In 2019, Florida attracted over 131 million tourists, of which 75 million visitors were bound for Orlando. So what makes this state so darn popular with travelers, both from other states and from international destinations? We provide some of the obvious (and not-so-obvious) answers and deliver plenty of facts about everything from areas and airports to visas and villas. So mosey through our article and see how many times you find yourself saying “Gosh, I never knew that!”
Which areas of Florida are best for you?
Florida is a hugely diverse state in climate, culture and attractions. Find the best area to suit your needs before booking your next vacation.
Northwest Florida Panhandle – for beach lovers, boaters and fishing enthusiasts
Let’s start from the top – after all, that’s where Florida’s state capital Tallahassee can be found. The extreme northwest coast is known as the Florida Panhandle. This Gulf of Mexico shoreline is lined with gorgeous sandy beaches along the Emerald Coast from Pensacola to Port St Joe. It includes Destin (Luckiest fishing village in the world), Santa Rosa Beach (backing onto beautiful Choctawhatchee Bay), a cluster of master-planned communities around Seaside (that’s a place!) and Rosemary Beach, not forgetting historic Panama City.
This upscale area of Florida is popular for family beach vacations, boating, foodie restaurants and fishing and has a high number of vacation homes.
Northeast Florida – for fans of history and heritage
Known as First Coast, northeast Florida is the home of the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the whole of the USA. Founded in 1565, St Augustine recently celebrated its 500th anniversary but its a mere baby by European standards! This historic city has a small but rich cluster of historic architecture dating back to the First Spanish Period. Of less interest to tourists, the naval port of Jacksonville is America’s largest city by area – another little-known fact.
Daytona Beach is a popular hub for students at Spring Break, has a fabulous boardwalk and is home to the NASCAR Daytona International Speedway.
Central Florida – perfect base for active retirees
The Villages is of the most popular areas in North Central Florida for retirees and snowbirds (that’s the official term for winter visitors from the northern states and Canada). This purpose-built planned community for the over 55s focuses around three town squares where live music, dancing, dining and entertainment flourishes nightly until bedtime (yawn) 9pm!
Orlando – for families, theme park addicts and thrill-seekers
Orlando is a massive sprawling city in central Florida with an urban area covering over 650 square miles. The most convenient and popular areas for vacationing in Orlando are Kissimmee, Celebration, Clermont and Haines City. These are all on the southwest and west side of the city where the majority of the theme parks are located. To put it in perspective, Kissimmee is 16 miles southwest of Orlando International Airport, 13 miles south of International Drive and 24 miles south of Downtown.
Southeast – for beach bums and those in search of Latino culture
Southeast Florida includes a seamless urban sprawl from Miami and Fort Lauderdale to West Palm Beach. Popular for retirees and snowbirds, this area is known as the “Gateway to the Americas”. It’s also the home of the two busiest cruise ports in the world. Miami only developed at the turn of the 20th century with the arrival of Flagler’s East Coast Railway luring wealthy New Yorkers down with the promise of sunny dry winters and glamorous sandy beaches. It also has a high population of Cuban and South American expats.
In fact, 58% of the 2.4 million Miami residents use Spanish as their first language. Of course, this spills into the cuisine, music, culture and nightlife that has a unique carefree and colorful Latino vibe. With its Art Deco Historic District and Everglades National Park on the doorstep, Miami / Miami Beach is one of the top-rate tourist hotspots in the USA, the world!
Further north, Fort Lauderdale with its multiple waterways is known as the Yachting Capital of the World. Modern high-rise architecture, stunning beaches, golf courses and Las Olas shopping and dining make this a top spot for European visitors.
For those with a Trump-sized wallet, West Palm Beach is the place to shop, dine and reside.
Florida Keys – for artists and watersports enthusiasts
This unique tropical island archipelago hangs off the bottom of southeast Florida offering a tempting island lifestyle. There are a few sandy beaches but the focus is mainly on boating, sport fishing, snorkeling and wreck diving in the clear warm waters of the Florida Straits between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Driving along the 113-mile two-lane Overseas Highway (US1) is a unique experience, linking 44 islands via 42 bridges and endless causeways.
The final destination is Key West, which is closer in distance to Cuba than Miami! But once you’re there, it’s a paradise for artists, seafood buffs, party-goers (Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville!), history lovers (there are several historic homes including the Little White House and Hemingway’s House) and watersports enthusiasts.
Southwest Florida – golfers, families and beach lovers
On the west coast of Florida, top tourist destinations run north from Naples and Fort Myers Beach up to Sarasota, St Pete Beach and Tampa. Naples was developed in the 1960s and now boasts upscale residences and Fifth Avenue shopping along with 90 golf courses, making it the self-styled Golf Capital of the World. Lapped by balmy Gulf waters, the sandy beaches are among the best in Florida.
Fort Myers, “City of Palms” has 100 years more history than Naples with the historic Edison and Ford Winter Estates which were the former homes of inventor Thomas Edison and his neighbor, motoring magnate Henry Ford. Known as “The city of Palms”, Fort Myers has a compact but interesting historic downtown which is outshone by the world-famous Fort Myers Beach. This golden sandy beach stretched for seven glorious miles along the shores of its own barrier island.
Other top vacation destinations on Florida’s Gulf Coast include award-winning Sanibel Island, Venice, Sarasota / Siesta Key, the beaches around Bradenton, St Pete’s and Clearwater. Popular with families and couples, they all deliver pristine sandy beaches, clear Gulf waters, modern accommodation and a host of state parks, museums, shops, boat tours and attractions.
Orlando theme parks, water parks & attractions
Florida is the self-acclaimed Theme Park Capital of the World and, Surprise Surprise, all the main ones are in and around Orlando. There are theme park adventures for all ages and obsessions, so which one takes your fancy and how much will it cost?
We’ve included the price for one day adult admission but buying online or opting for a multi-park / multi-day or annual pass will work out cheaper overall.
Located near Tampa, Busch Gardens has thrill rides namely Cobra’s Curse and Falcon’s Fury and provides an exotic animal encounter with the Serengeti Experience.
☀️ Busch Gardens tickets from $114.99 – save when you buy online in advance
Located south of Kissimmee in Winter Haven, Legoland provides a day of fun within the former Cypress Gardens. Ideal for 3–12-year-olds, highlights include vibrant brick towns of Miniland USA, fun rides, live shows, hands-on projects, go-karts and roller coasters all featuring those primary-colored building bricks.
☀️ Legoland Florida tickets from $45 – save when you buy online in advance
One of Orlando’s best loved nature and wildlife parks, SeaWorld is evolving with a diversity of rides, shows and up-close experiences…
SeaWorld has evolved to focus on more educational presentations and rides such as Infinity Falls (tallest drop in Florida and rapids to match!) Mako, Kraken and Journey to Atlantis along with its aquariums, animal encounters and wildlife shows.
☀️ SeaWorld Orlando tickets from $89.99 – save when you buy online in advance
Part of the SeaWorld group, the big attraction at Discovery Cove is the chance to swim with dolphins and other animals is a very boutique theme park experience so you need to book well ahead of your visit.
☀️ Discovery Cove tickets from $149 – save when you buy online in advance
Where better to cool off than Aquatica? Experience a day of racing water slides, raft slides and tube rides with a difference at KareKare Curl. It’s the only place you’ll find side-by-side wave pools in the USA and the Dolphin Plunge takes you on an underwater ride like no other!
☀️ Aquatica Orlando tickets from $42.99 – save when you buy online in advance
Walt Disney World
Walt Disney World, the birthplace of Orlando as we know it, has gone from strength to strength over the last 50 years. It continues to expand its epic world-famous entertainment with six different theme parks…
Animal Kingdom is more a safari park / zoo than a theme park but it doesn’t skimp on thrilling rides and unique experiences such as Pandora:World of Avatar, Expedition Everest and Finding Nemo – The Musical.
☀️ Animal Kingdom tickets from $105.44 – save when you buy online in advance
Formerly MGM Studios, this Hollywood themed attraction is home to some of Disney’s most thrilling rides and is a must for Star Wars fans with the trackless dark ride Galaxy’s Edge: Rise of the Resistance. Ride the Twilight Zone of Terror and Rock ‘n Roller Coaster and don’t miss Toy Story Land.
☀️ Hollywood Studios tickets from $114 – save when you buy online in advance
Another Kissimmee stalwart, this theme park focuses on World Pavilions but has some excellent new rides such as Test Track and Mission Space simulator ride as part of its Future World. Epcot is also synonymous with some of the best Food and Wine Festivals in Orlando, including Taste of Epcot.
☀️ Epcot tickets from $94 – save when you buy online in advance
The Magic Kingdom is where it all began with the magical Cinderella Castle, thrilling roller coasters, character meet-and-greets, parades, Pirates of the Caribbean, It’s a Small World and more. Truly the “most magical place on earth”.
☀️ Magic Kingdom tickets from $110 – save when you buy online in advance
Disney’s Blizzard Beach
This fun water park is the perfect place to cool off with water slides, raft rides, the Summit Plummet free-fall body slides and more.
☀️ Disney’s Blizzard Beach tickets from $73.49 – save when you buy online in advance
Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon
This is the place to find water slides, raft rides and the more intense dark rides and 3D simulator rides in various degrees of scary. Take a raft down Mayday Falls, try the Humunga Kowabunga body slide or ride the Crush ‘n Gusher water coaster.
☀️ Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon tickets from $50+ – save when you buy online in advance
Icon Park is a collection of out-of-this-world rides and attractions for all the family. Just off International Drive, this is the place to find dancing fountains, The Wheel (one of the tallest observation wheels in the world), the Orlando StarFlyer and 7D Dark Ride Adventure.
☀️ Free admission to Icon Park but you pay for each ride – save when you buy online in advance
Universal Orlando has branched out from Universal Studios to create two more attractions including Islands of Adventure and it’s very own thrilling water park, Volcano Bay. Check them out here…
Islands of Adventure
Part of Universal, this amazing theme park is best known for the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter, SpiderMan Ride, Jurassic Park River Adventure and Marvel Super Hero Island. Something for everyone!
☀️ Islands of Adventure tickets from $85 – save when you buy online in advance
This movie theme park features many of the latest themed rides based on movie characters. This is the place to find Despicable Me Minion Mayhem. Transformers 43D Ride and Men in Black Alien Attack. Wizarding fans will love Diagon Alley and the Hogwarts Express Train connecting it to the sister Harry Potter themed attraction at Islands of Adventure.
☀️ Universal Studios tickets from $119 – save when you buy online in advance
Also owned by Universal, Volcano Bay is a thrilling water park with a tropical Polynesian flavor. Don’t miss TeAwa The Fearless River, Kunuku Boat Bar, wave pools, river rides and lots and lots of water.
☀️ Volcano Bay tickets from $70 – save when you buy online in advance
Visas / US ESTA
Since 2009, tourists wanting to visit Florida for a vacation of up to 90 days can make use of the visa waiver program referred to as ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization). It’s a pre-travel vetting process that determines the eligibility of visitors from certain eligible countries to be pre-approved for travel as part of the Visa Waiver Program.
Every individual, including young children, must submit an application for an ESTA.
- You should apply online at least 72 hours before traveling.
- It lasts for two years (or until your passport expires, if sooner).
- You need to be a citizen of one of the eligible countries that are part of ESTA program.
- You must have a current biometric passport that expires more than 6 months after your proposed date of travel.
- You will also need to pay the fee of US$14 by debit or credit card.
- You must not have a criminal history which includes DUI (driving under the influence).
Failure to apply for an ESTA, or anyone whose application has been declined, will be refused permission even to board a plane bound for USA.
Shopping & Florida cost of living
Florida has excellent shopping in modern malls and superb value branded goods available at outlet malls and stores. European visitors will find clothing, golf goods, sportswear are generally priced well below what they normally spend, even for luxury brands.
Remember that sales tax is added at the checkout and is currently around 6-8% depending on the county. This means that an item listed at $10 will actually cost you $10.60 or more, depending on the rate.
Supermarkets have an amazing array of fresh and frozen foods, ready meals, in-house bakeries, non-alcohol drinks, wines and more. (You need to visit a Liquor Store for spirits, cocktail mixers and a wider choice of wine). While chicken and meat products are cheaper than Europe, fresh fruit, vegetables and salad items are much more pricey. Bread is also more expensive, especially for artisan products and bakery items.
Eating out is typically much cheaper than elsewhere, but don’t forget to budget in that 15-20% tip! From chain restaurants such as Dennys and IHOP (International House of Pancakes) for breakfast to top steakhouses there’s something for everyone. However, despite being surrounded by the ocean / gulf, seafood remains a fairly expensive choice on any menu.
Bargains continue with petrol / gas sold in US gallons for little more than the price of a litre in Europe. If you’re planning to stay a while, electricity is very cheap but property taxes are comparatively high (around 1.5% of your property value) and any type of insurance (property, vehicle and health) is steep.
Electrical goods are much cheaper in the USA, but don’t be tempted. American goods, tools & appliances use 110-volt AC whereas Europe / UK has a 240-volt supply.
Where can I buy…?
The main supermarkets in Florida are Publix (mid-high-end), Walmart (value), Winn Dixie (everyday). This is the place to buy bread, meat, vegetables, chilled and frozen foods etc. There are very few independent bakeries, butchers etc.
Walgreens and CVS are pharmacies (there’s one on almost every intersection) and they also act as local grocery stores, similar to 7/11 stores usually found in gas stations.
Costco, Sam’s Club and BJs are cash and carry stores. Selling at low prices and mainly in bulk, these stores require you to purchase annual membership.
Coffee-to-go and other beverages can be purchased from Starbucks (most have drive-through lanes), Dunkin Donuts, McDonalds, Burger King, Culver’s, Sonic and Dairy Queen among others.
The USA has a tipping culture, and this can be difficult for tourists to comprehend.
Many employees in the service industry, such as bars and restaurants, are paid a token hourly rate which is well below the minimum wage. They rely on tips to make up their low pay and this generally promotes excellent professional service. Meals and drinks are generally priced lower than in other countries with the expectation that you will be adding a 15-20% tip if you receive good service.
Some establishments require you to pay the tip in cash rather than add it to the credit card transaction, but this practice is becoming less common.
In Florida it is common to tip hotel porters, valets and the bellman but not reception staff and housekeeping unless you have requested an extra service. Taxi drivers usually receive a 10% tip, or you can round up the fare. For hairdressing and beauty treatments, again 15-20% is considered the norm.
Unless you live in Georgia, you’re probably going to arrive in Florida by air. The main international airports in Florida are:
- Orlando Airport (MCO) handles over 50 million passengers a year.
- Orlando Sanford Airport (SFB) is Orlando’s secondary airport is 26 miles northeast of the city and is used mainly by European charters and package tour companies.
- Miami Airport (MIA) is busy with over 1,000 flights a day to 167 domestic and international destinations.
- Tampa Airport (TPA) is a modern airport handling 21 million passengers via 20 major airlines including the low-cost Southwest Airlines.
- Pensacola Airport (PNS) serving North Florida and the Panhandle but only handles domestic and chartered international flights.
- Southwest Florida Airport (RSW) serving Fort Myers and Naples it is the 3rd largest airport in the USA by land size.
- Key West Airport (EYW) serving the Florida Keys with small aircraft due to the limited length of the runway.
The lack of public transport in Florida means that most visitors have to rent a car to get around, even locally. Check out our section on Driving in Florida – there are a few things that even visitors from other US states may not know!
Each airport (and city) is served by a wide choice of car rentals companies meaning that prices are competitive so it pays to shop around.
Most cities do have a public bus system but getting a timetable and finding a convenient route is more difficult than it sounds. They do not cover outlying areas and suburbs. For short trips around town there may be a shuttle or trolley bus service which is often free. If you’re staying in Orlando and don’t want the hassle and expense of driving in the city, consider booking a villa on a resort such as Encore at Reunion which offers a complimentary shuttle service to the theme parks.
Trains / Metro
Due to its low-lying geography barely above the Florida aquifer, Florida has no tunnels or subways! The railroad system is currently used only for transporting freight. However, there are some exceptions.
Amtrak offers mainly long-distance interstate travel mainly between Miami and New York City.
Tri-rail is a limited commuter service connecting Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach but stations are generally not located anywhere near tourist areas.
Brightline is a new high-speed train service that currently serves Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. It is currently expanding the service by developing a new station at Orlando Airport, due for completion in 2022. Future plans have been approved to extend the railway to connect with Disney. This will transform public transportation in Orlando, enabling visitors for the first time to efficiently get around on public transport without having to rent a car.
Driving in Florida
So, you’ve picked up your shiny new rental car and you’re hitting the road in Florida, perhaps for the first time. The USA drives on the right, so for Brits and Aussie visitors it can take a while to adjust to the wheel being on the “wrong” side of the car.
Highways are wide and interstates usually have a wide grass median between the different directions which makes it very safe to keep out of the way should you spot trouble ahead.
In towns and cities, most highways have central lanes designated for turning across the traffic flow. As a driver be aware that traffic may be stationary in one of those turn lanes, so make sure you stay in a drive land. U-turns are commonly used on dual carriageways especially at traffic lights.
Some major routes do have tolls (see Sunpass) and it’s generally worth paying the small toll to drive on quieter less congested routes (or exclusive toll lanes in some cities). these include the Florida Turnpike (Miami to Wildwood, Central Florida), the 528 Beeline (Orlando), the Sawgrass Expressway (I-75 / Alligator Alley section), the Don Schula Expressway (Homestead) and the Dolphin Expressway (Miami) among others. Tolls may by paid in cash, credit card or via a dashboard transponder. Rental cars generally are charged by Toll-by-Plate.
Other rules to note include the legal right to overtake (and be overtaken) on either side, so use your mirror and double check.
Roundabouts (commonly referred to as traffic circles or go-rounds) are thankfully a rarity in Florida. As US drivers are not required to take driving lessons, very few drivers know how to correctly navigate and safely exit a roundabout. Instead, major intersections are controlled by traffic lights.
Traffic lights in Florida
The sequence for traffic lights is different in the USA than Europe. The sequence is red then green (no red-amber here!) followed by amber and then red.
Another important thing to know is that the right-hand lane can turn right on a red light as long as they stop and check the road is clear first. This eases the flow and eliminates unnecessary waiting at a red light when you are just a couple of yards from your turn lane. However, if you are not intending to turn right, you should avoid being in that right-hand lane. You will get angry drivers madly tooting from behind if you sit stationery in that right-hand lane at a red light, so be warned! Like all rules, there are exceptions. On particularly blind or busy intersections there may be a sign No right turn on red, so keep your eyes peeled.
Minor intersections (and major intersections when the lights are out of order) operate a four-way system. This means that the person who arrives first at their stop line has priority, no matter which way they are turning or heading.
These 4-ways are signposted so as you come to a stop, check who is at the other stop lines already. Those vehicles will all make their crossing / turn before you, but once your turn comes make sure you are ready to go without pausing or dithering. It’s a little nerve-wracking at first, especially on multi-lane highways, but it works remarkably efficiently and safely.
You might expect a section on school buses to be irrelevant and unnecessary when driving but ignore this section at your peril!
Most children are picked up and dropped off using the yellow school bus system which is remarkably effective at reducing road traffic during peak rush hour. However, the safety of school children using the school bus system is sacrosanct and ill-informed drivers can incur steep fines and traffic penalties should they fail to respect the law through ignorance.
School buses frequently stop at the side of the road to drop children off and when preparing to do so they turn on yellow flashing lights as a warning that they are intending to stop. The lights change to flashing red and a red hexagonal STOP sign flips out from the side of the bus.
At this point no vehicle is permitted to pass or go alongside the bus. All traffic must come to a complete standstill while the children alight (and while the sign and flashing red lights are in operation). Traffic traveling in the opposite direction on a 2-lane highway must also stop, unless it is a 4-lane highway with a central reservation of more than 5 feet.
Assuming there are no injuries, the minimum penalty for failing to stop when a school bus is stationery is an automatic fine of $165 for a first-time offence of passing on the left. A second offence will be double that amount, the requirement to attend a driver improvement course and suspension of your driving license for a minimum 90 days to six months.
Sunpass & tolls
Florida has several toll roads including:
- Florida Turnpike from Wildwood, Central FL to Miami
- I-75/SR 869 Sawgrass Expressway / Alligator Alley between Weston and Naples
- SR 112 Airport Expressway around Miami Airport
- SR414 Apopka Expressway around Orlando
- SR 417 Seminole Expressway CF Greenway near Celebration / Disney
- SR 429 Western Expressway near Walt Disney World
- SR 528 Beachline from near Orlando Airport to Cocoa Beach
- SR 589 Suncoast Parkway near Tampa
- SR 836 Dolphin Expressway connecting I-95 with A1A coast
- SR 874 Don Schula Expressway (Turnpike Extn Homestead)
- CR 522 Osceola Pkwy North Kissimmee
There are also several bridges that attract tolls including:
- Cape Coral Bridge and Midpoint Bridge near Fort Myers
- Rickenbacker Causeway – access to Key Biscayne
- Sunshine Skyway (I-275) near Saint Petersburg
- Venetian Causeway to Miami Beach
Payment can be made by cash into a hopper, credit / debit card at the manned or automatic barriers or by transponder attached to your vehicle.
The easiest way to pay tolls is by Sunpass. This allows drivers to use drive-through Sunpass lanes with overhead gantries to detect and charge the toll to your Sunpass account.
For visitors, toll roads use a Sunpass Pay-by-Plate recognition system which for visitors charges back to the rental company. If you are staying in an area that required you to use toll roads (specifically Orlando and Miami) you should opt to have the Sunpass switched on, either by your car rental company or manually using the dashboard switch. Be aware that once it is switched on, you will be charged a daily rate (plus tolls) whether you use the Sunpass facility or not. If you only plan to drive to and from the airport, you might be best to opt to pay for tolls manually and keep the Sunpass switched off.
Tolls can be as little as $1 for short stretches of road up to $19.06 for the entire 265-mile length of the Florida Turnpike.
As George Bernard Shaw famously noted, "We are two nations divided by a common language". There are lots of words that are the same in both American and the British lingo, but they actually mean something entirely different. Take chips as a typical example. Order chips in the UK and you’ll get hot french fries; in Florida they’ll hand you a bag of crisps!
So without further ado, here’s our helpful guide to the US lingo for tourists, overseas visitors and "aliens".
|United Kingdom||United States of America|
|Roll / sandwich||Sub|
|Chemist||Pharmacy / Drug store|
|Car park||Parking lot|
Confused? It’s all part of the fun when visiting Florida!
Hopefully you picked up plenty of tips that will make your first time visit to Florida even better. Whether you’re planning a romantic road trip, a shopping spree or enjoying thrilling rides at Orlando theme parks, we know you’ll have a blast. And if you’re looking for accommodation, check out our Florida self-catering vacation rental recommendations!