Best beaches near Orlando
When you’ve had your fill of Orlando’s theme parks, retreat to the area’s best beaches. | By Joanna Tweedy | December 23, 2021 (Updated May 30, 2022)
Orlando woos millions of tourists every year with high-energy rides, theme parks, spas, luxury shopping and fine dining, but the area is also home to some picturesque sand and surf. Take your family east to the Atlantic Coast, where great surfing, untouched nature and NASA’s fascinating space heritage (the Kennedy Space Center is always a favorite!) awaits. You can also go west to the Gulf Coast, home to white sugar sands at Clearwater Beach, posh seaside towns and sublime sunsets.
You'll make lasting sandy memories with your family by:
Paddling with manatees : Kayak the Indian River Lagoon at Vero Beach
Dining on the freshest seafood : Devour steamed clams in Cortez, a charming fishing village
Visiting the Gulf Coast barrier islands : Enjoy fine white-powder sand between your toes at Siesta Key
Surfing on Cocoa Beach
Pack your flip-flops and your kids’ swimsuits and make for Cocoa Beach, an hour’s drive east from downtown Orlando (if the traffic isn’t too heavy). This laid-back seaside town is home to Ron Jon’s Surf Shop (North Atlantic Avenue), a 52,000 square-foot temple to the sport that’s been at Cocoa Beach for 60 years. It’s also a great place for your little ones to find souvenirs, or even a board for themselves.
Families can take lessons at the Cocoa Beach Surf School (Meade Avenue) or go for a stroll along the weathered boards of Cocoa Beach Pier. You'll find hot dogs and frozen chocolate bananas at Sea Dogs. Rikki’s Tiki Tavern, at the pier’s end, serves iced drinks and the chance to spot dolphins playing in the water.
The Kennedy Space Center's Visitor Complex in nearby Merritt Island is a remarkable place to spend the day for all ages. Set on 140,000 acres, it pays homage to the U.S. space program. Would-be explorers can try out a training simulator, see the Space Shuttle Atlantis close-up and marvel at the feats of those who appear in the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame.
Picnic on New Smyrna Beach
The surfer vibes continue at New Smyrna Beach, and some of the East Coast’s biggest waves hit the shore here. This 17-mile stretch of golden beach is about an hour from downtown Orlando and it rarely feels crowded due to its size. You can park right up on the sand in places (for a fee), meaning you won’t have to lug the beach toys, towels and cooler that far!
New Smyrna Beack is also a fabulous spot to immerse yourself in Florida’s nature; Smyrna Dunes Park showcases the delicate ecosystems that exist side-by-side along this coast, including saltwater marshes and rolling dunes.
Perfect for a beach picnic, there’s also a 2-mile extended ocean walkway that puts you right on the water where you can look out over the Halifax River and spy Florida’s tallest lighthouse, Ponce de Leon Inlet Light. This white-washed tower is worth a visit too; kids will feel like they're on top of the world on the observation deck, with views as far as the eye can see.
If you are looking to kayak, camp, hike, canoe and fish, head to Canaveral National Seashore located between New Smyrna Beach and Titusville, Florida. A barrier island, the Canaveral National Seashore offers visitors a recreational paradise, including lagoon habitats that act as a sanctuary for thousands of plant species and animals such as sea turtles.
When your crew gets hungry, head to the oldest Dairy Queen in the state (729 North Dixie Fwy.) — it’s been there since 1953 — and order delicious banana splits for the whole gang.
Look for manatees in Vero Beach
The Treasure Coast, named in honor of the bounty-laden ships that wrecked here, is home to Vero Beach, a nature enclave 107 miles (172 km) southeast of Orlando.
This historical small city boasts low-rise resorts, a thriving arts scene (don’t miss the Vero Beach Museum of Art) and plenty of fancy restaurants, particularly around 14th Avenue. However, Atlantic-facing Orchid Island beaches are the main draw, especially for families.
Surfers love Sebastian Inlet State Park for the mighty waves that land here, but there are more gentle pursuits, too; kids will enjoy spotting sea turtles, hunting for shells or casting a fishing line from a wooden jetty. Exploring the emerald Indian River Lagoon is also a must; rent a kayak and paddle through North America’s most biologically diverse estuary — you might spot manatees, pelicans or porpoises.
Sunsets in St. Petersburg
When you cruise over the W. Howard Frankland Bridge, over Old Tampa Bay, you know St Petersburg — and a whole lot of family fun — is on the horizon. This charismatic tourist city, often mentioned in the same sentence as nearby Clearwater Beach, has lively pier life, tangerine sunsets and sugar-sand beaches, almost all of which are suitable for families.
Head to Treasure Island Beach, a wide band of soft, alabaster-white sand where you can rent a cabana and children can spend hours combing for shells. Fatten up their haul by visiting The Florida Shell Shop (9901 Gulf Blvd.), a quaint store that's been at Treasure Island Beach since 1955.
St Pete’s Pier, rejuvenated in 2020, is a 26-acre waterfront district that juts out into Tampa Bay and boasts family entertainment galore, including a marine Discovery Center and children’s playgrounds.
There is also a lot of art that's accessible for young travelers — don’t miss “Bending Arc,” a fascinating sculpture by Janet Echelman. The mind-bending Dalí Museum (1 Dali Blvd.) also has a great kid's program where children can create their first Surrealist painting.
Hunt for shells in Bradenton
The beaches 10 miles west of Bradenton on pristine Anna Maria Island paint an elegant picture of old Florida — all colorful clapboard homes and simple wooden piers. The bright white sand at Manatee Beach (yes, those adorable sea cows love to float in the warm waters here) are ideal for families; trawl the mile-long beach for eye-catching shells, get out on the ocean on a boat tour or simply enjoy playing under the sun on the super-soft sands.
Nearby Cortez Beach is smaller but less crowded in peak season, and adventure-loving teenagers can parasail, deep-sea dive, Jet Ski or paddleboard here. Head to the Florida Maritime Museum, housed in a former 1912 schoolhouse, to learn more; mini explorers will love the boat models, vast shell collection and butterfly garden.
Getting under the Big Top in Sarasota
What will young vacationers love about Sarasota County County? Caribbean-esque beaches and an impressive circus heritage — famous ringmaster John Ringling was born here and The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art (5401 Bay Shore Rd.) remains one of Florida’s most popular museums.
Sarasota’s balmy Keys, just over two hours from Orlando, regularly win awards for their immaculate beaches. They're perfect for families with little ones, too, because the sands slope gently into the shallows. Head to Siesta Key, a slender 8-mile isle that boasts three sugar-sand beaches: Siesta Beach, Crescent Beach and Turtle Beach. A trolley bus ambles between them, bypassing pastel-hued houses, tasty-looking seafood restaurants and souvenir shops.
Enjoy an ice cream at the Orange Octopus (1220 Old Stickney Point Rd.) or grab a bag of just-baked mini donuts from Meaney's (201 Canal Rd.).
Orlando offers endless fun at theme parks, but sandy shores and gentle waves are just a short drive away. Create lasting memories with your family by hunting for shells at Daytona Beach, taking surfing lessons at Cocoa Beach or paddling around with manatees.
Joanna Tweedy is an award-winning travel writer and editor who lives in London.