One of the things I love most about living in Florida is being able to hop into the car and traveling to world-class attractions, usually within just a few hours. These destinations are even better when you're viewing them through the eyes of your children. I love watching my kids discover new things and on our recent trip to Ocala, courtesy of Ocala/Marion County VCB, I got to watch them learn about "old Florida" and its classic charm and beauty in a relaxed, laid-back atmosphere. If you haven't been, here are the best things to do in Ocala when traveling with kids, so you can plan your next trip.
I lived in Gainesville, Florida for over a decade, but never spent much time in Ocala, which is only 30 minutes south. I had no idea I was missing out on so much! Ocala and Marion Country are the perfect destinations for a family retreat; especially in the summer heat. Whether you want to relax in crystal clear springs or adventure on horseback, Marion County has something for you and your kids to enjoy.
My parents, my children (ages 3 and 6), and I recently spent three days in Ocala and Marion County and had the best time! We made a lot of memories and had a lot of laughs, all while enjoying some pretty great food too! If you're planning a trip to Florida, you should definitely consider spending a few days exploring Marion County.
The best things to do in Ocala with kids
1.) Visit Silver Springs and enjoy a Glass Bottom Boat Cruise. Silver Springs State Park is located in Ocala and has been one of the most famous landmarks in Florida since the 1870s. This area has gone through many changes over the years, but the natural beauty of the area still shines through. I visited Silver Springs several years ago when it was Silver Springs Nature Theme Park and had a small water park called Wild Waters. In 2013, the state of Florida took over operations and combined the property with the adjacent Silver River State Park to form Silver Springs State Park.
Although the majority of the man-made attractions and water park have since been closed, their famous Glass Bottom Boat cruises remain. Park visitors can take a guided boat ride on small ships with clear bottoms so they can see the aquatic life under the surface. The springs are crystal clear and the views are incredible.
Our boat was driven by a certified Coast Guard Captain and he told us all about the springs and the movies and television shows that have been filmed at this location, including Tarzan, a James Bond film, and I Spy. We were able to see movie props that remained underwater and old hand-carved canoes. We also saw countless fish and even a few alligators.
There are many natural habitats and eco-tourism activities that showcase the springs and all of the beauty North Central Florida has to offer. Admission to the park is only $2 and the park is open 7 days a week, 365 days a year from 8 AM EST to sundown. The boat cruises start at $11 for a 30-minute guided tour run daily from 10 AM to 6 PM. Ther are even extended 90-minute cruises on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 11 AM, 1 PM, and 3 PM. You can also rent kayaks or canoes courtesy of Cape Leisure Corporation and cabins are available to rent. If you have your own canoe or kayak you can use it Silver Springs for a $4 launch fee.
There's a restaurant on property and a great ice cream and fudge shop. My kids truly had the best time! They are still talking about the glass bottom boat and asked if we can go back soon. I'm hoping to make it back within the next few months for the extended boat tour. It would be a perfect day trip.
2.) Take a tour of Gypsy Gold Farm and meet the Gypsy Vanner horses. This farm is amazing! Every Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday at 10 AM EST, the staff of Gypsy Gold Farm offers a 2-hour tour to showcase their Gypsy Vanner horses.
Our tour was led by Dennis Thompson, the owner of the farm and the first person to discover and import this beautiful breed of horses. He and his wife found the Gypsy Vanner horses while visiting England in 1995 and were able to import the horse they named the Gypsy Vanner (since the animals pulled the caravans of the gypsies in the area, they were dubbed "vanners"). The first 45 minutes were spent with Dennis giving us a history of the breed and showing us photos and artifacts.
If you have little kids with you, I'd recommend bringing a quiet activity for them during this time if you really want to enjoy the 45-minute history lesson. They do have coloring sheets available, but my 3-year-old and 6-year-old got a little antsy and I had to leave the room with them a few times. Luckily, you can walk around the barn and farm and there are several Macaw parrots that you can interact with.
After Dennis tells you about the horses, you get to meet them!
We got to walk around the beautiful farm and pet several of the Gypsy Vanner horses on the property. The staff was wonderful and let us know which horses we could pet through the fences (horses in groups of 2 or more were fine, but horses that were alone were off limits since there were younger, more aggressive stallions).
My kids really loved seeing the horses and learning more about them. My parents took the tour with us and they thought it was excellent. This is really a great activity for all ages.
You can bring your own carrots for the horses or purchase some at the farm if you'd like. They also have a gift shop with books, DVDs, jewelry and more.
This tour costs $20 per person and I can definitely see why it's so highly rated on Google and Trip Advisor. We had an excellent visit!
3.) Enjoy the hands-on play at the Discovery Science Center. The Discovery Science Center has been stimulating the minds of children (and adults!) since 1997. We visited the Discovery Science Center on a rainy morning and it was absolutely perfect timing.
The Discovery Science Center has two stories of exhibits and stations where kids can learn and play. When we arrived we saw that there were summer camps going on and experiments were being done in the classrooms. When we arrived, my kids were immediately drawn to the play areas in the hallways. There was a LEGO wall that my 6-year-old loved and my 3-year-old enjoyed painting with water.
The downstairs level also hosts a variety of reptiles and bugs for kids to see and learn about before heading upstairs to see the large exhibits. The exhibits are changed 4 times per year so there is always something new to learn.
The upstairs space is wide open and has over 5,000 square feet of space for the kids to interact with the current exhibits. When we visited the Discovery Science Center there was an awesome display to learn about conservation and butterflies.
There was a maze with lots of fun quizzes and activities for the kids. My little ones really loved climbing the spiderweb, doing puzzles and swinging on the zip line.
There was also a large butterly exhibit where kids could wear glasses that simulated how butterflies view the world.
When you visit the center, be sure to stop by Tuscawilla Art Park, located right across the street.
There's a large playground where kids can release all that energy and there are statues throughout the park for all to enjoy. The park is located right in the middle of town and surrounded by fishing ponds, a basketball court and more.
4.) Take a refreshing dip into Rainbow Springs. Rainbow Springs State Park is another peaceful and beautiful natural landmark in Marion County. Rainbow Springs State Park has 3 separate entrances: the main "headsprings" entrance, the tubing entrance, and the campground.
Like Silver Springs State Park, Rainbow Springs State Park charges $2 admission at the main headsprings entrance and you can enjoy the facilities for the day. There is a roped off swimming area to enjoy Rainbow River, and there are trails to hike, canoes or kayaks for rent and multiple areas to enjoy a picnic with grills and pavilions.
The springs are absolutely amazing. The water is crystal clear and a brisk 72 degrees no matter the season or day. If you're up for it, there is a tubing excursion at the tubing entrance of the park where you can rent a tube for $20, 7 days a week. Guest services will then shuttle you upstream and you'll enjoy a 2-hour tube ride down the river.
If you have a little one, I'd recommend bringing a flotation device for them if you're planning to swim. The ladders on the swimming dock don't go down into the water very far so it can be difficult to brace yourself while helping small children in and out of the water.
There are bathroom facilities very close to the swimming area and we had plenty of space to change in and out of our bathing suits.
We had a blast walking along the trails and taking in all of the sights. This state park is so well-maintained and we had a really lovely afternoon there.
While you're visiting Rainbow Springs, be sure to stop by Swampy's Bar & Grill. They've got great food and a fun outdoor atmosphere. They're right on the river so you can see the water and kayakers making their way down the river.
In Ocala and Marion County, you'll also find activities like paintball, dirt-track racing at Bubba Raceway Park, zip lining at The Canyons Zip Line & Canopy Tours, fishing, boat tours, and more. There is something for kids of all ages in Ocala and Marion County. Be sure to visit the Ocala Marion County website to help plan your adventure. They've got tons of great information about the area and recommendations for hotels, restaurants and other attractions to visit.