Florida is a magical state full of hidden gems the average visitor – or even resident, for that matter – knows exist. Everyone knows about Walt Disney World and the glistening sands of South Beach, but for every well-known destination in the Sunshine State there exists at least one under-the-radar spot worth visiting. Join us on this tour of some of the amazing hidden gems in Florida that you should absolutely check out.
There's no shortage of beauty on display at Palatka's Ravine Gardens State Park. The park's namesake ravines can be viewed from suspension bridges – a ripe opportunity for photos. And if you're visiting between December and March, you're in for a real treat: it's blooming season for the hundreds of azaleas, washing the gardens with a dazzling colorscape.
Florida isn't exactly known for its caves. After all, most of the state is barely above sea level. And yet we have Florida Caverns State Park, a series of large, connected caverns beckoning visitors to explore. Take a guided tour to experience the chilly underground air, sounds of dripping water, jagged stalactites, and wildlife like bats in these otherworldly depths.
Nestled among rolling hills of citrus stands Bok Tower Gardens, a true hidden gem in Central Florida. The titular Singing Tower looms over the gardens and houses one of the world's finest carillons, a percussion instrument consisting of 23 bronze bells in fixed suspension. Performances can be heard ringing throughout the garden daily, adding to the overall contemplative atmosphere.
Beyond the Singing Tower, the park is home to one of the state's most impressive landscape gardens. As you meander through the garden, you'll encounter acres of blooming foliage, lush ferns, palms, and oaks, and even natural Floridian wildlife like threatened gopher tortoises and endangered eastern indigo snakes.
Here's another one to file under "Things You Didn't Know Florida Had" – waterfalls! Sink Hole Trail leads through huge trees to Falling Waters Sink, a 100-foot-deep, 20-foot-wide cylindrical pit. A small stream drops water 70+ feet into the bottom of the sink, creating the picturesque waterfall. The park even has a bit of a spooky factor: no one truly knows where the water goes once it reaches the bottom of the sink.
This peaceful barrier island sanctuary is home to the largest Anastasia limestone deposit on the Atlantic coast. High tides and storms cause the sea to fling itself against the rocks, forcing plumes of saltwater as high as 50 feet into the air. It's a sight unlike anything else.
While the previous entries on this list have been parks and preserves, this entry is an entire city! Located just over an hour south of Gainesville, Cedar Key is a small island city in the Gulf of Mexico. The quaint and quiet town offers a refreshing break from city life both in its city-by-the-sea vibes and the amazing Cedar Key Museum State Park. As a vacation spot, it's under the radar but perfect for a quiet getaway.
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
Weeki Wachee Springs has something no other hidden gem in Florida does: live mermaids! These dazzling sisters of the sea perform classic shows and other underwater feats for captivated audiences each week (though attendance is limited during the pandemic).
Once you've seen the mermaids, enjoy a serene journey into nature with a kayak ride down the spring. Kids will love splashing in the waters of the onsite Buccaneer Bay waterpark, too!
Ocala National Forest attracts plenty of visitors, but outside of locals, the park's praises aren't sung enough. Anything you want to do, you'll find space for it at Ocala National Forest. Go hiking across miles of trails. Kayak or swim in remarkably cool springs. Camp overnight under the twinkling stars. All your outdoors dreams converge here.
The 90s were a simpler time. Clothes were baggier, music came on cassette tapes, Blockbuster still existed. If you're anything like the rest of us, you likely spend at least a few hours a day pining nostalgically for all things 1990s. Especially if you lived in Jacksonville, FL during the 90s. Because we can't help but revisit what feels like better days, join us as we tour things only 90s Jacksonville, FL residents will remember.
Sinking Quarters/Tokens into Games at Aladdin's Castle & Tilt
Thanks to barcades like Keg & Coin – an arcade bar in Jacksonville's Riverside neighborhood – and entertainment hotspots like Dave and Busters and Adventure Landing, there are still places you can get your arcade cabinet fix.
But there's nothing like the originals. Bereft of the other distractions – Keg & Coin is a bar first, arcade second, while Dave and Busters and Adventure Landing prominently feature an entire restaurant and a water park, respectively – these classic arcades existed purely for the endless joy of arcade games.
Many of us lost countless hours in Aladdin's Castle in the Orange Park mall. Parents shopping for boring stuff? Give us $5 and we'll be content basked in the warm glow of arcade cabinets for at least an hour. The same goes for Tilt at the Jacksonville Landing (itself an icon of the 90s that no longer exists). A few rounds of Street Fighter with friends at Tilt would be enough to make anyone's weekend.
Playing Mini-Golf with Rex at Goony Golf
Before he became the orange sentinel of Beach Boulevard as we know him today, Rex, Jacksonville's famous T-Rex statue, presided over innumerable mini-golf games at Goony Golf. He was one of several, um, interesting obstacles and characters for which Goony Golf was known. For all its kitschy charm, Goony Golf felt like a staple of a fun Saturday afternoon.
And while the chain's Jacksonville location went extinct early in the 2000s, we still thankfully have Rex's beautiful mug to remind us of just how great things used to be.
Going to a Drive-In Movie
Going to a movie in a normal theater is a treat in itself, to be sure. But there was just something special about rolling down the windows, audio pouring out your radio, and watching a movie in the crisp night air.
In the 90s, Jax residents had a few options. They could pull up to the Playtime Drive-In off Blanding Boulevard or the Beaches Drive-In. These excellent and unique date destinations from the 90s sadly no longer exist. Playtime had its screens shut down for good in 2008, while Beaches Drive-In had its proverbial windows shuttered in 2003.
Feasting on the Wagon Wheel at Famous Amos. Ordering a Camel Rider on-the-go from The Sheik. A full chicken platter from Beach Road Chicken Dinners. Sipping on a Slush Puppie from the local Little Champ gas station. Barbecue from the short-lived Rumboggies (or maybe you just bought the sauce?). Eating Chinese buffet in a dimly lit indoor dining area surrounded by koi ponds and bridges at Garden of Tiki.
We could go on, but we're making ourselves hungry.
What were you doing for fun in the 90s if you weren't at the mall? Maybe your commerce hub of choice was the Regency Square Mall, with its bustling storefronts and unique eateries at the food court. Or maybe you favored the newer atmosphere of the Avenues mall, which opened its doors in 1990.
If you lived in Orange Park, though, we know you loved the Orange Park Mall. Dozens of storefronts, a thriving food court, the aforementioned Aladdin's Castle, and, of course, the classic carousel.
With no major league sports teams calling Jacksonville home in the early 90s, the city still had plenty of sports to get excited for. Baseball was never hotter than when the Jacksonville Suns lit up minor league ballparks (of course they still persist today, though rebranded as the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp).
Meanwhile, possibly the coolest local sports team in terms of uniforms, colors, logo, and name: The Jacksonville Lizard Kings. Sure, hockey doesn't have a strong foothold in Florida, but the Lizard Kings captured the hearts of many Jax residents on sheer coolness alone. Just look at that logo above!
Then, of course, the big daddy arrives in 1993: Jacksonville gets its very own NFL franchise. The Jaguars were born, and a city fell in love with its team in teal. The 90s seasons were special for the Jags, too, as the team found immense success within its first three seasons playing in the formerly named Alltel Stadium.
Keep Max in Jax
The intoxicating smell of coffee beans is familiar to anyone from Jacksonville thanks to the Maxwell House coffee plant located downtown. However, in the early 90s, the plant was nearly shutdown. The city launched a "Keep Max in Jax" campaign to convince Maxwell House to keep the plant open. It turned out to be wildly successful, not only saving the plant but motivating the company to double down in Jax with a multi-million-dollar expansion.
Classic Jax Radio Stations
The 90s had some outstanding radio stations for Jax residents. We spent many an afternoon cranking up the dial on all our favorite modern hits on 97.9 KISS FM. There was 93.3 Planet Radio for crunching new rock, while 104.5 pumped out all the classic rock your heart could desire. Then, of course, we had Cool 96.9, showering us all with "good times, great oldies."
We miss going to the movies. The tentpole summer blockbusters, the raw energy of a packed theater, the hot, buttery popcorn – they all seem like distant memories as COVID-19 caused movie theaters to shut down several months ago. Even as some major chains discuss plans of reopening in July, the idea of piling into a small room with dozens of people doesn't sound very appealing right now. But another largely bygone institution has resurged to fill the void in cinema-lovers' hearts: drive-in movie theaters. Many independent theater chains in Florida have pivoted to offer a classic experience that's perfectly suited to our socially distant times. We've highlighted some of the coolest drive-in movie theaters in Florida to help you get your cinema fix.
Jacksonville's favorite independent theater began offering pop-up drive-ins as a safe, socially distant way to experience the joy of watching movies together. They're continuing their annual Jaws showing on July 4th weekend in drive-in form this year, as well as screening cult horror classics Evil Dead and Return of the Living Dead. Grab your tickets here for a showing at this Jacksonville drive-in movie theater.
Epic Theatres embraced drive-in movies at several of its locations. This St. Augustine drive-in movie theater boasts a strong lineup of classics like Ghostbusters and Sixteen Candles alongside modern favorites like Zootopia and The Avengers. Tickets can be purchased here.
Just like St. Augustine, Epic Theatres transformed into a drive-in theater for residents of Mount Dora. The showings at this theater rotate regularly, with weekly showings ranging from high-budget blockbusters like Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker to '80s classics like The Karate Kid. Check for new showings each week and purchase tickets for this Mount Dora drive-in movie theater here.
Epic Theatres of West Volusia also shows a broad range of movies and live events at its Deltona drive-in movie theater. Concessions are open so you can still get your hands on a big bucket of popcorn. Additionally, if you follow them on Facebook you can comment on posts for the chance of a free ticket. For info on showings and tickets, head here.
The final Epic Theatres drive-in location on our list resides in Clermont. Since April, moviegoers have enjoyed a diverse lineup including films like The Dark Knight, Pixar's Onward, and more. Grab a ticket for upcoming showings at this Clermont drive-in movie theater here.
Treasure Coast Park and Watch is the creation of local restaurant owner Connie Degolier and her business partner, Kyle Kneifel. They started the independent Fort Pierce drive-in movie theater as a way to give the community a fun, safe way to spend a night out as traditional theaters had to close. Voting is currently underway on their Facebook for which movies they'll show this weekend, with selections like Men in Black and Footloose.
This Ocala drive-in movie theater claims to have the largest outdoor screen in Florida. Whether that's a draw for you or not, there's no denying the excellent moviegoing experience offered at Ocala Drive-In. The onsite concession stand cooks up fresh burgers, pizza, and more. For updates on upcoming shows, check their website.
For most of us, October is noteworthy because it signifies a change to cooler weather, changing leaves (well, maybe not in Florida), and of course, Halloween. But there's another major reason to celebrate the coming of October, and it involves three of the greatest things on the planet: bread, tomato sauce, and cheese. That's right. October is National Pizza Month all across America. Luckily for all residents of Jacksonville's trendiest neighborhood, Riverside is home to some of the city's best pizza places. The next time you're in the mood for a good pie, head on down to one of these pizza havens for a tasty slice. Or maybe try all three and decide for yourself who has the best pizza in Riverside!
The "V" in V Pizza stands for Veloci or "quick" in Italian, but don't confuse quick for a lack of quality. With its towering ovens that reach 900 degrees, V Pizza strives to bring the authentic taste of true Italian pizza to Jacksonville. And they succeed. Try the house staple Pizza Bolognese and enjoy the succulent garlic and all-natural meatballs or go with a classic Pizza Margherita, made with fresh mozzarella and basil. Pizza isn't the only thing V excels at; grab an order of the oven-roasted chicken wings (pizza's greatest natural companion) and find out for yourself why V Pizza is so often lauded as having Jacksonville's best wings.
It's a debate as old as pizza itself: New York or Chicago style? Do you like a thin, cheese-dripping slice of New York pizza, or do you favor a hearty helping of Chicago pie, packed full of toppings and cheese? If your answer is the former, well, you certainly won't be upset eating at Carmines. But if Chicago style holds the key to your pizza-loving heart, then Carmines is heaven on earth. You can order any of their specialty pies – with classics like the Margherita alongside unique creations like a cheeseburger pizza – as deep dish mountains of dough, cheese, and robust toppings. Just like any true Chicagoan would have it.
Sometimes you just want a small slice of pizza or two like the ones you'd get from any of the well-known delivery chains. But sometimes, you just need a titanic slice that strikes fear in the hearts of flimsy paper plates everywhere. When that time comes, get yourself to Moon River Pizza. Try house specials like the T-Rex, which comes piled with enough meat to earn its prehistoric name, or build your own from their extensive list of toppings. No matter your choice, it'll only take a couple slices to leave you full and satisfied. But go ahead and order a full pie anyway. Besides, pizza's better the next day.