My mission: Explore Central Florida for the best family campgrounds within an hour of Disney World that offer diversions for children and cool relief for the entire family in summer.
Camping in a natural environment, an opportunity to breath real air, play in the woods and water and find refuge from the intensity of Orlando’s commercialism.
And possibly most important, you can save money.
I found my havens in little-known county and state parks with shade and swimming in cool, clear springs and lakes.
Heat and humidity present a special challenge to Florida campers in summer, especially for tent campers who face the realities of nature more squarely.
Select a tent with double the capacity you need and good cross-ventilation, screened windows on every wall and a screened vent in the roof and a rain fly. Afford yourself the luxury of a screened outdoor room and a fan. All of these campgrounds provide power and water to your site.
Moss Park: Shady sites and a swimming beach
20 minutes to Disney
This park is massive, stretching 1,500 acres onto a broad peninsula between two large lakes, one of which has a swimming beach. With the adjacent 2,000-acre Split Oak Preserve, accessible for serious hiking and orienteering, there is no shortage of wildlife.
In the evening, I saw dozens of deer grazing in the pinewood and oak forest that blankets the campground’s 54 sites with shade. The park is a designated refuge for the endangered Florida sandhill crane, and I saw no fewer than three pairs roaming near my campsite at various times during the day and evening.
There are two playgrounds, one near the beach, and the park has an orienteering program that should keep the whole family entertained for hours.
Sites are a bargain at $23 per night for out-of-county residents, with discounts for seniors and county residents. The charge is the same for tents and RVs.
Ranger Pat Champion says a recent change in the reservations system now allows reservations to be made by telephone, 407-254-6840, up to 45 days in advance with a Visa or MasterCard. Reservations are only accepted Monday through Friday to free up staff to handle the weekend crowds.
No pets, no alcohol and no weapons are permitted.
I drove to the gates of Disney on the Central Florida Greenway (State Road 417), a 20-minute beeline due east of Disney World.
Moss Park (Orange County), 12901 Moss Park Rd., Orlando; 407-254-6840; www.ocfl.net; 54 campsites (tent or RV) for $23 per night (discounts for seniors and Orange County residents); Rest rooms with showers; Grill, table, fire ring, water and electric at every site; Dump station; Swim in lake, hike, bike; Boat launch for both lakes; No pets, no alcohol, no weapons. Call M-F for reservations up to 45 days in advance. 26 miles to Disney World; 26 miles to Universal Studios. View map
For a more in-depth article on this park, read “Moss Park is our little secret”
Kelly Park/Rock Spring: Shady sites and a spring
50 minutes to Disney
Hands down, this is my favorite campground near Disney.
There are only 26 campsites, and every one was spacious, clean and heavily shaded. Arriving midweek, I had my pick. The sites are arranged in a circle with feeder paths to a clean and well-maintained bathhouse in the middle.
Like nearby Wekiwa Springs, this is black-bear country, and there are raccoons. You’ll want to keep your food secure in your vehicle, not your tent, and make good use of the bear-proof garbage receptacles around the campground. I made the mistake of cooking after dusk and had a hard time convincing one uninvited guest to leave.
At the headspring , the crystal clear water spills into a series of elongated pools, fabulously cool for swimming and wading as it flows into Rock Springs Run. You can wade or tube about a quarter-mile down the run before it leaves the park.
Canoe and kayak rentals are available at Kings Landing, a private concession a half-mile down the road. From there, you can enjoy a spectacular 8.5-mile paddle down Rock Spring Run to the shuttle pickup at Wekiva Island on the Wekiva River.
Kelly Park is very busy on weekends, with lines building after 10 a.m. on exterior roads, but campers have a private entrance day or night.
The basic rate is $23 per night for a campsite, with discounts for seniors and Orange County residents. Reservations can be made up to 45 days in advance by telephone, 407-889-4179, with a MasterCard or Visa.
No pets, no alcohol and no weapons.
Kelly Park is about 50 minutes from Disney World and Universal Studios via the Western Expressway (SR 429) and Florida’s Turnpike.
Kelly Park/Rock Spring (Orange County), 400 East Kelly Park Road, Apopka; 407-889-4179; www.ocfl.net. 26 campsites (tent or RV), $23 per night (discounts for seniors and Orange County residents); Rest rooms with showers; Fire ring with grill, table, water and electric at every site; Dump station; Swimming, wading, tubing in spring; Kayak, canoe rentals and launch outside park; No pets, no alcohol, no weapons. Call M-F for reservations up to 45 days in advance. 38 miles to Disney World; 30 miles to Universal Studios. View map
For a more in-depth article on Kelly Park, read “Hide away in this campground near Orlando.”
Lithia Springs: Shady sites and a spring
1 Hour to Disney
The beauty of this county park on the eastern edge of Hillsborough County is its proximity not only to Disney but also to Busch Gardens in Tampa. It was my first stop, and the furthest from Disney World, about an hour’s drive via Interstate 4.
This hilly, heavily wooded campground is virtually empty during the week, so I had my choice of sites and picked a spectacular one on the Alafia River, which courses through the park. All sites are shaded with dense vegetation and generous distance between sites, providing privacy and relief from the sun.
The spring is the big attraction, with 72-degree water flowing into a large swimming hole at an average rate of 24 million gallons per day. On weekends, it’s a zoo. But during the week, it’s all yours.
A major drawback to this park is they don’t accept reservations. But if you arrive midweek, you can almost always find a site and book it through the crowded weekend, according to Ranger Chris Kiddy.
All 40 sites have a shell-rock base and include a grill, picnic table, electric and water hookups. Best of all, they only cost $24 per night, $18 for seniors, for tent or RV. Pets are permitted, but not alcohol.
Another nearby option, which I did not visit, is Alafia River State Park. Although there are no swimming holes, Alafia is a premier destination for off-road bicycling with 17 miles of bike trails and another 20 miles of hiking and equestrian trails.
After leaving Lithia Springs, I drove to the gates of Disney to see if I could make it in an hour. I did, though barely.
Lithia Springs Park (Hillsborough County), 3932 Lithia Springs Rd., Lithia; 813-744-5572; www.hillsboroughcounty.org and electric at every site; Dump station; Spring pools for swimming; Kayak-canoe launch in park. Reservations not accepted, but weekdays usually open. 60 miles to Disney World; 25 miles to Busch Gardens. View map.
Fort Wilderness Campground: Shady sites and a pool
My overnight stay at Fort Wilderness was an afterthought, to be truthful. I couldn’t imagine I would find my kind of natural landscape. A friend suggested my roundup would be incomplete without it. She was right.
The campground is immersed in a natural Florida habitat, a pine and cypress forest that spreads out over 740 scenic acres. My site was tucked into one of two campground loops set aside for tents and pop-up campers. Another 700 sites are designated for motor homes and travel trailers, and there are 400 cabins at the far end of the campground.
While it seems massive, even overwhelming, the campground was thoughtfully designed to afford space and privacy. The 19 campsite loops encircle a central recreation area with a swimming complex, campground store, amphitheater and Bike Barn, where you can rent bicycles, kayaks or canoes for paddling on the lake. Every evening, a singing cowboy and Disney characters Chip ‘n’ Dale entertain in the amphitheater around a campfire, where the kids can roast marshmallows, hot dogs and S’mores.
Traffic and parking are restricted to your campsite. Electric golf carts seem to be the transport of choice, though I found the rental prohibitive at $59 per day. Bring bicycles or take advantage of the free shuttle with connections to a ferry or buses to Disney’s theme parks.
The Bay Lake ferry transports you directly to the Magic Kingdom, and when you return in the evening, join other campers on the beach for the Electric Boat Parade and fireworks.
Sites are more expensive here, but it’s still less nearby motels and resorts. Tents and pop-ups pay $46 to $75 per night, depending on season, and RV sites run from $61 to $108. Opt for a premier RV site and enjoy a larger pad with upgraded grills for a few dollars more.
There are designated camping loops for pets, and alcohol is permitted.
Disney’s Fort Wilderness, 4510 N. Fort Wilderness Trail, Lake Buena Vista; 407-WDW-CAMP; www.disneyworld.disney.go.com/resorts; 90 tent/pop-up sites, $46-$93 (seasonal); 156 Standard RV, $61-$108; Preferred RV, $66-115; 430 Premium RV, $76-$125; 409 cabins (sleep 6), $275-$450; All sites have charcoal grill and picnic table, cable TV and Internet connections ($9.95/24 hours; modem kit deposit required); Wi-Fi hot spots ($9.95/24 hours); RV sites also have sewer; Comfort stations with private showers and ice machine; Swimming, entertainment, restaurants, concession, hiking, paddling, motorboat rentals, bike rentals, electric golf cart rentals; Pets allowed at designated sites; Alcohol permitted, but no weapons. Check firearms upon arrival in safe deposit box. Book online or call 407-WDW-CAMP. 1 mile (by ferry) to the Magic Kingdom; 8 miles to Universal Studios. View map.
For a more in-depth article on Fort Wilderness, read “Disney’s Fort Wilderness delivers on nature”
Blue Spring State Park: Some shade and a spring
1 Hour to Disney
Circling around the northeast side of Orlando, just off I-4, is popular Blue Spring State Park in Orange City, about an hour from Disney and home to one of the most beautiful spring runs in Florida.
The park is located on the eastern edge of a vast basin of preserved lands, wildlife refuges and state parks that protect the watershed of the oddly north-flowing St. John’s River, making this park an ideal launching pad for paddling your kayak into the wild or just chilling out in the spring.
A tempting and popular magnet for bathers in summer, the quarter-mile-long spring run ambles through an idyllic setting of dense tropical vegetation to the St. John’s. Near the junction of the two is the kayak and canoe concession on the river, where you can paddle to pristine islands.
The campground at Blue Springs left a bit to be desired. In a tent, I felt trapped in the sandpine scrub, and there was little shade at my site. Other sites were marginally better, but an RV or the cabins are the smart way to camp here.
The good news is that the 51 campsites — or six, two-bedroom cabins — can be reserved up to 11 months in advance, online or by phone (800-326-3521), through ReserveAmerica.com. Sites are a modest $24 per night, and the cabins run $95.
Pets are permitted in the campground, but not the cabins. Alcohol is prohibited, though tolerated with the confines of your RV or tent.
Blue Spring State Park, 2100 W. French Ave., Orange City; 386-775-3663; www.floridastateparks.org/bluespring; 51 campsites (tent or RV), $24 night; Cabins, $95; Rest rooms with showers; Grill, table, water and electric at each site; Dump station; Swimming, snorkeling, tubing in the spring; Nature trails; Kayak/canoe concession on St. John’s River; Boat launch outside park; Pets OK in campground; No alcohol, no weapons. Reservations online at www.reserveamerica.com, or call 800-326-3521. 50 miles to Disney World; 40 miles to Universal Studios. View Map.
For a more in-depth article on Blue Springs, read, “Chill out at Blue Springs State Park.”
Wekiwa Springs State Park: Some shade and a spring
45 minutes to Disney
Wekiwa Springs is one of Florida’s largest and most popular state parks, a 7,800-acre wonderland of 19 distinct plant communities and the source of one of the state’s two designated National Wild and Scenic Rivers, the Wekiva.
The spring rises at the rate of 42 million gallons per day into large, clear and chilly pools for swimmers and snorkelers, then spills downstream into the Wekiwa Spring Run to join the Rock Springs Run and form the slow-moving Wekiva River, a paradise for paddlers that meanders eight miles to the St. John’s River.
Canoes and kayaks are available at the park concession, which provides shuttle services on weekend, and park roads offer an excellent surface for cycling. The park has more than 20 miles of multi-use trails, some of which are populated on weekends by equestrians.
Home to 50 endangered or threatened species of plants and animals, including the disappearing Florida black bear, the park is blessed with an abundance of birds, including the rare Florida scrub jay, herons, warblers, moorhens, osprey and kingfishers.
The main campground is in a thinly wooded area within view of encroaching development, and sites vary in size, depending on the natural landscape. Campsites are $27, and reservations are only being accepted through July 12, 2012, when the park is scheduled to begin long-delayed construction of sewer lines to campsites and the bathhouses.
Portions of the campground will remain open after that date but will only be available to “walk-ins.”
The park is about 5 miles off Interstate 4 near Apopka and a 45 minute drive to the theme parks.
Pets are permitted in most areas of the park, including the trails, but not the swimming areas. As applies to all state parks, alcohol is prohibited but usually tolerated if confined inside your tent or RV.
Wekiwa Springs State Park, 1800 Wekiwa Circle, Apopka; 407-884-2008; www.floridastateparks.org/wekiwasprings; 60 sites (tent or RV), $24 night; Rest rooms with showers; Fire ring with grill, table, water and electric at each site; Dump station; Swimming in spring, hiking, bicycling, canoe/kayak launch; Pets OK but not in swimming area; No alcohol or firearms. Reservations online at www.reserveamerica.com, or call 800-326-3521. 52 miles to Disney World; 41 miles to Universal Studios. View Map.
For a more in-depth article on Wekiwa Springs, read: “A wild and scenic adventure.”
Cabins the right choice at Lake Louisa State Park
30 minutes to Disney
The campground at Lake Louisa State Park is sparse and lonely, so opt for the well-appointed cabins on the hill, overlooking a sloping prairie of grass and a scenic lake.
This is one of Florida’s newest state parks, situated in a sea of rolling hills covered with citrus trees. The park itself is a former citrus grove that was acquired by the state, and parts of it are still maintained as a working grove by local farmers.
There is no swimming in this park — another reason to avoid the exposed, hot campground — but the cabins are equipped with central air conditioning.
The park’s 20 cabins string out along a ridge overlooking the lake, and they are quite comfortable with two bedrooms, two baths, a dining/living room and a fully equipped kitchen with microwave, dishwasher, dishes, pots, pans and silverware. Linens and towels are also provided. Every cabin has a screened deck with a picnic table and rocking chairs.
There are no TVs or phones.
Though not open to swimming, two of the park’s six lakes are accessible for fishing, canoeing and kayaking. There are more than 20 miles of off-road trails for hiking and cycling and 7 miles of park roads.
The cabins are a reasonable $120 per night and can be reserved up to 11 months in advance through ReserveAmerica, (800) 326-3521, or you can book online. When you compare these cabins to those at Disney’s Fort Wilderness, which run $275 to $370 per night, it’s a bargain.
And it’s only a half-hour from the main gate at Disney World, on U.S. 27 just south of Clermont.
Pets are allowed in the campground area, but not in the cabins.
Lake Louisa State Park, 7305 U.S. 27, Clermont; 352-394-3969; www.floridastateparks.org/lakelouisa; 20 cabins, $120 per night; 60 campsites, $24; Cabins have two bedrooms (sleep 6), fully equipped kitchen, porch deck overlooking lake. Rest rooms with showers in campground; Grill, table, water and electric at each campsite; Hike, bike, fish, canoe/kayak launch; No swimming. Pets OK in campground but not in cabins; No alcohol or firearms. Reservations online at www.reserveamerica.com, or call 800-326-3521. 19 miles to Disney World; 32 miles to Universal Studios. View Map.
For a more in-depth article on Lake Louisa State Park, read, “A great base for hiking.”