As someone who was born in Florida but didn’t return to the Sunshine State until college, I’m an odd hybrid of a Florida native and transplant. Since I returned 14 years ago, I’ve traveled all over the state — from Key West to Tampa, Jacksonville, Orlando and more — and gotten acquainted with all the unique aspects of this incredibly diverse state.
Most people think of Florida as all white sand beaches and retirement homes. Trust me: this state is so much more than that. Here are some surprising things about Florida that most people don't know:
1. Our wildlife is insane.
Everyone knows about the alligators and sharks, but a diverse ecosystem and residents' tendency to dump exotic pets lends to an odd collection of animals that probably hasn’t been seen since Noah’s ark. While driving through Central Florida, you’ll see signs warning passersby of black bears and panthers. More than 200,000 alligators call the Everglades home, as do a number of crocodiles, which makes it the only place in the country where the two coexist. Peacocks are also commonplace in some neighborhoods, as opposed to the flamingoes people imagine to be running amok.
Unfortunately, a lot of non-native species are in Florida, including Burmese pythons, which have wreaked havoc on bobcats, possums, foxes, rabbits and other small mammals (bet you didn’t even know we had those!).
2. Not everyone is a surfer.
I was walking on Miami Beach with a friend when two guys asked us about the best places to surf. They clearly weren’t from around here — in fact, most of the state is terrible for surfing compared to what you’ll find in California or Hawaii. While you can catch some smaller waves to ride your board into shore almost anywhere on the east coast, the best places to really hang 10 include Daytona Beach, Cocoa Beach and the Sebastian Inlet.
3. Florida is a paradise — for ranchers.
Another surprising fact? You’re more likely to find a cowboy than a surfer in Florida. We might be known for our beaches, but more than 18,000 ranches call Florida home with more than 1 million head of cattle. Nationally, Florida ranks 10th for number of beef cows and has the largest single brood cow herd.
Rodeo is also huge in Florida, with Silver Spurs Rodeo just outside of Orlando claiming to be the largest rodeo east of the Mississippi. I live close to the beach, and just 30 minutes west, people ride their horses down the street and take part in is another huge venue, the Bergeron Rodeo.
4. Florida is way bigger than most people realize.
Don’t underestimate the size of Florida, especially when planning a road trip. While you can cross the state east to west in less than two hours (save for the Panhandle, which is still only five hours), driving from Jacksonville to the very bottom of the state in Key West is almost a 10-hour(!) trip. Florida is also notoriously flat, with slight hills and landfills creating topographical excitement for locals.
5. It does snow in Florida.
OK, very rarely, but we can’t stop talking about the few times flurries have fallen. The most famous snowfall was Jan. 19, 1977, when it snowed as far south as Miami. It made the front pages of newspapers and is commemorated every year as “remember that one time it was cold enough to snow?” — even though it melted away by mid-morning. Farther north, snow will fall on average once a decade.
6. We paved the way for air conditioning.
While studying how to slow the spread of tropical disease, Dr. John Gorrie invented a system of creating artificial ice, which was then blown into a room to cool it down and keep air moving. He received a patent for it in 1851, and Willis Carrier built on the idea to create the modern air conditioner. Still, we thank Gorrie every single summer day for his ingenuity, and there is even a statue dedicated to him in the US Capitol Building.
7. Florida is culturally diverse.
The joke here is that the more south you go, the less southern it is. In North Florida, you’ll find proud southerners and cowboys — who playfully call themselves “crackers” (after the sound of whips while working cattle), as well as in Central Florida, which is also home to a huge Puerto Rican population. Continue south, you’ll find New York and New Jersey transplants as well as people whose roots are traced to Latin America and the Caribbean. Plus, the original Floridians, the Seminole and Miccosukee Indian tribes, share their proud heritage.
8. What’s a basement?
No, seriously, we are one of a handful of states where you won’t find a basement in our home, thanks to the damp soil we live on. Instead, we store things in sheds in our yard. Just watch out for pythons when you're heading out to fetch your box of Christmas decorations.