Preface — Experience the Real Florida

As we cruised slowly down the St. Johns River, our guide reminded us to keep our eyes peeled for bubbles. Specifically we were on the lookout for trails of circular bubbles interspersed with the occasional group of large gaseous-looking bubbles, as these were signs of manatee activity. Even though it was past prime time for manatees in the area, we were still hopeful.

We were a small group – a man from Arizona, two sisters from Maine, and us. And then Arizona man shouted, “I see bubbles up ahead.” A few minutes later a tannin-stained manatee surfaced, just a few feet from our riverboat. We could see the propeller scars on his back – an all too common wound on the animals – and hear him take a deep breath before he dropped back beneath the surface. It was truly one of those “serendipity moments”. And then we spotted more bubbles up ahead, and yet another manatee surfaced. We lingered there in silence and watched the enormous animals surface every few minutes, as our guide reminded us that this was the real Florida. “A lot of folks come to Florida for the theme parks,” she sighed, “but this is the real Florida experience right here.” And I totally agree.

Apparently the folks at Florida State Parks also agree, as their tagline is “The Real Florida”.

And we had many of those Real Florida moments as we researched this book in the Sunshine State. They ranged from seeing wild pigs rut right outside our cabin, to hearing male alligators bellow out their eerie mating calls. Then there was the sighting of a baby gator, so small that you knew mama was lurking nearby; and then subsequently seeing another gator gulp up a fish on a previously pristine lake. Our bird sightings included close encounters with egrets, herons, ibis and spoonbills; as well as spying some fluffy little limpkin chicks, and a family of Sandhill Cranes with their feathered-out youngster. And then there was that up-close-and-personal encounter with a Pileated Woodpecker. Top it off with a firefly show that was second-to-none, and you have the Real Florida experience.

The good news is, you don’t have to be the Steve Irwin type to experience the Real Florida. And that’s the main reason for this book. I figured that lodging would be the biggest obstacle for wheelers and slow walkers who want to spend some time in the state parks, and I was thrilled to find that some Florida State Parks offer fully-equipped cabins. I was even more thrilled to discover that some of them are also wheelchair-accessible — of course their access varies, and to be honest no two are exactly identical. Again, another reason for this book – to describe their access so you can decide what will work best for you. And you’ll find lots of photos and detailed access descriptions of the cabins in this book.

Alternatively, if you want to rough it and sleep out under the stars, I’ve also included some campground information, and even details about a primitive camp site in the Florida Keys that may work for some people. On the other hand, if you’re just up for a day trip, and really don’t want to overnight in the park, I’ve included a few parks that are good for a day visit too.

But lodging is just part of the equation, as visitors also have to be able to get out and see the Real Florida, on the trails, boats and tours in the state parks. To be honest I found a fair amount of access information online, but not all of it was factually correct. Upon further investigation I discovered some accessible trails and sites that weren’t listed on websites, as well as some sites and tours that were listed as “accessible”, that didn’t quite make the grade. So, as I do in all of my books, I described the access I found, so you can determine if the trail, tour or boat will work for you. After all, everyone has different access needs.

Finally, I need to point out that this is not a comprehensive guide to all of Florida’s state parks – it’s a collection of some of my favorites. Truly there were some that we visited that just didn’t make the cut either access-wise or content-wise, and those of course were not included. But I do have very specific reasons for including every chosen park, and those reasons are detailed in the book. And as you know, things can change over time, so when I become aware of any changes I’ll update them on the book website at And if you happen to come across a change, I encourage you to let me know so I can share the news with others.

In the end, I encourage you to get out and explore the Real Florida, and I offer this book up as a starting point for your incredible journey. So give it a shot, and let me know what you think. Truly, it’s probably more accessible than you imagine.

Candy Harrington
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