Florida is calling

Call them missionaries – a delegation of half a dozen disciples of Florida in Canada to spread the gospel, and latest news, from the Sunshine State. On hand for a media mission to Toronto earlier this summer were representatives of Florida’s Sports Coast; Visit Pensacola; Ocala-Marion County VCB; Discover Crystal River; SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment; as well as Visit Florida. And from manatees to horseback riding, and sport fishing to state history, the group had plenty to impart, not the least that there is much more to Florida than its theme parks, and, as Visit Florida is quick to counsel: it’s a destination made for exploring.

Florida’s Sports Coast: Not sure where Pasco County is? That’s why the region has been rebranded Florida’s Sports Coast. Located about half an hour due north of Tampa, the area has ample opportunities for outdoor leisure pursuits, including two state parks and venues such as the largest indoor ice centre in the southeast, says Kucyk Gayson. The county’s coast is not really known for its beaches, but ideal for sport fishing, as are inland lakes and rivers.

Pensacola: Florida’s westernmost city (on the Panhandle near the Alabama border) is renowned for its Gulf of Mexico beaches and family-friendly vibe, but don’t forget the city’s burgeoning cultural scene, from museums and galleries to symphony and local chef-inspired cuisine (and dearth of chain restaurants). America’s “oldest settlement” also boasts an ongoing roster of events, such as November’s songwriter festival and the Mullet Toss (dead fish, not men with 1980s hairstyles).

Ocala-Marion County: About 90 minutes north of Orlando and Tampa, landlocked Marion County (primary town, Ocala) is in the centre of Florida. It’s the horse capital of the state, manifesting itself in a host of activities for visitors, from farm tours to horse riding and carriage tours, to (specialized) show jumping and even swimming with horses. Canadians driving through Marion Co. on their way south should consider stopping to discover the pastoral setting and quaint downtowns – a “different destination than what you normally see in Florida.”

Crystal River: It’s all about manatees here, the cows of the sea. Dubbed the Manatee capital of the world, close to a thousand of the gentle beasts make there way from the Gulf of Mexico to winter (Nov.-March) in warm local springs, rivers and the Crystal River Wildlife Refuge. Located about an hour and 15 minutes north of Tampa, the region is also known for its seafood – especially scallops – sport fishing, and restaurants that will cook a visitor’s catch.

SeaWorld: Entertainment and education combine here as the organization has always been about rescue, research and conservation first and theme parks second, even if it didn’t traditionally talk about it. And to that end, SeaWorld has passed the 35,000 animals rescued milestone.