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Just where is Ocala, Florida? If you drive into Florida (perhaps on your way to Disney) via I-75, you may recognize the name. It’s the city just before I-75 meets Florida’s Turnpike. At least that’s how I knew where Ocala is. And while most people would not consider stopping on their way to Orlando, they’d miss out on all these top things to do in Ocala. Especially if you have teenagers, Ocala is an extraordinary adventure.
Visit Ocala Marion County invited us as press to explore the area. All opinions are my own.
Ocala and the surrounding towns in Marion County have exceptional natural attractions and things to do. It’s also less than 90 minutes from Walt Disney World, making it a great way to add on an authentic native Florida experience.
What I loved about visiting Ocala Marion County was getting my teenagers back to nature and overall relaxing. The following are my choices for teens in Ocala.
Canyons Zip Line & Horseback Riding
We took a horseback ride through the Canyons at Canyons Zip Line and Adventure Park. If you don’t know about Ocala, it’s known to be one of the top horseback riding areas in the country.
Because of this, I was super excited to get in a horseback ride while we were in Ocala. What I didn’t expect was the terrain at the Canyons. It was as if we were trekking through the Tennesse mountainside and not the typical flat Florida areas. The area was once a mining location, and therefore has many changes in elevation thanks to former mining excavations.
As the name suggests, the Canyons Zip Line has canopy tours. At over 1100 feet long, it’s the highest and longest in the state of Florida.
Since we don’t get to do a lot of horseback riding, my kids enjoyed the slow pace, but also the challenge of riding up and down the hills.
Check out their air, land, and water adventures here.
You may also like this ATV tour of the Ocala National Forest.
Rainbow River Kayaking
Florida, and especially Marion County, is filled with natural springs.
The beauty of springs in Florida? The water stays around 72 degrees making it extremely refreshing in the Florida heat!
We took a kayak and paddleboard trip along the Rainbow River, which is part of the Rainbow Springs. We departed from KP Hole Park.
My son and I chose single kayaks and my daughter chose to paddleboard. She wanted the extra challenge and did well the entire time, never falling into the water!
There are places that claim to be crystal clear. Rainbow River is truly one of those. We could see everything in the river from the waving blades of emerald green seagrass to the pocked white sandstone. A variety of fish darted in and out of the seagrass.
While we did not see any manatees this trip, they do come into Rainbow River.
Rainbow Springs State Park
We could have paddled into Rainbow Springs State Park, but as the weather was started to turn we headed back to KP Hole Park.
Instead, we drove the short distance to Rainbow Springs State Park.
One of the Florida State Parks, Rainbow Springs is one of those old Florida Highway attractions. At one time, it housed a zoo and the landscape was arranged to create waterfalls. While the zoo is no longer there, remnants remind you that Ocala, Florida was a tourist destination long before Disney.
The waterfalls remain, however, and the nature walk is an easy loop to see the incredibly wild and jungle-like scenery. The park has access to the springs and a designated swimming hole. Keep in mind, the water is a refreshing 72 degrees and may be a bit of a shock compared to the outside temperature.
The kids enjoyed discovering the waterfalls and the history behind the park.
Silver Springs State Park
Silver Springs State Park is another of Florida’s State Parks. This popular park is one of America’s largest springs and home to the famous glass-bottom boats.
This park, with its grandiose entrance, also harkens back to the days of spectacular roadside attractions.
Here you can also hike the many wild jungle trails. In fact, this area so closely resembles a jungle, that many Tarzan movies were filmed here. If you’re lucky, you’ll view some of the monkey descendants that still inhabit the park area.
- Picnic pavilions
- Horse Equestrian Trails
Want even more kayaking? Check out the Walking Mermaid’s review of Kayaking at Silver Springs.
The piece de resistance, however, is clearly the glass-bottom boat tours. One of Florid’as oldest attractions, cruise along the Silver River to not only see clear down to the bottom but learn about what makes up the spring, the types of wildlife, and the stories of the films made there.
Silver Springs is this magical, old authentic Florida attraction that everyone needs to visit at least once.
Art in Ocala
There are a couple of surprising ways to experience art in Ocala. To begin with, I never would have thought to seek out the art in Ocala. But as we were invited to visit certain areas, I was impressed with what we found.
First, Ocala is known as the horse capital of the world as mentioned above. So it should come as no surprise that there are horse statues throughout the city. A fun scavenger hunt for kids and adults would be finding all of these artistically decorated horses. I think we only found 5, but they were beautiful.
The Tuscawilla Art Park is an intriguing sculpture park with paved trails and pons. Some of these renderings provoed some interesting conversations with the kids and me. It’s also a great place to let younger children run around.
The true surprising gem of Marion County is the Appleton Museum, located near Silver Springs. The museum has an extensive collection of paintings, sculptures spanning European, Contemporary, Asian, African, Islamic and Pre-Columbian.
Where the museum shines, however, is in its creative room where all ages can sit with artist materials and create their own masterpieces. And when I say all ages, I did see everyone from babies to retirees working on projects.
Places to Eat in Ocala
Ocala offers plenty of your classic southern-style food. I highly recommend you go local and check out some of our favorites here.
Blue Gator Tiki Bar – Great riverside location in Dunnellon. Expansive porch and typical bar food. Perfect stop after our morning on the water. Get the smoked fish dip.
Mojo Grill – Super fun cajun southern-style restaurant with eclectic blues-y decor. Great selection of dishes and fulfilling size portions.
Sayulita Tacqueria – I think my favorite of the places we dined, everything here is made the day of and super fresh. Think food truck style tacos in a funky sit-down restaurant.
Brooklyn’s Backyard – Seriously the most fun location was Brooklyn’s Backyard. Designed to feel as if you’re at a backyard bbq, from the indoor grass to the patio furniture. Food is as you’d expect, straight from the grill. The best feature, a make your own s’ mores delivered right to your table to roast.
Where to Stay
We stayed at the Spring Hill Suites in Ocala. It’s a newer hotel in the area, with an indoor pool and spacious rooms. The sofa included a trundle bed underneath, making it perfect for a family with teens who don’t want to share a bed. Breakfast was hot and delicious, with a lot of healthy options. We couldn’t get enough of the scones, however!
As Ocala and Marion county offers a lot to do and is mostly about nature, we were within 20-30 minutes of all our activities.
Check their availability here.
When to Visit
As it’s in Central Florida and you’re likely doing a lot of outdoor activities, I’d recommend visiting when you can tolerate the outside heat. That said, we visited in August and enjoyed our activities without too much sweat. We’re local, however, and are used to the summer heat.
I’d recommend spring and late fall as the best times to visit.
If you like natural things to do, you may also enjoy Crystal River. Read my review of the campground here.