Photo: Brian Cicioni

How to Get Outdoors on the Lakes, Rivers, and Shores of Central Florida

Florida Outdoor
by Brian Cicioni May 5, 2021

Most internet searches of top sights in Central Florida inevitably result in six Disney-related attractions. But dig a little further, and you’ll learn that Ocala is the horse capital of the United States, Tampa is now an ideal place for an urban staycation, and Kissimmee has a variety of outdoor activities with more affordable accommodations than neighboring Orlando. So if kayaking through mangroves and hiking in state parks sounds more interesting to you than a crowded theme park, give Mickey and Minnie a much-needed vacation and stay clear of Clearwater Beach. Instead, explore these top outdoor activities in the heart of the Sunshine State.

Zoom on an airboat across Cypress Lake

Zoom on an airboat across Cypress Lake, outdoors in central florida

Photo: Brian Cicioni

Wild Florida has a drive-thru safari park near the eastern shore of Cypress Lake. Most visits to the park start with a one-hour airboat ride across the Headwaters of the Florida Everglades. Here, you’ll see partially submerged cows grazing, often just a few yards from large gators. Although alligators love meat, don’t expect to see any gators feasting on raw beef. They don’t attack anything that they can’t swallow whole. But the boat ride is a surreal experience, especially when the captain stops to narrate with unusual details about the local ecosystem.

We suggest doing the drive-thru safari last. Between the boat ride and safari, check out Alligator Park, where you can meet Guy (the resident sloth) and watch Crusher (the largest Wild Florida gator) feast on raw chicken without getting salmonella poisoning. Tampa’s Busch Gardens has a safari park as well. Those tours are guided, whereas Wild Florida’s are self-guided.

Paddle alongside swamps or skyscrapers

kayaking Shingle Creek Kissimmee

Photo: Brian Cicioni

You can get outdoors in Central Florida within a few minutes of the urban bustle. Located off the busy Highway 192 in Kissimmee is The Paddling Center at Shingle Creek. You’ll be less than two miles from a local airport and a seemingly endless row of resorts, souvenir shops, and chain restaurants, but you will feel a world away. This three-mile round trip journey through this serene location will have the most urbanized among us in awe at the near-perfect reflection of the cypress trees and other leafy greenery on the glass-like water. If you’re looking for mirror shots, try to get ahead of the group so their waves don’t upset the natural reflection.

In Tampa, Urban Kai’s guided tours start near Water Works Park and flow south along the Hillsborough River, climaxing with views of the still-developing downtown and cranes hovering among modern skyscrapers. You’ll feel a sense of accomplishment when you’re still vertical after the water taxis pass by and send some waves your way. If you’re not comfortable with paddleboarding, kayaks are available for rent as well. While paddleboarding is a better workout, it’s easier to snap Instagram pics from a kayak.

Enjoy a glass-bottom boat ride at Silver Springs State Park

Enjoy a glass-bottom boat ride at Silver Springs State Park

Photo: Brian Cicioni

Glass bottom boat rides at Silver Springs State Park are a fun activity for all fitness levels and another way to get outdoors in Central Florida. You’ll also see Native American artifacts and a row bow from early Spanish settlers. And, unexpectedly, leftover props from the film I Spy rest at the bottom of the Silver River. The rides are narrated by the captain, who stops at the key finds and usually gives everyone a warning when it’s time to snap a pic. If you’re looking for more of a workout and want to spend more time, you can also rent canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards at the park. The park also has easy hiking trails with names like Swamp Trail and Sinkhole Trail that are all under five miles in length — where you might spot armadillos, gopher turtles, or even turkeys. Hard to spot, but in the park, there are also bobcats and Florida bears.

Play equestrian for a day in America’s horse capital

The horse industry in Marion County generates more than $2 billion in annual revenue. The county’s main airport is private and handles more horses than people. Ocala is the county seat and largest city in Marion. It’s also home to the largest equestrian center in the country, including a hotel and most of the amenities you’d expect in a casino, without the poker tables and slot machines. You can also tour one of the more than 900 horse farms in the county.

If you want to spend more than a day in this area, the Hilton Ocala is a more comfortable lodging option. Here, you’ll get to meet Buddy, the resident Clydesdale. Buddy greets many guests outside the main lobby, and everyone will get a snack bag to feed him.

Zip Line over lime rock quarries in Ocala

At Canyons, you can try some of Florida’s fastest and highest zip lines. Tours range from one to three hours and can take you as high as 155 feet in the air. The Big Cliff Canyon Tour is the most popular. This one is guided and takes thrill-seekers across nine different lines over the course of a few hours. Practice zips included.

If you don’t need an adrenaline rush but still want to get outdoors in Central Florida, you’ll also have the option to rent a kayak, where you can watch the zip liners at a safe distance from Lost Spring Lake. And it wouldn’t be Ocala without a horseback riding tour, which takes aspiring equestrians through Big Cliff Canyon at sunset and ends with fireside wine and s’mores along the lakefront.

Pick your own berries at Starkey Farms

Organic Blueberry picking, outdoors in central florida

Photo: PauloAlmeidaPhotography/Shutterstock

If you’re visiting Central Florida between March and June, check out Starkey Farms in Pascal County. While most go there to pick blueberries between late March and early May, they also have an acre of strawberries and blackberries in season before and after the blueberries. Everyone gets their own small bag or bucket and heads off into the sun to look for the darker berries. If you’ve never picked your own berries before, don’t worry. The team at Starkey will give you a crash course on how to get the sweetest ones.

There’s also a market one mile north of the farm, where you can get homemade seasonal ice cream, fresh vegetables, and some of the quirkiest pasta you’ve ever seen. Ever tried dark chocolate linguine? Or sweet potato pappardelle? The Barn next door has a small bar and kitchen where you can get light appetizers, craft beers, wines, and ciders.

Get fit at Sparkman Wharf then zip along the river

outdoor yoga sparkman wharf tampa, outdoors in central florida

Photo: Brian Cicioni

Tampa’s waterfront has recently undergone an extreme makeover. There are now indoor European-style food halls and the outdoor Sparkman Wharf, which is a combination of food stalls housed in modified shipping containers, retail stores, and outdoor fitness classes. You can do F45 classes on the lawn that overlooks the Garrison Channel. After class, you can head to Fit Bowl and cool off with a post-workout acai bowl.

After your açai bowl, grab a scooter and get your bearings along the 2.6 mile Tampa Riverwalk, which abuts the eastern shore of the Hillsborough River, before winding around along the Garrison Channel. In Tampa, Bird, Lime, and Spin scooters are all available. For those who want a more traditional cycling experience, Coast Bike Share is also available in Tampa and St. Petersburg.

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