Beyond Daytona Beach: exploring Daytona as a family
We always love to visit places we’ve heard about but never been before. We especially love finding the unknown side of a city or area…. like Daytona Beach. The first thing that comes to mind when you hear Daytona is either NASCAR racing or spring break, but we were just there exploring the area and did all kinds of family friendly activities in Daytona Beach.
First off, there is so much more to the area than just the beach or NASCAR events. We’re all about exploring the smaller towns and getting into nature so activities in Daytona Beach and the surrounding towns really made for a fun trip. Take a look how we planned a vacation in Daytona Beach that got us into the Florida back country, showed us some history, gave a dose of science AND allowed for fun beach time.
Getting to the Daytona Area
I wish every layover happened in the Daytona Beach International Airport (DAB). Yes, it’s a tiny airport but it’s beautiful, clean, not crowded and so easy. With only a few airlines flying via DAB it’s so chill. Also, depending on the season and day of the week DAB flights are fairly inexpensive, which is a bonus when you’re talking about family travel.
If you’re driving, Daytona Beach lays a third of the way down Florida’s Atlantic Coast. We paired a trip to Daytona with a vacation to St Augustine, but it can easily be added onto an Orlando trip or be its own thing.
Note: although a small airport DAB has plenty of rental car options, including companies that will allow one-way rentals, to or from DAB.
Activities on Daytona Beach
We love beach days and we’ve done them all over Florida, most recently up and down the Florida Gulf Coast. Activities on Daytona Beach are very different from other beach towns. Here vehicles are allowed to drive on the beach almost everywhere and there are designated lanes of traffic.
Tip: if you want to do beach time with kids, plan it at LOW TIDE so that there is more space for them, as when the tide comes in the play space in minimized and it’s not very safe for children due to the cars.
Riding Bikes on the Beach
One of the activities in Daytona Beach we enjoyed was riding beach bikes ON the sand. We’ve rented bikes in Victoria BC and in Georgia’s Golden Isles (on both St Simons and Jekyll Island), but have never ventured directly onto the beach with them. It’s a totally different way to experience it. We got our bikes through Blue Coast Shop and were outfitted with trailers, helmets (optional), bike locks and storage bags. Our bikes had big fat tires meant for riding on sand.
Biking on the beach is not as easy as biking on pavement or mountain bike trails. On the beach you need to keep up your pace and really pay attention to where you’re riding. There are pockets of soft sand that’ll make you tilt or over-correct if you’re not paying attention, or there are hard pressed bumps from cars being on the beach. And then if you’re riding just off the tide line you might just have to ride through the edge of a wave if you’re not careful. It’s really a mixed bag. Totally fun, but if you’re looking for an easy ride, this ain’t it. This is a workout to remember and you’ll love it!
Tip: if you want to snap pictures while riding, use a GoPro with a strap. Shore birds will fly alongside you and it’s the coolest shot if you can capture it!
Adding some Science to your Vacation
Since we get to travel so much our kids get to experience all kinds of nature and beauty and we’re so thankful for that. With it though, we also like to work in educational stuff as much as possible and there are the perfect activities in the Daytona Beach area for that!
MOAS Children’s Museum and Planetarium
The Daytona Beach Museum of Arts and Sciences is quite the place. With collections of historical artifacts, Americana/memorabilia, some beautiful art galleries, a children’s museum and a planetarium, you could spend hours here. It’s actually a great place to go if you’ve been spending a little too much time in the sun and need a break.
If you know me in real life or just have been following our blog for awhile you know that children’s museums are an anxiety attack waiting to happen for me. Denver has a very nice one, but the one here in Daytona was ideal. It wasn’t too big and it wasn’t overly crowded. The kids had a blast! Most of our time was spent doing the cause and effect activities, but our youngest, Elliott, loved the black-light room where he could build a skeleton. It was ridiculously silly.
The Planetarium at MOAS was also really cool. We weren’t there during a full on space exploration presentation, but got to see a laser show instead (and it wasn’t a Pink Floyd one). The kids loved watching the laser story of Orion’s Belt and the mythology behind it. Totally random fun activity in Daytona.
Tip: check the MOAS website for a full planetarium schedule including special space events.
Ponce Inlet Marine Science Center
We’ve got a few really awesome local aquariums in the Pacific Northwest, so you might say that we’re aquarium aficionados. What made the Ponce Inlet Marine Science Center so great was the bottomless education available at every display. From learning about pollution in the oceans to touching stingrays and hearing about each one’s individual personality, it was a treat. There were lots of staff available for questions and hands on opportunities.
Fun story: we asked about local bird watching, specifically looking for roseate spoonbills and the most awesome lady, Shell, gave us info, maps, and even had us pop back to her office to check for local tips online. She and everyone else was ready and willing to play teacher and tour guide.
Turtle Recovery and Conservation
We love when an attraction type place is actually there for a purpose and not just entertainment. The Ponce Inlet Marine Science Center is just that. In addition to learning about the local environment and interacting with the sea life you’ll see just offshore, they also have a Sea Turtle Hospital ICU Ward. Here they treat and nurse injured sea turtles of all kinds and sizes. While this isn’t necessarily the “attraction” of the Ponce Inlet Marine Science Center it was the best part for us. Veterinarians watch over the many turtles treating their wounds and conditions with great care.
There is also a bird sanctuary and recovery center. This was a great surprise for us, with recovering pelicans, owls, hawks, and even a pair of bald eagles. There is a good portion of the complex that isn’t accessible to the public as it’s the hospital section, but we could hear the birds squawking as they were being treated. Such a wonderful group of people taking care of Florida’s wildlife.
Tip: if you’re traveling northward there is another cool operation in Georgia’s Golden Isles: the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island. Their operation is a bit bigger, serving sea turtles and more.
History in the Daytona Area
Before arriving in the Daytona Beach area we knew very little about the area…except for its NASCARness. Daytona was actually settled in 1870 and has some great pockets of culture and cool sights.
Ponce Inlet Lighthouse
We climb every lighthouse we come across. We have an adorable one in our area, the Point No Point Light (it’s so tiny!), so we feed our need for nautical fun every few weeks with a visit. The Daytona Beach area has one that’s much much cooler: the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse. At 175 feet tall and built in 1887 it’s quite the sight. The area surrounding the tower, once keepers quarters and utility buildings, is actually a collection of small museums all about lighthouses and the area’s seafaring past.
Tip: if you’re traveling with little kids, this is a great place to visit as there are no height restrictions to climbing the 203 steps. The St Augustine Lighthouse has 219 steps but has a height restriction of 44 inches tall, so not all kids can climb. The only restriction to the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse is that all climbers must do it on their own; they cannot be carried.
DeLand Historic District
This spot is a bit out of the way, but if you’re venturing inland it’s a great area to stop for lunch and maybe go for a stroll. The town of DeLand is exactly what you picture when you think of a turn-of-the-century town. It’s got perfect sidewalks lined with trees, squares and greenspace, and Stetson University right in the middle of the historic district. We stopped in for sushi and a short stroll. It was a night and day difference from Daytona Beach where we’d been for the last few days.
Florida’s Back Country
When we did our epic Florida Gulf Coast road trip we got to head inland and explore some of the natural springs. Florida has over 1000 springs and they’re all different and beautiful. We visited two while on our Daytona Beach trip.
De Leon Springs State Park
Best breakfast ever. What? At a state park? Yep, totally true. Within DeLeon Springs State Park is the Old Spanish Sugarmill Restaurant. Um, it was meant for us. The tables have their own griddles in the middle and you pay per person for different types of pancake batter that you cook yourselves. It’s the coolest and the kids had a blast. The Old Spanish Sugarmill has been in operation since 1961 and I hope it outlives us. The staff was so nice and truthfully, we were wishing we’d discovered it on day 1 in Daytona.
Tip: if you have somebody with allergies, there are enough moms and gramas working at the Old Spanish Sugarmill that you need only mention a tiny concern and they’re on top of it! We were able to have a great time in a completely egg-allergy safe environment.
Beyond the fun restaurant there’s more. De Leon Springs State Park is the home of the Fountain of Youth. Wait… Wasn’t the Fountain of Youth in St Augustine? Yes, there’s one there too.
The beautiful head springs found in De Leon Springs State Park also lay claim to being the famous bubbling source our youth, also known as Bimini. It was a sought after legend for the longest time but Juan Ponce decided this particular spring is indeed it… or the St Augustine site is it… It’s beautiful, either way, and I swam in it. Now you won’t see me age in our pictures going forward.
Once you’ve dipped in the Fountain of Youth, you should head down river on an ecotour to learn more about the spring and the marshlands surrounding it. We had a very chill naturalist lead us down river, spotting all kinds of birds and cypress trees, as well as alligators and even a manatee. The kids really enjoyed the abundance of wildlife on our ecotour.
Note: if you’re not familiar with the term, an ecotour is a tour where you’re introduced to and learn about the ecosystem of the area, so it’s not just sightseeing; an ecotour’s purpose is to teach and inspire conservation of the delicate natural world.
Tomoka State Park
After doing several other kayak and ecotour expeditions we were ready to explore Tomoka State Park on our own. We rented kayaks from the Tomoka Outpost within the state park and headed out. The kids are pros at water safety so jumping in a kayak is NBD (no big deal)… but when the warning from the state park comes with “be aware of alligators and sharks in the brackish water…” we’re a little more cautious. We talked to the kids about staying calm and keeping their hands out of the water and then set sail.
Renting kayaks at Tomoka State Park was really easy, and since we headed up river we had a very safe experience. It’s easy to turn up each little channel and wander through the grass islands in your kayak, so having a continuous flow back out to the Innercoastal Waterway is nice as it keeps you going the right way and you cannot get lost. This is super awesome when you’re kayaking with kids because they want you to paddle up all of the most narrow waterways available.
Tip: don’t forget your extra water on the kayak trail, as it’s hot and in the middle of the grass islands there is very little wind to cool you off.
Blue Springs State Park
Our final adventure activity in Daytona Beach landed us at Blue Springs State Park… so we save our best for last. Much like Rainbow Springs State Park on the Gulf side, Blue Springs is beautiful beyond words. We were directed here by some other folks on our ecotour in De Leon Springs State Park and I’m so glad we listened.
We parked in the main parking area and started hiking upriver. I say hiking, but it was all on boardwalks. As if the Spanish moss swaying in the trees above us wasn’t enough, we started our jaunt along the river and were completely sucked into the gorgeous water. There was viewing platform after viewing platform as we wandered up river… and then we got to get in!!!
Oliver, our oldest, and I got in first. We swam around and played, but needed a better area for all four of us to get in.
After walking past the tube rental station (that’s right!) we found a great spot for all of us to get into the river and enjoy the crystal clear water. Closer to the head springs of Blue Springs there weren’t any of the scary huge Florida Gar fish (harmless), so the kids got to have fun without fear. I wish we would’ve planned better to be able to snorkel or dive at the actual head spring as it’s the deepest and most beautiful we’ve gotten to see in Florida. Next time…
Tip: if you can plan it out, there are great camping facilities at Blue Springs State Park. You can have a fun Daytona Beach vacation and then move inland to immerse in nature. Just a thought…
Four days in the Daytona Beach area was just about right, but we could’ve easy spent one or two more. Upon our next visit we aim to camp in the Florida State Parks near Daytona. We loved the towns we rolled through and the beauty that waited just away from the beach. The sights and activities in Daytona Beach and around were so much fun we would happily return for another #LoveFL trip!