Orlando is famed for its theme parks – but it’s also a goldmine of natural wonders. Right in the center of the Sunshine State, bright nuggets of unspoiled land maintain pre-Disney and pre-Universal charm. Nothing springs to mind like the springs, which are peppered throughout Florida’s subtropical scrub, and where crystalline waters bubble up from a subterranean limestone aquifer – offering visitors swimming pools that keep to 22C (72F) all year round. To get you the full lowdown, we’ve asked our local insiders to highlight their number one watering holes, all within a short distance of Orlando.
Wekiwa Springs State Park embodies the Old Florida vibe, thanks to the 13m (21km) of seemingly virgin territory that surrounds it. The name wekiwa (a Native American word for bubbling water) seems fitting. The spring’s cool, crystalline waters feed into the Wekiva River, where otters scamper across moss-strewn logs and sleek yellow-bellied sliders dip in and out of shallows. The dedicated swimming basin is surrounded by grassy slopes (which make for picture-perfect picnic spots). If you’re angling for something a little more adventurous, tourists can rent canoes or kayaks to explore the river, as well as bicycles and horses for the trails. (The Florida black bear is a timid, but unpredictable resident of these parts, so if you’re not willing to take the ranger’s advice on encounters, steer clear.) The parking lot stops clocking in visitors after the 150 spaces are filled, so aim to get there early, or sign up for automatic text alerts. Recommended by local insider Korri Lacalamita
Located an hour north of Orlando, Blue Spring State Park is best known for its 50 years of helping to protect the West Indian manatee population (also affectionately known as sea cows). Blue Spring is a hotspot for these watery mammoths. They pack into the narrow waterway here in the hundreds, seeking warmer temperatures during the colder winter months. From mid-November to March, whole mobs can be seen bobbing beneath the azure waters, sometimes scarfing down water lettuce, but generally just floating in a blissed-out, comatic trance. Come summer, tourists are allowed to swim, snorkel and scuba dive (the underwater cavern reaches 120ft/37m) in the springs. Thursby House, the former residence of one of the area’s first European settlers, is located further along the banks of St Johns River – preserved intact as a free museum. Recommended by local insiders Korri Lacalamita and Katie Davis
Located in a small town called Apopka, Kelly Park is known for one wild water activity in particular: tubing. For the uninitiated, this involves you being tightly wedged into a blow-up rubber ring, then being carried downstream by currents. The springs gurgle up chutes of clear-blue water, providing a shallow run for tubers. This aquatic trail winds through an upland hammock of oaks and pines, the mossy banks of which are frequented by wild turkeys and raccoons. If the constant chorus of cicadas doesn’t drive you wild, consider a staycation at Kelly Park Campground – a tubular destination to abandon your worries. Recommended by local insider Korri Lacalamita
Located just east of Ocala, Silver Springs has been a beloved landmark since the 1870s. While visitors aren’t allowed to swim in the spring, it’s still a popular spot to watch sunsets in the water’s clear reflection – though if you see a log that blinks back, through beady black slits, it’s probably a ‘gator. During the ’30s, Colonel Tooey – a glass-bottom boat operator – hatched a plan to boost tourism in the area by releasing six rhesus macaques onto a nearby island. Unimpressed with their new home, the monkeys swam off before Tooey even made it back to his boat, initiating squatter’s rights in the longleaf sandhill forest surrounding the park. Today, over 300 macaques live and swing from the trees, easily spotted along the river from glass-bottom boats – they’re controversial, though, as some are infected with herpes B, which is deadly to humans. Recommended by local insider Korri Lacalamita
Juniper Springs, located in Ocala National Forest, is an ode to a fairytale – and still fairly hush-hush, despite its natural splendor. Here, hundreds of tiny bubbling springs gush out of crevices that run along a 7mi (11km) creek – which locals consider the best kayaking route in the state. The main swimming area, an oval-shaped basin, is encircled by a grassy garden, replete with wooden mill, waterwheel and stone footbridges built during the ’30s. The springs hold pockets of deep, underwater caves – and the whole area is frequented by white-tailed deer, heron, otters and turtles. Recommended by local insider Katie Davis
If the name wasn’t unusual enough (it means winding river in the Seminole language), Weeki Wachee is the only city – probably in the world – that has more mermaids than humans, and more manatees than residents (on last count, there were only 13). The state park shares custody of the springs with marine life, so while it’s used as a backdrop for the park’s famous live mermaid performances, you can also expect the odd turtle to crash the show every once in a while. If The Little Mermaid (1989) doesn’t float your boat, fear not, there are countless kayaking opportunities, boat rides along the river and Buccaneer Bay, a family-friendly waterpark. Recommended by local insider Katie Davis