Last updated on September 16th, 2020 at 11:12 am
Where’s the beach?
The best beaches near Orlando and Disney World are not exactly on the edge of town. The closest beach is 60 miles away.
Nevertheless, when people come to Florida, they want beach time. On a real beach, not a fake beach created by Disney.
The best idea is to build a few beach days around your Disney itinerary, as opposed to day trips. But day trips are doable.
Orlando and Disney World are near the center of the state with access to Atlantic and Gulf coast beaches, expressways in both directions.
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Distances and travel times are approximate, depending on your Orlando-area starting point.
Best beaches near Orlando on the Atlantic Coast
Closest to Orlando: 60 miles, 1 hour
Cocoa Beach is the surfing capital of Florida and a popular destination for the Disney World crowd, largely because it’s also near the Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral.
Tourists cluster in hotels near the pier, restaurants and Ron Jon’s Surf Shop, which is open 24 hours a day.
Locals avoid the area and go to either Jetty Park in Port Canaveral or Coconuts Beach, about 4 miles south of the pier.
The Kennedy Space Center is a must stop if you choose to stay in Cocoa Beach, and you would be remiss for not trying one of a string of seafood restaurants lining the waterfronot in Port Canaveral.
But the pier area is where the action is for most visitors, and this tourism center offers plenty of amenities within walking distance.
Read more: 5 things to discover in Cocoa Beach
Getting There From Orlando: Take the Beachline Expressway (State Road 528) for a beeline to the beach.
The scenic choice: 60 miles, 1 hour
If you’re looking for a pristine natural beach without hotel towers, Playalinda Beach in Canaveral National Seashore is your destination, but you’ll need book lodging 10 miles away in Titusville.
Between Titusville and the beach lie the Kennedy Space Center and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, each of which are worth an extra day, perfect complements to a Disney vacation.
As for the beach itself, it’s hard to find better on the Atlantic Coast for swimming and surf fishing, and the Merritt Island’s backcountry buffer is a haven for wildlife.
The closest hotels, motels and campgrounds are in Titusville.
Related story: Merritt Island: Safe harbor for birds & other living things
Getting There From Orlando: Take the 528 Beachline Expressway to State Road 407 North to Titusville.
New Smyrna Beach
New Smyrna Beach is almost a straight shot from Orlando on Interstate 4, then State Road 44, but if you have time, I suggest a scenic drive through the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (via Titusville), then north to New Smyrna.
New Smyrna has more 13 miles of beaches, and you can drive on most of it, parking wherever you like to sunbathe or go for a swim.
Find your way to Flagler Avenue for art galleries, restaurants, bars, surf and beach shops. This is a heavy tourist area, but it’s safe to swim here.
Locals go south to the 27th Avenue Beach or north to Ponce Inlet to surf, but inlet visitors should exercise caution. For starters, the sand is soft near the inlet and cars often get stuck. Second, sharks feed in the inlet and sometimes nip at surfers and swimmers.
Related story: The best little beach towns in Florida
Getting There From Orlando: Take Interstate 4 north to State Road 44 East, straight to the beach.
A popular choice: 65 miles, 1:20
There is no escaping tourists in Daytona, but if you want action, you’ll find it here. The pier area anchors a traditional boardwalk bustling with amusements, games, carnival rides, bars, restaurants and hotels.
“World Famous” Daytona Beach bills itself as the “world’s safest beach,” largely because of the gradual slope of the beach is swimmer-friendly. But watch out for the cars on the beach!
A big attraction is Daytona International Speedway, NASCAR headquarters, with events year around. When races aren’t running, visitors line up for the NASCAR Experience, where they pay big bucks to drive the track.
Daytona is a popular Spring Break destination for college kids, not to mention bikers on Bike Week and NASCAR fans for the Daytona 500.
Related story: 9 things to do near Daytona Beach
Getting There From Orlando: Take Interstate 4 North straight to Daytona Beach.
Best beaches near Orlando on the Gulf Coast
A popular choice: 110 miles, 2 hours
Another popular Spring Break destination, Clearwater Beach bustles year around and is a prime destination for residents of nearby Tampa and St. Petersburg.
If you are looking for sunsets, it would be hard to find better. If you are looking for tourists, you came to the right place.
But there is an escape! An adventure!
At the north end of Clearwater Beach is one of the most precious stretches of beach on the Gulf Coast — Caladesi Island. The “island” is no longer an island unto itself. Sand plugged the channel separating it from Clearwater Beach.
But alas, there is no place to park. You can ride a bike there, or you can walk. It’s a three-mile hike north from the Clearwater Beach pier.
Major nearby attractions to Clearwater Beach include Busch Gardens, Tampa’s Ybor City with its Cuban heritage, the sponge docks of Tarpon Springs with its Greek heritage and the fabulous Salvatore Dali Museum in downtown St. Petersburg.
Related story: Caladesi Island: Kayak to a wild beach
Getting There From Orlando: Take Interstate 4 West to State Road 60 West to the beach.
Honeymoon Island Beach
A scenic choice: 110 miles, 2 hours
Honeymoon Island State Park has a spectacular beach, a sweet name and one of those classic Florida-history stories.
It’s also a favorite beach for a populous urban area, and on a sunny May Sunday when we visited, it seemed like all 916,000 Pinellas County residents were there.
Yet the beauty of Honeymoon Island State Park is that even though it attracts crowds, you can still find beauty, solitude and nature. It’s an unusual combination of an accessible beach with lots of parking, first-rate concessions and facilities, and a natural beach with extensive areas full of wildlife.
In Dunedin, where you want to book lodging, the downtown area is anchored by the Pinellas Trail, one of Florida’s premier bicycle trails stretching xx miles from Tarpon Springs into downtown St. Petersberg — with a spur that runs out to Honeymoon Island!
Like Clearwater, nearby offerings include Ybor City, Busch Gardens, the sponge docks of Tarpon Springs and the Dali Museum.
Related story: Honeymoon Island: A natural beach with comforts
Getting There From Orlando: Interstate 4 West to State Road 60 West to U.S. 19 North to State Road 586 West.
Fort De Soto & Pass A Grille
Hidden gems: 118 miles, 2 hours
Two different experiences in the same neighborhood.
Fort De Soto Park offers miles of pristine sugar sand beaches on a cluster of islands at the mouth of Tampa Bay. A year doesn’t pass when it isn’t named one of the best beaches in the country.
Nearby Pass A Grille is an old Florida beach town with its own sprawling beach, lined by low-rise lodgings and vacation homes. This is where you want to stay when you visit the area.
There’s a lot of history here, the focal point being the remnants of Fort De Soto itself, manned by the Union during the Civil War to block the passage of supplies through Tampa Bay to the Confederacy.
The park has one of the largest public campgrounds in the state, but size doesn’t matter. It’s always booked solid.
Pass A Grille offers what’s becoming rare in Florida: a quaint, small-town beach enclave with low-rise lodging, cottages, B’n’Bs, vacation home rentals and little beach traffic.
Related story: Pass-a-Grille: Charming, historic beach town
Getting There From Orlando: Interstate 4 West to I-275 South to the Pinellas Bayway.