If you’re planning a trip to Walt Disney World and want to take a day to spend at the beach (and you absolutely should – Florida has the most beautiful beaches!) then it’s mightily inconvenient that Central Florida is about as far from the coast as it is possible to be; it’s not called Central Florida for nothing, it’s literally in the middle of the state! The good news is that Florida is a relatively narrow state, and it just takes a little over an hour driving in either direction (east or west obviously, not north or south!) to find beaches close to Walt Disney World. The are no shortage of beautiful beaches within an hour or two of Walt Disney World, but they all offer different things and before you pick up your rental car, you need to decide what it is you want in a beach. Some cater more to tourists than others, with more beachfront cafes and souvenir shops, while others are more natural and have a more ‘local beach’ feel to them. There are even some that are completely unspoiled, giving the best possible glimpse at the real Florida! I’ve listed my top 10 beaches close to Walt Disney World with everything they have to offer, and what you need to know before you visit one. If you’re planning a beach trip with a little one in tow, then take a look through my post on surviving taking a baby to the beach for everything you’ll need to make the trip as fun as possible! Please note that the driving times are approximate and can vary greatly; if any of the drives have you getting on I4 for example, the times can fluctuate wildly, especially at rush hour!
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Distance: approx 70 miles or a driving time of 1hr 20mins
If you ask almost anyone about the closest beach to Disney World, they’ll tell you Cocoa Beach. This is the one the majority of the tourists flock to since it has almost everything most vacationers are looking for in a beach; stretches of golden sand with plenty of space for beach chairs and sun umbrellas, numerous beach bars and restaurants, and lots of places to buy souvenirs. Cocoa Beach is home to the Ron Jon Surf Shop flagship store, and standing at over 52,000 square feet, chances are you’ll find something to take your fancy; think everything from flip flops to beach towels to, of course, actual surfboards. The store is open 24 hours a day, and it’s worth a look even if you have no intention of buying anything. The beach also offers surfing lessons courtesy of the Ron Jon Surf School, where both kids and adults can take private or group lessons to learn how to catch a wave. Cocoa Beach definitely caters to tourists, so if you’re looking for a piece of natural Florida, this probably isn’t it – but with all the facilities and countless things to do, it is perfect for families who want everything right there in one place.
Distance: approx 75 miles or a driving time of 1hr 35mins
Pretty much everyone has heard of Daytona Beach, the ‘World Center of Racing’, where you can catch a NASCAR race at the world famous Daytona International Speedway. As another one of the closest beaches to Orlando, it is unsurprisingly another tourist haven, and the 23 miles of beachfront are lined with hotels, shops, restaurants and bars. Daytona is famous for allowing cars to drive onto the beach; this is super convenient if you’re traveling with kids, since you’re not worried about hauling all of your stuff from a parking lot, but it’s also something to note for if you’re traveling with very little ones and you’re nervous about all those vehicles on the sand. There is plenty to see and do in Daytona, with beachfront splash pads for the kids, free summer concerts, entertainment along the boardwalk and pier, and pretty much every water activity you could want, from paddleboarding to scenic cruises.
Distance: approx 90 miles or a driving time of 1hr 55mins
Yet another beach close to Orlando, just in the opposite direction to Cocoa and Daytona, Clearwater is another popular choice. As a Central Florida local, Clearwater is one of my favorite nearby beaches. It’s a little bit further to drive to the Gulf Coast than to the Atlantic Coast, but I find the water to be much warmer, and the beaches to be a little less touristy. I think Clearwater is the perfect balance between having lots to do, and still being relatively quaint and natural. Just under two hours from Orlando and less than 30 minutes from Tampa, Clearwater is perfect for families. The waters of the Gulf and calm and quiet without the big waves you get on the Atlantic, meaning you’ll feel a lot safer with your little ones paddling around. The beaches have that gorgeous white sand that you want on a Florida beach, with plenty of places to rent beach chairs and sun shades, as well as water equipment like kayaks. Close to the beach you’ll find the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, home of Winter the dolphin (from the movie A Dolphin Tale); Winter was injured as a baby and had to have her tail amputated, making it unsafe for her to return to the wild. She now lives at the aquarium with other marine animals who are either being cared for in preparation for release, or will be living out the rest of the their days there for their own safety. My kids absolutely loved visiting the aquairum and meeting Winter and her friends, and still talk about going back to see her one day. You can read more about the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in my post or check out my video of the aquarium and nearby beach on my YouTube channel.
Distance: approx 55 miles or a driving time of 1hr
If you’re looking for a completely unspoiled stretch of white sandy beach with gentle waves and almost nothing else for miles, then this is the beach for you. Canaveral National Seashore is part of the Florida National Parks system, and therefore has restrictions on what can be built in the surrounding area. We visited with the kids last Spring, and although we’d heard there were no facilities in the area, we didn’t realize that meant literally NO facilities in the area; nowhere to get food or beach chairs, or even a real bathroom facility (some of the parking lots have a very basic bathroom, good for emergencies, but not ideal with little kids!) However if you come prepared with food, chairs, shade, picnic blankets, etc, then this is an absolutely beautiful beach. We visited mid-week in May and had the beach almost completely to ourselves; I think we maybe saw ten other people all morning! The beach was wonderfully quiet and peaceful (except for my kids, of course!) and they had so much room to run around and play without my worrying that they were disturbing people. It’s a relatively short drive to Canaveral from Walt Disney World, but then the drive actually to the beach is pretty remote; you’ll pass entrances at either Apollo Beach or Playalinda Beach and not much else for a few miles before hitting the ocean (cost of entry is $10 per vehicle.) For a better idea of what to expect, read through my post on visiting Canaveral National Seashore with kids (or check out my video of our trip on my YouTube channel) and if you’re a fan of the National Parks, take a look at my post on the best Florida National Parks to visit with kids.
Distance: approx 95 miles or a driving time of 1hr 50mins
If you want to stay away from the spring break crowd and step into a truly unspoiled part of Florida, then head to the Palm Coast and Flagler Beach. With over 19 miles of golden brown sand, these beaches are quiet and quaint, giving you a true Florida feel. The beaches are not only very family friendly, but there are many pet friendly beaches too, so if you’re traveling with your dog, this is the perfect place to bring them for the day! Flagler is also the perfect place to spot local wildlife such as turtles, dolphins, and even whales during the winter months; mothers will come to nurse their newborn calves in the warm protected waters, and it’s possible to see them within a quarter mile of the beach!
Distance: approx. 75 miles or a driving time of 1hr 20mins.
With 13 miles of white sandy beach to lay your beach towel on, New Smyrna Beach is a fantastic option for families looking for a day or two away from the hustle and bustle of Walt Disney World. This is another beach that works well for families wanting a little bit of everything, with various areas of the beach offering up different amenities. In some areas you can drive on to the beach, offering the convenience of having all of your beach gear right there in your car, but there also vehicle free areas for those with young children. Amenities you can expect to find include children’s playgrounds, public restrooms, BBQ grills, tennis and volleyball courts, as well as picnic areas and pavilions. If you’re traveling with the family pet, New Smyrna is another beach that has a dog-friendly stretch of sand; Smyrna Dunes Park can be found at the Northern tip of the New Smyrna Beach peninsula, and offers one of the county’s only dog beaches.
Photo credit: VisitStPeteClearwater.com
Distance: approx 90 miles or a driving time of 1hr 45mins
Voted as Trip Advisor’s number 3 beach in the whole of the United States last year, St Pete’s Beach includes the longest undeveloped stretch of public beach in the county. The beach has powdery soft white sand for miles and calm warm waters, making it perfect for families with kids of all ages. If you’ve seen pictures of St Pete’s Beach, you’ve probably seen the famous Pink Palace hotel, which is actually the five-star Loews Don CeSar, the ultimate luxury hotel on the beach. If five-star luxury is a little out of budget this time, there are numerous other hotels to suit all tastes, and even camping options at the nearby Fort De Soto National Park, where you can wake up on the beach in actual paradise.
Distance: approx 125 miles or a driving time of 2hrs 15mins
Although this is definitely one of the longer distances from Walt Disney World, there’s a reason I had to include Siesta Key in this list. Named America’s number 1 beach in 2015 by Trip Advisor, Siesta Key is the very picture of perfection; white sand, warm water, and something for everyone across the three beaches on the barrier island. Siesta Key Beach is the most touristy beach, with numerous amenities including public restrooms and showers, snack bars, gift shops, parking lots, and even tennis courts and playgrounds. If you’re looking for somewhere a bit quieter, Crescent Beach might be more your style; you get to escape the crowds while still being a short drive from the main shops and restaurants. This is also a great place to snorkel and check out some of Florida’s amazing marine life. Lastly, Turtle Beach has the same white sand, although a little coarser than the finer sand on the other beaches, and this makes it a great place to pick up some sea shells! There are smaller facilities here, as well as a campground where you can bring a tent, a camper, or an RV to spend the night on one of Florida’s most beautiful beaches!
Distance: approx 100 miles or a driving time of 1hr 45mins
Vero Beach an upscale, sleepy little town less than a two hour drive from Walt Disney World, but if you’re worried about leaving that Disney bubble, fear not – Disney has its very own beach resort right here! Disney’s Vero Beach Resort is absolutely perfect for those who want to escape to the beach for a day or two, but don’t want to leave behind that Disney level of service. The resort sits right on the water’s edge, where you can catch the most breathtaking sunrises, and as a Disney Vacation Club Resort, it offers not only regular hotel rooms, but multi bedroom villa properties, and even cottages. I always recommend this resort as the place to come at the end of a crazy busy Walt Disney World vacation – that part where you need a vacation from your vacation – since this offers the Disney feel without all the stress of the theme parks. Away from the Disney resort, Vero Beach has a relaxed and laid back atmosphere, with a variety of things to do both in the town and on the water.
Distance: approx 125 miles or a driving time of 2hrs 30mins
Another option if you don’t mind driving a little way is St Augustine, Florida’s oldest city. Not only is St Augustine one of my favorite places to visit for history, culture, and a lovely old-town feel, but it has some nice quiet stretches of beach that make for a wonderful place to take the kids to play. There are countless things to do in the city, and I’d definitely recommend the hop on hop off trolley service that takes you to the most popular spots. Kids will love the Old Jail and the Pirate and Treasure Museum, and history buffs will love the Castillo de San Marcus. The beaches in St Augustine are pristine, with a very natural feel to them; think quiet boardwalks and piers rather than surfing and beach bars! Our personal favorite is Anastasia State Park, with natural hammocks and plenty of places for a picnic!