When you think of vacationing in the Southeastern United States, your vision probably doesn’t extend far beyond Florida and its best-known attractions — Disney World, SeaWorld, and perhaps the enchanted world of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. While these attractions are must-see destinations if you’re traveling to the area, the Southeast has so much more to offer than famous cartoon mice, acrobatic dolphins, and virtual Quidditch.
From soft, sandy beaches to breathtakingly scenic campgrounds, the Southeast is teeming with the stuff dream family summer vacations are made of. Here are six Southeast attractions that no traveler should pass up this summer.
1. The most popular theme park on Earth: Walt Disney World
Located near Orlando in gorgeous Lake Buena Vista, Fla., the Walt Disney World Resort is home to the Magic Kingdom, the most-visited theme park on the planet, according to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. You can also enjoy three other theme parks while visiting Disney World: Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios.
In the Magic Kingdom, you’ll find classic Disney rides like Dumbo the Flying Elephant, It’s a Small World, The Haunted Mansion, and Space Mountain. At Epcot, you can groove to live international music, take in a stunning fireworks show that tells the Earth’s history, or hurtle through time and space on Spaceship Earth. If you have time, you can also visit 1,700 different animals at Animal Kingdom or live your favorite movie or TV show at Hollywood Studios.
2. One of the world’s biggest aquariums: The Georgia Aquarium
If your travels take you anywhere near Atlanta, you’ll never regret paying a visit to the colossal Georgia Aquarium. This attraction houses more than 120,000 animals, including beluga whales, penguins, sea otters, and more. The Georgia Aquarium is on the cutting edge of its field — it was the first aquarium in the country to display a manta ray, and it remains the only place outside of Asia that houses whale sharks.
To really immerse yourself in all its aquatic wonder, consider booking an Aquarium Sleepover for your family or travel group. Sleepover guests get two meals and the pleasure of sleeping next to the world-renowned exhibits.
3. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina: 14 million annual visitors can’t be wrong
Attention beachcombers and sea-lovers: Myrtle Beach, S.C., just might be where you find nirvana on your Southeastern vacation. With 60 stunning miles of expansive beaches, Myrtle Beach is a premier destination for sunbathing seaside, playing water sports, fishing, golfing, and more. Thanks to its subtropical climate, the coastal city’s weather is pretty much unfailingly beautiful year-round, but the climate and events are especially attractive during the summer months.
In addition to offering endless fine-dining options, Myrtle Beach hosts several award-winning yearly festivals, such as the Grand Strand Fishing Rodeo, the Beach Boogie & BBQ Festival, and the Canadian-American Days Festival. And, as an added perk, they’re free!
4. SeaWorld Orlando: Because you can’t snub Shamu
It would be a shame to visit the Orlando area and not devote at least a day to frolic in the water wonderland that is SeaWorld. SeaWorld offers something for everyone: innovative exhibits, engaging shows, exciting rides, and a number of exclusive tours. The theme park’s claim to fame, of course, is its “Shamu show,” named after the park’s late killer-whale mascot. The show, entitled “One Ocean,” dazzles audiences with three killer whales, dancing fountains, an eclectic global soundtrack, and the infamous “Soak Zone,” where audience members with no aversion to getting drenched can see and feel the show.
5. The most-visited U.S. national park: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Situated on the border between Tennessee and North Carolina in Gatlinburg, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a 522,419-acre portion of the Appalachian Mountains so breathtaking that it’s an imperative stop for any traveler headed to the Southeast. Make your own outdoor adventure by exploring some of the more than 600 miles of available hiking trails. On your trek, don’t be surprised if you run into one of the park’s 1,500 bears, several waterfalls, or more than 80 log structures preserved from the first settlers who arrived circa 1800.
As far as accommodations go, some hotels in the area offer perks like park vistas, free meals, in-room whirlpools, and more. For summer travelers, rooms fill up quickly, so be sure to book well in advance.
6. Universal’s Islands of Adventure: From Cats in Hats to Hogwarts
No visit to the Southeast would be complete without seeing one of the most popular theme parks in the country — Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Fla. Islands of Adventure features seven islands with different themes: Port of Entry, Marvel Super Hero Island, Toon Lagoon, Jurassic Park, The Lost Continent, Seuss Landing, and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which is the park’s most popular island by far.
The Harry Potter-themed island immerses visitors in the young wizard’s world. Guests can enjoy a sip of Butterbeer in the Three Broomsticks tavern, tour the Hogwarts castle, or soar with dragons on the Dragon Challenge high-speed rollercoaster. The other islands are equally enchanting and unique. For example, you won’t find a single straight line in all of Seuss Landing!
The Southeast U.S. has everything any family could want in a summer vacation. From the myriad theme parks in Orlando and the gorgeous beaches of South Carolina to the endless forests of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, this region of the country has it all. With this list of irresistible must-see attractions, the only thing you’ll have to worry about on your trip is making enough time to experience all the adventures this charming area of the country has to offer.