We begin at the sea.
Landing in Miami, we were jet-lagged, sweaty and weary of being confined in airplanes. Revived by the salty, humid air, we rolled down the windows of the rental car, cranked the tunes and set the GPS for the beach. Delray Beach in Palm Beach County was our first destination, and we would not be denied the ocean any longer. Running from the street to the sand, we stripped off our shoes and socks and plunged straight into the surf, wet jeans be damned.
Ahhh… We made it.
Our Florida holiday met several lofty goals. My husband was fulfilling a life long dream of obtaining cave diving certification in Northern Florida. He would meet us at Delray where we were visiting my brother, who achieved his life long goal of living at the beach. And then, as a family, we would take a Florida road trip to see the stars; or more specifically rockets at Kennedy Space Centre and Harry Potter at Universal Studios. Along the way, we took in as much beach and marine life as we could handle!
Bordered by the Atlantic to the East, the Gulf of Mexico to the west and the northern tip of the Caribbean at its feet, the state of Florida boasts some 2,170 km of coastline. That’s a whole lotta beach access! Delray Beach was just one of the over 30 cities and towns in Palm Beach County, each with unique attractions, shopping, dining and sea life.
The Gumbo Limbo Nature Centre in Boca Raton is a nature reserve, complete with sea turtles, gardens, a butterfly garden and boardwalk. The outdoor marine aquariums represent 4 different marine habitats and the animals that inhabit them, while the Boardwalk trail winds you through the past, showing what the shorelines looked like before development. Gumbo Limbo is also a partner in local sea turtle rehabilitation.
South Florida Science Center and Aquarium in West Palm Beach is a delightful attraction. The aquarium setting is intimate, with several different habitats allowing even the smallest visitors to get close to the tanks and observe the fish in the water. There is also a large 10,000 gallon Aquarium of the Atlantic with local fish, an exhibition called Journey Through the Human Brain, an interactive Hidden World of the Everglades exhibit, a quarter-mile long science trail and an observatory.
Most kids and many adults find sea turtles fascinating. The Loggerhead Marinelife Center is one of many organisations at the heart of research and education on turtles and also dedicated to conservation and rehabilitation. A tour of the facility in Juno Beach is eye-opening, showing how human activity (primarily fishing and boating) negatively affects these creatures. There are many turtles in various stages of rehabilitation housed in their hospital tanks, all being treated to release them back to the wild when they recover.
And then we reached for the Stars!
The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon plus all the new rocket launch activity by SpaceX and NASA means Kennedy Space Centre is buzzing again. Comparing the vibe of KSC now with my previous visit (in 2010 just as the Space Shuttle program was wrapping up), it’s hard to believe its the same place. Back then it seemed slightly dejected. Now, no fewer than four employees excitedly informed us “did ya know we have rockets again”?
Speaking of the shuttle, the new Atlantis exhibition hall is mesmerising. You enter into a theatre and watch a short film depicting the evolution of the space shuttle, which ends with a background shot of Atlantis in flight. But when the lights go up, the screen is transparent, and you realize it is not a picture but the real Atlantis in front of you. It is close enough to touch (but please don’t try) and certainly close enough to discern individual numbers and scorch marks on the heat shield tiles. The extensive displays will take some time to absorb before you head down to the lower hall which includes a launch simulator and a very moving memorial to the 14 astronauts who lost their lives on the Space Shuttle Challenger and Space Shuttle Columbia.
Read more about KSC here.
Bidding farewell to the coast, the final leg of our road trip takes us inland to Orlando and the stars at Universal. Three parks make up Universal Orlando Resort; Universal Studios Florida, Universal’s Islands of Adventure and Volcano Bay Water Park. Together they are a hair raising, mind-boggling feast for all five senses. Two tips – Get a Park-to-Park pass, and spring for the ExpressPass! You’ll save tons of time waiting in line (as much as an hour shorter!), and you can hop on the Hogwart Express to make your way between the two theme parks.
Where will you find the Stars at Universal Studios? Everywhere! We spent time with the crew from the Fast and the Furious, Shrek, the Blues Brothers and even took a spin through the Big Apple with Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon.
At Universal’s Island of Adventure, you can visit some popular Marvel attractions including The Incredible Hulk Coaster (which our teen and tween flat out refused to ride) and The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. Other family favourites include Skull Island: Reign of Kong and the Jurassic Park River Adventure.
And let’s not forget the star of the show for wannabe wizards everywhere, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter which is split into two sections – Diagon Alley in Universal Studios and Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure. Naturally, you’ll want to ride the Hogwarts Express between the two. The 2-day park pass is a bonus (if you have the time) because the attention to detail and special touches are astounding. In Diagon Alley, we Escaped from Gringotts (an absolutely epic 3D adventure ride culminating in a flight on a dragon’s back), visited Ollivanders and had a wee peek at the Leaky Cauldron.
In Hogsmeade, you can ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (zipping in and around Hogwarts castle), Flight of the Hippogriff and Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure. There is also the Hog’s Head pub and Three Broomsticks. You know you want to try the Butterbeer!
The author travelled to Florida in March 2019 with her family. She was a guest of Coco Key Resort, The South Florida Aquarium and Science Centre and Universal Orlando Resort. None of these facilities reviewed or approved this article.