Blog content originally contributed by Robin Draper and includes updates from Visit Gainesville, Alachua County.
I am a University of Florida alumnus. During football season I don my jersey and root for my favorite team. My husband and kids have grown accustomed to my spirited loyalty and join me as we cheer on our beloved Gators.
But it’s been a while since I have returned to Gainesville. So, this year, we decided to “go back to school” for our family vacation.
Our trip to Gainesville was amazingly fun but the added bonus was that we learned so much about the area while experiencing unique places. These were genuine and special moments as a family—ones that are now a precious memory.
And after rediscovering the area, it is now one of our family favorites. Here’s why:
Florida Museum of Natural History
We began our adventure at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the University of Florida campus. The full-sized mastodon and mammoth, giant shark jaws and ancient fossils of prehistoric animals ignited our imaginations. The Northwest Florida exhibit provided a window into Florida’s cultural and historical past as we walked through a limestone cave and peered into a mangrove forest, while the South Florida exhibit displayed a 1564 Calusa leader’s home.
But the stroll through the museum’s tropical Butterfly Rainforest with more than 1,500 free-flying butterflies dazzled us all.
Visit by September 12, 2021 to experience the Survival of the Slowest special exhibit so you can get up close to live animals, including a sloth, hedgehog, snake, and others.
Cade Museum for Creativity & Invention
Did you know the sports drink Gatorade was invented in Gainesville at the University of Florida? The Cade Museum is named after lead inventor Dr. Robert Cade and celebrates the spirit of invention and discovery for all ages. A permanent exhibit explores the history of Gatorade, while rotating exhibits focus on specific inventions and interactive demonstrations to keep each visit to the museum unique.
Let the kids find out for themselves how everyday items are made in the How People Make Things traveling exhibit, at the Cade Museum through September 2021.
Ben Hill Griffin Stadium
Known as The Swamp, the football stadium for the University of Florida Gators is filled with fans on game days. But it’s accessible year-round for visitors to enjoy the vast orange and blue complex. It was easy to imagine the mighty roar of Gator Nation with fervent fans displaying the “Gator Chomp.” Inside the building is the Heavener Complex showcasing gator history and saluting the three UF Heisman Trophy recipients. But the real family photo “op” is outside, on the 15-foot bronzed Gator statue. Chomp!
Harn Museum of Art
Free to the public, Harn Museum of Art represents major collections of Asian, African, modern, contemporary art and photography. The Museum offered printed guides that prompted us to participate in interactive activities making the cultural experience even more special.
The Harn is one of the largest university-affiliated art museums in the United States and the permanent home of Claude Monet’s “Champ d’avoine (Oat Field).”
University of Florida Bat Houses
As we continued our adventure we decided to visit a place we had heard of but never seen—the famous University of Florida Bat House. During a magnificent sunset, we viewed more than 500,000 bats emerge from the Bat House and adjacent Bat Barn. Watch the northern sky as a large dark mass swirls against the twilight sky as bats search for their dinner of flying insects. Get there at sunset, settle in, and wait for dusk, that is when the bats begin emerging. And they typically only do this when the temperature outside is above 65 degrees.
Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo
Open to the public, the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo was well worth the visit. The 10-acre shady wooded setting provided a comfortable setting to observe more than 200 animals. Meandering at our own pace, highlights included monkeys, otters, tree kangaroos, a gibbon family, and lemurs. The playground was also a hit while we enjoyed a relaxing picnic.
Lubee Bat Conservancy
Lubee Bat Conservancy is an international non-profit organization dedicated to saving bats and their habitats through research, conservation, and education, with a focus on children and community engagement. They provide a unique educational setting, permitting visitors close viewing of animals in a working conservation center environment. Lubee is located on 110 acres of beautiful old Florida country in a very secluded and peaceful setting. Tours can be given any day of the week and typically last 1-2 hours. Check out their live bat cam!
Carson Springs Wildlife Conservation Foundation
Carson Springs is a conservation and educational facility with rescued exotic animals located on 275 acres of lush Florida woods and farmland. It’s home to approximately 30 rare and endangered species and over 100 animals. 100% of all donations go to animal care and conservation. Click to meet the animals.
The Retirement Home for Horses
Admission fee: two carrots. Now that’s a bargain. See 126 horses, 2 donkeys, and 1 mule on 335 acres. Open to visitors only on Saturdays, that’s the day to visit Mill Creek Farm. They provide an equine sanctuary for older, neglected, and abandoned horses roaming freely in the pastures.
Kanapaha Botanical Gardens
One of Gainesville’s more popular attractions is Kanapaha Botanical Gardens. Seasonal flowers, ferns, and palms are just a few of its wonders, but the Children’s Garden was easily our favorite with special plants, fish ponds, and waterfalls. Another vivid memory was the cathedral-like Bamboo garden where we listened to the whistling wind create an amazingly peaceful sound. And don’t miss the giant Victoria water lilies. It’s a perfect place to pack a lunch and enjoy the splendor.
Payne’s Prairie Preserve State Park
Sculpted by Mother Nature, Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park is magical, whether observing wildlife or just enjoying the outdoors. A 50-foot hike up the observation tower provides a view of this geographical marvel where wild horses and bison graze and eagles soar. For a little serenity, just stop and savor a moment under the moss-draped oak canopy while listening to the songbirds call.
The Visitor Center is beautiful in itself and facilitates the interpretation of the area’s natural and cultural significance. Visitor Center is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.
*Located at a different entrance, on the very north side of Paynes Prairie is the La Chua Trail. From the parking lot take the path to a beautiful boardwalk out to the sinkhole. This is an excellent wildlife watching site, especially for alligators, lots of alligators!
Poe Springs State Park
Alachua County’s largest spring, Poe, is open 7 days a week. Park amenities include pavilions and picnic shelters, play areas, multi-purpose fields, volleyball courts, and bar-b-que grills. There are loop trails throughout the park for hiking, and a boardwalk that traverses the cypress swamp leads visitors to the springs. A boat launch and dock afford watercraft access to the river. Parking is $6 per vehicle, cash only. Get there early, the Park may close when it reaches full capacity.
Depot Park is a 32-acre multi-use park just south of downtown Gainesville. The Park has a world-class playground and splash pad that is perfect for anyone 12 and under. Depot Park is also the trailhead of the Gainesville to Hawthorne Rail State Trail (a premium scooter, bike, walk, run and skate trail), and home to a Historic Train Depot which houses Parkside Convenience Store and Goldie’s Burgers.
Depot Park Fun & Games Entertainment Center
Depot Park Fun & Games is filled with games and prizes for ages 3-12 and is located next to Depot Park. This is a great place to cool off after playing at Depot Park. Open every day from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Dave & Buster’s Arcade Center
Dave & Buster’s offers state-of-the-art games and a food menu with options for everyone. Guests can play a variety of games they can’t play anywhere else. Go on a Wednesday and get half-price games.
Mini-Golf at The Pink Flamingo Diner
Located behind the polished stainless steel diner in High Springs, an 18-hole mini-golf course tees up family fun perfect for the kids to burn up extra energy. Each hole represents a Florida spring, complete with educational signs. The Pink Flamingo Diner is a great place to sit down and enjoy great food, milkshakes, and more!