With two of the country’s most popular coastlines and an inland full of world-class attractions, central Florida is a tourism powerhouse. The area attracts millions of visitors every year and has hundreds of attractions designed to cater to every interest and activity level.
For select travel groups, central Florida presents a lot of promise but also a fair number of challenges. There are some phenomenal experiences available to travel planners who know where to find them. But sorting out the exceptional offerings from the mass-market attractions can be difficult.
To help you identify the very best travel opportunities for your group, I braved the August heat and summer crowds and drove through central Florida from the Gulf Coast to the Atlantic Ocean. Along the way, I visited Tampa, Orlando, the Space Coast and Daytona Beach, and uncovered some great experiential activities and attractions that will help you make a memorable time of a trip to Florida’s fun capital.
If you’re interested in planning multigenerational trips for your groups or just want to visit a destination that is on the forefront of tourism development, consider building some of these experiences into your next trip to Florida.
Swim With Sharks
In downtown Tampa, the Florida Aquarium gives visitors a look at some of the most fascinating sea animals from both central Florida and more exotic locales, such as Madagascar. And a visit to that aquarium entails much more than looking at fish tanks: Immersive, interactive environments take you “from sea level to tree level” in habitats filled with a wide variety of creatures such as lemurs, African penguins, pythons and chameleons.
The aquarium offers a menu of specialized experiences.
“We have a guided gallery tour for groups,” said sales manager Carolyn Baker. “You have a personal tour guide who talks to everyone in the group over headsets, and they tell you about the exhibits as you go along.
“We also have a behind-the-scenes tour that takes you behind all of the exhibits and shows you how they are maintained and taken care of.”
For serious bragging rights, make arrangements for some of your sea-life-loving travelers to swim with the animals at the aquarium. The staff offers the opportunity in two different large tanks. One employs special diving technology that does not require scuba certification and allows participants to come face to face with thousands of fish that live in a coral reef habitat. Visitors who do have scuba certification can dive in a larger tank, where they’ll swim alongside large sea turtles and sharks.
While your group is in Tampa, take some time to explore the nearby Tampa Bay History Center, which tells the story of the city’s development and highlights the role —and the roll — of the Cuban culture and cigar industry in the area’s growth. And an evening out in Ybor City, the area’s former cigar-factory district, gives groups entertainment with a distinctly Spanish flair.
If anything is sure to be a hit with the grandkids in a multigenerational group, it’s a visit to Universal Orlando, an entertainment complex with two theme parks that has built its reputation on movie-themed attractions and innovative thrill rides.
Universal’s two parks — Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure — have roller coasters and 3-D multimedia rides that push the limits of conventional amusement park experiences. But what has made a splash in recent years is Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which invites guests to step into the world of the books and films that have dominated pop culture during the past decade.
Each of the two Universal parks has a Harry Potter attraction. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Hogsmeade opened at Islands of Adventure several years ago and proved instantly popular. This summer, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley opened at Universal Studios, and a train experience called Hogwarts Express was created to connect the Harry Potter-themed sections of the two parks.
In both parks, guests walk through streets and alleys that have been perfectly re-created from scenes in the Harry Potter films and go on thrill rides that replicate action sequences from the books. To complete the experience, fans can try “butter beer,” a fictional drink from the stories that has been deliciously concocted by the Universal culinary team.
The Harry Potter experience will probably be enough to keep younger travelers fascinated all day. To add some thrills for adults, Universal offers a number of group-exclusive programs.
“For affinity groups, we do a VIP tour with a guide who will tour your group around the park,” said Eric Marshall, Universal’s vice president of park sales. “You go to the front of the line at each attraction and get the back stories about all the different areas.”
Groups can also arrange to have guided tours of the production studios on the Universal property; the studios are used in creating films and television shows.