Winter blues got you down? Trade your boots for flip-flops and head to the Sunshine State. In Florida, new hotels and attractions are as plentiful as seashells and palm trees, but your old favorites haven’t gone anywhere. Pack a bag and drive south. Clear skies and family fun await.
Disney World Resort. Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance is now open in a galaxy far, far away. Well, not that far away. The new action-packed attraction at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disney’s Hollywood Studios puts visitors in the front lines in the battle against the First Order. Upon boarding Rise of the Resistance, riders become Resistance fighters and are launched into space on a transport shuttle, only to be captured by a Star Destroyer where they face a menacing brigade of First Order Storm Troopers. They are relentlessly pursued by the powerful villain Kylo Ren and must find a way to escape his evil clutches. The action takes place against colossal sets, giving guests the feeling they are in a “Star Wars” film. Cutting edge technology makes exploding walls and slashing light sabers seem all too real. (Disney World Resort, Orlando, Florida. $109. 407-939-5277, www.disneyworld.disney.go.com)
The Daytona. Zipping around the Daytona International Speedway behind the wheel of a NASCAR race car is no longer just a dream for fans of the sport. The NASCAR Rookie Experience at The Daytona, a new Autograph Collection hotel right across from the racetrack, gets adrenaline junkies in the driver’s seat where they will roar up to 140 mph. Suit up just like the pros and hop in — through the window, of course. A spotter communicates through a mic to help with those heart-stopping fast turns. ($629 for overnight stay and Rookie Experience. 1870 Victory Circle, Daytona Beach, Florida. 386-323-9777, www.thedaytona.com)
Anna Maria Island Dolphin Tours. Playful bottlenose dolphins perform aerial acrobatics alongside the Salty Dolphin 2 as it zips through the emerald green waters of the Gulf of Mexico, entertaining skiff passengers making the trip from Anna Maria Island to Egmont Key National Wildlife Refuge and State Park. Thick flocks of protected birds call shrill greetings as the boaters come ashore to explore the lush tropical island that is home to gopher tortoises and several species of sea turtles. Wildlife isn’t the only draw. Historic sites, including the 1858 Egmont Key lighthouse and a fortress from the 1898 Spanish American War, are key attractions. ($400 and up. 5500 Marina Drive, Holmes Beach, Florida. 941-281-3461, www.amidolphintours.com)
Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island. Cocktail hour at the Lobby Bar goes far beyond sipping an ordinary pre-dinner drink. “First Call” is more of a cocktail extravaganza, a well-choreographed production that kicks off with a bartender ringing a bell to announce the infused spirit of the day. Steeped for a minimum of six hours in aromatics and fruit, the cocktail delivers bright, bold flavors. For something extra special, order the Tableside Infusion, a bespoke cocktail experience for two that’s all about your personal flavor preferences. The double chambered infuser used to extract botanical essences looks like it came from a mad scientist’s laboratory, but this magic potion will have you ordering a double. (Bespoke experience $90. 4750 Amelia Island Parkway, Amelia Island, Florida. 904-277-1100, www.ritzcarlton.com)
Discovery Cove. What’s better than watching spirited dolphins frolic through the waves from a boat? Swimming right alongside them, of course. Discovery Cove, SeaWorld Orlando’s all-inclusive day resort, is one of the few places where dolphin lovers can jump in with these friendly marine creatures that seem to love company. Learn about dolphin habitats, behaviors and their unique way of communicating. Hold tight to a dorsal fin for a swim you’ll never forget. Discovery Cove is a man-made tropical paradise that offers snorkeling, a lazy river, a chance to feed stingrays and an aviary with exotic birds. The park limits the number of guests, so there are never lines for activities. ($149-$199. 6000 Discovery Cove Way, Orlando, Florida. 407-513-4600, www.discoverycove.com)
The Ben West Palm. Luxury without stuffiness best describes the Ben in West Palm Beach, a 208-room boutique hotel set to open in Flagler Banyan Square Feb. 13. The waterfront property inspired by the Ben Trovato Estate, home to one of the first families to establish a homestead in South Florida, combines the best of Old Florida with quirky, modern design elements. That bookcase in your room does more than hold books. See if you can discover its secret. Spruzzo, the hotel’s poolside rooftop lounge, overlooks the Palm Harbor Marina and the Intracoastal Parkway, a picturesque spot for Mediterranean-inspired cocktails and small bites. ($259 and up a night. 251 N. Narcissus Ave., West Palm Beach, Florida. 561-655-4001, www.thebenwestpalm.com)
Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. Roller coaster fans who love nothing more than a bone-jarring, teeth-rattling thrill ride were sad to see the Gwazi close at Busch Gardens theme park in 2015, but this spring it’s coming back as a hybrid (steel and wood) coaster called the Iron Gwazi, and it promises to be even more fierce than its predecessor. At 206 feet, it’s one of the tallest roller coasters of its kind in North America. Crocodile-shaped cars will reach speeds of up to 76 mph, making it one of the fastest hybrid coasters in the world, then plunge into a terrifying 91 degree drop. Hang on to your hat — and your lunch. ($85-$110. 10165 N. McKinley Drive, Tampa, Florida. 813-884-4386, www.buschgardens.com/tampa)
Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science.Inside “A Mirror Maze: Numbers in Nature.” visitors see themselves reflected again and again in a series of mirrors, making it so hard to identify their real selves, they sometimes bump into walls as they try to navigate through the endless kaleidoscope of patterns. This temporary exhibit at the Frost Museum of Science may sound like a theme park fun house, but its purpose goes beyond amusement. Interactive elements and an immersive theater experience explain mathematical patterns in the natural world, from the nested spirals of a sunflower seed to the ridges of a mountain range, and the maze is a fun if mind-bending introduction to the concept. If you can’t find your way out, you may be stuck until the exhibit closes on April 12. Not really. Museum volunteers are on hand to guide visitors to the exit. ($30, children 3-11 $21. 1101 Biscayne Blvd., Miami, Florida. 305-434-9600, www.frostscience.org)
St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum. In the dark cargo hold of a rat-infested pirate ship, Blackbeard creeps up behind a woman and whispers something menacing. The shocked woman catches her breath, and the pirate belts out a sardonic laugh. Suddenly, the ship comes under heavy fire, and a battle ensues. The woman seeks cover, and Blackbeard goes off to defend his booty-loaded ship. That’s the scene at the St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum’s Below Deck audio show, an experience designed by Disney Imagineers. The museum boasts one of the largest collections of pirate artifacts in the world, including a 400-year-old pirate chest, an array of weaponry, Captain Kidd’s family Bible and one of only three known Jolly Roger flags. ($14, $7 children 5-12, free for 4 and younger. 12 S. Castillo Drive, St. Augustine, Florida. 877-467-5863, www.thepiratemuseum.com)
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