Ocala/Marion County, located smack-dab in the heart of Central Florida, features an abundance of sites and activities to suit any student group’s interests. The area consists of five historical towns—Belleview, Dunnellon, McIntosh, Ocala and Reddick—all of which offer their own culture, flavor, history and attractions. Explore the bounty of hiking and biking trails around Belleview or travel back in time in the McIntosh Historic District or Reddick’s quaint community. Enjoy the wonders of the outdoors in Dunnellon or peruse the galleries, shops and museums in Ocala. For student groups visiting Ocala/Marion, the adventures are never-ending.
Outdoor Amusement and Education in Ocala/Marion
Ocala/Marion County is a living playground for student tour groups to explore. The region boasts hundreds of fresh water lakes, rivers and springs, as well as miles of hiking and biking trails, not to mention a wide range of horse farms and riding tours.
Florida’s natural beauty and history are on display at Silver Springs State Park, a 5,000-acre oasis that contains Silver Springs, one of the largest artesian spring formations in the world and the state’s first tourist attraction. Head to Natures Theme Park, where student groups can hop aboard one of the famous glass-bottom boats to get a one-of-a-kind view of the spring’s underwater habitat, while the captain explains the unusual formations, exotic wildlife and ancient artifacts below. (30-minute tour: $10/student; 90-minute tour: $20/student). Other great student-friendly attractions include animal shows, a Lighthouse Tower Ride, a carousel and a seasonal water park.
Student groups can get a live science lesson with a hike along Silver Springs’ 15 miles of trails. Twisting through various habitats, from wetland and swamp to pine forest and oak hammock, students catch a glimpse of the different ecosystems of Florida.
The Silver River Museum and Environmental Education Center provide even more insight on the natural and social history of the area. Take your student tour group to the center to see a pioneer cracker village with restored 19th century farm buildings. The museum is open to the public on weekends and holidays; admission is $2 per person.
At the Ocala National Forest, student tour groups discover the world’s largest contiguous sand pine scrub forest. This beautiful landscape features over 600 natural lakes and ponds, as well as coastal lowlands, swamps, prairies and natural springs where visitors can swim, snorkel and dive year-round. Have student groups walk on one of many hiking trails to view the different habitats and vast range of bird species, or take part in a local pastime and saddle up on horseback for a trot along the One Hundred Mile trail or the LAM trail.
Ocala’s Passion for Horses
Ocala/Marion is known as the Horse Capital of the World, and is one of only four major thoroughbred centers in the country. The region boasts more than 700 horse farms, with 450 classified as thoroughbred, that have produced 45 national champions, six Kentucky Derby winners, 20 Breeders’ Cup champions and six Horses of the Year. Give student groups visiting Ocala/Marion a behind-the-scenes look at the region’s horse farms with a guided tour. Farm Tours of Ocala takes students on a ride along scenic country roads, where they have the chance to see thoroughbreds in training, breeding shed activity, show jumping, sport horse breeding farms and even newborn foals.
For something a little different, bring student groups to Gypsy Gold, where they’ll learn all about the distinctive Gypsy Vanner horse breed during a two-hour tour of the farm. Students settle in to hear the story of the discovery of this special breed, and then get the chance to meet the horses, mule moms and other animals on the farm. They can even feed the horses treats.
Ocala/Marion’s Rich Culture, Arts and History
Emerge from the serene greenery of Ocala/Marion and journey through culturally rich towns filled with museums and historic sites, as well as plenty of shopping, dining and entertainment.
Take your student group to the Appleton Museum of Art, featuring European, American and contemporary sculptures and paintings, plus African, Asian, Islamic and pre-Columbian artifacts. The Ocala museum offers special student group tours for education levels ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade. Students can browse the extensive collection of 18,000 objects spanning 3,000 years for an enlightening look at a variety of cultures.
Learn all about the sport of drag racing at Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing and International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in Ocala. Student tour groups will get a glimpse at around 300 antique cars, including one of the largest collections of Fords in the country. The Drag Racing building features world famous dragsters, funny cars and motorcycles, and vintage car parts are spread throughout the museum.
Each of the towns in the region boasts historic districts for your student group to explore. The Dunnellon Boomtown Historic District contains 70 notable old buildings, including Grumbles House Antiques and Garden Shop, built in 1908. This distinct home features ornate interior design, transom windows and a lovely staircase, not to mention a variety of antiques, gifts, home décor items and a plant nursery.
Treat your students to a night at the movies at the Marion Theatre. Located in historic downtown Ocala, this theater has been a cultural icon for more than 70 years, showcasing the finest in motion picture entertainment. ($7 for students after 6 p.m., $6 matinees.)
With thousands of acres of natural landscape, hundreds of hiking trails, three first-magnitude springs and a vast array of historical sites and educational attractions, Ocala/Marion is certainly a top student travel destination. Its central location and short commute (two hours or less) from major cities like Jacksonville, Tampa, Orlando and Daytona Beach make it easily accessible for student groups from the state and across the country.
If you’re looking for adventure, history and excitement for your students, there really is no better place than Ocala/Marion.
Have any questions or comments about this article? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below. Or you can share this story with others via social media.