The NASCAR racing mecca is just a one-hour drive northeast of Orlando, and while Daytona Beach is best known for its International Speedway, this breezy, beachfront town is the perfect place for a fun-filled, action-packed family escape. With plenty of attractions for both kids and parents, NASCAR enthusiasts and novices alike, Daytona Beach offers endless thrills and sunshine. Here’s everything you need to know to plan your trip.
DAYTONA INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY 101
Daytona Beach—"the Birthplace of Speed"—has served as the epicenter of American racing culture for more than a century. At its heart is the Daytona International Speedway, where several major annual racing events take place, including the recent NASCAR season opener, the Daytona 500. Currently undergoing a massive $400-million transformation, here's the lowdown on what to expect.
What to See and Do: For a year-round insider's look at the history and setup of the Speedway, check out one of three guided, behind-the-scenes tours that takes visitors to the garages, press box, victory lap, drivers' meeting room, and out to ogle the 2014 Daytona 500's winning car (driven by Dale Earnhardt, Jr.). Tour options range from the basic, 30-minute Speedway Tour to the comprehensive, three-hour-long VIP experience. (Note: tours are not offered on all race days.)
On select dates, fans can feed their need for speed by signing up for the Richard Petty Driving Experience to ride shotgun in a NASCAR car as it zips around the Speedway, or train to be a driver for a day. The Ride-Along and Junior Ride-Along Programs (ages 6 to 13) pair up professional drivers with thrill-seekers for three laps around the track, at speeds of up to 160 mph (for the kiddies, up to 100 mph). Adults can train to pilot the cars themselves with more comprehensive (and substantially more expensive) training sessions.
Racing Events: For a true fan pilgrimage, sync up your visit to with eight weekends of annual racing events, like February's high-octane "Great American Race,” the Daytona 500. You don't have to be a racing enthusiast to enjoy this whiplash-inducing 500-mile chase, with pre-race concerts (past guests have included Bon Jovi and Sheryl Crow), a kickoff flyover of Air Force jets, and 43 cars whizzing by at speeds of up to 200 mph. Apart from the Daytona 500, fans can see the Speedway's 2.5-mile track torn up during several major motorsports events (many of which offer free admission to kids 12 and under). See stock cars at The Coke Zero 400 in July or sports cars at the 24-hour-long Rolex 24 in January. Other events feature motorcycles, at the Daytona 200 Week in March, and even go-karts at the post-Christmas Daytona KartWeek.
During events, the 147,000-capacity grandstand really comes alive and this fan-favorite venue pulls out all the stops. The Speedway offers upgraded visitor experiences in the surrounding hospitality tents and the Sprint Fanzone, where visitors can watch pit crews at work in the race car garages, participate in pre-race rituals like signing the start/finish line, and check out the Victory Lane champions area.
What's Ahead: Some $400 million is being poured into a revamp of the 1950s-era Speedway as part of the Daytona Rising project, set to wrap up by early 2016. Expect a modernized grandstand spread out over three different concourse levels, complete with expanded social areas, twice as many restrooms, three times as many concession stands, and more spacious and comfortable seats, many touting higher vantage points of the track. The updated Speedway will actually feature fewer seats, though 101,000 will still be able to pack the stands.The improvements will also extend to a new complex of shops, restaurants, hotels, and entertainment venues, dubbed One Daytona, set to open just across the street.
FURTHER AFIELD: FAMILY TRAVEL IN DAYTONA BEACH
Greater Daytona Beach is revving up for even more tourism developments, with the addition of 950 hotel rooms slated to debut by 2016. A new oceanfront Hard Rock Hotel and Café, featuring an in-room DJ experience, is also set to open.
Travelers with kids should check out the Museum of Arts and Sciences, with its dedicated children's museum, planetarium (currently under renovation through fall), and kid-friendly collections of teddy bears, Coca-Cola bottles, old race cars, historic railcars, and more. Other time-tested kid-pleasers include the Ponce de León Inlet lighthouse (the tallest in Florida, which children can climb) and the neighboring Marine Science Center, with a stingray touch tank and a sea turtle and seabird rehabilitation area. Head to the boardwalk to try the new oceanfront roller coaster, as well as the Daytona Lagoon water park (and adjoining "dry" amusement park).
Add all that to a location set atop 23 miles of sunny Floridian shores (14 miles of which you can drive on), and Daytona Beach and its Speedway make for a great family-friendly destination, or an easy add-on to any Walt Disney World trip.
Modern-day explorer, perpetual seeker, and diligent travel scribe Elissa Richard is a contributing editor and journalist for numerous American travel publications, including Fodor's, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Yahoo, and more. Based in Brooklyn, NY, she has traveled to and reported on some 55 countries and 20 cruise lines around the globe, and has resided in Argentina, France, England, Denmark, and the Netherlands. Follow her @TravelSpiritNYC