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The only way to explore the 20,202 km2 Everglades is on a thrilling airboat ride. Powered by a giant rear propeller, the flat-bottomed boats zip across the surface of the water at up to 25mph. They are uber-noisy, spin through 180 degrees and provide an exhilarating ride.
If you fancy a sunshine beach vacation (even in winter!) then Florida’s the place to head for. From Panama City Beach to Miami Beach, it has 189 official beaches lining its beautiful flat coastline and barrier islands.
Cattle, cane and citrus are the 3 C’s on which Florida was founded. The state is still one of the main producers of beef cattle and tops the charts for orange juice production while sugar cane remains Florida’s most valuable field crop. Well, waddaya know!
Florida is not known for its castles, but Coral Castle near Miami is the exception. Hand-built in the 1920s by a Latvian immigrant eccentric, Ed Leedskalnin, no-one quite knows how he single-handedly quarried and leveraged these megalithic stones weighing several tons into place. Clearly he read the handbook from the Ancient Egyptians.
Check / cheque and check
At the end of your meal in the USA you ask for the check. And that’s confusing because a check (or cheque) is also the paper you might write to settle the bill. Check it out!
Florida is home to the three busiest cruise ports in the world – Port of Miami is the #1 cruise port closely followed by its near neighbors Port Canaveral (Cocoa Beach) and Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale. With the Bahamas and Caribbean on the doorstep, many visitors to Florida combine a cruise with a vacation in Miami, Tampa beaches or Orlando.
While Los Angeles is all about Disneyland, Orlando is home to Walt Disney World aka the Magic Kingdom. It is also the parent company of Epcot, Hollywood Studios and the Animal Kingdom along with Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach water parks. Dining and entertainment hubs include Disney Springs and Disney Boardwalk. In Orlando alone Disney employs a whopping 77,000 people!
Located on the northeast coast of Florida, this famous coastal city is the home of the Daytona 500 NASCAR event, Speedway Racing and Bike Week (the world’s largest motorcycle event). Daytona is also the #1 destination for college students to gather, vacation and party during Spring Break (see our Spring Break definition below).
Florida is a brilliant place to see dolphins in their own natural environment. Keep your eyes open at the beach and you’re likely to see pods of dolphins leaping and playing just offshore.
Downtown is an American term to describe the Central Business District (CBD). It is usually the oldest part of any city with interesting architecture including a mix of historic buildings and modern commercial high-rises.
Florida is a VERY flat state. The highest point is just 105 meters (345 feet) above sea level at Britton Hill, close to the Florida-Alabama border near Lakewood. Orlando is 25 meters above sea level with many coastal cities sitting barely above the high tide mark. When hurricanes (see under H) create a tidal surge, the lack of elevation is a serious problem for Florida.
The Everglades is a unique ecosystem protected within America’s third largest national park (1.5 million acres). This slow-moving “River of Grass” flows from Lake Okeechobee into the Florida Bay.
These tropical wetlands and sawgrass marshes are home to an estimated 200,000 American alligators as well as crocodiles. In fact, it’s the only place on earth where both toothy reptiles live together in the wild. The Everglades is also inhabited by snakes, fish, endangered Florida panthers, many species of wading birds and deadly 20-foot Burmese pythons. This invasive species is thought have originated from unwanted / escaped pets. In a word, the Everglades is not a place to go for a swim.
Colloqualism for a minor traffic accident.
Florida is a top spot for fishing and Destin is known as the “Sport fishing capital of the world”. Join a charter and fish for bass, grouper and snapper or go sport fishing for blue marlin, sailfish, tarpon, wahoo and sharks.
Requisite Florida footwear that will take you from beach to restaurant in this laid-back state.
Most people can identify the two largest barrier reefs in the world, namely the Great Barrier Reef down-under and the Belize Barrier Reef. But did you know that the third largest reef in the world is the 358-mile-long Florida Reef? It lies a few miles offshore on the seaward side of the chain of Florida Keys and is the USA’s only living coral reef. When a sandy island forms on top of an exposed coral reef it is known as a cay (pronounced “key”), hence the name of the Florida Keys.
The Florida Turnpike is a private well-maintained toll road that runs from Wildwood, central Florida to Homestead, west of Miami. The cheapest and easiest way to pay the tolls is with a SunPass transponder or using Toll-by-Plate recognition which is installed on most rental cars. The total journey costs around $23 with plate recognition or $17 with a SunPass, but you need to pay for a transponder.
The big advantage of an automated toll collection system is that drivers use special lanes and maintain a reasonable driving speed at toll booths while those paying cash at manned booths have to stop and join the line (queue).
Football / Soccer
Aren’t they the same thing? Well, yes and no. If you’re American, football is actually the grid-iron shoulder-pads and mask-toting college teams playing American football which is more akin to English rugby. Soccer refers to the team game of Association Football, which is particularly popular across Europe and South America while American football is the most popular sport in the USA (now read Superbowl entry).
Gas, not petrol, is what powers your rental car, unless it’s an all-electric vehicle of course. Sold in gallons rather than liters, the low price is a dream for those who are used to buying fuel in liters and paying eye-watering taxes. When you need a top-up, remember to look for a gas station, not a garage!
More than just the state reptile of Florida, Gators are the University of Florida football team. The sports drink Gatorade was originally concocted to counter dehydration for the thirsty Gators team back in 1965. It’s now a full range of products manufactured by PepsiCo. The Gators are named after the toothy reptiles found throughout the state in freshwater lakes, swamps, canals and basking on golf courses.
Florida has an estimated 1.25 million American alligators which can grow up to 11 feet (3.4 meters) in length. Although dangerous and deadly when provoked, gators rarely initiate an attack on humans, preferring a diet of fish and aquatic mammals. Survival 411 teaches Florida youngsters that if you do need to outrun a gator, run in a zig-zag route. Although it is slower, it apparently confuses the gator. With eyes on either side of its head, a gator has trouble locking onto the location of its fleeing prey, providing the chance to get away.
When you’ve got a year-round sunny climate and a relatively flat undeveloped landscape, what do you build? In Florida, the answer is 1,250 golf courses. Naples is known as the “Golf capital of the world” but most cities including Orlando have some amazing championship golf courses to suit all abilities. Die-hard golfers can even stay in villas overlooking golf fairways – a dream view to wake up to!
Gardeners will love to visit the exotic subtropical gardens that are dotted throughout Florida. Don’t miss Harry P. Leu Gardens Orlando with their camellias and rose garden; ride the train around the huge Fairchild Botanical Garden near Miami and listen to the carillon bells music drifting across Bok Tower Gardens near Kissimmee.
Hoods & trunks
We’re talking vehicles here, not fashion! Remember the hood is the bonnet of the car, NOT the soft-top, and the trunk is the boot, NOT a suitcase. To quote George Bernard Shaw, “we are two nations divided by a common language”.
Florida is hot and humid in summer, and warm and humid in winter. High humidity can sap your energy levels, so stay hydrated and seek shade when you can.
Hurricanes are a seasonal hazard in southeastern states including Florida, but a direct hit is a very rare occurrence. In fact, there have only been seven major hurricanes affecting Florida since 2000 and five of those were in 2004 and 2005!
The hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30 each year, but peak months are August and September. In the event of hurricane threat, you will be asked to stay indoors. Coastal barrier islands are evacuated as a precaution (see elevation entry).
America is all about inches, feet and yards for heights and distances, and gallons when you’re buying petrol / gas (and soft drinks, which can be purchased in 72 ounce to-go cups with free top-ups!)
Florida boasts 4,510 islands that are larger than ten acres, and lots more teeny-weeny offshore keys (cays). Many of these are offshore barrier islands, creating protected waterways for boating such as the Intracoastal Waterway running down the eastern seaboard. To the south, the Florida Keys (under K) are an archipelago of 1,700 coral islands but most are very small and unpopulated.
Jai Alai (pronounced High-lie) is the fastest ball game in the world with the ball reaching speeds of 150 mph. It is played on a three-sided walled court measuring 176 x 40 feet (53m x 15m). It’s a spectator sport and in Florida is popular for gambling on the outcome.
Jazz fans will find plenty of smooth jazz at Florida Jazz Festivals particularly at the famous Jacksonville Jazz Fest, Jazz in the Gardens (Hard Rock Stadium Miami Gardens), Seabreeze Jazz Festival and the Florida Jazz Blues Festival. Check ticket hotlines for details.
Much of Florida is built on a karst landform of soft limestone and fossilized coral that dates back millions of years. This soluble porous platform floats above the freshwater Florida aquifer. Geological features include natural springs, underwater caverns, stalagmites and sinkholes which are all common in Florida.
There are some fine examples of all these at the Florida Caverns State Park, northeast of Panama City Beach. The best place to see incredible calciferous formations is at Madison Blue Spring State Park near the north Florida border with Georgia. Closer to Orlando, Silver Springs State Park near Ocala has 30 springs bubbling out from ancient limestone formations including the well-named Mammoth Spring. Best way to see the underwater sights is on a glass-bottomed boat tour.
Florida is a paradise for kayakers, particularly around the calm waters of Ten Thousand Islands near Naples. The Calusa Blueways are marked wilderness trails for paddlers, providing the perfect way to discover Florida wildlife, birds, manatees and mangroves.
The Florida Keys are a chain of sandy cays connected by 42 bridges and causeways along the 113-mile long Overseas Highway. They were created by low-level sandy islands (cays) forming on an ancient exposed coral reef (learn more under Florida Reef). The final destination is Key West, a quirky artsy town where the most important thing to do is join the sunset gathering every evening at Mallory Square.
Incidentally Key West is the southernmost point of mainland USA. Getting there can be a slow and infuriating journey along a narrow 2-lane highway with speeds limits rarely exceeding 45 mph. Better take the jet-powered Key West Express catamaran from Fort Myers Beach for a fun day trip.
Lake Okeechobee is the second largest natural freshwater lake in mainland USA, after Lake Michigan. Located in southeast Florida, it is surrounded by a huge levee to prevent flooding. The 730-square-mile lake feeds into the Everglades which itself is a slow-moving river of sawgrass.
Florida is known as the “Lightning capital of the world” and not without due cause. In 2019, the state racked up over 5.2 million lightning strikes due to the heat and geological conditions. For the best chance of seeing a spectacular lightning show, head to Clearwater. It has the highest rate of lightning strikes per capita in an area known as “Lightning Alley” which runs across the state from Tampa Bay to Cape Canaveral.
Florida Manatees are an endangered species of sea cow that lives in coastal estuaries around Florida. They are protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Their biggest threat comes from boat propellers, hence the “minimum wake” speed limits posted in Manatee Protection Zones. These gentle giants (11.5 feet/ 3.5 meters long and weighing up to 1000 pounds/ 450kg) can be seen feeding on seagrass in coastal rivers, particularly when the temperature drops.
They gather in the warmer waters around the outlet of hydro-electric stations such as Fort Myers Manatee Park and the Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach. Another good place to see them in the wild is the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Take a boat trip and learn more about these endangered mammals or see them up-close through an underwater viewing window at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park.
Mangroves are those ugly evergreen shrubs that have massive aerial root systems lining coastal areas and swamps. They are a protected species in Florida because the coastline would rapidly erode without those tangled roots.
Miami is a bucket list destination for any serious traveller, particularly Art Deco South Beach and beautiful Miami Beach. Nicknamed the “Gateway to the Americas”, Miami is more Latino than American. In fact, 66% of the population speak Spanish as their first language. Cuba is just over 100 miles from Florida which may account for Miami having the highest concentration of Cuban Americans in the USA. Most Cuban immigrants arrived after 1960, following the Cuban Revolution by Fidel Castro.
Mickey and Minnie may be nonagenarians, but their appeal never grows old at the Magic Kingdom. Mickey was born on November 18, 1928 in Disney’s “Steamboat Willie” movie, one of the first cartoons produced with sound.
Florida has two recognized Indian Tribes – the Seminoles and the Miccosukee. They live mainly in reservations in South Florida and many work as guides on Everglades airboat tours. These Native American Indian tribes hold the lucrative concessions to most Vegas-style gambling casinos in the state including Hard Rock Casino Hollywood, Hard Rock Tampa and Miami’s Miccosukee Resort and Gaming Center.
Oranges are Florida’s #1 industry, even topping tourism. They even feature on Florida vehicle license plates! The state produces 90% of America’s favorite breakfast juice from 100 million citrus trees covering 569,000 acres of groves in central and south Florida.
Ponce de Leon
Juan Ponce de Leon was the Spanish explorer accredited with discovering Florida in 1513. He landed near Charlotte Harbor during the Spanish Easter Festival of Flowers known as Pascua Florida and named the area “Florida”. Many other places have Spanish names, but some are not so flowery. The upscale coastal city of Boca Raton means “Mouth of the rat” while Punta Gorda loosely translates as “Fat point”. Even pretty Key West was originally named Cayo Hueso, which mean” “Island of bones”.
For most people grocery shopping is a chore, but not at Publix. Shoppers hang around the food kitchens sampling freshly cooked morsels and taking home the recipe. It’s a blast. Publix also do incredible deli sandwiches (Pub-Subs), and who doesn’t love the mascot, Plato the Publixaurus! It’s definitely the best grocery store in Florida – if not America!
The quarter coin is the largest denomination coin and the most used in the USA. It is worth 25 cents – basically one quarter of a dollar. Each year the coins feature different states so next time you get a quarter in your change, turn it over and check the flip side. See how long it takes to collect all 50 states!
It’s strange to think that the Sunshine State is also one of the wettest in the US! Short but heavy afternoon showers in summer are a common characteristic of the humid subtropical climate but the sun quickly reappears. The city with the highest rainfall in Florida is Fort Lauderdale with 66.5 inches (1690mm) every year while the driest city is Key West (39.8 inches / 1012mm).
What’s refrigeration got to do with Florida? Quite a lot actually. In the good old days, people relied on an ice box to keep food cool and fresh, but Florida is not known for its ice reserves. The first refrigerator was constructed by John Gorrie from an earlier idea by Oliver Evans. Gorrie was a doctor in Florida and he developed the first refrigerator, not to keep his cocktails icy, but to cool his patients suffering from Yellow Fever. Now the refrigerator is an essential appliance in every Florida home.
Sanibel Island is the “Seashell capital of the world” thanks to being situated where two ocean currents meet and deposit beautiful shells on the sand. You can wade ankle deep through shells on uninhabited islands around Sanibel and Marco islands. Look out for huge conch shells, glossy pink coquinas and alphabet cone shells whose pattern features random letters of the alphabet.
The collective term used to describe part-time residents and winter visitors from Canada and the northern states.
Not only does Florida have many hours of sunshine, it is also closer to the Equator so the sun’s harmful UV rays are particularly strong, being directly overhead. Wearing a sun cream with a high SPF (Sun Protection Factor) is essential in Florida, even if you plan to stay in the shade.
One of the earliest sun tan lotions, designed to produce a darker tan, was invented in Miami in 1944 by Benjamin Green. He cooked cocoa butter with red veterinary petroleum and so Coppertone Suntan Cream was born. Although it produced a darker tan, it offered no protection from burning or melanoma. Fortunately we know a lot more about the importance of sun protection today.
This is the spring vacation period when college students frequently head south to Florida’s beaches and enjoy some well-earned R&R in the sun. Colleges opt for different dates to avoid overcrowding in party hubs such as Daytona, Fort Lauderdale and Panama City Beach. If you’re over 25, best avoid it.
Founded in 1565 by Spanish conquistador Pedro Menendez de Aviles, the northeast Florida city of St Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied settlement in the USA. This beautiful city is well worth a visit with its 17th century San Marcos fortress, impressive Spanish Renaissance architecture (Lightner Museum) and recreated Colonial Quarter.
Check out the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park with its many natural springs. It is said that Ponce de Leon visited the area in search of the mythical fountain that offered longevity. While there is no physical Fountain of Youth, Florida has more than its share of centenarians, so perhaps there is some truth to the legend.
Florida has over 700 natural springs delivering clear warm water from the underground aquifer. Wakulla Springs, just 15 miles south of Tallahassee, is the largest and deepest freshwater spring in the world (another record!) Mainly located in Central and North Florida, the crystal clear warm spring waters are perfect for bathing and many are found within state parks.
The Sunshine State
With over over 2800 hours of sunshine per year, Florida’s nickname explains why it is the vacation capital of the USA, if not the world!
Celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November, Thanksgiving is the official start of the Holidays. Families gather to enjoy turkey, marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie and NFL football on the box. Historically it is a time to remember when the early settlers almost starved to death when their crops failed. Only the kindness of local Native American Indians helped them raise their first harvest, which led to a heartfelt celebration at the first Thanksgiving.
Theme parks and tourists are a match made in heaven and nowhere does iconic theme parks better than Orlando. Think Disney’s Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom, Blizzard Beach, Typhoon Lagoon, Aquatica, Discovery Cove, Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios (including CityWalk, Volcano Bay and Islands of Adventure), Legoland, and the latest thrilling rides at ICON Park.
Wages in the service industry are typically lower in the USA and this encourages an incentive to offer good service in order to earn a standard 15% tip, whether it’s restaurants, hair salons or taxi services. The acronym of “TIP” is “To Insure Promptness” – you get the picture.
In 2019, Florida welcomed 131.4 million visitors including 75 million to Orlando, making it America’s most-visited destination. Not surprisingly, the Florida tourism industry supports 1.5 million jobs.
In the USA there is very little call for the letter u (there are the “usual” exceptions of course!) It’s dropped from words such as color, flavor and labor. If in doubt, leave it out!
Florida’s coastline is littered with over 1,000 shipwrecks, particularly along the Atlantic East Coast and around the Keys. In fact, the area between Jupiter Sound and Roseland is actually known as the Treasure Coast due to the rich pickings from long-forgotten wrecks. Diving trips and salvage are two businesses that feed off these underwater sites. The most famous Florida shipwrecks are the Atocha and Santa Margarita Spanish galleons that sank in 1622, the Henrietta Marie Jamaican slave ship (1701) and the San Pedro, a treasure ship that left Havana, Cuba in 1733.
Despite its botanical-sounding name, Florida’s native vegetation is generally green and unexciting. The northern half of the state is mainly evergreen forest while south of Florida expect a dense tangle of low-lying scrub, saw palmettos, sabal palms (the state tree) and live oaks draped with gray-green drifts of Spanish moss.
Most garden landscaping includes the obligatory palm tree or two which come in very handy around Christmas. Homeowners really go to town on decorating homes and gardens with lights, winding them up the trunks of palm trees and creating a festive glow. Decorations include inflatable Santas, reindeer, flamingos and even Rudolph wears Raybans. Who says Santa can’t wear board shorts?
Most international visitors will require a visa even for a short stay as a tourist. Residents from qualifying countries including the UK can apply online for an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization). It is basically a pre-screening check which lasts for two years and currently costs US$14. Visits must only be for business or tourism and cannot exceed 90 days per trip.
Florida has a subtropical climate in the north and a tropical climate further south. It’s a well known fact that Florida residents own far more swimsuits than sweaters! The Sunshine State does have a rainy season from May to October, but showers are short, heavy and quickly pass. While average daytime highs are generally 26 – 33°C (80 – 92°F), the winter months can occasionally throw a curve ball delivering a cold snap with overnight frost. However, daytime temperatures in winter quickly rise to an average 17 – 26°C (64 – 80°F), so it won’t spoil a day at the theme parks.
Beyond the theme parks, the “real Florida” has some amazing wildlife including alligators, manatees, dolphins, sea turtles, white-tailed deer, snapping turtles (care!), Florida panthers, bobcats, raccoons, squirrels, geckos and Florida black bears. It has many snakes (not all poisonous!) so avoid trekking through long grass.
Birds include bald eagles, pelicans, herons, egrets, wood storks, ospreys and huge sandhill cranes that may be seen grazing on roadside verges.
The World Erotic Art Museum in Miami Beach has an astounding collection of artworks by Rembrandt, Dali and Picasso. If it was a movie, it would definitely be X-rated!
The traditional expression at any state rodeo when real-life cowboys actually pay a premium to ride a bucking bronco or raging bull to the “Yeehaws”” of packed arenas cheering them on. Eight qualifying seconds never felt so long!
A great way to get up-close to Florida wildlife safely is by visiting a zoo. Central Florida Zoo in Sanford is one of the best, just 30 minutes from Orlando while Brevard Zoo and Miami Zoo are easy to reach from Miami. ZooTampa at Lowry Park is very family-friendly. Other worthwhile animal attractions near Orlando include Giraffe Ranch at Dade City, Wild Florida at Kenansville, Back to Nature Wildlife Refuge near Orlando Airport, Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Gatorland.