Technically a Florida native, born in none other than Florida Hospital, my family moved to the Atlanta area when I was just a few months old. Even so, with grandparents, aunts and uncles living in the Sunshine State, my summers were still filled with trips to Disney, Universal, MGM, Seaworld, even Gatorland (yes, that’s a real ‘tourist attraction’).
I was also lucky to explore the real Florida, beyond the theme parks and thrill rides. One of my favorite memories as a kid was playing in Wekiwa Springs State Park, a must-do during our annual summer visits located just minutes outside Orlando.
The crystal clear spring water was absolutely freezing, and that first toe-dip sent goosebumps racing across my skin every single time. My heart pounded as I built up the courage to jump into the natural pool. It was less tortuous that way, like ripping off a bandaid. The next thing you know, my brother and I would be having splashing contests and swimming races with the other kids who’d forgotten how cold that water really was.
‘Wekiwa’ is a native American word for ‘flowing water,’ which makes sense considering the kidney-shaped pool is a natural spring with a 35-foot fissure producing its main, bubbling vent. The bottom is flat and sandy, and it’s surrounded by gently sloping lawns where families can lay out their blankets, beach towels and fully loaded picnic spreads.
The state park isn’t just a family friendly destination. There are loads of activities for all ages, like hiking, camping, canoeing and kayaking. Some of the campsites are called ‘canoe sites,’ which you can only reach by water. Paddling along the 17-mile Wekiwa River, you can spot otters, turtles, several species of birds, and of course, alligators.
Florida is home to so many diverse ecosystems and beautiful wild places. We all love Harry Potter World, don’t get me wrong, but the next time you travel down to our southernmost state, make sure you explore the true Florida.
Now it’s your turn to get nostalgic: What are some of your favorite childhood parks? Give us a shout on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and share your own stories.