“Packed coast-to-coast with theme parks, shopping malls and lush countryside, Florida flies the stars and bars for American escapes.”
When Walt Disney’s grand plans for Magic Kingdom were brought to life in Orlando back in the Seventies, it set the precedent for things to come. Today, the Sunshine State is the world leader when it comes to theme parks. There are no less than 15, including 6 Disney creations and other household names like Universal Orlando® Resort, SeaWorld® Orlando and Busch Gardens® Tampa Bay.
White-knuckle rides and worlds of make-believe are only one side of the coin, though. With city-sized malls, world-class golf courses and more restaurants per head than any other US state, Florida pulls out all the stops to impress the tens of millions of visitors it receives every year.
Pierce the tourist bubble, meanwhile, and you’ll discover national parks, dense forests and swamplands teeming with the region’s resident alligators. The Everglades are your best bet for outdoor adventure – hiking, kayaking and hot-air ballooning are just a few of the ways you can explore. Then there are the beaches to consider. Shelving gently into the warm waters of the Gulf Coast, the swathes at St Pete’s, Fort Myers and Clearwater are among the best in the country.
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Island hideaways. Soft city sands. And deserted dunes. Just a short drive in either direction from Orlando, you’ll find the perfect antidote to Florida’s theme park frenzy - the Atlantic and Gulf Coast beaches. There’s 1200 miles of platinum sand surrounding the Sunshine State. For sugary-white sands, you’ve got Panama City Beach in the northwest. This stretch of quartz-crystal coast is known as one of the world’s most beautiful beaches. It’s also known as the Spring Break Capital of the World, so be prepared to jostle for sand space between February and April. To play with the beautiful people, South Beach is the place to see and be seen. For decades Miami’s favourite strip of sand has been setting the standard for world cool - everyone from the Rat Pack to Paris Hilton has been papped here. Don’t confine your Miami time to sunbathing though. Try rollerblading past pampered pooches in pushchairs on Lincoln Road for some light entertainment. For something secluded, escape to Caladesi Island State Park near Clearwater. This three-and-half-mile island beach is only accessible by ferry from the mainland, so even though it’s just a stone’s throw from Tampa it’s still quiet. Beaches aside, you don’t have to travel to the coast to feel the sand between your toes. Disney’s got your demand for sand covered in the form of Typhoon Lagoon water park. As well as manmade beaches, lagoons and a lazy river, this tropical water world’s storm slides, a water-coaster and a saltwater shark reef for snorkelling.
Supersize. Jumbo. All you can eat. Florida is king of the USA’s bigger is better culture. As you’d expect, you’ll see the golden arches and good ol’ Colonel Sanders on every corner. Topping the fast food charts with the highest number of take-out restaurants is Orlando’s International Drive. You’ll also find the world’s biggest Macdonald’s here at the intersection with Sand Lake Road. But it’s not just about speed in these parts. Orlando alone packs more than five thousand restaurants into its borders, with fierce competition ensuring there are just as many fine dining and middle of the road options as there are burger bars. Disney and Universal Orlando® Resort have got all the food bases covered in the parks and hotels. From Chinese and Italian to African and Mexican, there’s something to suit every mood and budget. In Downtown Orlando, there’s even a Vietnamese district called Little Saigon, where cosy restaurants serve dishes like summer-rolls with peanut sauce. And while you won’t find many Michelin stars here, there are a few places that could easily hold their own against the gastro-elite. Restaurants like the Victoria and Albert at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. Emeril’s® Restaurant Orlando at Universal CityWalk®. Or Hue – A Restaurant, a Downtown Orlando eatery that was recognised as one of the best new restaurants in the world by Condé Nast Traveller. As for what to try while you’re here, a southern-style breakfast is a great way to start the day. Mixing sweet and savoury is the way to do it. Think stakes of pancakes smothered in maple syrup, strips of crispy bacon and eggs fried sunny side up, all washed down with endless free coffee refills. Then there’s the seafood. Forget lobster, crab claws are where it’s at. Steamed or boiled, they’re meaty, slightly sweet and delicious dipped in butter. Dessert-wise, it would be criminal to go home without sampling some key lime pie. Made using home-grown Floridian limes this tangy pud is Florida’s answer to lemon meringue pie, with or without the meringue. But what Florida is really famous for, of course, is citrus fruit – namely the Florida orange. Whether freshly squeezed, made into barbecue sauce or salad dressing, orange juice flows through the veins of this southern state.
Florida’s the only place on earth that can turn a shop-a-phobic into a bona fide shopaholic. It’s got one-of-a-kind boutiques. Outlet centres. And fleamarkets that sell anything and everything. Not to mention the sleek malls that are so synonymous with the US. This is a ‘leave your spending inhibitions at home’ kind of place. The biggest mall on the block is Orlando’s Florida Mall which measures up at a massive 18,580 square metres. But if you’re after serious plastic melt-down, head to the Mall at Millenia. This city-sized mall is home to three department-store giants – Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s – as well as sizeable stores from Chanel, Cartier and Jimmy Choo. Away from the multi-level shopping centres, well-heeled Winter Park in Downtown Orlando brings an air of elegance to retail therapy. Park Avenue is all about the finer things in life. Its chi-chi boutiques, bistros and art galleries are the stomping ground of ladies who lunch and their crystal-collared poodles. But if you’re on a stricter budget, the discounted shopping of places like Lake Buena Vista’s Premium Outlets will be right up your street. With everything from Gap and Timberland to Fossil and The Sunglasses Hut, there are some big savings to be had here.
THEME PARKS The many incredible theme parks on offer are top of most people’s list when they come to Orlando. In addition there are thrilling water parks, and Kissimmee has its own attractions including Water Mania water park.