Ocala

Ocala and surrounding Marion County are laid back Florida at its best—they’re a place where blue skies seem endless and horses graze on paddocks of the brightest green. Located in the center of Florida, 80 miles from Orlando, Ocala is a small town best known for its equestrian heritage, a little piece of Kentucky transferred down to Florida. It’s also a fantastic place to enjoy the great outdoors, sample a taste of old Florida, and add a little high-octane fun at the Ocala speedway.

History

Ocala, Florida
Ocala, Florida

Ocala takes its name from a Native American village, and the Native American influence has shaped much of its history. The famed explorer Herando de Soto passed through the area on his trip through the New World, in search for the Fountain of Youth. In the early part of the 19th century, the U.S. military settled a fort in the area, which saw some fighting during the Second Seminole War. When the railroad arrived in the 1880s, it brought with it more development and economic success to Ocala Florida—until the fire of 1883. After much of the city was rebuilt, it gained the nickname as the Brick City. The first horse farm opened in 1943, and Ocala’s thoroughbred industry got a big boost when the Ocala-bred Needles won the Kentucky Derby in 1956. Today, more than 600 farms have been settled in and around Ocala.

Ocala National Forest

Ocala National Forest
Ocala National Forest

It might be a surprise to find so much green space in Florida. Just an hour or so from the major theme parks, Ocala offers seemingly endless acres to get out and enjoy nature. In between the St. Johns and Ocklawaha Rivers, the Ocala National Forest preserves nearly 400,000 acres of prime natural Florida. While there are tons of things to do here, one of most popular activities is going for a swim in the clear waters of the hot springs. Visitors also have the chance to hit off-road trails, go camping, and following the hiking trail. For a totally low-impact way to explore, consider making a drive along the Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway. 

Ocala Speedway

While things in Ocala Florida are laid back, that doesn’t apply to the track at the Ocala speedway now called the Bubba Raceway Park. Since the 1950s, the speedway has drawn big crowds to its clay track. Its challenging course has become a favorite of both rookie and veteran drivers who come to win the Saturday night races. When races aren’t scheduled in Ocala, visitors can poke into the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing and International Drag Racing Hall of Fame. Its collection of vintage race cars and hot rods is second to none.

Ocala Horse Tours

Ocala Horse Tours
Ocala Horse Tours

While some of Ocala’s horse farms are working farms and not open to the public, some of them are more than happy to welcome visitors. A variety of the farms offer lessons and refresher courses for horseback riding, and several Ocala outfitters offers tours on horseback or carriage, proudly showing off Ocala’s equestrian heritage.

Ocala Hotels

Even the hotels in Ocala are proud of the city’s thoroughbred heritage. The Grand Oaks Resort styles itself as an equestrian resort, offering elegant accommodations for both humans and horses. Guests (of the two-legged variety) can sign up for carriage rides and visit the carriage museum, in addition to enjoying a welcoming stay. The city and is also home to budget-friendly accommodations up to luxury hotels, along with campgrounds and bed-and-breakfast inns. Because of the number of horse shows and other equestrian events, these Ocala Florida hotels can fill up rather quickly, so you’ll want to make sure to get those reservations made well in advance.

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