Central Florida is Packed with Adventure and Lifetime Experiences!
Article and photography by Michael Morcos
Is it possible to visit central Florida and not go to Orlando with all its theme parks and still have fun? You bet! We would do just that on a week-long journey that would feature an amazing swim with Manatees in Crystal River, having an out of this world experience at the Space Coast and having a kaleidoscope of contrasting fun experiences in Polk county.
Our journey would start in Crystal River, known as the best place in the world to see and (legally) swim with Manatees. Manatees can only be described as funny looking seals, only they are far from that. They are primarily found in the ocean where they feed on aquatic plants. So where does the Crystal River come in? Manatees cannot handle cold water and between November and April they head inwards to warmer waters. Crystal River and, in particular, the area known as the Three Sisters Springs Refuge, is a favourite for them because there are underground springs blasting millions of gallons of fresh water at a perfect 20 degrees Celsius.
Our scheduled departure by boat was at 6:30 AM. On this day the temperature was unlike Florida, at slightly above freezing, which would seem an unlikely time for a swim. But the Manatee Gods were with us. This was the perfect time. The ocean was freezing, and our lovely friends would move inland by the hundreds.
The amazing and professional crew at the Plantation Adventure Center dive shop knew what they were doing and precisely where to go for sightings. After fitting us with the best wet suits on the market, we would lazily navigate the canals which had a mysterious morning fog rising from the water. A breathtaking sight on its own.
Even early in the morning, the Three Sisters Springs Refuge was full of people all enjoying the magnificence of being in fresh warm water with the gentle giants. Following protocol, we would only observe the Manatees and were only allowed to touch them if they came to us. Two hours passed in a flash, but we left with lifelong memories and for some – a check off their travel bucket list.
Other activities on this visit included the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. This is a refuge for animals that would otherwise not survive in the wild. To our amazement, amongst the many diverse animals there that included many specious of beautiful birds, was an actual Hippo. Yes, off all things, so far from home yet so happy in this sanctuary.
Our thirst and appetite were well served in downtown Crystal River, including wonderfully prepared mix drinks at the redesigned Crew Bar, and large juicy steaks at Vintage on 5th. Beautiful ending to a great day in a quaint and charming town.
Which way to the beach?
Travel for me is about doing new things. This trip to the Space Coast would give me a chance to see and participate in yet more wonderful experiences. The Space Coast is more than what people think of, being the place that launches humans into outer space. It also has some fantastic beaches, 71 miles in all. During our short stay here, we would visit the Kennedy Space Centre and the following morning take surfing lessons.
Kennedy Space Center
Getting there early in the morning before the masses arrived would have us right at the front of the gates of the Kennedy Space Center and we would enter right after the singing of the American national anthem. Right up front were the amazing spacecraft in the rocket garden, they took my breath away. These are the things of a little boy’s dreams. I felt small and humbled beside them, who could not.
All the while running to beat the crowds, we would find ourselves at the Space Shuttle Atlantis Pavilion. There I would marvel at the building while climbing upwards to a theatre that showed the launching of the shuttle in a large room with screens on most sides. Then it happened, the movie ended, the front curtain rose, and I was speechless. Right in front of me was the star, a space star. It was the actual ship, the Atlantis that flew 33 space missions over 26 years was now hanging slightly sideways with its bay door open. It was a sight I would remember for life.
The rest of the full and glorious day was spent on more amazing experiences. We tried the incredible Shuttle Launch Experience, a thrilling ride that heightened all the senses. We would also have a delicious buffet style lunch with the retired astronaut John-David Bartoe who spoke of his time spent in the space station. Had some astronaut training experience and finally a tour by coach of the Cape Canaveral grounds where we saw the NASA hangers and launch pad of the Apollo missions. To add to this, on this tour we would be interrupted by an unscheduled moving of a Space X rocket to its hanger.
Later supper at the Westgate Cocoa Beach Pier was a perfect way of ending our day as we would feast on the best the ocean has to offer.
Hang Ten at the Ron Jon Surf School
The following day brought us a whole new experience and a great appreciation for surfing. We would get lessons at the Ron Jon surf school, call it a crash course on how to get up from a surfboard when you hit the perfect wave. That was easy, really easy, on dry land. A short walk to the beach and the students – ‘surfers to be’ were taken one by one by a professional staff member into the waves and surf. Long story short, it was a disaster, most of our attempts found us splashing on our backs into salty water, but at least it was a warm, sunny day and we would treasure this experience as another once-in-a-lifetime event.
Welcome to Polk County
Was Polk a former US president asked one of our traveling companions? Indeed, he was. Not ever knowing this, or that a Polk county even existed, we would be treated to more amazing adventures at the Safari Wilderness Ranch, visit the fun LEGOLAND Florida Resort, the beautiful Bok Tower Gardens and exciting Westgate River Ranch Resort.
A visit to Safari Wilderness Ranch would bring us real close to some beautiful free-roaming animals, there from the comfort of an open-air bus we had the chance at feeding friendly water buffalos and antelopes. Would like to include Ostrich to the list but these guys were pests, grabbing whatever they could find. Besides the land tour we would come to the best part of the visit, which wasn’t the camels nor the funny looking hogs, it was the Lemurs. Wonderful, playful little monkeys! With food in hand, they grab you with their soft tiny palms and gently eat the treat. Another wonderful experience!
Bok Tower Gardens
Bok Garden Tower, what a strange name for a tourist attraction I thought, but within minutes of my arrival I was in love with this place and there in the distance it was – the tower, mystery explained. Away from everything, this 50-acre property is an architectural gardening gem and what brought it all together was the tall singing tower. Throughout the day you would hear live music on its 60-bell carillon. A peaceful and uplifting day as we strolled past ponds and a maze of beautiful flowering beds.
Westgate River Ranch
A destination on its own, the Westgate River Ranch has something for every age and taste, including quirky accommodations that range from safari style tents to luxury tepees and right up to full two-bedroom cabins. The highlight of the week’s events is the Saturday rodeo when the ranch swells to its maximum capacity. With so many activities to choose from, it would take a full week to participate in them. Our day long visit would have us on an air boat through the river front to spot birds and alligators. This would prove another first for me and I loved the speed, noise and rush of air from the massive boat fan. Another first for me was at the trap and skeet range. Here, with the help of an instructor, we would also find out that this is really a difficult skill to shoot a clay pigeon in flight.
Last but certainly not least was a day spent in LEGOLAND. This park was built on the old Cypress Gardens grounds and the rest was built one brick at a time, so to speak. I marvelled at the imagination of the LEGO staff, how they can create such works of modern art with just little pieces of plastic. Although most of the rides were ‘pink knuckle’, my favourite was the Great LEGO Race with the virtual reality option. Although the ride itself looks tame from ground level, the actual experience brings you into a colourful and comical landscape and heightens all the senses. One more wonderful first for me!
Our stay in Polk country was at the beautiful and well-manicured gated properties at Balmoral. Packed with creature comforts, it was a perfect way of relaxing and rejuvenating from the day’s events and still so close to all the attractions, it is the perfect home away from home, maybe even better than home!