Water Worlds

Start underneath the shadow of the mouse's giant ears, then flee the amusement park mania by heading to the seldom-experienced, truly unique aquatic wonders of Central Florida, the Panhandle, and state's Big Bend.
By Chelle Koster Walton
  |  Gorp.com
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Florida Manatee
The Undersea Family Dog: A Florida manatee  (PhotoDisc)

Far beyond its more heralded, muscle-beached southern peninsula, the Sunshine State's Big Bend and Panhandle regions put you in a realm where you're never far from water. This land boasts gallons upon gallons of lakes, rivers, springs, streams, and the big gulp Gulf of Mexico. Pick your craft—sailboat, canoe, kayak, jet ski, power boat, air boat—or try them all. Whichever, the region accommodates adventures more visceral and exciting than a dozen mouse-logo-emblazoned attractions.

Day 1: Orlando and the Chain of Lakes Region
Start in the Orlando area's Chain of Lakes, 16 lakes connected by the Kissimmee River. Begin your water bound adventure by skiing or wakeboarding at the Polk City's Water Ski Hall of Fame (863.324.2472; www.waterskihalloffame.com)—the surrounding city of Winter Haven popularized waterskiing back when Cypress Gardens opened in 1936. Then hop onto a one-hour late-afternoon airboat tour of the Kissimmee River with entertaining and informative Capt. Fred Neidlinger at Camp Mack's River Resort (800.243.8013; www.campmack.com) outside of Lake Wales. He lets the older kids have a hand at driving the loud, speedy boat (and provides ear protection). Spend the night there in your RV or rent a log cabin. The tree-shaded park offers full-service facilities including a swimming pool and bait shop.

Day 2: Orland to Brooksville (70 Miles)
Spend the morning exploring Orlando's natural side with a paddle along the spring-fed river at Wekiwa Springs State Park near Apopka (407.884.2008; www.floridastateparks.org/wekiwasprings). Then drive west to the Gulf Coast's Homosassa Springs-Crystal River Area for a rendezvous with "mermaids." Bird's Underwater in Crystal River (800.771.2763; www.birdsunderwater.com) conducts manatee snorkeling tours October through March, when you can see the gentle giants sailors once mistook for mermaids close up. Then warm up with hot chocolate once back on board. For something less wet and chilly, opt for a stay-dry 75-minute manatee-spotting excursion with River Safaris & Gulf Charters in Homosassa (800.758.FISH; www.riversafaris.com). Camp overnight in Withlacoochee State Forest in Brooksville (352.754.6896; www.fl-dof.com/state_forests/withlacoochee.html), where you're never far from a place to paddle. The vast preserve offers several recreational areas with tent and RV camping, from primitive to full-facility, with access to fishing, hiking, and biking trails.

Published: 28 Feb 2006 | Last Updated: 12 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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