Discovering Deland, Florida: Exploring the Hidden Gems of this Charming CityMay 15, 2023 | By Chuck Shaver
What do the locals do in Deland, Florida? We all know that a quick Google search will help you find almost anything on a large scale, but when I’m visiting an area, I want to know what the LOCALS are doing. Maybe you’re coming up from Orlando and you’ve got just a few hours and you don’t care about some chain restaurant or activity that you can get down there.
I’ve lived here in the area for many years and I’m regularly in Deland with friends and family and while I haven’t personally done EACH ONE of these, they’re on this list for good REASON, and it’s not because of a massive marketing budget. After these seven hidden gems I’ll be sharing two other Gotta’ See gems that are right outside of Deland that are worth the trip all by themselves, so be sure to stick around for those.
Hontoon Island State Park
Hontoon Island State Park out on the west side of Deland just south of Lake Beresford on the St. John’s River is a very overlooked gem. You’ll need to access Hontoon Island either by their free ferry (check the link to be sure it’s running) or by a boat. They’ve got a little visitor center in there with some up-close views of the local wildlife and a good bit of history of the area. They’ve got a playground for the kids and some neat hiking trails over there and it’s just a great place for a cookout, too. It doesn’t cost you anything to get in and they’ve got some cabin rentals with running water if you’d like to spend an overnight and enjoy some old Florida or the bright stars out there. It’s free to moor your boat too, as long as you aren’t in someone’s rented space.
If you don’t have a boat and just want to get out, you can rent kayaks or canoes and you can also rent bicycles here. If you’d like to rent your own boat and hang at Hontoon Island, head over to Holly Bluff Marina, which is probably less than a half mile away as a crow flies.
Parachuting-or just watching it!
Deland is famous for its parachuting, it’s big business here, especially for a town as small as Deland. While I have jumped out of a plane once here in Deland and it was a memory of a lifetime, one thing my wife and I love to do is to head up to either the Perfect Spot or the Gin Mill Restaurant and have a burger and a cold drink. It’s a great place to chill out and take advantage of Florida’s great weather while watching these guys jump out of the planes in large numbers and see how they glide back to earth-it’s really cool. You may be thinking that it’s boring, but it’s really not. The downside to this activity is that, in my mind, it’s really weather dependent, but that makes it ESPECIALLY great from, like, October though April. Although the Gin Mill is nice, I enjoy The Perfect Spot so I can go on the rooftop platform and get the best view possible. The food and service are fine here, but that’s not why I come here. This is perhaps my personal favorite hidden gem here in Deland!
The next hidden gem here in Deland is the Stetson Mansion. Now I hate to admit it, but I’ve never done this one, every time we’ve tried to go they’ve been sold out of tickets. It seems like they sell out for their weekend tours early, but weekday tours seem to have more availability. I’ve heard it said by many friends over the years that I really need to check this place out. Just a few months back my wife was wanting to go to the Stetson Mansion to see their Christmas tour because she’s been wanting to do this for a long time-I guess I need to make that happen!
If you’re into theatre, then the Athens Theatre is something that you NEED to check out. It’s right downtown and we’ve walked over to the Athens after dinner. It’s a little place with around 450 seats on two levels. It’s small enough that you don’t have to wait in enormous lines, but big enough that the quality of their performances is very good. You can get tickets at the Athens for around $25 to $40. It doesn’t have the fanfare (or the drive or traffic) of the Bob Carr or Doctor Phillips down in Orlando, but that’s one of the things that makes the Athens so great.
While everyone in Central Florida may have heard of Deland, some don’t know about our downtown area, which is VERY nice. Several years back Deland’s main street won the title as best downtown in the nation in America’s Main Street competition. We’ve got some really nice coffee shops, restaurants, bars, and all sorts of shopping. Stetson University is absolutely gorgeous and is on the north side of the downtown area. Downtown Deland has all sorts of festivals, too. They’ve got music and art festivals, the Mardi Gras Dog Parade, Christmas Parade, and I’m surely only scratching the surface here.
Artisan Alley Farmer’s Market
Speaking of Downtown Deland, the Artisan Alley Farmer’s Market is a great place to check out on a Friday evening between 6 and 9pm. It’s a dog-friendly grower’s only market and they’ve got all sorts of produce from local and organic farms, exotic spices, bakery items, plants, honey, arts and crafts and all and all sorts of good food. We LOVE the Bake Chop, which is a quaint little place right there on Georgia and we like to eat there first so that we don’t show up at the market hungry. Plus, Persimmon Hollow, which is a great local brewery is right there, too.
Reptile Discovery Center
The next one is one that I’m sure I’ll get some pushback on, and that is the Reptile Discovery Center up off if 92 heading towards Daytona. You may think that you’ve been to a zoo and discount this place, but it’s much more than that. They breed and milk various species of venomous snakes from all around the world. You can actually watch them do it, which I don’t recall ever getting to see in any zoo I’ve been to. It’s inexpensive and their demonstrations are something you don’t get to see every day.
Now I know that this is all about Deland, but if you’re here, there are two other things you gotta’ see if you’re here! That is Blue Springs just south of Deland in Orange City and De Leon Springs just north of Deland. Yes, the blue, 72 degree water and the gorgeous Live Oaks are impressive enough on their own, but the manatees in Blues Springs are definitely worth a look in this area. They flood the warm waters just off of the St. John’s River, primarily in the winter months and there will be hundreds of them in here throughout the winter.
De Leon Springs is just as amazing as Blue Springs, but, just like the allure wasn’t what you’d think in Blue Springs, De Leon Springs isn’t either. It’s about THE FOOD! Hang with me here… Whenever I have guests in town that appreciate natural beauty and simple, good food, we always try to get up to the Old Sugar Mill Restaurant for pancakes.
They give you the batter and you make your own pancakes here, the way YOU want them. There’s actually a griddle right in the middle of the table. There’s an admission free to De Leon Springs State Park that you’ll have to pay to get in, but it’s well worth it. Get here early though as the lines can get crazy. After breakfast, take a dip into the crystal clear spring water. This park is great for swimming, cookouts, and all sorts of gatherings.
If you’re thinking about moving to the Deland area, or anywhere in north of Orlando in Central Florida, give me a call!