People fly from all over the world to go to Orlando, home of Disney World, Sea World, Universal Studios amusement parks, and much more. This is a land-locked city though, so if you want a Florida beach vacation you need to drive east to meet the Atlantic Ocean or west to reach beaches on the Gulf of Mexico.
Both coasts are easy to reach in a rental car, however. Most of the way you will be on large highways and the roads are well-marked. The closest beach to Orlando is only one hour away from the gates of Walt Disney World, while the farthest one on this list is just two hours away.
Cocoa Beach, Florida – 1 hour
Near the Cape Canaveral area where the United States launched most of its manned rockets into space, this is the closest beach to Orlando. Like all but one here, it’s on a narrow barrier island jutting out into the sea. Expect soft golden sand but big waves sometimes: this is one of the best surfing spots in Florida.
There are four public beach access areas with parking (for a fee), so it’s easy to come here on a day trip and return to your hotel in Orlando that night. For the kids there is also a public skate park and several playgrounds. The Kennedy Space Center has a visitors center open to the public.
Daytona Beach – 1 hour 15 minutes
Best known as home of the Daytona 500 Speedway where NASCAR auto races take place, this is a beach where cars rule. You can drive right onto the hard-packed sand and park your car on the very wide beach. This makes any stretch of the beach easily accessible in your vehicle, in an area that stretches more than 15 miles from New Smyrna Beach through Ormond Beach.
Prices are reasonable at Daytona Beach for lodging, meals, drinks, and activities, so this is a good spot for a couple or family on a budget. The area has a surprisingly robust art scene, plus the region is frequently cited as one of the best beach values in the USA.
Clearwater Beach – 1 hour 45 minutes
Often voted as the prettiest beach in Florida, this is a compact white-sand beach area that is only 2.5 miles long. Much of it is connected by paved walkways and bike lanes and there are plenty of restaurants and beach bars with a view of the green and blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
The water stays much warmer here than on the Atlantic coast, with temperatures only dipping down below F20° for one month in February. The water is very calm here, making it a good choice for young children. Search on Bonwi for the best Clearwater Beach resort deals.
St. Petersburg Beach – 1 hour 45 minutes
The Tampa Bay area’s other main beach is St. Petersburg, a long stretch of sand dotted with a variety of hotels and condo complexes. There several similar barrier island beaches immediately to the north such as Treasure Island and Madeira. As with Clearwater the sea temperatures are pleasant most of the year and there are seldom waves large enough to knock down even the smallest child.
This is a beach area where you pick a spot and park or you explore by car-there’s no boardwalk or path along the sea. It’s worth heading to downtown St. Pete for restaurants and nightlife, catching a Tampa Bay Rays baseball game, or exploring the Sunken Gardens area filled with tropical plants. The Salvador Dali Museum faces the Bay. Several well-regarded breweries are located here too, including Green Bench and 3 Daughters.
Anna Maria Island – 2 hours
For a taste of Florida the way it used to be before the state got so developed, head to Anna Maria Island where no building can be more than three stories high. There are no huge sprawling resorts here and the main things to do are eat seafood and lounge on the beach.
Just seven miles long and a few blocks wide, this is an easy island to navigate and there’s a free trolley to get around on once you’ve found your parking spot. There is a playground on the most popular public beach access spot and there are shaded picnic tables.
Wherever you go in Florida, you’ll earn the most points back to use for a future vacation by booking your hotel and rental car with Bonwi.com.
All photos by Tim Leffel except Coco Beach.