Lots of families come to Orlando to see all the attractions like Disney, Universal Studios, and Sea World. While they are here they want to squeeze in at least one day at the beach. Naturally, they want to spend the least amount of time driving to maximize their time out on the beach. So they are looking for the closest possible beaches that offer a safe and enjoyable experience. The Atlantic beaches are the closest, but some people, for various reasons, prefer to drive a bit further and come over to the Gulf Coast beaches. So I'll tell you about the best and closest beaches on both coasts.
If you want more discussion of the various pros and cons of all the beaches near Orlando, grab a copy of my e-book, Best Beach Day Trips from Orlando and Central Florida. Or, check out my web pages with all the details you'll need to choose a beach within an hour or two of Orlando.
Atlantic Beaches Close to Orlando
The closest beaches to Orlando are Daytona Beach, New Smyrna Beach and Cocoa Beach, and each is on the Atlantic Ocean (East Coast). Each is about the same driving distance from Orlando. Daytona Beach is about an hour to the northeast, just above Cape Canaveral, and Cocoa Beach is about an hour to the southeast, just below Cape Canaveral. New Smyrna is in between. The driving time varies depending on traffic. Obviously, if you are leaving Orlando near rush-hour, it is going to take longer.
Gulf Beaches Close to Orlando
For those who want to come over to the Gulf Coast, the closest beach is Clearwater Beach, at the west end of Highway 60. This would be roughly a 2 hour drive from Orlando on Interstate 4. Budget an extra half-hour to allow for the nearly inevitable construction / accident / heavy traffic delays.
From Orlando to Daytona Beach, Florida
To drive from Orlando to Daytona Beach, you will take I-4 east from Orlando about 50 miles to I-95. Follow the signs to I-95 North (toward Jacksonville). You'll drive north on I-95 for a little more than a mile, then take exit #261, International Speedway Boulevard, and drive east to Daytona Beach. Once you get to Daytona Beach, you have 3 choices for beach parking.
- Get a hotel on the beach and park at the hotel.
- Drive out onto the beach using one of the many beach access ramps, and park on the beach for about $5 per day (price subject to change).
- Locate one of the few off-beach public parking lots, or find metered parking on the street.
There is off-beach parking around the Main Street Pier, but parking is tight in this very congested area around the pier.
Daytona Beach offers two good public beach accesses with restrooms and free parking, Sun Splash Park and Frank Rendon Park (see map below). Click the blue balloons for location information. Use map controls to zoom. Click and drag to move map around.
Daytona Beach is a fine place to go to the beach, except perhaps during spring break, or during bike week. Unlike Cocoa Beach, Daytona has a lot of tall condominiums and hotels side by side all the way up and down the beach. Instead of sand dunes in front of the hotels, Daytona has a high sea wall, which isn't particularly attractive. The beach is generally very wide and flat, and you can drive your car out onto the beach in many places, but not all. In particular, the beach within a half-mile of the pier, on either side is closed to cars. That means there are no cars on the beach in front of the Daytona Hilton and BeachWalk. Volusia County has excellent lifeguards and beach patrol and there is a lot to do on the beach. You can rent chairs, umbrellas, surfboards, boogie boards, and all types of bicycles. Yes, you can ride bikes on the beach! See my web pages about Daytona Beach.
All of the main beach access points have stores nearby where you can buy beach gear, but buying some gear in advance saves money and time, which leaves you more money for dinner and more time for the beach. Most local shops have limited choices. Here's a list of some basic beach gear that's worth purchasing in advance:
- Soft Fluffy Beach Towels
- Children's Sunglasses
- Beach Tote Bags
- Sun Block!
- Beach Games and Entertainment
- Waterproof Case for Cellphone
- Kindle to catch up on your reading.
- Book: Florida's Living Beaches: full color guide to stuff you'll find on the beach.
From Orlando to Cocoa Beach, FL
State Road 528 will take you straight from Orlando to Cocoa Beach in about an hour. It is ramrod straight for most of the way and is very easy driving, but it is a toll road, so bring quarters and dollar bills. Once you arrive in Cocoa Beach you'll find a very relaxed beach town with plenty of public accesses to the beach. There are some free parking lots, and some pay lots (usually $5 to $10 per day, but check before traveling if on a tight budget). There are is also metered parking on many side roads close to the beach.
Cocoa Beach has lots of hotels and condos on the beach, but they are not generally as tall as the ones on Daytona, and Cocoa has left plenty of dunes and vegetation between the hotels and the beach in most places. I find Cocoa to be more relaxed and convenient than Daytona. Parking off-beach is MUCH easier (although you can't drive out onto the beach and park). Plenty of inexpensive restaurants, and no shortage of access to Walgreens drug stores, grocery stores, etc.
Main Cocoa Beach public beach accesses (locate on map below):
- Jetty Park (entrance fee) (Highly recommended)
- Cherie Downs Park (free parking)
- Cocoa Beach Pier (parking fee or meters)
- Shepard Park (parking fee or meters)
- Sydney Fisher Park (entrance fee)
- Lori Wilson Park (free parking) (Highly recommended)
See my web pages about Cocoa Beach with lots of photos.
From Orlando to Clearwater Beach (Gulf Coast)
The drive from Orlando to Clearwater Beach is a little more than 100 miles and takes about 2 hours or so, depending on traffic conditions. You'll take I-4 west out of Orlando for about 80 miles. I-4 terminates at I-275 in downtown Tampa. Follow I-275 south for several miles and take the State Road 60 exit toward Clearwater. Follow S.R. 60 and signs to Clearwater Beach.
Clearwater Beach is a small island, but is packed full of restaurants, hotels, and shops, and has a busy marina with all kinds of tour boats and fishing boats. You must pay to park. There is a pier and very nice public beach and you can walk to restaurants. The sand is brilliant white and soft. The water is generally calm and shallow. The public beach has lifeguards, restrooms, food concessions, and a play area with equipment for kids.
The main difference you will find between Clearwater and the Atlantic beaches is the gleaming white powdery sand, and the relatively calmer waters. I think the shells on Clearwater beach are better, too. Traffic can be congested on Clearwater Beach, but they've recently completely refurbished the beachfront and have re-routed much of the traffic away from the beach front.
See my web page about Clearwater Beach. If you'd prefer a less "busy" beach environment, drive 10 minutes south over Clearwater Pass to Sand Key County Park. See map below:
If you haven't yet purchased a Guide to Walt Disney World have a look at some of the most popular. The major guides are updated each year of course, but you might also consider some of the specialty guidebooks that reveal things not covered in the standard guides. Have a look at Hidden Mickeys: A Field Guide to Walt Disney WorldŽ's Best Kept Secrets and The Walt Disney World Trivia Book: Secrets, History & Fun Facts Behind the Magic (Volume 1)
For a more in-depth discussion and a complete list of the best beaches close to Orlando, grab a copy of my e-book, Best Beach Day Trips from Orlando and Central Florida. It offers more than 100 pages of details on all the beaches as well as many color photos. You'll be amazed at how many beaches are available within an hour or two of Orlando.
Find out what the pros and cons are of Gulf vs. Atlantic; Daytona vs. New Smyrna vs. Cocoa Beach; and much more. Pick the right beach for yourself and your family. More info about the e-book.
Here's an idea: See the sunrise on the Atlantic coast, then drive over to the Gulf Coast for the sunset! The best way to do this would be to get a hotel on Cocoa Beach or Daytona Beach. Get up for the sunrise and have a relaxing morning walk on the beach. Grab some breakfast, then drive to Orlando and take I-4 to Tampa, then I-275 and S.R. 60 to Clearwater Beach. Check into a hotel on Clearwater Beach, or find a cheaper hotel in Clearwater on S.R. 60. Head out to the beach for the sunset.
It only takes about 3 hours to drive across the state, so you've got plenty of time. In fact, if you don't mind getting up early, you could leave Orlando at 5:30am and drive over to Cocoa Beach to see the sunrise (be sure to check the sunrise times). Then head back to Orlando and on westward toward Clearwater. There are plenty of opportunities to stop for lunch on I-4 if you get hungry. Watch the sun set on Clearwater beach, then head back to Orlando. That would be a long day and about 6 hours total driving time, but you will have done something that you can brag about for a long time.
Florida Gulf Beaches vs. Atlantic Beaches What to consider when choosing. Driving distance, water characteristics, shells, surfing, etc.
Beach Access for Americans with Disabilities Most major beaches make some effort to accommodate individuals with mobility challenges. This is a primer on what you can generally expect.
Cocoa Beach The surfing culture is strong, hotels are plentiful and moderately priced, and you're close to Kennedy Space Center! Lots of great beach accesses for the day tripper.
Canaveral National Seashore Beaches Not everyone likes the crowded beach scene. If you like your beaches remote, these beaches should be your first choice in Central Florida.
New Smyrna Beaches Overshadowed by Daytona and Cocoa Beach, New Smyrna should not be overlooked as a top-notch beach experience for a great day trip (or extended stay).
Daytona Beaches Everyone knows Daytona. But there's more to Daytona Beach than the Main Street Pier. Find out what else Daytona offers.
Gulf Beaches Calmer, clearer water, more shells, white sand, incredible sunsets. Which beach will be your favorite?