Florida travel can be very nuanced if you seek out the traditional tourist experience, i.e. a beach day or a trip to any one of our fabulous amusement parks because in summer, our prime tourist season, these places are overcrowded, and it’s hotter than hades, and it’s also hurricane season as well. These are facts, but with a little bit of planning you can enjoy any one of these experiences just fine. However, I think if you’re making the trek all the way to Florida, you should seek an experience that is more than fine, and with this expertly curated list of activities you can truly experience Florida, any time of year you want.
The Gasparilla Pirate Festival is three big parades and a group of events held every year in Tampa, Florida celebrating mythical Spanish pirate Jose Gaspar (aka Gasparilla). Legend has it, he ran southwest Florida in the early 1800s. The span of events runs from mid-January to early March. Of the three parades, the most notable is the Parade of Pirates, which is held the last Saturday in January, and is the third largest parade in the United States. However, if you’re travelling with children, be sure to check out the Gasparilla Children’s Parade that’s held the week before. This festival is so fun, with many events including the Gasparilla Film Festival, the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts, the Gasparilla Distance Classic, and the Gasparilla Music Festival. There are also a handful of smaller events that change up each year. There really is something for everyone here and as an added layer of fun; you can even dress up as a pirate when you go.
If you’re vacationing to Florida in February the Florida State Fair is a must! An annual 11 daylong event held at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa, the fair offers competitions and food oddities, such as chocolate covered bacon (I promise it’s not as gross as it sounds). The fair offers Florida the chance to showcase its agricultural industry with both indoor and outdoor exhibits, and agricultural competitions that are judged. The winners are awarded ribbons. And of course, it offers fair staples; rides and shows. As an added bonus, the weather in Florida is quite mild in February, with temperatures around the mid-70s.
This is my number one favorite event on this list, it’s a local event that I’ve been going to (when I’m in town) since I was a child. This event started in 1922, held consecutively since 1947, and was inspired by the Florida Indian tribes and the enchanting beauty of the Pithlachascotee River that flows through the heart of New Port Richey. Chasco Fiesta is a 501(c)4 not-for-profit organization that provides a venue for local not-for-profits to raise funds. This 9 daylong event is rich in Indian culture and heritage, boasting an awesome street parade, boat parade, carnival, and coronation ball, all of which are kid friendly. Every year there are also live shows, like the Native American Festival, and usually a car, truck, and bike show. Furthermore, an array of concerts in various musical genres is also a feature of this event. If you’re travelling with your family, I cannot recommend the Chasco Fiesta enough!
Maybe I have a weird parade fetish, but I have another one to recommend: the Easter Parade in St. Augustine! In 2019, it’ll be its 60th year and is the nation’s second oldest Easter parade. This is a real hometown parade that welcomes visitors to join in the community’s celebration of the history and culture in the nation’s oldest city. The St. Augustine Royal Family leads the parade, followed by their entourage, bands, locally-made parade floats, pirates, festival representatives, and is wrapped up by the Easter Bunny. After the parade, you can check out a ton of different tourist attractions, like Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the continental US or the Lightner Museum. The museum of antiquities, mostly American Gilded Age pieces, is housed within the historic and gorgeous Hotel Alcazar. All of St. Augustine is historically significant and it an opportunity for a history lesson in a fun and entertaining way.
The Fort Lauderdale Air Show, successor to the Air and Sea Show (1995-2007) began in 2012. Over the years, the show has featured many veteran performers like the United States Navy SEALs Leap Frogs parachute team and F/A-18 Hornet, the Air Force’s Thunderbirds and B-1 Lancer, the United States Coast Guard Search and Rescue Demonstration, Kirby Chambliss, and Mike Wiskus. It has also featured many first time performers Rob Holland, Mike Goulian, the Skytypers Air Show Team, the 101st Airborne Division Screaming Eagles, the Black Diamond Jet Team, which is a mix of 5 L-39 Albatros and one Mi G-17 jets, the Red Bull Helicopter and Red Bull Air Force. Specifically, in 2013, sequestration grounded all military demonstration teams, and the show went on with the Spanish Air Force Parachute Team in their only North American event, so this show really has a lot to offer, and caters to an average of almost 4 million spectators. The 2019 air show is set to feature the Blue Angels for the first time in 13 years.
I know, I know, I basically said going to the beach while on vacation in Florida was cliche and boring, and that’s mostly true, however if you must go to the beach, it’s important to pick the right beach. Clearwater Beach was named the best beach in the United States in February 2018. What makes this 2.5 mile beach so special isn’t just its fabulous white sand, it’s Pier 60. Pier 60 makes this particular beach worth the trip; it’s the central spot for beachgoers that includes a playground, souvenir shop and the famous fishing pier. Down the pier, and on the side walk along the beach, there are professional entertainers (that do children’s acts also), street performers, and music. The pier itself features many local artisans selling jewelry, candles, and other gift items. There are also numerous restaurants and shops found adjacent to the beach. It may be cliché to recommend a tourist check out a beach while they’re in Florida, but Clearwater Beach isn’t just any beach, the aforementioned isn’t even close to a comprehensive list of attractions that gives this beach its appeal, so check it out when you’re there!
Nerd Alert!!! When curating this list of events, I just couldn’t skip Metrocon, Florida’s largest anime convention, organized by Team Dynamite Products, held every year during June and July held in the Tampa Convention Center. Autograph sessions, contests, dances/raves, LAN gaming, and an artist alley are typically offered, as well as main events, such as the Anime Human Chess Match, costume and cosplay contests, Fantasy Masquerade, Fire Show, and Professional Wrestling. You’ll find several panels, tabletop game rooms, vendors’ rooms, video game rooms, and rooms that are screening anime. The event spans over 100,000 sq. ft. and grows every year with over 10,000 fans in attendance. Metrocon is a unique experience that’s set apart by original cosplay entertainment including stunts, combat, dancing, fire spinning, and other once-in-a-lifetime, so the question isn’t “should you go?”, it’s “what should you wear when you go?”.
This event is held at the beautiful Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks a few times a year. The Sponge Docks are home to some of the finest Greek food outside of Athens. Enjoy it with some Greek music and dancing and some live entertainment under the stars at Night in the Islands. This year on July 7, August 4, and October 6, you’ll be privy to an hour of free Greek dance lessons by the Levendia Dance Troupe from 6-7 p.m. This event features live music by Ellada, an exciting band composed of three of the most accomplished musicians in Florida – Leonidas Zafiris, bouzouki; Elias Poulas, vocals; and Dino Theofilos, keyboard.
The Harry P Leu Gardens offers free the first Monday of each month, located at 1920 North Forest Avenue, Orlando, FL 32803. Also known as the Mizell-Leu House Historic District, or Leu Botanical Gardens and Leu House Museum, there’s a 15-acre stretch of these tropical gardens that’s a U.S. historic district. This area contains three historic buildings according to the National Register of Historic Places. The Gardens were started by Mr. and Mrs. Harry P Leu in 1936. The couple traveled all over the globe collecting exotic plants and varieties of camellias to bring back to the garden. Some places you should check out while you’re there include:
* The Archive Building, built in 2000 to hold archive storage for the Leu House Museum.
* The Cemetery, which contains 36 marked and unmarked graves of the Mizell family. Some of the tombstones date as far back as the 1860s.
* The Garden House, which is a 22,000 sq. ft. building that opened in 1995, that is the entrance to the Gardens.
This celebration is held at the German American Society of Central Florida in Orlando, Florida on October 6 and 27 in 2018. This festival stands apart from other Oktoberfest celebrations in Florida due to its dedication to providing authentic and traditional German music, food, beer, and entertainment to the patrons. On the menu is home cooked schnitzels, sauerbraten, goulasch, wursts, potato salad, potato pancakes, and much more. Imported German beer is offered, as is wine, German schnapps and liquors. While alcohol is a prominent part of Oktoberfest, there are children’s activities such as bounce houses, face painting, and other activities. It’s best to get your tickets ahead of time, as they’re discounted; however same day tickets are available on a first come first serve basis.
This is two day event is the oldest maritime festival, held in the historic town of Apalachicola, in Florida. The fresh quality seafood draws in thousands of visitors. Features of the festival include arts and crafts exhibits, seafood related events, and musical entertainment, in addition to the delicious cuisine. Events held are the oyster eating and oyster shucking contests, Blue Crab races, a parade, the Redfish Run 5k, and the Blessing of the Fleet. I recommend this event because Florida is known for its commercial fishing heritage and quality delicious local seafood products.
If you happen to be in Florida in December (which you should, because hello? It’s NOT freezing here) there’s nothing for “Christmas” and “Florida” than the Surfing Santas in Cocoa Beach. Surfing Santas Cocoa Beach is an annual Cocoa Beach tradition that brings hundreds of surfers dressed up as Santa to the beach Christmas Eve morning. This is a completely free event so kickoff your holiday beachside by watching Santa surf some waves. And if you’re a surfer yourself, feel free to participate as there is no registration required to surf, and the event draws people from all walks of life, whether you’re young or old, or a beginner or expert.
As a native Floridan myself, it is my expert opinion that these are the sites to see, places to visit, and events to participate in to get the real Florida experience. Sure, Disney is fun, Busch Gardens is an educational blast, and Universal Studios is out-of-this-world awesome, but those are place you already know about, and none of them really offer that unique of an experience because hundreds of people frequent them in tourist season every day. And to be honest, there are amusement parks all over the United States. I curated this list to give travelers a unique, and often educational and historical, experience no matter when they have a trip planned to the Sunshine State. Florida’s culture and heritage are valuable commodities to be acquired by attending events and experiencing festivals that are far more affordable for the whole family than a trip to an amusement park.