SPORTS: A sports fa­natic’s play­ground

Travel Guide to Florida - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - BY ED­WARD SCH­MIDT JR.

If you love watch­ing the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLS pro­fes­sional sports teams, Florida has a plethora of teams play­ing in phe­nom­e­nal sta­di­ums and are­nas. For those who want to par­tic­i­pate in the ac­tion, the op­por­tu­ni­ties are equally impressive with a va­ri­ety of bik­ing and hik­ing trails in ur­ban and wilder­ness ar­eas, nu­mer­ous mari­nas with deep sea fish­ing and yacht char­ters, dozens of top-notch scuba div­ing sites just off­shore and a spec­tac­u­lar in­ven­tory of golf cour­ses and ten­nis courts.


Base­ball fans flock to Florida dur­ing the month of March when 15 teams train and play ex­hi­bi­tion games prior to the sea­son. It’s a great way to see your fa­vorite play­ers when they’re more ac­ces­si­ble for au­to­graphs and you can be closer to the ac­tion. The en­gag­ing venues in­clude Ge­orge M. Stein­bren­ner Field in Tampa, where the Yan­kees train and which has a mas­sive Yan­kees mem­o­ra­bilia store, and Jet Blue Park in Fort My­ers, a Bos­ton Red Sox train­ing venue fea­tur­ing a replica of Fen­way Park’s Green Mon­ster.

From April to Oc­to­ber, en­joy reg­u­lar sea­son Ma­jor League Base­ball in Mi­ami with the Mi­ami Mar­lins, a Na­tional League team now owned by fa­mous base­ball player Derek Jeter, and with the Tampa Bay Rays, an Amer­i­can League team that com­petes at St. Peters­burg’s domed Trop­i­cana Field.


You’ll have lit­tle dif­fi­culty tee­ing it up in Florida, which boasts more than 1,400 golf cour­ses and over 50 re­sorts where golf is the main amenity. Many of Florida’s golf re­sorts are world-renowned and home to iconic cour­ses like THE PLAY­ERS Sta­dium Course at TPC Saw­grass in Ponte Ve­dra Beach, the Blue Mon­ster at Trump Na­tional Do­ral in Mi­ami and Cop­per­head at In­nis­brook, a Sala­man­der Golf & Spa Re­sort near Tampa. In ad­di­tion, there is a plethora of su­perb daily fee cour­ses to play with de­signer tags like Jack Nick­laus, Tom Fazio and Robert Trent Jones.

The PGA Tour uti­lizes Florida ev­ery year as sites for some of its most pres­ti­gious tour­na­ments. You can stroll among the lush fair­ways and palm trees and watch some of golf’s

great­est stars. The tour­na­ment lineup in­cludes The Honda Clas­sic at PGA Na­tional Re­sort & Spa in Palm Beach Gar­dens in Fe­bru­ary; Valspar Cham­pi­onship at In­nis­brook, a Sala­man­der Golf & Spa Re­sort in Palm Har­bor in early March; Arnold Palmer In­vi­ta­tional at Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Or­lando in mid-March; and THE PLAY­ERS Cham­pi­onship at TPC Saw­grass in Ponte Ve­dra Beach in mid-May.


You can fol­low the bounc­ing ball in Florida from Oc­to­ber to May with the NBA’s Or­lando Magic and Mi­ami Heat. Both teams play in the hotly con­tested South­east Divi­sion, which also in­cludes the At­lanta Hawks, Char­lotte Hor­nets and Wash­ing­ton Wiz­ards. Check sched­ules be­cause it’s a great chance to see the NBA’s bright­est stars like LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Du­rant play against the Florida teams. The Magic play their games at the Amway Cen­ter in down­town Or­lando and the Heat play at the Amer­i­can Air­lines Arena.

For ma­jor col­lege bas­ket­ball, the menu is impressive led by Gainesville’s Uni­ver­sity of Florida two-time NCAA cham­pi­ons. The Uni­ver­sity of Mi­ami and Tallahassee’s Florida State Uni­ver­sity an­nu­ally field strong teams.


Grid­iron icons like Don Shula, Dan Marino and Tim Te­bow are syn­ony­mous with foot­ball in the Sun­shine State. Pro and col­lege foot­ball dom­i­nate the sports scene in Florida in the fall and early win­ter.

Home to the Mi­ami Dol­phins, Tampa Bay Buc­ca­neers and Jack­sonville Jaguars, Florida gives fans the chance to watch NFL foot­ball games in warm, sunny weather even in Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber.

Col­lege foot­ball pas­sions run deep in Florida with highly suc­cess­ful pro­grams like Gainesville's Uni­ver­sity of Florida Ga­tors, Tallahassee's Florida State Semi­noles and Mi­ami Uni­ver­sity Hur­ri­canes. The Ga­tors have won three na­tional cham­pi­onships, the Semi­noles have won three and the Hur­ri­canes have cap­tured five. Other col­leges with top-flight Divi­sion 1 pro­grams where you can ex­pe­ri­ence the game with all of the color­ful pageantry are the Uni­ver­sity of Cen­tral Florida in Or­lando, Uni­ver­sity of South Florida in Tampa and Florida At­lantic Uni­ver­sity in Boca Ra­ton. The Mi­ami Dol­phins and the Hur­ri­canes be­gan play­ing in a new set­ting in 2016 af­ter the SunLife Sta­dium un­der­went a US$500-mil­lion facelift and changed its name to Hard Rock Sta­dium.

At the end of each sea­son in De­cem­ber and early Jan­uary, Florida hosts sev­eral ma­jor col­lege foot­ball bowl games, in­clud­ing the Mi­ami Beach Bowl at Mar­lins Park in Mi­ami; Boca Ra­ton Bowl at FAU Sta­dium in Boca Ra­ton; Cap­i­tal One Or­ange Bowl at the Hard Rock Sta­dium in Mi­ami Gar­dens; St. Peters­burg Bowl at Trop­i­cana Field in St. Peters­burg; Rus­sell Ath­letic Bowl and Buf­falo Wild Wings Cit­rus Bowl at Camp­ing World Sta­dium in Or­lando; TaxSlayer Bowl at Ever­bank Field in Jack­sonville; and Out­back Bowl at Ray­mond James Sta­dium in Tampa.


Florida has qui­etly be­come a haven for great pro­fes­sional soc­cer. Or­lando City SC of the MLS, founded in 2013, plays to record­break­ing crowds at Or­lando City Sta­dium in down­town Or­lando. The team has a loyal fan base as well as fun tail­gat­ing par­ties be­fore the games.

The Or­lando Pride of the Na­tional Women’s Soc­cer League is led by su­per­star Alex Mor­gan.

For­tu­nately, there are plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties to see the sport in Florida. The state has three North Amer­i­can Soc­cer League teams—the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Fort Laud­erdale Strik­ers and the Jack­sonville Ar­mada—and a Na­tional Premier Soc­cer League team, the Boca Ra­ton Foot­ball Club.


With two NHL teams in the state, Florida of­fers fans su­perb op­por­tu­ni­ties to see top­notch hockey on their visit. The Tampa Bay Light­ning, a play­off team in 2016, plays their games at Amalie Arena in down­town Tampa. Far­ther south in the Mi­ami met­ro­pol­i­tan area, the Florida Pan­thers, which were founded in 1993, skate at the BB&T Cen­ter in Sun­rise. Both teams have had their moments in the lime­light when the Light­ning won the Stan­ley Cup in 2004 and the Pan­thers played in the NHL fi­nals in 1996.


The fuzzy ball set loves to play and watch ten­nis in Florida. Re­sorts like Boca Ra­ton Re­sort & Club, Sad­dle­brook Re­sort near Tampa and Omni Amelia Is­land Plan­ta­tion Re­sort north of Jack­sonville have ex­pan­sive, world-class ten­nis com­plexes. Spec­ta­tors en­joy the Mi­ami Open, which dates back to 1985 and has fea­tured ma­jor stars such as Martina Navratilova, Ser­ena Wil­liams, No­vak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. The 2018 Mi­ami Open will be staged from March 19–26 in the Ten­nis Cen­ter at Cran­don Park on Key Bis­cayne.


It doesn’t get any big­ger and bet­ter than the DAY­TONA 500 in Day­tona Beach, NASCAR’s speedy an­swer to the NFL’s Su­per Bowl. The 2018 race is slated for Fe­bru­ary 18.

Se­bring in Cen­tral Florida is host­ing the pop­u­lar 65th An­nual Mo­bil 1 12 Hours of Se­bring event on March 17, how­ever racing fans may want to be there when gates open on March 14 for four days of oc­tane-fu­eled fun.

Just south of Mi­ami in Homestead, the Homestead-Mi­ami Speed­way hosts NASCAR’s Ford Ecoboost races in mid-Novem­ber.


Ocala, 80 miles north of Or­lando, with 600 thor­ough­bred horse farms is known as “The Horse Cap­i­tal of the World.” Area farms have pro­duced 45 na­tional cham­pi­ons and six Ken­tucky Derby win­ners. Sev­eral of the farms of­fer tours and Ocala is home to na­tional eques­trian events and com­pe­ti­tions, in­clud­ing the HITS Ocala Win­ter Cir­cuit, Live Oak In­ter­na­tional and Ocala Breed­ers’ Sale.

In North­east Florida, the Jack­sonville Eques­trian Cen­ter fea­tures 80 acres of horse par­adise com­plete with a giant in­door arena, out­door show rings and over 400 stalls.

For polo en­thu­si­asts, matches are con­tested in Palm Beach, Sara­sota, Welling­ton and The Vil­lages south of Ocala.

Florida’s high-pro­file horse racing tracks are Gulf­stream Park Racing & Casino in Hal­lan­dale Beach, Hialeah Park Racing & Casino in Mi­ami and Tampa Bay Downs in Tampa.


You’ll be reeled in by all of Florida’s phe­nom­e­nal fish­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties. Amaz­ingly, Florida has over 8,000 miles of shore­line if you in­clude in­lets, bays and capes. Bet­ter still, the weather is warm year­round so you can fish any day of the year.

Mari­nas for deep-sea char­ters are lo­cated in all parts of the state. Two of the most noted are Is­lam­orada in the Keys, which is known as the “Sport Fish­ing Cap­i­tal of the World,” and Destin in the Pan­han­dle that’s been dubbed “The World’s Luck­i­est Fish­ing Village.” There are also nu­mer­ous piers, docks and bridges where you can drop a line and make a big salt­wa­ter catch as well as reefs and wrecks off­shore where fish con­gre­gate.

For fresh­wa­ter en­thu­si­asts, Lake Okee­chobee and rivers in the Ever­glades are great spots to fish for large­mouth bass, bluegills and sunfish. Through­out the state, a net­work of lakes, canals and

chan­nels pro­vides ex­cel­lent places to fish for large­mouth bass, cat­fish and crap­pie.


One of the ap­peal­ing as­pects of snor­kel­ing in Florida is the wide va­ri­ety of “shore dives” pos­si­ble. You don’t have to swim far to see amaz­ing marine life.

The Florida Keys has dozens of in­trigu­ing spots such as Can­non Beach at John Pen­nekamp Co­ral Reef State Park, where you can see placed rem­nants of an early Span­ish ship­wreck about 100 feet off the beach, and Fort Zachary Tay­lor His­toric State Park and Beach off Key West, where you can view trop­i­cal fish and live co­ral. Other prime snor­kel­ing havens through­out the state in­clude Red Reef Park in Boca Ra­ton, Phil Fos­ter Snorkel Trail in Riviera Beach and Blow­ing Rocks in Jupiter.

For those who scuba and want to dive deeper, Florida’s thousands of miles of coast­line and nu­mer­ous lakes of­fer a plethora of op­por­tu­ni­ties. Many divers flock to the nat­u­ral reefs near Fort Laud­erdale and Mi­ami. There are also sev­eral artificial reefs in dif­fer­ent parts of the state cre­ated by sunken steel ships and struc­tures. Fresh­wa­ter divers can ex­plore caves and cav­erns in var­i­ous springs and lakes.


If you like rid­ing on two wheels in­stead of four, Florida has some ex­cep­tional paved bike trails. Recre­ational rid­ers ab­so­lutely revel in the tem­per­ate year-round bik­ing weather and the flat ter­rain that makes cy­cling eas­ier.

Some of the more pop­u­lar trails in­clude the West Or­ange Trail in Or­lando, which stretches 22 miles and passes through quaint towns like Win­ter Gar­den and Oak­land; Cedar Key Rail­road Tres­tle Na­ture Trail, lo­cated 50 miles south­west of Gainesville, a 13-mile ride to three con­nect­ing keys; Amelia Is­land Trail, a 5.7-mile trail in the pic­turesque coastal village of Fer­nan­d­ina Beach; and the 22-mile Sani­bel Is­land Bike Trail, a stun­ning ride that takes cy­clists through the pris­tine J.N. “Ding” Dar­ling Na­tional Wildlife Refuge and past a light­house, beaches and Peri­win­kle Way, where restau­rants and shops are eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble.


Keep­ing in shape is easy in Florida, which has an ex­cel­lent menu of na­ture, hik­ing and run­ning trails in both ur­ban and wilder­ness set­tings.

Run­ners have a lengthy lineup of top­notch races, marathons and triathlons sched­uled through­out the year. Some of the big­gest in 2018 are the Walt Dis­ney World Marathon on Jan­uary 7; Mi­ami Marathon on Jan­uary 28; Florida Chal­lenge Triathlon in Cler­mont on March 17; and Star Wars Half Marathon at Walt Dis­ney World Re­sort on April 22.

A pop­u­lar spot for se­ri­ous fit­ness train­ing is the Na­tional Train­ing Cen­ter in Cler­mont, 20 miles west of Or­lando, which has a 400-meter out­door track, cross-coun­try course, sports fields and 70-meter-long swim­ming pool.

Swim­ming en­thu­si­asts can en­joy ocean swim­ming and just about ev­ery hotel and re­sort has a swim­ming pool. To learn about the his­tory of swim­ming, visit the In­ter­na­tional Swim­ming Hall of Fame and Mu­seum in Fort Laud­erdale.

For those who pre­fer ca­noe­ing and kayak­ing, Florida is a pad­dling par­adise with more than 1,700 miles of rivers, streams and creeks formed by 700-plus nat­u­ral springs. The area around Naples and Marco Is­land is an in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar spot for pad­dlers. The Wilder­ness Water­way is a 99-mile wa­ter trail from Ever­glades City to Flamingo, with no de­vel­op­ment along the course, and the Par­adise Coast Blue­way is a sys­tem of pad­dling trails with GPS-marked routes from Ever­glades City to Marco Is­land.

TOP: Aerial view of the is­land green at the Ponte Ve­dra Inn & Club in North­east Florida. ABOVE: Ex­te­rior view of Mar­lins Park in Mi­ami. OP­PO­SITE TOP: 12 Hours of Se­bring event. OP­PO­SITE BOT­TOM LEFT: Stream­song Re­sort in Polk County. OP­PO­SITE BOT­TOM RIGHT: Clear­wa­ter Beach vol­ley­ball.

BELOW: Ever­Bank Field Club Level 1 in Jack­sonville. CEN­TER: Cy­cling through the coun­try­side in Se­bring. BOT­TOM: Del­ray Beach In­ter­na­tional Ten­nis Cham­pi­onships. OP­PO­SITE TOP: The Jack­sonville Eques­trian Cen­ter.

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