by Kyle Egan
My family is a transplant family; we were all born in Syracuse, New York. My grandma moved to Fort Lauderdale in the 70’s, followed by my aunt, and eventually my mother and I in 1993. We first moved in with my Aunt Jori in Clearwater. From there we moved to Safety Harbor in 1996, then Lake City, Pembroke Pines, and finally Davie where I resided for about 10 years. I have done a full circle and currently live in Central Florida. My personal experience will, perhaps, give you more ideas of things to do on a tight budget, as well hopefully inspire more pride for the wonderful state in which you live.
Before I begin, I would like to lay some ground rules for exploring and traversing Florida. The first, and probably most important thing, is to bring your own food. Many people blow their budget by skipping this step. Even going on a day trip, you will still need breakfast lunch and dinner. Let’s say, conservatively, you spend an average of $15 a meal eating out. That is $45 of your budget gone. When I travel, I don’t even bring anything fancy to eat. I usually go as basic as PB&J, iced tea, fruit, beef jerky, and some candy in a cooler, though I may indulge and stop at 7/11 for an Icee before a drive, but that’s family tradition. You will find that eating this rudimentary food in a serene, outdoor environment changes the significance of the food and is easy on the wallet. After all, a sightseeing trip is not about the food, it is about the experience.
On the Florida State Parks website you can also find specific information on camping. When I was a kid we camped a lot since it was all we could afford. Now that I’m older, it’s still all I can afford. Most of the parks come with electricity, water and showers and are on average about $20 a night. If you’ve never been there it’s not as bad as you may think.
And So It Begins
I will start with an attraction that is not a proper state park, but rather, a privately owned favorite of mine: Devil’s Den. “Located less than two hours from UCF in the town of Williston, Florida, lies water in an underground river at a constant 72° Fahrenheit. In cold weather, water vapor rising from the surface of the river forms a visible plume above the entrance to the cave, which suggested a chimney from Hell to early white settlers, hence the name. Admission is $10 during the weekdays, and $15 during the weekend.
Two hours West of Orlando lays Crystal River, another place where the water is a constant 72 degrees year round. I have camped there, floated down the river, rented a small boat, and fed the manatees. Crystal River is notorious for its manatees; they thrive in the warm water.
You can snorkel with manatees on a guided tour for $45. For more manatees go a little further north and check out, Manatee Springs State Park.
Fanning Springs is located right off the Suwannee River. I have spent many a weekend in this river when I lived in Lake City. A 2 ½ hour drive from UCF, it has tea colored water and trails that go along the river. Fanning Springs has excellent views, as well as a swing and slide that go directly into the spring.
Cocoa Beach is our neighbor by one hour. My mom was in the military reserves and she would go for one weekend a month from 1995-2002. I would often times accompany her on trips. We rented jet skis, swam on the beaches and would visit Banana River for boat renting, fishing and paddle boarding.
If you want an easy day, travel two hours north of Orlando and you can float on an inner tube, or canoe, through Ichetunknee Springs. You will be in awe at its super clear waters, and with a pretty strong current you won’t have to make any effort tubing or canoeing. Again, if you’re looking for a relaxing day of lazy river rafting, beautiful nature sighting, and picnicking, this is the place for you.
Sebastian Inlet State Park is my current favorite. I visited about nine months ago and plan on camping there during December. Equipped with an annual wave-riding contest, two museums, a three-mile stretch of pristine beach (lined with tasty restaurants,) a mile long nature trail, a 6 1/2 mile Volkssport path, playgrounds, picnic pavilions, guided tours, bird watching, and boat rentals. All located right off of A1A, about 1 hour 40 minutes southeast from UCF.
A little over two hours southwest of us is the Tampa/Clearwater area. This is where I moved to in 1993 from Syracuse. In Clearwater, I spent nearly every weekend on the Pinellas Trail with my mom. This is where I learned to ride a bike. The trail is still expanding and is nearly 40 miles long. Along the way are so many delightful places to stop. Frisbee golf course, picnic pavilions, dog park, highway overpasses, baseball fields, fruit markets, playgrounds, lakes, and nature trails. This is just the area I personally explored near my aunt’s house. The trail is suited for walker, joggers, bikers, and skaters. Maybe it’s just nostalgia, but this is still my favorite trail I’ve been on thus far.
If you want to take a mini road trip south, take US1/A1A all the way down and meet The Overseas Highway, a 113 mile long highway that connects mainland Florida to the Keys and is entirely over the ocean. This will land you in The Keys, which is a whole other story…
Go For It
There is no time to divulge into every nuance of Florida’s fun (and cheap) opportunities. I mention swimming a lot. But, do not be discouraged if you are not a swimmer, in fact, I don’t like it as much I used to. I am more into walking, bird-watching, picnicking, and sightseeing. There are so many spectacular things to do in this great state. So instead of going to Disney World on your next break, why not save a few hundred dollars and check out some places that set our state apart from any other state in the country.