The worst of the winter seems to be behind us and the hot, humid days of spring and summer are – knock on wood – a few more weeks away. Don’t want to break the bank entertaining the kids? You don’t have to. Here’s a list of very affordable or, in some cases, absolutely free attractions for families in Central Florida.
Marine Science Center (Ponce Inlet) – Ponce Inlet is best known for its lighthouse. Stretching 175-feet into the sky and with 203 steps to the top, the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse is the tallest in Florida and provides magnificent views of the Daytona Beach area. But in the famous landmark’s shadow and around the corner from its base is one of Central Florida’s best kept secrets. The Marine Science Center is a non-profit organization that rehabilitates injured wildlife. The heart and soul of the place is the turtle hospital. Visitors can look down into the massive tanks and view sea turtles of all sizes being brought back to good health by a team of caring volunteers. There’s also a number of exhibits inside the main building including large saltwater fish tanks and a stingray touch pool. Hawks, eagles and other birds are rehabilitated in an outside area. The Marine Science Center is small and a bit rustic, but well worth the $5 admission charge. It’s closed on Mondays.
Fort Matanzas National Monument (near St. Augustine) – Completed in 1742, Fort Matanzas was used by the Spanish to protect its colonial assets in St. Augustine. Situated on Rattlesnake Island with a commanding view of the Matanzas Inlet, the coquina structure is visited by thousands of people each year. The fort is only accessible by boat, which departs from the visitors center every hour. Upon arrival on the island, you’re immediately transported to a different era. Park volunteers are often dressed in period clothing and a ranger is available inside the fort to answer questions. Climb to the top to experience some of the most spectacular scenery on Florida’s eastern coast. (Be sure to bring your camera!) Fort Matanzas is a free attraction. Donations are accepted at the end of the boat ride.
Bulow Plantation Ruins (Flagler Beach) – Might have to tell the kids to use their imaginations on this one. Three miles west of Flagler Beach is Bulow Plantation Ruins Historic State Park. What remains of the original 1821 plantation is a testament to the rise and fall of sugar plantations in east Florida. Visitors can walk up to the walls of the former home and view information detailing what daily life was like during the early 1800s. The ruins of a sugar mill, springhouse and slave cabins are also on site. An interpretive center has several interesting artifacts that have been discovered on the property over the years. Even if you have younger kids, this is a great place to spend an afternoon. There’s a picnic area nearby and a boat ramp provides access for canoes to the scenic Bulow River. A $4 admission fee is charged for each vehicle.
Blue Springs State Park (Orange City) – It’s not too late to see the manatees in their natural habitat at Blue Springs State Park in Orange City. Now through March 1st is prime viewing season. Children of all ages love to watch the large sea cows as they gently glide along the surface of the water. The park provides several viewing areas and, if you’re lucky, you might see a gator or two. There’s a nice manatee-themed gift shop on the property for souvenirs and a little concession stand in case you get the munchies. It costs vehicles $6 to enter the park.