Disney World, Busch Gardens, and Sea World all have their highlights, but Florida has a lot of other attractions to offer to the visitor or snowbird — and not just those stretches of white sand! Here are six alternative attractions for the whole family.

Florida Aquarium

Located in downtown Tampa, about 90 minutes from Orlando, this facility has hosted millions of visitors since opening in 1995.

One thing to keep in mind about the Florida Aquarium: it’s not about the dolphins and seals. For those you’ll have to take the Eco-Tour out in the bay for an additional charge. But that doesn’t mean that the Florida Aquarium is lacking — far from it. Rather than shows and tricks, the facility emphasizes a calmer exploration of nature in its diversity and complex interdependence. There’s plenty to explore: a shark tank and large shark collection, the relaxing and informative virtual tour of a coral reef, and the Wetlands Dome area are just some of the highlights. Highlights also include the recently acquired African Black-Footed penguins, and an exhibition of Australian sea life including sea dragons.

For more information, visit www.flaquarium.org.

Lowry Park Zoo

With more than 1800 animals housed in rich environments, the Lowry Park Zoo is another way to explore wildlife while enjoying the Florida sun. The Lowry Zoo is aware that it’s completing with attractions like Disneyworld and so has developed a number of interesting and interactive exhibits. The Treetop Skyfari ride gives a bird’s eye view of, well, birds as well as other animals at the zoo while the rock climbing wall gives kids and adults a chance to burn off some excess energy — helpful to grandparents wrangling grandkids.

For more details, see www.lowryparkzoo.com/.

Museum of Arts and Sciences

Located in Daytona Beach, across the state (the short way) from Orlando, the Museum of Arts and Sciences provides a more adult-focused collection of arts and artifacts. Until March 11, 2007 visitors can also enjoy the “Objects of Desire” collection from the Smithsonian — rare and dazzling oddities from around the world. Permanent collections include Cuba: A History in Art, and an outstanding fossil collection including the 13 foot — yes foot — high skeleton of the Giant Ground Sloth. Admission also includes shows at the Museum’s planetarium. Bring your own lunch as there is no cafeteria.

For more information, visit www.moas.org/

Ponce de Leon Inlet Light Station

If you’re in Daytona Beach, you won’t want to miss the Ponce de Leon lighthouse. The lighthouse museum provides a look at the technology and work involved in lighthouses historically. And if you make the climb up to the top of Florida’s tallest lighthouse you will enjoy a beautiful view (although it is narrow at the end, so those who are claustrophobic may want to take a pass; there is a large panoramic mural at the museum to enjoy if you choose not to go up yourself). A nature trail and park surrounds the lighthouse, providing a beautiful spot for a stroll.

Want to know more? Check out www.ponceinlet.org/

Old St. Augustine Village

Owned and operated by the Daytona Beach Museum of Arts and Sciences, Old St. Augustine Village is a unique collection of 9 houses. Between the years of 1940 to 1950, Kenneth Worcester Dow, the only son of a prosperous family, made it his work to purchase an entire block of historic homes. In 1989 he donated the homes and his collection of art objects and antiquities to the Museum and after a restoration project the collection and homes were opened to the public in the year 2000. St. Augustine itself is considered the United States’ oldest city and this is a terrific place to start gathering an appreciation for its rich cultural tapestry.

For more information, see www.staugustineinns.com.

Castillo de San Marcos

While in St. Augustine you won’t want to miss this impressive Spanish-built fort, representing 330 years of history. Its massive 16-foot thick walls surrounding a courtyard may seem familiar to Gary Cooper fans, as it was the location for the film Distant Drums. It is the oldest masonry extant in North America, made of a stone called coquina (“little shells”). Programmes include ranger talks, museum exhibits, historical weapons demonstrations, and living history reenactments.

To find out more, visit the National Park Service website.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Nick Tzolov

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by:
Jennifer Gruden