New Smyrna Beach lagoon offers social-distancing-friendly alternative to Florida theme parks

A summer trip to see family in Orlando typically leads us to Disney World, where we would thread through a sea of tourists along the Magic Kingdom’s iconic Main Street, cram into a tram on Thunder Mountain or mix with the crowds in the ghostly graveyard of the Haunted Mansion. 

But thanks to the the COVID-19 pandemic, the annual Disney trek didn’t happen this year. Instead, our minivan headed northeast on I-4 in late June in search of thrills of a different kind:  exploring wildlife and the natural wonders of New Smyrna Beach’s Indian River Lagoon and relaxing on the sparsely populated shores, where social-distancing safeguards were easy to follow.

Disney World was still closed during our late June vacation to Orlando so my family escaped for a few days to a less-populated Florida coastal town that is home to North America’s most diverse marine estuaries.

Because safety protocol and social-distancing requirements affect capacity for outdoor activities, we made sure to book our boat and kayak tours in advance through the region’s Marine Discovery Center. We appreciated that masks were embraced by the locals, and that business owners prioritized safety over profit. 

Travel restrictions:These U.S. states still require visitors to self-quarantine or present negative COVID-19 test

We intentionally set out for New Smyrna, located just over an hour northeast of Orlando and half an hour south of Daytona Beach,  because we knew the abundance of outdoor activities would give us ample opportunity to enjoy ourselves away from crowds, yet still enjoy a front row seat to Florida’s most treasured wildlife.

In New Smyrna Beach, you can get an up-close-and-personal look at species like manatees and dolphins that you’re more likely to see on postcards elsewhere in the state. But that kind of access comes with downsides: the laid-back beach town is known as the “shark-bite capital of the world” with nine incidents in 2019, according to the International Shark Attack File, the “only scientifically documented, comprehensive database of all known shark attacks,” which is maintained by the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.

Yet panic was absent from the beaches during our four-day visit. We stayed in a beachside condo about a mile south of New Smyrna’s iconic Flagler Avenue, lined with palm trees, artistic boutiques, smoothie stands and outside eateries. Along our stretch of paradise was a wide swath of smooth sand, seemingly undisturbed by the masses and serving as a perfect tread for cyclists, runners and, for me, early-morning yoga and sunrise shell searching. 

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