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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.
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
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