlando with Virgin Atlantic and they have long been our favourite airline with whom to fly to the USA. We’ve always found them to be so friendly and accommodating with kids, plus the new planes (both on the Orlando and Tampa routes) are gorgeous. (Return fares in ecomony from £392 virginatlantic.com).
STOP ONE: ORLANDO
Get ready for theme park fun and lots of walking (in a good way).
STAY: MARGARITAVILLE RESORT ORLANDO
We rented the cutest cottage at Margaritaville Resort Orlando for the first stop on our Florida road trip. The resort has little streets lined with Key West-style rainbow houses and our two-bedroom cottage was perfectly sized for a family of four. We had our own kitchen and living space, but access to the resort’s amazing facilities, such as the huge lagoon pool and Finn’s Up Beach Club (pool bar and entertainment) as well as choice of bars and restaurants on the property. Plus, Walt Disney World is only a 10-minute drive away.
Considering staying at a Disney or Universal Resort hotel? This post on the pros and cons may help you decide.
Florida Road Trip DAY ONE:
WALT DISNEY WORLD: MAGIC KINGDOM AND ANIMAL KINGDOM
No trip to Orlando is complete without a bit of theme park fun, so our first stop was the one that started it all: Walt Disney World. On an Orlando trip specifically dedicated to Disney, we’d have planned much longer in the parks, but since we were soon to be setting off on our Florida road trip, we had a more condensed and relaxed visit to Walt Disney World and it was great.
First, we headed to Magic Kingdom for a glimpse at Cinderella Castle, to watch the parades and ride classic attractions like ‘It’s a Small World’ and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’. Before leaving, we stopped to meet Mickey and Minnie at the Main Street Theater – a must! After lunch, we hopped to a different Disney Park, Animal Kingdom. Here we went ‘on safari’ and watched one of my favourite Disney shows ‘Festival of the Lion King’. Taking advantage of the paid-for ‘lightning lane’, Simon and I also rode the epic Avatar: Flight of Passage. We had dinner at Nomad Lounge (inside the park) before going back to Magic Kingdom for fireworks over the castle. It was a long day, but so worth it!
EAT AT: Nomad Lounge at Animal Kingdom and ask for the off-menu Lobster Mac and Cheese.
TOP TIP: You now need park reservations for Walt Disney World. Once you have your park tickets (always buy in advance), you can make reservations on the official Walt Disney World app or online via My Disney Experience. After 2pm, you can hop to any park without a reservation.
DAY TWO: EPCOT AND Disney’s Hollywood Studios
Having two excited kids meant another Disney day for us. This time, we combined the other two main Disney parks, Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Starting at Hollywood Studios, it was all about Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and Pixar favourite, Toy Story Land. After lunch at Docking Bay 7 (try Ronto Roosters), it was over to EPCOT for a ride on the new Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind rollercoaster and a stroll around World Showcase Lake before the Harmonious Fireworks.
EAT AT: The new Space 220 Restaurant that gives the illusion of dining in space (reservations 60 days in advance usually required but there is a standby line) or failing that, get a giant pizza from Via Napoli and share.
TOP TIP: Look for special events happening during your visit, such as Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party at Walt Disney World
DAY THREE: Pool day!
After two busy days, an afternoon sipping cocktails by the pool is highly recommended. We spent the day chilling out at the resort before a spot of retail therapy at the Orlando Premium Outlets.
EAT AT: Rocco’s Tacos on I-drive. A fun, Mexican restaurant bar with delicious nachos and killer cocktails for the over-21s.
DAY FOUR: UNIVERSAL ORLANDO
There are so many things to do in Orlando, for inspiration, check out our post on the best non-theme park activities. You will have no problem filling your time here, but we decided to head to Universal Orlando Resort to check out Jurassic Park (and the Jurassic World VelociCoaster) and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Park reservations are not required here, but getting tickets in advance from the UK is recommended. It was another long, yet brilliant day, ending with the Nighttime Lights over Hogwarts.
EAT AT: The CowFish. A burger / sushi bar at Universal Citywalk (just outside the theme parks) with excellent food and delicious cocktails.
Florida Road Trip Itinerary: on the road from Orlando
We rented a car from Sixt via holidayautos.co.uk (booked in advance from the UK) and picked it up at Orlando International Airport when we arrived. For tips on renting a car and driving in the USA, we have a designated post on car hire and driving tips, which I highly recommend.
FLORIDA ROAD TRIP DAY FIVE: COCOA BEACH
Cool your jets on Florida’s space coast
DRIVE TO COCOA BEACH FROM ORLANDO: 1hr (59 MILES)
Many visitors who want to escape the hustle and bustle head to the beach and the closest one to Orlando is Cocoa Beach on Florida’s Space Coast. This funky surf town is only a one-hour drive and known for its blue waters, Atlantic waves, and general ‘cool dude’ vibe.
STAY: Hampton Inn Cocoa Beach
On a road trip like this, a great way to manage your budget is to mix up your accommodation styles. In Cocoa Beach, we knew we wouldn’t be spending a lot of time at the hotel and this classic chain was basic yet comfortable, right on the beach and with reasonable rates. Saving money this way means more to spend in destinations where you plan to relax at your hotel or want to spread out.
You can find a good spot on the beach almost anywhere along Florida’s Space Coast. We headed to Lori Wilson Park. This beach park is at the centre of Cocoa Beach but not too busy. With full-time lifeguards present during the day, sand dunes and calm and shallow water, it’s ideal for younger children to play safely.
In the afternoon, we had a look around the original Ron Jon Surf Shop (now a museum too), found some of the colourful beach murals that can be found around the city. There is also a quirky dinosaur museum. Read our full post on what to do in Cocoa Beach or check out www.visitspacecoast.com
EAT AT: Coconuts on the Beach. This flip-flop friendly bar is right on the sand, with live music, fresh seafood and excellent cocktails.
FLORIDA ROAD TRIP DAY SIX: KENNEDY SPACE CENTER
DRIVE FROM COCOA BEACH TO KENNEDY SPACE CENTER: 20 MINS (19 MILES)
With Disney and Universal ticked off the list, we headed to one of Florida’s most underrated attractions: Kennedy Space Center. This is an active rocket launch site, currently hosting the Artemis Space Program and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, which makes now a very exciting time to visit. We all had the most fantastic day. The tourist center is packed with memorabilia, immersive attractions and an EPIC space-themed soft play. We loved it!
EAT AT: Grills Tiki Bar. On the route back to the hotel at Cocoa Beach, this Tiki Bar is always buzzing, with live music and a front row seat for every rocket launch.
Related post: where to eat in Cocoa Beach.
Florida road trip DAY SEVEN: CRYSTAL RIVER
The only place in the USA that you can swim with wild manatees
DRIVE TO CRYSTAL RIVER FROM COCOA BEACH: 2HR 30MINS
Described as Florida’s nature coast, Crystal River is a beautiful little spot north west of Orlando. Crystal River is best known for being the hub for manatee migration, with over 400 of the endangered mammals moving in during the winter months. The area celebrates the best of Florida’s natural beauty with gateways to the Gulf of Mexico and a network of natural spring-fed rivers and lakes.
TOP TIP: On a road trip with young children, try and schedule your driving time during a natural nap or after an active morning. They are more likely to drop off in the car and it makes the journey easier and more relaxed for everyone.
STAY: Hampton Inn by Hilton
This simple hotel more than fulfilled our needs. Centrally located with free parking and friendly staff.
If you follow us on social media, you may have seen one of the most popular and talked about things we did on this road trip was this incredible airboat tour with ozelloboats.com. Zooming into the gulf we had the most amazing trip, surrounded by dolphins in a truly beautiful experience. This was hands down one of the best things we’ve ever done as a family and the kids were blown away (almost literally because it’s very breezy out on those boats, you know…)
Late afternoon, we went for a wander around Crystal River’s historic downtown. This most charming of towns prioritises local businesses and there are no large chains or supermarkets in sight. The main road, Citrus Avenue, has an eclectic range of boutiques and makers markets and some cute and cosy coffee shops. We had lunch at Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters. More than just a coffee joint (although the coffee is great), we devoured huge sandwiches from a creative menu that were more than enough to keep us full all day!
EAT AT: For dinner, we chose Kane’s Steak House. A local restaurant with their own cattle farm. kanescattleco.com
DAY EIGHT: CRYSTAL RIVER
We were up early today to go manatee swimming with Hunter Springs Kayaks, a local company with complete knowledge of the best areas to swim and see manatees in Crystal River. Since we visited in October and the main migration season is later in the year, we didn’t see a huge number of manatees, but were able to swim for a while with a manatee and a curious calf, which was amazing.
In the afternoon, we explored the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park (and saw Lu, the oldest hippo in the world). The area has lots of walking trails, a variety of marine life – including manatee – and an underwater viewing room.
EAT AT: New Orleans-style restaurant, Seafood Seller, is an almost speakeasy-like, vibrant ‘ma and pa’ restaurant serving Cajun delights. seafoodsellerandcafe.net
FLORIDA ROAD TRIP
DAY NINE: TAMPA
Florida’s most underrated destination.
DRIVE TO TAMPA FROM CRYSTAL RIVER: 1HR 20 MINS (80 MILES)
Tampa is an incredible US-city, largely overlooked by the higher profile destinations of Orlando and Miami. Hoever, in recent years Tampa has been attracting more attention in Florida. Virgin Atlantic now fly direct to Tampa (with their brand new A330 Neo planes) and there is so much to do for couples, families and solo travellers. We were surprised at how many things there were to do, but the standout memory was the consistently great food we had all over the city.
STAY: Hotel Tampa Riverwalk
This hotel (formally the Sheraton Riverwalk) has recently had a slick makeover and sits right on the river with some rooms benefitting from spectacular sunset views.
Arriving in Tampa Bay, we welcomed the opportunity to ditch the car for a bit and explore the city on foot and by public transport. Tampa has a vintage streetcar service which takes you around the curvature of the bay and is free of charge. You can also travel around the bay by water taxi and even spot manatee and dolphins if you are lucky. But mostly, Tampa is a fantastic walking city, with the accessible Riverwalk perfect for skateboarders, bikes, wheelchairs, strollers and going for a wander both day and night. Ybor City is the historic part of Tampa and I was charmed by the beautiful Spanish tiles and Cuban influences.
After a walk through Sparkman Wharf, which has sea views, food stalls and live entertainment or viewing screens most days, we headed up the Riverwalk, stopping for a few hours at Glazier Children’s Museum (as seen on Blippi) to let the kids play. There was so much to do, we could have stayed there all day. Further up, we reached trendy food hall, Armature Works, stopping for lunch with a choice of pizza, sushi, BBQ grill, burgers, steak – you name it. Ideal for groups.
EAT AT: Ulele. For dinner, this industrial restaurant serves stupendous food in a gorgeous setting, with a menu based on Native American flavours. ulele.com
DAY 10: TAMPA
Being a big city, Tampa has ample shopping, theatres and sports events, as well as a yearly calendar of festivals, so it’s always worth checking visittampabay.com to see if anything is going on during your stay. There are also so many great attractions, including Zoo Tampa, Raymond James Stadium – the home to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – and multiple boat trips and excursions. With younger children, we decided to explore the brilliant Florida Aquarium, but thrill seekers and bigger kids might prefer high octane theme park, Busch Gardens for the day instead.
EAT AT: Goody Goody Burgers, a retro diner that has been a Tampa staple since 1925 and also does great breakfasts goodygoodyburgers.com.
FLORIDA ROAD TRIP
DAY 11: ANNA MARIA ISLAND, BRadenton
Home to the most beautiful (secret) beach in Florida
DRIVE FROM TAMPA TO ANNA MARIA ISLAND: 1HR (55 MILES)
Anna Maria Island is the bucket list Florida destination you didn’t know existed. Basking in a sunny spot on Florida’s west coast, Anna Maria Island is an idyllic beach town with views over the Gulf of Mexico. This charming coastal city has possibly the best beach in Florida, with some spectacular sunsets, best enjoyed with a fruity cocktail in hand. Plus, there are so many things to do in Anna Maria Island, you’ll be easily entertained or can choose to unwind and embrace those laid-back Florida vibes. More about the island’s location and surrounding area of Bradenton can be found on the official site bradentongulfislands.com
STAY: Rent a holiday home with Anna Maria Vacations
We opted for a cottage-style home with contemporary beach interiors, two double bedrooms and a full kitchen. The small complex has a shared pool and gardens and was walking distance to Bean Point. annamaria.com/vacation-rentals
Everything about Anna Maria Island is about relaxing and enjoying the beautiful beach location. The island certainly embraces that ‘island’ feel, with people mostly walking or cycling everywhere and few cars. Most visitors swap their car for electric golf carts, which makes for relaxed roads as well as being excellent for the environment. Arriving at our new cottage, it was a great opportunity to relax, have a dip in the pool and check out the local beach, Bean Point.
EAT AT: The Sandbar, an on-the-beach restaurant celebrated mostly for its top location and spectacular sunset views. sandbardining.com
DAY 12: Anna Maria Island
It’s really all about the beach on Anna Maria Island, but aiming for a bit of exercise and an adventure before getting sandy, we rented bikes from Beach Bums AMI and set off to explore the island. We made a stop at the Rod and Reel Pier, grabbing a drink at the end and watching people fishing off the deck. Then, heading back to the main street on the island, Pine Avenue, we shopped in the colourful local boutiques, made our own doughnuts at Donut Experiment and fooled around at the oddest tourist attraction in town, the old jail.
After that we stayed at the beach all afternoon until sunset, which was divine.
EAT AT: Poppo’s Taqueria, an unassuming little taco bar that serves delicious food. Everything is fresh, locally sourced and ethical – and tastes great. They even do cocktails in carboard containers, so you can take away a picnic to the beach poppostaqueria.com
DAYS 13 and 14: ANNA MARIA ISLAND
Our amazing Florida road trip was coming to an end and the last part of the trip was focused on relaxing and enjoying the beautiful beach and Florida’s sunny disposition. For more places to explore and eat or drink, see our full post on exploring Anna Maria Island
FLY HOME FROM: Tampa International Airport with Virgin Atlantic (1HR DRIVE FROM ANNA MARIA ISLAND). We flew Virgin Atlantic direct from London Heathrow to Orlando, returning from Tampa to London Heathrow for £392 per person. For further information visit virginatlantic.com or call 0344 8747 747.
Got time to spare or want to swap one of the destinations for something else?
TRY: Stuart, Martin County
(3hr 150 miles from Bradenton / Anna Maria Island and 1hr 40 mins to Miami International Airport)
You have to travel across the state for this one, but it’s an easy drive with some spectacular scenery in parts (namely, the avenue of trees in Palm City). Martin County is an upmarket Florida destination with wild beaches, fantastic surfing and watersports and a beautiful state parks. Read the full post about our visit to Stuart, Martin County or check out discovermartin.com
TRY: The Florida Keys
(4hrs 30 mins from Bradenton to Key Largo or 2hrs 30 mins from Stuart, Florida).
Going south from both Bradenton (Anna Maria Island) and from Stuart (Martin County), the substantial drive will be worthwhile as you make it across the stunning overseas highway and get a taste of the Florida Keys. The Keys have an identity of their own, separate to the feel of mainland Florida and everyone should experience it at least once. With young children, we didn’t fancy the drive all the way to Key West – the Keys are a road trip in themselves – but we loved exploring the Upper Keys of Key Largo, Islamorada and Marathon. This post details everything we did in the Florida Keys and more. fla-keys.com
If you are adding either of these destinations to your Florida road trip, we recommend booking your return flights on Virgin from Miami Airport.
Thank you to visitflorida.com for working with us to plan the ultimate Florida road trip.
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