When I told people I was going to Orlando, they replied, “Going to Disney?” Disney has swallowed up this area so much so that many people don’t even know the amazing, hidden gems that are here. We flew into Orlando and explored the gorgeous region of Ocala, and I am so excited to tell you all about it.
When we visited St. Augustine, we took a day trip to this area. We fell in love. We knew we wanted to go back. When we found out we were going to be in this area, I reached out to Ocala Marion County Florida Visitors and Convention Bureau for some suggestions of things we could explore in the area. They were so kind to provide us with some dining and sightseeing opportunities! (Huge thank you to them for partnering with us and providing a stellar itinerary!)
I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that you 1000% need to rent a convertible. Convertibles are actually easy to come by at rental car facilities in this area, and not that much more than renting a basic sedan.
When you’re driving through the streets near Ocala National Forest, you’ll be soaking in the views under the Spanish moss trees and be so happy you got one.
We rented an Airbnb in Astor, Florida. Why Astor? Well, it was right by St. John’s River and near Juniper Springs (a place we loved). It was also very inexpensive. I’m talking $35 a night! What a steal. We had everything we needed, and were able to cook some meals, which is our typical vacation mode-of-operation.
This did make us further away from many of the attractions we came to see. But we wanted to get as much use out of our convertible as possible. So, it all worked out.
This was by far the best zip-lining experience we’ve ever had. I was surprised to hear there even was zip-lining in Florida, but there is a canyon here that makes this a perfect place. According to a staff member, they got the idea from the zip-lining in Hocking Hills. Being only an hour away from Hocking Hills in Columbus, that was a cool local tie.
One of the lines went right over the water, which was so cool! There are these long, wooden bridges that you get to walk on, which I love. For someone who loves heights as much as I do, zip-lining really scratches an itch for me.
As a huge positive, the guides were very fun and informative. (Shout out to our guides: Ben and Austin.) This was the first time we have even received safety instructions, and how to make the most out of each line (ie, how to go faster, how to go slower, how to stop without hurting yourself, etc.) I felt like I was able to really get the most out of this experience, because the guides took the time to explain things. It was really a wonderful experience.
Cost for the tour we did is $99 a person.
If you like aquariums, you will absolutely love this. It’s nature’s aquarium where you get to see the fish swimming, the springs bubbling and if you’re lucky like us, a manatee! We also saw birds and turtles.
Before Disney World, this place used to be one of the biggest tourist draws. It still draws tourists, because it’s awesome, but I was surprised to learn how many people would rather look at something fake than something real. This place was beautiful.
You have probably already seen this place, if you have seen The Creature from the Black Lagoon, or countless other movies that have been filmed here.
The park had walking trails so you could walk around for a good view of the water, as well as see all the beautiful palm trees. You can also soak in the sun like we did.
Cost is $11 per person, and includes admission to the park.
This town was filled with some unique buildings. We parked and walked around the area before lunch. I particularly loved how some of these buildings seem like a flashback to the 1950s-1960s. This makes sense as this area was booming in that time when so many movies were being filmed in the area.
I especially loved the theater. Something about this architecture was just dreamy.
There are hundreds of springs in this area that you can actually see because the water is so clear. The coloring of everything is just so beautiful.
As we were kayaking back, a woman said “Psst, you should kayak down that river.” It jetted off the main river, and we never would have done it if she hadn’t suggested it. It was shallow, but really cool. There were tons of fish to see and the trees were just beautiful.
Word to the wise, get ready to work as this kayaking on the way there is all upstream. It’s a definitely a good arm workout.
Cost is $8 an hour for per kayak. (I have it on good authority, this is one of the cheapest places to rent a kayak.)
This has some of the best views of the springs of all the parks we visited. There are some man-made waterfalls, as well as little walking paths around the springs. It was raining when we got here, so we didn’t stay incredibly long, but I loved the views from the top. (If you’ve read anything I’ve written before, you know I seek out a good view).
Beginning in the 1920s, Rainbow Springs was a main tourist attraction with a zoo, monorail and rodeo. But alas, when Disney came in, it drew tourists away. The park was shut down in the 1970s. However, this sad tale has a good ending. In the 1990s, it opened again as a state park. Now, we can enjoy it once again! (Take that, Mickey Mouse!)
Cost is $2 per person
This horse farm isn’t just any old horse farm. It’s home to a breed of horses that went unknown to the public for generations. It’s home to the Gypsy Vanner Horse. Dennis and Cindy Thompson visited Great Britain in 1995. On their trip, they visited a Gypsy camp where they discovered a new breed of horse. They brought this breed to America in 1996, and had the privilege of naming it.
According to their website, “on November 24, 1996, the Thompson’s established the world’s first registry for a selectively bred horse developed by British Gypsies.” It’s a pretty fascinating story. You get to hear all the details if you visit and take the tour.
Not only did we get to hear the story, but we got to hear the story from Dennis himself. He uses pictures and tells all the interesting parts of the story. You get to hear the story, “right from the horse’s mouth.” I love how that pun works on so many levels here.
And of course, you get to pet the horses and walk around the farm.
There are also some pet parrots for you to check out.
My favorite part was petting the donkeys. I didn’t know much about donkeys. I especially had no idea their ears were soft like a bunny’s. I thought they were so sweet!
Cost is $25 per person for the tour.
We have been here before, and wrote about it in my Travel Guide to St. Augustine. When we visited, we just went on a hike to see the bubbling springs. There is a swimming area that we wanted to come back to. It was raining, but that didn’t stop us.
We got in and fish began to swarm all over our feet. It was so strange, but awesome at the same time (You know, if you like fish tickling your feet.) I can imagine this place is insanely busy on a hot day.
The ranger told us that the watermill was there to ensure no gators come into the pool. Very reassuring.
We really wished we had brought our snorkel gear to this area. There were so many things to see under the water. If I come back, I will most definitely bring the right gear.
As we waded through the shallow swimming area, I felt like I was on some tropical island. I cannot believe this is inland Florida! It’s surreal.
And again, I’m shocked so many people go to Orlando and only go to Disney. You’re missing out, people!
This was an adorable outdoor restaurant serving traditional Mexican fare.
I ordered chicken tacos, and Jared had some more spicy adventurous tacos.
My favorite things on the menu were queso (duh!) and the sopapillas. The queso had a spice to it, which I actually really liked. The chips had seasoning on them, which was a pleasant surprise.
I loved being able to sit outside, because when you’re from Ohio and its February, a girl’s gotta get as much sun as she can.
Prices were decent. Nothing was overly expensive, and there were quite a few people there on a Monday afternoon, so you know it’s a hot, local restaurant.
Recommended by my server, I ordered the St. Croix burger. Jared commented that this food choice of mine was uncharacteristic of me. I usually get the things that are more traditional. I think I just really wanted to find out if this combination of things on a burger would be good: beef, cream cheese, fried banana peppers, lettuce, tomato, onion and a “secret sauce.”
I think this may have been the biggest burger I’ve ever seen. It honestly took me a minute to figure out how to eat it. But it was very good! Just like I thought it would be.
Jared ordered the special of the day which was hot wings and fries. It was also very tasty!
But my favorite thing was the macaroni and cheese I got on the side. (Because I needed more cheese, obviously). Oh my goodness was it good.
This was a restaurant right by the water serving up some interestingly good food. I got the fish and chips, and Jared got the ribs. Both were good. We both ordered some of their interesting cocktails. I really liked the lemonade cocktail. It was a little on the sweet side for me, but hey, it’s vacation.
If you want to do something unique for breakfast, you have to go to the Sugar Mill. They have griddles right on the table, and they bring you the batter. You cook the pancakes yourself.
And if you’re wondering, yes we filled our suitcase with two bags of the pancake mix because it was that good. (And yes, if you’re wondering, we had to pay for overweight bags). We got their 5 stone ground flour pancake batter and their traditional white flour pancake batter. I’m a huge fan of buckwheat pancakes, so naturally, I loved the 5 stone ground flour.
We also got some breakfast meats on the side. You guys, this is an all-you-can-eat pancake place for $5.25 a person. When I first saw their advertisement, I wondered how they stay in business. I no longer wonder. It was so good, and it was packed. Get there early! Someone told us that they arrived at 10:30 and had to wait an hour and a half. (Which isn’t too bad, because it’s inside a beautiful park and fun to walk around). But get there early!
Whew. So that was our trip to “hidden Florida.” What a gem this area of the country is! I can’t believe how many people have never explored it. You need to go here. Plane tickets from Columbus to Orlando are inexpensive, probably because of Disney. But do yourself a favor, and go see the beauty that is in Ocala, Florida. You’re really missing out if you don’t!