Central Florida is famous for a lot of features, but your first association probably isn’t “cabins in the woods.”
Yet Florida’s award-winning state park system makes it the ideal place to plan a family vacation in a cabin surrounded by nature. Four state parks within 90 minutes of Orlando offer affordable cabins. They range from well-equipped two-bedroom houses a half hour from Disney World to rustic cabins without air conditioning on an island accessible only by boat.
Because they are popular and a good value, the cabins are often booked up, so plan ahead. You book cabins through ReserveAmerica.com and, for the most popular dates and locations, you may have to reserve months out. The good news, though, is that the penalty to change dates is only $10 and the cancellation fee is $17.75. Weekends and holidays require two-night stays.
These cabins have one other quirk: To encourage you to unplug and enjoy the natural world, you won’t find televisions, phones or WiFi.
The largest and newest cabins are at Lake Louisa State Park in Clermont, near Disney World. The most rustic ones, which are almost like camping, are at Hontoon Island State Park in Deland. The other two sets of cabins — at Blue Spring State Park in Orange City and Silver River State Park in Ocala — are well equipped and located in particularly appealing parks.
Here’s a profile of each park’s cabins with tips based on my visits.
The cabins at Lake Louisa State Park are big — all have two bedrooms and two bathrooms plus a full kitchen. With a sleeper sofa in the living room, the cabins would be quite comfortable for six people. The kitchen has a microwave, dishwasher and everything you need to set up housekeeping. A large screened porch with rocking chairs overlooks a little lake in the distance. In winter, you can use the gas fireplace for a cozy ambiance. Cabins have heat and air conditioning and rent for $120 a night.
There are 20 cabins here, many more than at other parks, so it is much easier to get reservations.
A key advantage to Lake Louisa is that families can use these cabins when visiting Orlando’s theme parks. After a day of frenetic stimulation at an attraction, kids might benefit by spending a day exploring forest trails. You might even spot some of the abundant wildlife, including birds, gopher tortoises and deer.
Unfortunately, there is no swimming at Lake Louisa State Park, and many of its appealing features are enjoyed most in cooler weather. The park has 25 miles of hiking trails. South Florida visitors will be delighted by its rolling hills, some over 100 feet high! We also enjoyed coming upon former orange groves now gone wild. Plucking an orange from a tree made a refreshing treat on a hike.
You also can rent kayaks or canoes for $8 for two hours at the ranger station and explore Lake Dixie.
Blue Spring State Park has something special every season of the year, thanks to the stunning spring and its clear water.
In summer, it is wildly popular for swimming in the 73-degree water. You can rent inner tubes and float from the spring boil about a quarter-mile downstream to a swimming dock. Then walk the trail back to the spring head and do it all over again.
In winter, the spring is closed to swimmers and open to manatees. Hundreds of the endangered mammals gather here as the nearby St. Johns River cools down, making it the best place in the state for manatee viewing from land. Manatee season is weather-dependent, but generally occurs November to March.