How to Visit Florida like a Floridian [Part 1]

I can’t even believe how many times recently I have been asked for advice and tips on visiting Florida. I thought, heck, why not write it all down so I can refer people here. I’ve decided to divide this into two parts—Visiting the Beach and Visiting Disney.

First up—
A Trip to the Beach

We go to the beach just about every year. We were both born and raised here in Florida and grew up only a few miles from major beaches. That’s the perspective I use when writing this post. By no means is this a complete guide, but more simply a picture of what we do when we travel and what works for us. Tweak it to work for your own family.

First things first—Location!

What you need to know is that not all beaches are created equally. I didn’t realize this until I visited Cape May in New Jersey and saw just how different it is from the beaches back home. In Florida you have a choice between visiting the Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico on the West Coast or the Gulf of Mexico on the Panhandle. Atlantic beaches tend to be slightly less hot because the water is typically several degrees cooler than the Gulf even in the middle of the summer. The Atlantic coast also has much more intense, powerful, surfable waves. Don’t expect to do much (any) surfing in the Gulf. There are certainly waves on Gulf beaches but not the huge crashing kind that you can hear through your window at night. If you are looking for that beautiful turquoise Caribbean-like water, visit the Gulf. If you like that deep grayish blue, head East.

Where to stay

I can’t possibly tell you where to stay by specific name. I’ve stayed in far too many different places and I can’t think of any that I didn’t like enough to mention it here but when I go to the beach I stay ON the beach. If I wanted to get in my car and drive to the beach I may as well just stay at home. If a beach front hotel, condo, beachouse isn’t in your budget, at least find some place within walking distance. There is nothing worse than loading into a broiling hot car covered in sand and salt water and driving miles and miles. Trust me. I prefer smaller hotels or condos because smaller= fewer people to contend with on the beach. There is nothing worse than a beach so crowded that you are packed like sardines onto the sand. It takes the relaxation out of it when you can hear the conversations and music of 20 different families around you. It’s easier with kids also, if you have a little room to spread out.

Also, for the love of all things, don’t stop at those itty bitty strips of sand along bridges and causeways. I will never understand why people pull over to these icky little beaches when nicer beaches are only a few miles away. Even if it’s the choice between free and paid parking—pay the extra money to park and visit somewhere nice!!

Know your dates

Once you’ve picked a place, double check the event calendar to see what is going on in the local area during that time period. If you are a biker, great. You’ll probably love Daytona during bike week. If you’re not into that sort of thing you may want to pick a different time or a different beach. Last summer it took me over 2 hours calling every hotel I could find to get a vacancy on the East Coast during the shuttle launch. Sporting events, conventions, and other special events will raise the prices and increase the crowds so planning ahead is definitely important!

The GEAR!

When we travel to the beach whether we drive across the state or just go to one a few minutes from home, we usually bring the following items:

  • Beach Tent
  • Chairs
  • Cooler
  • Sand Toys
  • Towels
  • Radio/Phone that plays music
  • Camera
  • Sand Cart

Everything is loaded into the sand cart. Without fail, we ALWAYS receive comments about our gear and how we carry it. People stop us and ask where we got certain things or say “Wow that’s a great idea!” I honestly didn’t think what we did was special but apparently it’s special enough to draw a lot of positive attention whenever we take a beach vacation.

The thing is, tens of thousands of people travel to Florida (or some other beach location) every year and after paying for plane tickets or spending hours in the car driving down here and paying for a few days or a week in a hotel this is inevitably what happens: You slather on sunscreen, put on a bathing suit, get a towel, beach chair, magazine and an ice cold beer. You walk down to the beach, spread out your towel or chair, then sit down, huffing and puffing after carrying your stuff down to the water. Five minutes later, with sweat dripping down into your eyes you think “Damn, it’s hot!” So you go get in the water to cool off (keeping in mind that the Gulf water is often in the mid to upper 80s and even 90s in the late summer. In other words, it feels like bath water). Then you return to your chair and another five minutes later you find that you are hot once again. After a grand total of 18 ½ minutes on the beach, your beer is hot, your sunscreen needs to be reapplied (since you went in the water) and you’re ready to head back up to your hotel room. You just paid about $50 a minute to sit on the beach! If you’re going to spend all that money anyway, invest in a few things that will make it worthwhile.

Beach Tent/Gazebo

Whatever you do, however you arrive here, you NEED a beach tent. I’m talking about one of those fold up gazebo type things that you can also use for tailgating or outdoor parties. We have this one First Up 10 x 10 Canopy. There are alternatives of varying costs. They provide around 100 square feet of sun protected space while letting you enjoy a nice breeze, the sand, and the water. We purchased ours at Walmart for under $100. It has already lasted us for 4 years and shows no signs of giving out any time soon. I believe ours came with metal stakes. If you are headed to the Atlantic coast these stakes are necessary. On the Gulf? Not so much. Whatever you pick, also make sure that it’s vented at the top, which will prevent it from blowing away. The only downside is that it’s heavy and takes up a fair amount of space in the car. For those traveling by air you would need to consider buying one here and then shipping it back or paying to check it on your way home. I realize that aspect is less than inviting. However, renting a beach umbrella requires that you are on a beach where rentals are available, hoping it doesn’t blow away, arguing over who gets to sit under it and the most obnoxious part—paying $10-$20 a day for it. Even if you buy the tent here for $100 and pay to ship it back, you are still going to either break even or pay less than the cost of a rental umbrella—and have a lot more shaded space. If you’re thinking, “oh but I want a tan, I don’t need a cover” Try it your way for a day and then let me know how that goes. You will want something. This, to us, is the KEY to enjoying our beach time, especially with children. While we always coat Allison and Andrew with sunscreen ( California Baby brand is my preference right now) it washes off in the water and anything that says it doesn’t is either exaggerating the waterproof properties or is not considered safe by the Environmental Working Group I know a lot of people come down here and they want a tan and I don’t know that it’s my place to tell you what a bad idea that is but please take it from me, nothing will ruin your vacation faster than sun poisoning. The beach tent lets you actually enjoy what you came here for in the first place.

As a side note, this particular tent can be put up by one person. It’s easier with two but usually, A puts up the tent while I watch the kids. I’ve put up the tent by myself before. Once you have done it the first time it’s very easy. Set up takes about 5 minutes.

Cooler

I think many people truly underestimate the heat here. I say that from observing how many people go lay out in the sun with no drinkable water nearby. I don’t know how or why these people do it but anyone who spends a few hours on the beach without something to drink is going to be seriously paying for it later. Bring a small cooler (a hard side one or one of those hot/cold insulated bags will work) with cold water for everyone including the kids. Alcoholic beverages—eh, probably not going to help you prevent dehydration. I typically save them for the evening after the beach day is through.

Chairs/ Towels/ Toys/ Radio/ Camera

Obviously you’ll want somewhere to sit and chairs are more comfortable but not a must have if the beach has soft sand. You’re going to want towels no matter what.

If you have kids then sand toys are must have. If you’re a kid at heart, sand toys will definitely add to your enjoyment! A radio is also a nice to have thing but not essential. The sounds of the beach are more than enough. A camera is also a non-essential item (Well, not for me but probably most people don’t care that much). I was too nervous to bring my new camera out to the beach but in the past I have brought cameras out making sure to keep them in a ziplock bag when not in use. Also, you really really have to be cautious about having sand on your hands when using your camera out on the beach. Recently I bought a waterproof camera that lets me take pictures and video under the water. It’s rugged and durable. It’s a great gadget and it’s nice to be able to get pictures without having to worry about killing my equipment!

Sand Cart

Finally, a sand cart. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, we have this one Wonder Wheels Plus It has a weight capacity of 75 pounds and we’ve definitely tested it. We put the beach tent, cooler, chairs, literally everything we bring, in this cart and roll it down to the beach. It’s heavy, yes, but the wheels are designed to roll over sand and they do, in fact do just as advertised (plus it’s a heck of a lot better than carrying all that stuff). If you are going alone or with one other adult you can probably get away with carrying stuff yourself but if you have kids with you, you MUST have this. Two adults could not feasibly carry all the things you need plus small children without taking several trips. Beach cart= one trip and done. We’ve got it down to where we can unload the cart and set up the tent, chairs, towels, etc in less than 10 minutes. Ten minutes and you’re relaxing and enjoying what you paid good money to experience.

Finally, don’t forget the little things. No I don’t mean you need any more gear. I mean don’t forget what you came for. Florida isn’t considered a paradise by accident. Yes, we have our share of crazies here, we are notorious for making the news for all manner of weird and bizarre things, we have only two seasons—late spring and summer and every now and then a hurricane threatens to come blow us off the map but there’s a reason that the people who live here endure all that. It’s beautiful. Sure, take in the bars, the shops, the theme parks, the tacky beach stores, but then take a walk on the beach and a moment to absorb the amazing wonders around you. I promise, you’ll go home happy.

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