If you are within easy driving distance of this bucolic little town then it is worth adding it to your considerations for a weekend getaway. For most, I think two or three days would suffice. Though I have lived in Florida for some twenty years, this was my first time actually stopping in Ocala for anything more than a tank (or stomach) refill on my way to other parts. Let’s face, beach towns in Florida get all the attention, but we contend that this should not be the case – especially for those of us lucky enough to call Florida home and who, presumably, already live within a stone’s throw of a beach.
In our ongoing effort to bring you closer to some of the small towns that dot the state we decided to spend a weekend in Ocala. As always, we traveled as a family and are mindful of the challenges in keeping the little ones entertained. For us, the road trip portion of the trip was not too difficult. It was an easy 2.5 hour drive from Jacksonville – mostly through Ocala National Forest, which provided a beautiful backdrop that even our 8 year old enjoyed watching through the car window (with no tablets or cell phones either!). We made the trip after work on a Friday and arrived in Ocala after dark, so we couldn’t see much and the one-way streets made it “interesting” trying to get to the hotel entrance.
If you are looking to stay in the downtown area of Ocala, there really is only one option – the Hilton Garden Inn Ocala Downtown. It is a fairly new hotel located in the heart of the Historic District and on the Downtown Square. To be totally upfront, we only booked this hotel because of its location. Hilton Garden Inns can be hit or miss, in our experience. With that said, we were very pleased with this property. The facilities were clean and well maintained, which you would expect from a newer hotel, and the staff was uber-friendly. That is exceedingly rare these days, unfortunately. From the unloading and check in experience, to the servers in the restaurant, to getting billing errors fixed after check out. Everyone was friendly and helpful.
For a “city” hotel, our room was well-sized too. We often opt for larger rooms or suites when we can so that our daughter can have her space and we can have ours. That was not available this time around but it also wasn’t an issue. Even with the two beds there was still a small sitting area and a work station as well as a roomy closet and bathroom. A family of four might be a little more crowded but for the three of us it was comfy. The room was very well appointed too. Obviously, you do not get high end with this price point; it was certainly better than a Hampton Inn though.
The hotel features a large balcony overlooking the square with a bar and plenty of seating. On the evening we arrived the place was hopping and the original Ghostbusters was playing on a huge drop-down screen, visible even from the square. If you find the weather, or the bugs, disagreeable there is also an indoor bar on the other side of the patio doors. This is also where you will find the restaurant which serves up a hot, made to order, breakfast in the morning in addition to dinner in the evening. We ate breakfast there during our stay and thought the food was great. Breakfast was included with our room rate but the prices were not bad if you find yourself paying out of pocket.
Our only, minor, warning about this hotel is that it does not have a pool. This hit our little one hard who had been looking forward to a hotel pool all week (it is often how she evaluates the hotels we stay in). To be fare, it does not say anything about a pool on the hotel’s site, we just assumed and that was totally on us. Luckily, the city has a small splash pad two blocks away so we were able to take her there in the afternoon to make new friends and cool off.
Downtown Ocala is very walkable, especially if you are staying at Hilton. The square is surrounded by eating and drinking establishments of every nature. In fact, we marveled at how much livelier Ocala seemed at night compared to downtown Jacksonville. On a Friday night we found people in the streets, live music in the square, and a mix of live music and DJs blaring from nearly every bar around the square – not to mention those found along the side streets as well. Some of these places were packed too!
The only restaurant we were able to try on this trip was the Sushi Bistro, which we cannot in good faith recommend. While the food was ok, the service was horrible. It was clear they did want to be there and couldn’t wait to push you out the door. We arrived half an hour before closing, plenty of time to eat and get out, but they did not want to seat us at first. At the end of the meal, they threw the bill on the table while our daughter was still eating. We felt rushed and there were still others in the restaurant so we were not keeping them open, nor was it even technically closing time yet. After reviewing their Google reviews, I saw that the quality of service and attitude of staff are common complaints.
For daytime activities around the square, it’s pretty much shopping and day drinking. My wife and daughter loved the boutiques, for which there are several – enough to kill an afternoon. When the Florida rains kick in, you won’t have any trouble finding a place to hang out until it is dry again. You are likely to find some friendly locals to chat with and kill time. If art is your thing, there is a nice little “locals” gallery and store just off the square where you can pick up a unique piece and support local talent. In fact, I do not recall seeing any kitschy tourist-trap stores that pretty much characterize the larger Florida cities like Orlando and even many of our beach towns. You can shop guilt free here knowing that whatever you buy is likely supporting a local small business and not a large corporation.
OUT AND ABOUT
After you have shopped to your heart’s content in Ocala, you may be wondering what else there is to do. For horse aficionados, this is your Mecca. Ocala is known as one of the premier racehorse breeding grounds in the country. There are no shortages of local farms offering tours and rides. We did not get a chance to explore any of these, however. We came down here for two distinctly different experiences instead.
The first was the Ocala Drive-In Theater. If you are like me, you grew up watching movies at the drive-in sitting on top of your parents station wagon with a sleeping bag, pajamas, and a grocery bag full of popcorn. It is increasingly difficult to find drive-ins in Florida these days so we made the two hour drive to Ocala primarily for this experience, which neither my daughter nor my wife had ever done. It was a great way to spend some time together as a family. Our daughter enjoyed the big screen and “camping out” in the back of our SUV. While the bugs were not too bad (nothing a little Off couldn’t handle), something we didn’t consider was the heat. If you are planning on tailgating it, do yourself a favor and come in the winter when you can cozy up under a blanket with your family. During the summer, you will sweat.
The other attraction to Ocala for us was easy access to Silver Springs State Park. While not huge, it does have a uniquely Floridian history. Its glass bottom boats have operated tours of Mammoth Spring and its runs for over a hundred years. What kid wouldn’t enjoy watching the fish and turtles swim beneath their feet? While you cannot swim in the spring, you can kayak and paddleboard. If you do not have your own, there is a concessionaire onsite that will outfit you with all you need for parents and kids alike to get on the water. There are also water trails suitable for all skill levels too so if you are a novice or short on time, take the one hour trail to Mammoth Spring and back, or if you have the time and the skill, spend the entire day paddling out to more distant runs. If you prefer dry land, there is also a network of hiking trails offering plenty of serene river views and opportunities to peer into the crystal-clear waters of the springs.
When all is said and done, we spent two nights in Ocala and found it to be a great little weekend escape from the daily grind in the city, all for well under $800 for lodging, food, and activities.