Forget dear old Mickey. Florida's Gulf Coast offers wildlife of a different kind. Gentle sea giant manatees and wild dolphins skitting through sparkling surf. Scorching pink flamingoes and American Bald Eagles.
Mile after mile of soft white sand bordered by mangroves and painted lifeguard huts. Just pull up and go for a swim, no organisation required.
I set off with husband and young toddler in tow for a two week Fly Drive through Florida's Gulf Coast as part of the #thinktheusa project.
Fly Drive Florida: Picking Your Route
Florida is a big old state and there's room for probably 4 - 5 separate two week fly-drives before you run out of ideas.
But pace yourself. Part of Florida's charm involves moving slowly through her landscape, across her water. When trying to see wildlife in the, well, wild, you need time. It's not like being in a zoo.
Fly Drive Florida: With Children or Without?
That said, if you're travelling without children, you could pick up the pace here, probably spending one less night in each of the places if you're determined to cram things in.
But this itinerary leaves time for you to slow down and enjoy life. With a toddler, it means there's time for naps and early bedtimes and not too much time spent in the car. There's the chance for a run-around or swim (or both) every single day.
Restaurants are close enough to the hotels to mean that little ones won't be too late to bed. But none of them are plastic fantastic fare
FLIGHTS AND CAR HIRE
Florida's Gulf Coast is peppered with airports but the one with the greatest choice is Orlando International inland. That made getting to the coast the longest stretch of the drive but it was still no more than three hours (and the airport is well signposted on the return.)
For car rental, we booked through Hertz again and couldn't have been happier with the pick up and drop off service at Orlando International. They also have a handy American Road Trip Planner, which is not only useful for plotting out a Florida Fly Drive but also leads you into temptation by making you imagine other great road trip itineraries..
14 days car hire from Orlando with Hertz.co.uk costs from £400, based on room for two adults, baby, pushchair and luggage.
Top Fly Drive Travel Tip
Register with Hertz Gold Plus Rewards BEFORE you make your reservation. Not only do you get access to better deals but you skip the queues at Orlando Airport and get to sail through to the Gold Plus Rewards counter. It's free to register and takes about a minute.
It's a straightforward but fairly unspectacular drive for the first hour or so from Orlando.
And then you get close to Crystal River, Manatee Capital of the World.
The streets seem to drip with green, as branches from deep trees fall to the floor to meet a rug of tangled tropical greenness. It's the northernmost point of this trip and the place that reminds me the most of Louisiana's Great River Road, all lush vegetation, grand white houses and plenty of alligators.
The small, spread out area of Crystal River has risen to fame as the Manatee Capital of the World, a naming convention that seems "110% American" and which we will see again.
But let's not be churlish. This IS a great spot for manatees and that, of course, is largely why we've come.
We made the most of our jet lag by scheduling an early morning swim in the waters of Crystal River in search of manatees (more about them on a separate article.)
And then, manatee fix satisfied, we could relax and explore the rest of the land around Crystal River.
The Homosassa Spring Wildlife State Park, with its flamingoes, manatees and American Bald Eagles.
The Crystal River Archaeological State Park and Museum that traces back thousands of years of human activity through steep pyramids of shells that overlook the water.
And the beaches. Sadly under storm watch for our time there but impressive in their sandy tempestuousness nonetheless. If the weather is better for you, then try Hunter Springs Beach or Fort Island Gulf Beach.
Notes - if you've not had a long haul flight with jet lag, you may want to condense this section of the Fly-Drive itinerary. But if you only manage to reach Crystal River before you fall to sleep on day one then take your time. The grounds of The Plantation on Crystal River are beautiful for walking around. Plus, there's a golf course and spa ;-)
THE PLANTATION ON CRYSTAL RIVER
Sprawling complex with a grand avenue of live oaks as an entrance to its 232 acres.
On the edge of King's Bay and perfectly placed to arrange trips to swim with manatees.
If there's one place you MUST stop at on this section of the journey, it's Tarpon Springs.
Laced with more than a little kitsch, this tiny fishing village is, wait for it, the sponge capital of the world.
It's also home to a proud Greek community and the two are intertwined. Around 100 years ago, when the sponge beds were discovered here, young Greek immigrants had the skills to get them out and sell them. And if you're really lucky, you can hop on a boat for a demonstration of how this used to be done.
It's far more daring than it sounds, as you can see in the video below, arranged through St Nicholas Boat Lines.
From Tarpon Springs, it's just a quick 20 minute drive to Clearwater, so named because (I can't help myself) the water is clear.
The sand isn't too bad, either, and it's Clearwater more than anywhere else on this itinerary that seems set up for beach life. It's fairly built up but it's worth the stop off for more than just the sand and grouper sandwiches at Frenchy's Rockaway Grill (although, they are sinfully good.)
I found the visit to Clearwater Marine Aquarium astoundingly moving. The main bulk of the work that takes place there involves marine rescue and research rather than entertaining visitors, but the visitors who do come are predominantly children. And overwhelmingly ones to whom life has struck a hard deal.
It seems that dolphin Winter's story of overcoming adversity, of having people who believed in her and fought for her, resonates with children with serious illnesses.
And seeing them there is humbling.
Where to Stay in Clearwater
Hyatt Regency Clearwater Resort & Spa
Short walk to the beach, local restaurants & Pier 60.
Situated between the Intercoastal Waterway and the Gulf of Mexico.
Spacious swimming pool & bar. Great service. 287 rooms.
Stylish suite with kitchenette - perfect for family travel.
Days 6- 8 Fly Drive Florida: Clearwater to St Pete
Next up is St Pete, short for St Petersburg, and awash with classy charm.
It's only a 45 minute drive from Clearwater, making this an easy day on the road, but the characters of Tarpon Springs, Clearwater and St Pete are so different that it pays to spend enough time in each one.
We spent only one night in St Pete but I loved it there and hungered for more. So now, in this cyber world, I'm gifting the extra night to you ;-)
Dali in Florida
The razzle-dazzle feature of St Pete is the Salvador Dali Museum. And if the thought of travelling so far to see something so close to home confuses you, it shouldn't.
This really is a remarkable museum, with thought provoking tours, stunning architecture and better gazpacho than I had in four years of living in Spain.
Showcasing more than 100 pieces, the museum made me realise just how much of a genius Salvador Dali was. And the bright airy space made his work feel a lot less creepy: it gave it the space to breathe.
Stand in front of the Abraham Lincoln piece and see for yourself.
More Art in St Pete
But Dali isn't the only big name in town. The Morean Arts Center hosts a permanent collection of Chihuly glasswork and lives on a whole avenue dedicated to exploring and understanding the arts.
Where to Stay in St Pete
Vinoy Renaissance Resort & Golf Club
Gorgeous historic hotel with a modern extension.
Lavish rooms and fantastic breakfast service. Great views across the Marina and fresh and funky Paul's Landing claims to mark the spot where oranges first reached Florida.
Walkable to the Dali Museum if it's not too hot and you have time on your hands.
It's another short drive (45 minutes) from St Pete to Bradenton but it's the kind of drive that sums up driving in Florida. Water everywhere. Blue skies everywhere. And concrete bridges sweeping across great swathes of even more blue.
Watch out for pelicans swooping as you make it over Highway 275.
Bradenton itself has a very different feel to the other stops on this Florida itinerary.
Most visitors, I sense, zoom on past to the well-heeled sands of Anna Maria Island, leaving downtown Bradenton with a quieter, more riverside feel.
From the 1930s historic Hampton Inn & Suites, you can walk to through Bradenton's Old Main Street and on to its new, creative Riverwalk, stopping off at Corwin's for ice cream along the way.
About Corwin's and Pier 22
Pier 22 overlooks the Manatee River and Twin Dolphin Marina, which makes for a remarkably beautiful setting for dinner as the sun sets.
But there's a local history connection, too, with the name coming from Samuel C. Corwin (1858 - 1934,) a local businessman who worked on and then bought the area around Pier 22.
Here splash pads and art installations wait just minutes from the South Florida Museum, home to a planetarium and some rescued manatees.
Further afield, a car is handy for checking out the quirky Arts Village (see the video below) and making a stop at two very different foodie stops: the citrus Mixon's Fruit Farm, which claims to serve the state's best Reuben sandwich, and Farmhouse Donuts, which serves donuts called Sweet Squealing Pig and Cow Patties amid rustic home decor.
You can also, of course, drive to the coast to soak in the sand of the lovely Anna Maria Island.
When it's time to drive on to Sarasota, stop off in the intriguing Manatee Village Historical Park en route for a look at how buildings used to look back in the pioneer days.
Where to Stay in Bradenton
HAMPTON INN & SUITES BRADENTON
Historic hotel with plentiful parking and an excellent location for local art, history, culture and the Riverwalk.
DIY breakfast option. More on the Hampton Inn & Suites Bradenton here.
Days 10 - 14 Fly Drive Florida: Bradenton to Sarasota
It's the shortest drive to Sarasota, at only 30 minutes or so, but you're saving yourself for the drive back to Orlando, not to mention all the upcoming day trips.
Sarasota has so many things to do that she deserves an article all to herself and I shall return to link back to it here!
The Ringling Museum, Sarasota
The behemoth that everyone begins with is The Ringling, half museum, half Renaissance fantasy.
Founded by circus magnates, John and Mable Ringling, expect to find vast art galleries, theatre performances and bayfront gardens and plan for a whole day here.
Often overlooked are the supremely gorgeous Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, the world centre for orchid and epiphyte research with tranquil gardens that overlook the bay mixed in with truly creative floral art.
Marine Research at The Mote
Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium on City Island also hits research headlines with its work on endangered species and its 135,000 gallon shark habitat.
But there is a danger of "Aquarium Burnout" with this itinerary, so if you think you could be afflicted then head outdoors instead with a Sea Life Encounters Cruise with Sarasota Bay Explorers (they work with and next to the Mote.)
We saw dolphins, osprey, crabs and snapper fish - and that's not even the half of it (see the video above!)
Alligators Aplenty (With Cream)
Reserve a day to drive inland to the moss and alligator wetlands of Myakka River State Park, stopping off in the Amish holiday enclaves of Yoder's on the way there and Der Dutchman on the way back for a legendary slice of pie.
Sarasota Beaches and Best Bites
New development St Armand's lines up chic eateries and concept surf stores into a compact, walkable circle (it's another legacy of the Ringlings, through both design and the Italian statues standing on the circle.)
And then there are the beaches.
Lido Beach lives just a short distance from St Armand's, with white sand and blue water.
Fly Drive Florida to the USA's Best Beach
And then Siesta Beach keeps getting ranked as the USA No. 1. Its quartz sand from the Appalachian mountains leave it white and cool underfoot, and the painted lifeguard stations give its horizon an iconic, timeless feel.
Beaches run for miles along Siesta Key; parking is pretty easy and access is free.
Wrapping Up This Fly Drive Florida Itinerary
If you can squeeze in an extra day then drive further south to Venice Beach.
Otherwise, it's time to pack up the car and head back to Orlando (leave three hours to be on the safe side if you have an international flight to catch.)
That's it for this Fly Drive Florida itinerary. More on different aspects of the #thinktheusa project soon.