pierTrue, Orlando is the amusement park capital of the world. But hold on tight—did you know there are beautiful beaches under an hour away? Relax beach bums, you can have  a vacation with theme park thrills while still chilling out at some of Florida’s favorite beaches. 

Orlando’s just an hour from the Altlantic Coast and two hours from the Gulf Coast. One winter I had the pleasure of escaping the Chicago cold to be a beach bum for the weekend in Clearwater/St. Pete. 

orlando beach Located 45 minutes from Tampa and two hours from Orlando, the towns of Clearwater/St. Pete are known for their pristine, powdery white sand beaches. St. Pete is also a haven for artists with a number of world class museums, including the new Salvador Dali Museum. It may seem unreal, but St. Petersburg houses the largest collection of this famed surrealist’s artwork, outside of his native Spain.   

St. Pete’s waterferont is home to two other art spots worth the stop—the Museum of Fine Arts and, directly across the street, the Chihuly Collection, showcasing the glass artist’s vibrant and delicate creations.

In St. Pete we stayed at the TradeWinds Island Grand, a perfect choice for families with kids of all ages. It’s a large resort with a kids club, pirate shows, paddleboats and a three-story beachfront waterslide to keep teens and tweens from retreating to their iPods.  

You could spend the whole day slip sliding away on this wonderfully wide stretch of Gulf waters. Shell collecting was one of our favorite activities—here’s a sampling of what we found.

shells Just a half hour north is the luxurious Sandpearl Resort, located on a magnificent wide stretch of Clearwater’s white sandy beach. There’s a kid-friendly zero entry beachfront pool, soothing spa, an oceanfront restaurant and when you’re ready to head out, just hop on one of their complimentary beach cruisers for a scenic bike ride.

saso paleWalking the beach and collecting shells is a favorite activity here, as well. Upon checking in we were handed a bucket with our daughter’s name on it and we got to work.

Sandpearl is a short walk from Pier 60, where there seems to be a nightly sunset party. On the Friday night we were there, we found musicians, street performers and an outdoor movie playing. There’s also a great playground right off the pier. We walked back to the hotel along Clearwater’s main drag, where we found hip restaurants, surf shops, and a cool ice cream shop.

sandpearlThere’s more than just amusement parks to enjoy in the Orlando region. Next time you plan a visit to the world’s theme park capital, you might want to set aside a few days to hit the beach, as well. 

Andrea Guthmann is a freelance journalist. She spent many years as a writer and producer for WTTW-TV, the PBS station in Chicago. Her travel stories have been published in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Parent, Make It Better and on-line travel sites. 

A native Floridian, Andrea’s now a big (windy) city mom of 3, who range in age from tot to teen. After giving birth to 2 beautiful children she’s had the joy of becoming a mom again through adoption. She loves sailing Lake Michigan and visiting the world class museums and restaurants in her sweet home Chicago. Being a scenery starved city girl, she loves escaping to the outdoors during vacations and is working hard to raise 3 happy campers! You can follow her on Twitter at @AndreaGuthmann.

Information was gathered on a trip sponsored, in part, by Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater, visitstpeteclearwater.com.