Best Virtual Experiences in Florida

Thursday, April 02, 2020

virtual vacation roadtrip

Virtual Experiences, the New Way to Travel in 2020

Travel is important for many of us to disconnect and escape from our immediate world. To absorb new sights, sounds, tastes, aromas and knowledge. The year 2020 changed all this due to the pandemic. With a longing to travel, that only left online and virtual experiences. But would it be enjoyable?  With an open mind, I knew I would make the most of it.

Adhering to safety guidelines, sheltering at home, I learned to travel virtually. I was here and there. At home and in other city at the same time. Sitting in a quiet room at home on a comfortable chaise lounge, I placed blinders to block out the visuals and sounds around me so I could focus on the screen in front of me. The money earmarked for a physical vacation instead went to the purchase of a 60" TV. That flatscreen on my wall would be my magic carpet ride in discovering Florida at the height of a worldwide lockdown.

Florida postcard from the 1950s

The Benefit of Virtual Travel 

Florida is my home state and I have been longing to do a road trip, something I have not done in several years.  Sure it's not the same as traveling in person, but there were other benefits.  For one it allowed more one-on-one interaction and conversation with people at the site, that often you only hear a one-way presentation in person.  It also afforded me up close views of fascinating animals, people, plants, fauna and incredible bird's eye views of beaches, cities, towns.  This leads me to the next best advantage. The virtual tours or experiences are great planning tools for a physical vacation when the time is right.  

1. The Clearwater Marina Aquarium

     Clearwater, Florida

Winter, the rescued dolphin with prosthetic tail

Who doesn't love Dolphins?  I wanted to see dolphins but not in an amusement park. Searching for a rescue and rehabilitation center that also allowed the public to witness and learn, I found the Clearwater Marina Aquarium.  On their Facebook page, the Animal Care Team went live daily at 11:30am during Covid lockdown. We were able to meet Winter, the dolphin that was rescued from a crab line entanglement requiring her to get a prosthetic tail. Trainers worked closely with her during her transition and continues to thrive at CMA along with her companion Hope, another rescued dolphin. This is a great learning experience for adults and families with children. During the school year, the CMA created lesson plans for Grades 1-5 as part of a science curriculum. What a great idea!

An advantage of these earlier online experiences, is that they were free. So I could visit my new friends Winter & Hope multiple times online at no cost. The second benefit was the access to trainers and staff. This would not happen at the site before COVID. 

This is a place I will definitely return to and bring my 7 year old nephew who is crazy about whales and dolphins.

Alright so this was a live Facebook event, not so much a virtual experience but again it did allow for plenty of closeups with the dolphins and extensive Q&A with staff. 

Update May 29, 2020: the CMA is open to the public. Facemasks must be worn at all times

2. The Sunken Gardens

     St. Petersburg, Florida

Growing up in Florida, I spent a lot of time playing outdoors and visiting nature parks more than amusement parks. Back then there was only Disney World and Sea World. Standing in long lines in high heat and humidity was no "walk in the park".

The Sunken Gardens caught my eye for its active Facebook page full of fascinating online tours, classes and sessions. It is the oldest roadside park (100 years) in Florida and home to 50,000 exotic plants.

In late March and throughout April Sunken Gardens offered free online vegetable gardening classes, While the pandemic discourages leaving our homes and spurred job loss and less income for basic necessities, there is a trend to grow our own vegetables and food source in backyards. 

From there it was a feeding frenzy of information about exotic plants and flamingos. Sunken Gardens is borderline obsessed with flamingos (in a healthy way)  that they even purchased a flock to live at the historic gardens.  I can't blame them. Since I was a little girl I have been enamored by flamingos and always wondered why they were not the State bird of Florida. That's a blog post for another day! 

Check out their Facebook video below (shared from San Diego zoo) of flamingos eating underwater at San Diego Zoo. 

I have to say the West Coast of Florida is infatuated with sea life and flamingos. Below is a public art masterpiece scheduled to unveil in November 2020 for the main terminal at the Tampa airport.  Sacramento has its rabbit. Denver has its mustang, Doha its teddy bear and soon Tampa will have its flamingo.

HOME public art by Matthew Mazzotta for Tampa Airport Main Terminal
Scheduled for November 2020

3. Ruth Eckerd Hall

      Clearwater, Florida

Dance Lessons & Comedy Magic Show

As I felt odd to be sedentary while "traveling", I wondered if any establishment or attraction offered a more interactive virtual experience where I would use my senses. I soon discovered virtual dance classes at the Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. (I see a pattern emerging with top experiences all on the west coast of Florida). Music and dance programs were offered online and continue with great fanfare. Music and body movement--now that's my cup of tea!

For example, on Sunday, August 9, and Wednesday August 12 is PIFF THE MAGIC DRAGON a live interactive comedy and magic show. It's offered via Zoom broadcast from Las Vegas, and tickets are $37+ for as many people in a household. This is sure to make you laugh and offer much relief from repeats on television programming. A great way to support live theater, shows, concerts, etc.

4. MUSIC LESSONS in Drums, Bass, Guitar, Saxophone, Sound Engineering

For anyone who's wanted to learn to play an instrument and join a band, well you could take one step closer toward your dream.   Sign up for lessons with a member from THE HIP ABDUCTION. Utilizing the senses enhances any experience.  Listening to the sounds of musical instruments and utilizing your hands are two acts of engagement to keep you entertained and learning.  

You can choose Keys and Sax with Cody Moore, or Bass with Chris Powers.  Visit their site and choose your instrument du jour.  Who knows. Maybe you'll become the next Elvis Presley or KISS band with your friends.

City of St. Petersburg, Florida--had the best online/virtual destinations

These online experiences all happened to be on the west coast of Florida. Now I am anxious to take a road trip there this year and probably will once they open to the public. I have to commend the city of St. Petersburg and Clearwater Florida for their quick transition and innovative ideas for online and virtual experiences. 

Give it a Try!

 As I shared in the beginning, online travel and online virtual experiences will never replace visiting a site in person. Just remember the benefits:  no long lines or taking off your shoes, no sitting in sardine packed airplanes, no getting lost, no delayed flights.  2020 is the year to plan and visit virtually.  Check out places and activities in advance.  Next year when you do visit in person, you're itinerary will be packed and seamless. 

NOTE: Keep in mind as establishments reopened to the public, naturally the live virtual experiences diminished as the staff returned to serving the onsite guests.

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