Florida’s Sports Coast and Ocala: Let’s Play!
Enjoying the Great Outdoors and Fun Towns in Central Florida
By Max Hartshorne
Central Florida’s Gulf Side is full of outdoor adventure, from mild to wild. Pasco county, known as Florida’s Sports Coast, is full of fun activities that families can dive into and full of inexpensive restaurants, campsites, and affordable motels to make a first-class vacation for people on a budget.
In April 2021, as the pandemic began to wind down, I flew down to Orlando from still-chilly New England. Our trip started an hour’s drive north, in Marion county, the Horse Capital of the World. Big claim, no doubt, and wouldn’t Lexington be fighting for that honor?
83,000 Horses on 1200 Farms
Well, with 83,000 horses spread out on more than 1200 horse farms, Ocala, in Central Florida legally owns the slogan. Indeed it’s a bitter rivalry, and here is where it’s being fought.
Four regions in the world have a large concentration of horses in a small area: Newmarket, England; Chantilly, France; Lexington; and Ocala. There is a “uniqueness” to those areas in terms of the horse population.
There is a private airport in Ocala where the most frequent passengers are horses!
Whether we choose to quibble with this phrase that Ocala trademarked, suffice it to say that this place is horse crazy and it’s the place to visit the city’s World Equestrian Center.
Horse-loving spectators are welcome at the many equestrian events held here, in vast, luxurious arenas with many paddocks abuzz with thoroughbreds.
Clydesdales are also bred here, and some have made the ultimate cut by joining the Budweiser team. Go Bud!
The equine competitions are free and open to the public. Spectators at World Equestrian Center can park in the designated areas at the front of the facility. If you’re a horse parent or just love riding, you gotta visit this place. World Equestrian Center
Glass Bottomed Viewing in Ocala
But we didn’t spend any time in the saddle on our visit, instead, we enjoyed the springs that water the fields where the horses graze, in the famous Silver Springs State Park.
Here, a fleet of glass-bottomed boats takes up to 20 people into the shallow waters that are feed by hundreds of underground springs.
This is a storied place for Floridians, who have been coming here since 1852.
Over the years this location has been used to film classic movies like “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” and the briefly popular early ‘60s series “Sea Hunt,” starring Jeff and Beau Bridge’s father Lloyd Bridges, as the SCUBA diver who kept getting into underwater wrestling matches.
Historical Tidbits on Tour
The glass-bottomed boat tour includes interesting historical tidbits about the most popular water-dwelling creatures here, the Florida Manatees, who depart after winter to find warmer waters, as well the impressive strange things you can see clearly down on the bottom of the river.
These include wood once used to make an Indian canoe, and a rowboat from 1912, the predecessor of today’s larger glass-bottomed vessels.
Hiking in the Forest
After the 30-minute boat ride, we drove to the Ocala National Forest to take a short hike in the Silver Glen Springs recreation area, a popular swimming, and picnicking area.
One of the things I really enjoy is noticing the different flora and fauna of each place I visit.
Here the deep forest drips with Spanish moss, and it is pine-scented, with large-leafed plants on the forest floor.
Watch out for Bear
Well-marked paths and the white trash cans all locked up to be bear-proof are evidence that we are not alone here in the deep forests. Coyotes, bobcats, and deer also live here. In the shallow water, signs advise against wading, even though some youngsters flaunted the law on the sunny morning we visited.
No Masks Outside
Masks were nowhere to be seen in the park (where social distancing was easily achievable), but after a full year of living the Pandemic life, it was fine with me to hang with my cohorts and not mask up the whole time in nature.
Heading South to the Sports Coast
After Ocala, we drove southeast along arrow-straight State highways dotted on either side by every chain store you can imagine.
The shopping plazas all looked new as if they had been built very recently, and there were almost none of the dilapidated old buildings that usually mix in along these old state roads.
Here it seemed as if it was all new developments and modern centers. We were headed for a fun little town near the coast called New Port Richey.
An East Coast Hollywood
We found the perfect place to learn more about what makes this little town of 16,000 so special, and it goes back to the roaring ‘20s of a previous century.
According to a book published about the city’s history, this was a spot for famous actors, singers, and directors.
Many silent film stars were lured here in the 20s by millionaire silent film stars Thomas Meighan and Paul Whiteman, and composer Irving Berlin, who built houses and spread the word about the warm climate and friendly locals. It caught on.
Shirley Temple’s aunt had a waterfront bungalow, and she came, as did the inlaws of legendary singer Johnny Cash.
Cash and Carter liked to socialize here with their famous friends, the Reverend Jerry Falwell Sr. and his wife, who also had a house here. They liked to go fishing in the Gulf.
The center of the action in the town of New Port Richey is right downtown at Sip on Grand, a wine and craft beer bar and restaurant run by Sean Fulton.
He opened the bar right as COVID was coming down hard on the U.S., and they survived by the goodness of their neighbors who came in for take-out and wine to go.
Happily, today Sip is mostly back to its fun old self, with weekly music, a secret speakeasy room, and plenty of locals who love it here.
A Very Affordable Town
Katie McAteer is an 11th generation local, and she was just one of the locals who sang the praises of both Sip and of their town. “It’s a pedestrian-friendly town, very walkable, and very affordable,” she said.
She works in real estate with her partner, William Labbancz, and they love showing off their town and the many aspects that make it a charming place to live. “Most of the people who live here came because they had friends who lived here,” Katie said.
“This was the Hollywood of the East in the 1920s,” Katie added.
And right next door to Sip is the Sun Coast Theater where plays are produced and where silent film stars once watched movies too.
The Hacienda Hotel with its pink exterior harkens back to this golden age of the town. Lots of new apartments and condos are being built here, adding to the allure of living right downtown.
Boarding the Lucky Booty
After we got done with our charcuterie and fun meeting the locals, we all walked down to the Cottee River to board a cycle boat, where everyone sits facing each other and pedal the big wheel in the back.
Actually, there is a motor so the pedaling is just for fun, and the wine and snacks are front and center as we took in the pretty views of the waterside and the fishing platforms in the Gulf.
Captain Bobby Lachance pointed out these rustic cabins on platforms just off the coast–his family is lucky enough to own one of them and they take the boat out there to relax when they can.
Scallop Diving in New Port Richey
One of the funnest things you can do here is to take a dive and forage for the delectable bay scallops that lie just offshore. Every July for a brief few weeks, locals and tourists descend on the scallop beds and using a snorkel, they dive down and pick bushels of them. It’s a time-honored tradition and the funny part is that sometimes the mollusks bite back!
Anclote Key: Six Miles Off the Coast of New Port Richey
The park is reachable only by boat and is made up of four small islands—Anclote Key, North Anclote Bar, South Anclote Bar, and Three Rooker Island.
The 403-acre park is home to more than 43 species of beloved birds, including the American oystercatcher, bald eagle and piping plover.
A picturesque 1887 lighthouse stands as a sentinel on the southern end of the island. Visitors can swim and sunbathe at the beach, fire up a grill and enjoy a picnic, or pitch a tent and enjoy a night of primitive camping under the stars.
How this Became the Sports Coast
One of the biggest reasons that this part of Florida rebranded a few years ago to call itself The Sports Coast was because of the impressive array of youth sports facilities that have sprung up here.
The growth continues, with more soccer and baseball fields and hotels for parents being built in the years to come.
We toured the huge Advent Health Systems Arena that is large enough to house eight basketball/volleyball courts and acres of soccer fields.
The official name is AdventHealth Sports Arena at Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus of Pasco County.
Next door, with a large terrace overlooking the fields, a hotel is being constructed to house visiting parents.
In less than a year, there will be hundreds of moms and dads clutching drinks watching little Jimmy play his sport on these vast playing fields.
The amazing thing here is that this entire building and these grounds were all paid for by hotel room tax and corporate sponsors, not the local government.
It’s truly ‘if you build it they will come” as evidenced by the backlog of school-age athletic tournaments and the many professional athletes who use the state-of-the-art arena and its fitness center for their own off-season practices.
Find out more about Florida’s Sports Coast.
This trip was sponsored by Visit Florida, but the opinions are the author’s own.