After more than a year stuck at home, people are increasingly planning to seize the day when they can travel again. To make the most of their vacations, they want to include extraordinary adventures fit for a bucket list, or ones that are possible only at their destinations. Maybe that includes visiting the beach while riding a horse. Or swimming with manatees in Crystal River. Or paddling waters that, thanks to the presence of certain microorganisms, glow naturally at night. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Florida enjoyed a decade of record-breaking tourism, including more than 100 million visitors per year from 2015 to 2019, and not all of them came for theme parks. Florida’s unique setting and tourism-rich environment makes it host to a variety of destinations that make unique activities possible for visitors. Florida is becoming a haven for an emerging tourism trend known as “experiential tourism,” which offers travelers the chance to seek out unique and/or adventurous experiences for a memorable Sunshine State vacation that goes beyond the obvious. The evolution of social media and how people use it to share their outstanding travel activities has altered how travel and tourism companies market themselves and what they offer. Tourists use photo-sharing apps like Instagram to document aspects of their trips that stand out to them.
Travel is becoming less about the trip itself and more about the story of the trip, said Nathan Line, associate professor at Florida State University’s Dedman School of Hospitality.
“When people say, ‘Hey, I’m going to Florida,’ that’s not enough. That’s not a story,” he said. “So to be visible on social media or even by word of mouth, they want to be featured in the stories of people who are using their tours.”
Destinations are a platform for the experience, Line said.
Ady Milman, a tourism professor at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management, sums up experiential tourism as traveling not for the destination, but for the journey.
In 2019 — months before the pandemic — Mark Jenkins, spokesman for AAA, the Auto Club Group, said increased demand for experiences travelers can’t find anywhere else was a primary driver in a growth in international travel bookings and interest in overseas car rentals.
“More and more travelers are looking for experiential travel opportunities and seeking ways to intimately engage with their destination, whether at home or abroad,” he said. “There are many ways to do that, especially with the great American road trip remaining a beloved vacation option, and for many AAA has found that road trips are increasingly appealing to U.S. travelers while overseas.”
For those choosing to travel within the states, the great American road trip often leads people to Florida.
Out on the water
With a mild year-round climate as hospitable to wildlife as it is to tourists, two coastlines, and more springs than anywhere else on the planet, many Florida experiences are tied to the outdoors.
The state has 175 state parks, three national parks, three national forests, one of only 11 national scenic trails, two coasts and abundance of inland lakes, rivers and springs.
When Line thinks of adventure tourism, he thinks of the water.
“So much of Florida’s tourism is based on beaches, fishing, kayaks,” he said. “All these things are in and of themselves adventures, but (also) highly photographable and shareable on social media.”
Kayak outfitters in Brevard County offer bioluminescent kayak tours where people paddle the ocean waters at night in see-through vessels with a light show along their path, leaving a trail of iridescent blue.
And visitors can see this natural glow year-round because of the presence of two types of bioluminescent microorganisms, said Sandra BK, chief adventure officer at BK Adventure in Titusville, one of the bioluminescent kayak tour providers.
“The wow is what we get, ‘I can’t believe this,’ ‘This is amazing,’” she said. “People aren’t used to seeing plants light up and the water glowing, and it’s such a phenomenon out of the range of experience most of us have.”
This glow comes from two types of microorganisms: Dinoflagellates and comb jellies. Dinoflagellates, a type of single-cell marine plankton, are most common in the waters from May to November. Comb jellies, which are jelly-like sea creatures that are different from jellyfish, come out in the winter months.
Florida’s east coast offers some of the best bioluminescence in the world, BK said.
“I’ve done it 100 times at least,” she said. “And it never gets old.”
But kayak tours aren’t for everyone.
Others prefer louder, faster adventures.
Traveling through wetlands and swamps might involve a journey on an airboat, speedy and noisy vessels that bring passengers on a journey into natural Florida ecosystems with little signs of development in sight.
Florida offers countless opportunities for riding airboats, and one is just a short drive from The Villages — Airboat Rides Unlimited, which offers airboat tours of the Ocklawaha River.
Its airboat captain, Justin Finser, spent 22 years guiding visitors through the swampy waters in search of alligators, birds and turtles.
“It’s pretty intense when you show them an alligator nest or get close to some babies,” Finser said. “You see a lot of birds.”
Wind blows in people’s hair as the airboat zooms through the water, with every corner offering a different view of natural Florida, where trees are a more common sight than roads.
Finser enjoys being personable with his guests and tries to make feel as relaxed as possible, even if they fear snakes, alligators or the roar of the airboat fan.
“I just want to make it more than an airboat ride,” he said. “I want to make it an experience of a lifetime.”
Where the wild things are
Florida’s temperate climate and diverse habitats also allow many types of wildlife species to thrive here.
Alligators can be found in the waters of all 67 counties, nature spots like the Lake Apopka North Shore and Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge attract hundreds of unique bird species, and springs in the winter draw high numbers of manatees.
“The fact we have these dinosaur-like reptiles in this ecosystem is how people might perceive this ecosystem to be different,” said Taylor Stein, a professor with the University of Florida’s College of Forest Resources. “And then you attach manatees and palm trees. Florida still surprises people. What Florida offers is not in the common thinking of most Americans, especially the inland areas.”
Tourists and Floridians alike can see manatees when exploring the sea cows’ warm water refuges during the winter months. But only in the Crystal River and Homosassa Springs region on Florida’s west coast are people allowed to swim with manatees.
River Ventures, a tour company in Crystal River that specializes in manatee swim and snorkel tours, takes visitors out every day on three-hour voyages aboard a covered pontoon boat where they can see and swim with manatees.
Although there’s more to Crystal River than the manatees, it’s the manatees that make it a special place — and snorkeling there a special experience — for people, said Brandie Wooten, operations manager for River Ventures.
“When it comes to wild animal encounters, there’s not many where you can look (manatees) in the eye in their natural habitat on their terms,” she said.
For most people, the juxtaposition of manatees’ giant size versus how gentle they are is what makes these federally threatened creatures so unique to see, Wooten said.
“It changes people very deeply,” she said. “I’d say most of us don’t have a chance to look wildlife in the eyes, and (manatees) are as curious about you as you are about them. They’re like big puppy dogs.”
In Kenansville, about 35 miles southeast of Disney World, lies an ecotourism destination that offers airboat rides, along with a rarity among destinations in the U.S.: a place where people can cuddle with sloths.
Wild Florida, whose attractions include airboat rides, a gator park and a drive-thru safari, offers a number of VIP animal encounters. These private experiences allow close access to the park’s alligators, sloths, lemurs and tamanduas, the latter a type of anteater.
But the most popular wildlife encounter Wild Florida offers is its rare VIP sloth experience.
Sloths, native to the rainforests of Central and South America, are the world’s slowest mammals. They’ve attracted strong interest on the internet in recent years and that interest has translated into people wanting to meet them for themselves.
Wild Florida’s VIP sloth experience is booked out three months in advance — and this is considered slower than normal due to COVID-19, said PJ Brown, Wild Florida’s director of sales.
The sloth that Wild Florida guests will meet in the VIP experience was hand raised and enjoys interacting with humans, but in that and other experiences, staff look for signs the animals might not want to be around humans that day. When that happens, encounters may be rescheduled.
During these experiences, guests can feed one of the park’s two-toed sloths. They can also hold the sloth and take “slothies,” or a selfie with a sloth.
“Grown men will start tearing up and crying when they meet a sloth,” Brown said. “I think that’s why people cry and get so emotional; they’re gaining an actual connection. To get to hold one is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s an unforgettable moment we’re trying to capture for our guests.”
Immersing in history
Then there’s Florida’s rich history, which tourists can learn about in museums.
Or, they can step through the gates of St. Augustine’s historic forts during the day and spend the night in one of the oldest city’s historic bed and breakfasts.
As companies seek to offer more than just places to sleep, the lodging industry is just as much a part of experiential tourism as anything. Line once rented a house in Fort Myers with friends that he booked on Airbnb, and the hosts tried to sell the group fishing charter experiences.
“They’re trying to tie experiences to the sale of the rooms,” he said.
In St. Augustine, the oldest continuously inhabited European-established settlement in the continental U.S., bed and breakfasts are scattered along the city’s historic district.
These independently operated guest houses are part of the city’s charm and character, said Michaele O’Neill, who co-owns the Carriage Way Inn. The Victorian cottage is located two blocks from the St. George Street shopping and dining district, and a short drive from the Castillo de San Marcos, a historic fort that is the nation’s oldest standing structure.
O’Neill and her husband have co-owned the bed and breakfast since 2013. When people enter the historic inn, they catch the scent of custom candles burning scents of exotic oud and leather. Guests are greeted by name and pampered at check-in, she said.
The Carriage Way also offers a horse drawn carriage ride through St. Augustine and other experiences.
As someone who worked for a large hotel chain before and now owns a bed and breakfast, O’Neill appreciates how historic inns offer a personalized experience for guests.
“You’re greeted in the parlor, you get aromatherapy, a welcome drink, and we do an orientation based on their likes and desires,” O’Neill said. “We really want them to maximize their time in town and get a local’s perspective.”
Immersing in history doesn’t always involve quaint bed and breakfast inns.
One experience in the Space Coast is comparable to a thrill ride — tours aboard a World War II-era biplane.
Mark Grainger, of Florida Air Tours in Cocoa Beach, offers tours aboard one of his two open cockpit Waco biplanes that were built as trainer aircraft during the war. He said his two biplanes were built 90 days apart in 1940 and 1941.
What he likes about the Waco biplanes is that, in contrast with typical biplanes that seat one person in the front and one person in the back, the seats are wide enough to fit three people — a pilot and two passengers.
“Two can go up and share the ride, share the experience,” he said.
Grainger’s biplane tours fly over Port Canaveral, Merritt Island and Kennedy Space Center. Longer tours also include a St. Johns River eco-tour and a pass of the space center’s Shuttle Landing Facility.
Hearing the rumble of the engine and feeling the wind in his hair in flight makes Grainger think of biplane rides as like riding a Harley-Davidson in the sky.
“When we fly over pastures and you can smell the cows, it’s a refreshing thing,” he said. “It’s like if you rode your motorcycle through rolling hills. You’re more in tune with the elements. You open your senses to everything.”
On the Farm
That farm air aroma may also explain the allure of agritourism, or travel to farms.
Florida farms with aspects of agritourism such as U-picks, farm tours and special events generated $27 million in income in 2017, up from $15.7 million in 2012, according to the most recent numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture.
There were 761 agritourism farms in 2017, offering venues for weddings, pumpkin patches, corn mazes, and even yoga with goats.
People also go to see the processes that go into making the crops behind the food they eat and the beverages they drink.
At Lakeridge Winery in Clermont, Florida’s largest winery, guests can go on free winery tours that let them see the equipment used and have some complimentary wine tastings.
“It’s how we sell the product,” said Barry Hus, CEO of Lakeridge Winery’s parent company, Seavin Inc. “We want people to experience the winery, see it’s a Florida-made product and give them the opportunity to taste them.”
Hus thinks what sets Lakeridge apart from California’s Napa Valley, where tourism depends on its wineries and winery tours, is that it’s the only winery in Florida offering comparable behind-the-scenes tours that introduce visitors to the wine making process.
“If you were in California, this would be one of several,” he said.
Plus, the wine is different.
Grapes grown for the dry wine varieties made in California don’t grow well in Florida’s climate, so Florida’s wineries make wine from the muscadine grapes that thrive here. Wine from muscadine grapes has a sweeter taste than dry wines.
As the winery had to adapt to the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, the free tastings changed from tours with a guide to self-guided walkthroughs with tasting stations, Hus said. Each station can handle about six to eight people.
But the winery also introduced a paid VIP experience that includes a personalized winery tour and tastings in a private room with purified air. Hus said it’s been popular among couples going on dates and small groups of people celebrating birthdays and anniversaries.
Tours are “booked solid” on Fridays and weekends.
“They’re looking for something beyond paying for something and getting it,” Hus said. “They’re looking for something they’ll remember and something they can share on social media.”
Also part of the state’s agritourism is the tri-county area’s horse farms. Ocala is considered the Horse Capital of the World for its hundreds of horse farms, and the region is a major draw for people who wish to experience the region’s idyllic countryside through horseback rides.
The Ocala National Forest and the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway include horseback trails.
Not far from The Villages is Blue Moon Ranch in Fruitland Park, which offers horseback rides along the ranch’s trails. CEO D’Anne Phillips described the trails as an adventure for new and experienced horseback riders alike.
“It’s not Disney World,” she said. “We get first time riders, we have good horses, and it’s excitement. It’s a great time. Fun, challenging, and an experience for people who have never ridden.”
The trail rides offer views of the idyllic scenery of the ranch’s wooded areas and nearby Lake Geneva. Phillips said the 90-minute ride the ranch offers also includes the added challenge of changes in elevation along the route.
Many out-of-state visitors come to the ranch, especially the visiting families of Villagers. They’re searching for an experience they’ll remember.
“You’re up off the ground, maintaining control of a thousand-pound animal,” Phillips said. “That’s always an adventure. And it’s a safe adventure.”
While horse farms and horseback trails may be adventurous enough for some, others come to Florida for a more unique setting: the beach.
About 825 miles of Florida’s 1,350 miles of coastline consists of beaches, according to the Florida Shore and Beach Preservation Association.
But there are very few miles of Florida beaches where people can ride horses.
Amelia Island in North Florida and Cape San Blas in the Panhandle have portions of beaches that are accessible for horseback riding.
And in Bradenton, people can go horse surfing, where you ride a horse into the water.
Kelly Seahorse Ranch, a family-owned ranch in Amelia Island, offers experiences that take horseback riders along parts of Amelia Island State Park — Florida’s only state park where people can ride horses on the beach — that aren’t easily accessible.
Owner Kelly Kelly said the tours take about an hour and riders traverse about five miles of trails.
The reactions she gets from riders is what makes the job of operating the ranch worthwhile.
“Just the look on their faces when they’re out there and they’re like, ‘Wow,’” Kelly said. “Some people are in tears when it happens. It’s on their bucket list. They say they’ve wanted to ride a horse on the beach since they were a little girl. It hits home.”
Kathleen LaMorte, co-president of the Horse ‘N’ Around Club in The Villages, rode a horse on the beach for the first time in Amelia Island. She said it was something she wanted to do since she was a teenager.
She remembered her horse was just as excited as she was to be on the beach, something she thinks had to do with the sea air.
“He was like ‘Let’s go’ and wanted to gallop,” said LaMorte, of the Village Santiago. “I had to hold him back to keep him in check because he was excited. Many horses had to be urged to go, but mine was excited to be there.”
Outside of beach horses, North Florida offers a number of other adventurous experiences, including the chance to explore sinkholes on land and underwater.
One of the most unique state parks in Florida is Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park, which has an ecosystem state leaders describe as a tropical rainforest. At 120 feet deep below the ground, visitors can find lush vegetation, birds and reptiles within the sinkhole.
It’s popular with people who come to Florida for its hiking opportunities.
Exploring sinkholes underwater can be done in Williston, a Levy County city close to the borders of Alachua and Marion counties. Two privately-owned diving resorts in the city, Blue Grotto and Devil’s Den, offer exploration of underground, prehistoric springs within a deep cavern.
Both are considered sinkholes because they do not connect to another body of water.
Although this may be a unique phenomenon to visitors, it’s a common hangout for members of The Villages Scuba Club. They go on monthly dive trips to Williston, visiting Blue Grotto one month and Devil’s Den the next.
Scuba Club President Mike Blatti said the two locations are ideal for honing divers’ skills in preparation for dives in the ocean.
“It’s on the cusp of being a cave dive, and it’s good for someone who hasn’t yet been in that environment,” said Blatti, of the Village of Osceola Hills.
Yet, it can still be a challenge. He noted that Blue Grotto has a large area down to 50 feet where divers must be conscious that there’s a rock above them.
Williston’s sinkhole dives — along with other regional experiences like UF’s bat houses and the Worm Gruntin’ Festival in the Panhandle town of Sopchoppy — explain in part why North Florida offers experiences people can’t find in many other places, said Ron Gromoll, a UF hospitality professor.
“All these things are unique, and I think that’s what makes them an experience,” he said. “They aren’t cookie cutter. You can get the very nice hotel, but it won’t be a memory to you.”
For those who are ready to go from sinkhole dives to ocean dives, there’s the Maritime Heritage Trail at Biscayne National Park — the National Park Service’s only underwater trail.
This trail consists of six historical shipwrecks and structures, and they’re far enough apart in miles that it requires multiple days of diving to experience all six of them, said Jay Johnstone, park ranger supervisor at Biscayne National Park.
“They represented different time periods, going from sailing vessels to steam assisted sailing vessels to steamers,” he said. “Most of them still have a lot of structure left, which makes it very attractive for the fish and (visitors) enjoy seeing that as well.”
What separates the Maritime Heritage Trail from other shipwrecks is they offer divers and snorkelers a chance to view true shipwrecks in as intact a form as possible, Johnstone said. Many shipwreck dives with intact structures were intentionally sunk, not true shipwrecks.
Shipwreck diving exposes people to a whole new world, he said.
“Seventy percent of our planet is covered in water,” Johnstone said. “The majority of us have never snuck under the waves and interfaced with the creatures below the surface. We owe a lot to our oceans and this is our way of directly connecting with that.”
And the appeal in such places — whether deep in the ocean or within a sinkhole — comes from how the experiences can’t be replicated outside of Florida, Gromoll said.
“All these things are unique, and I think that’s what makes them an experience,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with the beach or one of the theme parks, but people are looking for exciting or different.”
Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or email@example.com.