Florida’s highways are rife with roadside attractions dating to pre-Disney days, and State Road 50 has no shortage of destinations worth the drive.
The highway stretches 115 miles almost from coast to coast. It is bookended by rocket launches to the east near Kennedy Space Center and mermaids to the west at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in Spring Hill.
S.R. 50 sometimes goes by different names — Colonial Drive in Orlando, for example — as it travels through five counties and is home to many a stop light. Even for the lucky drivers who don’t get bogged down in the inevitable rush-hour traffic jams, it can still take more than 3 ½ hours to drive from one end to the other.
For those who make the time, though, there are dozens of unique attractions, restaurants, breweries and other points of interest either right along the roadside, or within a few miles.
Here are 50 of the best:
Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum
It’s surprising how much of the U.S. military’s aviation history can be crammed into a couple of hangars at Space Coast Regional Airport. More than 40 fighters and other aircraft from the Air Force, Navy, Army and more spanning a century of flight have been refurbished for display. Anyone who has ever enjoyed watching the Thunderbirds or Blue Angels scream overhead at an air show will get a kick out of seeing these aircraft up close.
The wingtips of various aircraft rest just inches apart as the curators of the museum have shoehorned in everything from a B-25 Mitchell to a Sopwith F.1 Camel to an F-14 Tomcat in an entertaining parking puzzle. The signature plane is the 1942 C-47A, called the Tico Belle, complete with an iconic pinup girl in a blue dress. The aircraft flew in Europe during the World War II, including D-Day, and can still fly today.
The impressive fuselages are the highlight as you tour two immense hangars; a third is home to the museum’s restoration projects such as a B-52 crew section. Also on-site are several rooms with memorabilia from World War I to the present that will remind you of Central Florida’s considerable footprint in the nation’s wartime efforts.
Go: 6600 Tico Road, Titusville; 321-268-1941; valiantaircommand.com; open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's; adults $20, seniors and military $18, students $10, children ages 4-12 $5, free 3 and under.
Anything with the phrase “world’s largest” is worthy of a roadside stop, and this park in Christmas lays claim to the “world’s largest gator.” Sure, the critter in question isn’t alive. It’s Swampy, an alligator-shaped building measuring more than 200 feet that houses the gift shop and ticket counter for this attraction that entices you to “See, Hear, Smell & Feel Real Florida.”
Jungle Adventures is a gritty look at Florida wildlife, and not just alligators. There are also Florida black bears, Florida panthers, deer, lemurs, tortoises, crocodiles and other critters dotting the paths of the 10-acre park. The gators, though, are the draw, and there are more than 100 lurking in the waters blanketed in lime-green duckweed. Reptiles as long as 15 feet creepily pop their eyes and snouts out of the surface and on occasion get riled up and thrash the calm away so what’s left is a rippling mix of the tea-colored waters below swirling with the floating green plants.
A highlight: The 15-minute pontoon boat tour around the waterway complete with a tour guide with pun-making skills worthy of Disney’s Jungle Cruise. Other worthy offerings include alligator feeding and wrestling, and wildlife demonstrations.
Go: 26205 E. Colonial Drive, Christmas; 407-568-2885; jungleadventures.com; open daily 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; adults $23.95, seniors 60 and over $20.95, children ages 3-11 $16.95, 2 and under free.
Central Florida Railroad Museum
Just a block from Winter Garden’s bustling Plant Street is an homage to more than 100 years of railroad history. Located in the 1913 Tavares and Gulf Railroad Depot are five rooms filled with memorabilia that will make visitors think they have stumbled on a treasure trove in their grandparents’ attic.
Eyes won’t know where to focus first as the rooms are overflowing with thousands of railroad knickknacks, a model train set and even an old Thomas the Tank Engine set for the kids to play with. Historic photos and old railroad company signs dot the walls and cases are teeming with collectibles from china to telephones and telegraphs. Interesting hardware graces the rooms as well, such as a Velocipede that a single rider could pedal down a rail line. Outside is a restored Clinchfield Railroad caboose.
Visitors will learn fun facts such as the engine for Tavares and Gulf Railroad used to be known as the “Tug and Grunt” because derailments often made it late. Volunteers lead interactive tours, even letting the little ones throw the levers to switch up a railway signal. And the best thing is the museum is free.
Go: 101 S. Boyd St., Winter Garden; 407-656-0559; wghf.org/cfrailroad; open daily 1-5 p.m. except major holidays
In the time before major highways, Lake County was home to thousands of acres of citrus trees. Standing proud above it all was the Citrus Tower. The citrus is long gone, but the tower remains.
Open since July 14, 1956, the 226-foot tower is 525 feet above sea level and offers views of eight counties on a clear day. The immediate vistas though, of nearby Lake Minneola and the rolling hills of the Lake Wales Ridge including Sugarloaf to the north make up for the admittedly disheartening fact that there are no longer row upon row of orange trees to be seen. Still, for a pretty inexpensive price point, visitors can take the slow ride up the old elevator and gaze out over 2,000 square miles up to 35 miles away. Remember to bring some change to drop down the “wishing well,” so you can hear it clink down a pipe to some unknown destination 22 stories below.
At the base is a wall of Citrus Tower history with photos of better times when the tower would attract 500,000 visitors a year. Back then the tower had a restaurant, candy and jelly factories and a citrus packinghouse, and acres of groves surrounding it. Now all of that is closed and the number of visitors has dwindled to around 7,500 a year. The building now shares space with a church sanctuary in what used to be a large gift shop. Using much less space, but still active is Lilly’s Gift Shop, where you can still buy postcards and souvenirs. A popular one is the T-shirt with the silhouettes of the Tower of London, the Eiffel Tower and the Citrus Tower next to the words “London,” “Paris” and “Clermont.”
It may not be the draw it once was, but it still offers up one heck of a view.
Go: 141 N. U.S. Highway 27, Clermont; 352-394-4061; citrustower.com; open Monday-Saturday 9 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Thanksgiving and Christmas; adults $6, children ages 3-15 $4, 2 and under free.
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
Long before Disney's "The Little Mermaid," there was the real thing at Weeki Wachee Springs, where young women with really good lung capacity performed intricate shows in the Mermaid Theater.
Opened in 1947, the attraction features performers who learned to breathe compressed air through a tube, putting on shows while battling the 5 mph current coming up from the springhead that flows out to the Gulf of Mexico. ABC bought Weeki Wachee in the 1950s, building the current 500-seat theater and giving the park and its famous inhabitants national attention. It became part of the Florida State Parks system in 2008 and still attracts more than 100,000 visitors a year.
The mermaids still put on multiple shows a day and are available for photo ops. Weeki Wachee also has an animal show featuring native Florida species and river cruises that head down the spring run. Also included with admission is access to Buccaneer Bay, a small water park with multiple slides that send riders into the spring swimming area, which is 74 degrees year-round.
Go: 6131 Commercial Way, Spring Hill; 352-592-5656; weekiwachee.com; open daily 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; adults $13, children ages 6-12 $8, 5 and under free.
More S.R. 50 destinations
Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex: Home to Space Shuttle Atlantis. State Route 405, Titusville; 321-449-4400; kennedyspacecenter.com
Kennedy Point Park: Great view for rocket launches. 4749 S. Washington Ave., Titusville; http://www.brevardfl.gov/ParksRecreation/North/Kennedy
Dixie Crossroads: Restaurant home to world-famous rock shrimp. 1475 Garden St., Titusville; 321-268-5000; dixiecrossroads.com
American Police Hall of Fame: 6350 Horizon Drive, Titusville; 321-264-0911; aphf.org
Playalinda Brewing Brix Project: Popular microbrewery’s much bigger venue. 5220 S. Washington Ave., Titusville; 321-567-5974; playalindabrewingcompany.com
Canaveral Marshes Conservation Trailhead: Great way to explore near the St. Johns River. 4755 Cheney Highway, Titusville; 386-329-4404; sjrwmd.com/recreationguide/canaveralmarshes
Airboat rides at Midway: One of several on the Orange-Brevard line. 28501 E. Colonial Drive, Christmas; 407-568-6790; airboatridesatmidway.com
Fort Christmas Historical Park: Throwback to 1800s Florida. 1300 N. Fort Christmas Road, Christmas; 407-254-9312; orangecountyfl.net/cultureparks/parks.aspx?m=dtlvw&d=15
Orlando Wetlands Park: Access to the Florida Trail. 25155 Wheeler Road, Christmas; 407-568-1706; cityoforlando.net/wetlands
Orlando Speed World Dragway: Local drag race track. 19164 E. Colonial Drive, Orlando; 407-568-5522; raceosw.com/dragway
Hot Dog Heaven: Authentic Chicago-style hot dogs and big fork sign. 5355 E. Colonial Drive, Orlando; 407-282-5746; hotdogheaven.com
University of Central Florida: Tour the campus. 4000 Central Florida Blvd., Orlando; 407-823-2000; ucf.edu
Cady Way Trail Park: Popular bike trail begins at Orlando Fashion Square mall. 821 Herndon Ave., Orlando; traillink.com/trail/cady-way-trail
Baldwin Park: redeveloped neighborhood on former home of U.S. Navy training base. New Broad Street, Orlando; baldwinparkevents.com
Leu Gardens: 50-acre botanical oasis. 1920 N. Forest Ave., Orlando; 407-246-2620; leugardens.org
Milk District: Slew of bars near the T.G. Lee factory. E. Robinson St., Orlando; milkdistrict.wordpress.com
Beefy King: Celebrating 49 years of roast beef sandwiches. 424 N. Bumby Ave., Orlando; 407-894-2241; beefyking.com
Little Vietnam: Oodles of Vietnamese restaurants. Mills Avenue and Colonial Drive, Orlando
Quantum Leap Winery: Tasting room for business with unique wine-to-market delivery process. 1312 Wilfred Drive, Orlando; 407-730-3082; quantumleapwinery.com
Lake Eola Park: Home to Orlando’s signature fountain. 512 E. Washington St., Orlando; 407-246-4484; cityoforlando.net/eola
Caribbean Supercenter: Grocery, bakery and takeout. 5111 W. Colonial Drive, Orlando; 407-523-1308; stores.caribbeansupercenter.com
Central Florida Fairgrounds: Festivals, concerts, fairs and more. 4603 W. Colonial Drive, Orlando; 407-295-3247; centralfloridafair.com
Central Florida Christian Academy: home to the giant cross. 700 Good Homes Road, Orlando; 407-293-4571; cfcaeagles.org
Killarney Station: Where West Orange and South Lake trails meet. 17914 State Road 438, Winter Garden; 407-654-1108; ocfl.net/cultureparks/parks.aspx?m=dtlvw&d=45#.WWQ-odPyvBI
Plant Street: Home to historic district, farmers market, Crooked Can Brewery, Garden Theatre and more. Winter Garden; wintergardenpost.com/winter-garden-downtown-business.html
Twistee Treat: Get ice cream from an ice-cream-shaped building. 1500 Maguire Road, Ocoee; 407-877-6888; twisteetreatocoeelbv.com/Ocoee.html
Starke Lake: Amazing stock for largemouth bass fishing. Ocoee; myfwc.com/conservation/freshwater/fish-orlando/starke-lake
4 Rivers Smokehouse: not the original, but great barbecue. 1047 S. Dillard St., Winter Garden; 844-474-8377; 4rsmokehouse.com/locations/winter-garden
Oakland Nature Preserve: Serene park and boardwalk trail to Lake Apopka. 747 Machette Trail, Oakland; 407-905-0054; oaklandnaturepreserve.org
Presidents Hall of Fame: Presidential memorabilia and replicas. 123 S. U.S. Highway 27, Clermont; 352-394-2836; thepresidentshalloffame.com
Donut King: Popular doughnut spot. 208 S. U.S. Highway 27, Minneola; 352-243-4046; thedonutking.com
Waterfront Park: Public beach and playground on Lake Minneola with access to South Lake Trail. 330 Third St., Clermont; 352-394-4081; clermontfl.gov/departments/parks-recreation/parks.stml
Clermont Historic Village Museum: Several buildings from South Lake County’s past. 490 West Ave., Clermont; 352-593-8496; s-lchs.org
National Training Center: Training center for triathletes. 1935 Don Wickham Drive, Clermont; 352-241-7144; usantc.com
Van Fleet Trail: Trailhead for 29-mile paved path. S.E. 121st Ave., Webster; 352-394-2280; traillink.com/trail/general-james-a-van-fleet-state-trail
Indian Summer Honey Farm: Local honey for sale. 7269 State Road 50, Webster; 352-429-0054; indiansummerhoneyfarm.com
Withlacoochee Trail: 46-mile bike trail that runs along the river. Kettering Road & Croom Rital Road, Brooksville; 352-726-0315; traillink.com/trail/withlacoochee-state-trail
Florida National Cemetery: Memorials to America’s veterans. 6502 S.W. 102nd Ave., Bushnell; 352-793-7740; www.cem.va.gov/cems/nchp/florida.asp
Boyett's Grove and Citrus Attraction: Farm, wildlife park, mini-golf and more. 4355 Spring Lake Highway, Brooksville; 352-796-2289; boyettsgrove.com
Bramble Creek Farms: Blackberry farm. 23031 Hayman Road, Brooksville; 352-796-5473; floridablackberries.com
The Olive Grove: Olive tree orchard and concert venue. 15016 Rester Drive, Brooksville; 352-345-5940; floridaconcerts.org
Brooksville murals: 6 murals downtown. 11 S Broad St., Brooksville; hernandoarts.org/brooksville-murals
Marker 48 Brewing and Barbiecue: Microbrewery and food truck. 12147 Cortez Blvd., Spring Hill; 352-606-2509; marker48.com
Harold's Auto Center: A dinosaur-shaped building repair shop. 5299 Commercial Way, Spring Hill; 352-596-7755; haroldsautocenter.com
Pine Island Beach Park: On the Gulf of Mexico if you keep driving out Cortez Boulevard where S.R. 50 ends. 10800 Pine Island Drive, Weeki Wachee; 352-754-4031; hernandocounty.us/parks_rec/parks/Park_detail.asp?Key=1