Adding a beach day to your Disney vacation? Cocoa Beach bills itself as Orlando’s closest beach, but in reality, it’s just one municipality in two dazzling stretches of coast-line. There are plenty of other beaches within a 60-90 minute drive-time of Disney World. How to choose, besides just getting in the car and pointing it east or west?
My family and I took on the arduous task of exploring the best Space Coast beaches, all so that you can choose the right beach for your family! For each one, we’ll look at a few factors that might play into your choice: like convenience, facilities, and quality of the beach. For the purposes of this article, we’re keeping the drive from the Disney area to under 90 minutes. We’re going to start in the south, at Satellite Beach, and work our way north towards Port Canaveral, in Cape Canaveral.
Peace and Quiet in Satellite Beach: For true peace and quiet, drive south to Satellite Beach. You’ll find a 50s-era beach town along A1A, just south of the Pineda Causeway and Patrick Air Force Base, home to charming houses, inoffensive low-rise condos, and some basic shopping and dining. The quiet beaches and tropical dunes are the draw to Satellite Beach. Public access beaches with free parking, a basic shower, and a boardwalk over the dune are pretty easy to find. There are also a few public parks, some with restroom facilities. Interestingly, even the bare-bones public parks fill up, while public access lots just a few hundred feet away sit empty. Try public access unless you’re staying all day and want restrooms close at hand.
Recommended Public Access:
Grant Avenue & A1A: Accessible dune crossing, picnic tables, shower. Short beach with breakers close to shore, low-rise condos next door, very quiet.
Berkeley Street & A1A: Staircase dune crossing, shower. Similar to Grant Avenue.
Recommended City Park:
Hightower Beach Park (815 S. A1A): Accessible dune crossing, restrooms, nature walk with picnic pavilion and benches to take in the views. Satellite Beach happens to have a more tropical environment than neighboring communities, so the walk through the dune offers a rich variety of coastal plant life. A slightly wider beach than Grant and Berkeley, but not a massive beach by any means.
Satellite Beach offers a few casual dining choices, including Goombay’s, a seafood restaurant, Bizzarro’s, a New York-style pizza restaurant that is a Space Coast institution, and a Publix if you’d like to put together a picnic from the deli. There’s also some fast food like Dunkin’ Donuts along A1A.
Satellite Beach typically does not offer full-time lifeguard stands, so swimming is at your own risk.
To get to Satellite Beach from Orlando: Take SR 528 east to I-95 and head south to Pineda Causeway (exit 188). Take Pineda Causeway east about 10 miles to A1A, turn right. You’ll see the beach access begin on your left-hand side.
Patrick Air Force Base’s All-Natural Beaches: The beaches of Patrick Air Force Base are local favorites along the Space Coast. This broad stretch of coastline is hotel and condo-free, thanks to the air force base, and is extremely popular with surfers. There are five beach parking areas along A1A, and parking spots can fill up in summer and on good surfing days. The first beach, Pineda Beach, is directly north of Satellite Beach and parking fills up rapidly, even with more plentiful parking just to the south.
Hangars Beach, Blockhouse Beach, and Tables Beach, from south to north, have the largest parking areas.
Hangars Beach: Observation deck, wheelchair-accessible dune crossover, outdoor shower. RV parking spaces. Hangars Beach’s namesake, the airstrip and airplane hangers of the air force base, are right across A1A from the parking lot. If you love aircraft, this is an awesome beach. On our last visit, some sort of military drill was going on that involved very large cargo planes doing touch-and-go landings. The planes approach from just north of Hangars Beach, giving bathers quite a view.
Blockhouse Beach: Wheelchair-accessible dune crossover, outdoor shower. At the north end you’ll find The Beach House, a restaurant, bar, and beach rental location open to the public.
Tables Beach: Wheelchair-accessible dune crossover, outdoor shower. A massive parking lot means you should have good luck finding a spot, plus a large picnic pavilion if you’ve packed a lunch.
Just north of the air force base, you’ll find some local casual eateries with loyal followings, including Taco City and The Cape Codder, plus upscale dining at The Fat Snook.
Patrick Air Force Base typically does not offer lifeguard stands, so swimming is at your own risk.
To get to Patrick Air Force Base from Orlando, follow the directions to Pineda Causeway and A1A, then turn left to go north. The beaches will begin on your right-hand side immediately.
Cocoa Beach Convenience: Just north of Patrick, the condos and hotels take over. You’re entering Cocoa Beach, and free beach parking is hard to find here. There are public access signs and dune crossings, but not a lot of parking away from downtown or the central area around SR 520. Any beach parking you do find will be metered, at $1.50 an hour in most spots.
If you’re going to stay all day and want to do some shopping and dining in Cocoa Beach’s small, but interesting, downtown, do the math and see how much the metered lots will cost you. There are some guys in lawn chairs taking $10 for all-day parking in vacant lots, although we suspect that goes up in high season.
Closer to SR 520 and the big attractions like Ron Jon’s Surf Shop, you’ll find a mix of free, metered, and flat-rate beach parking.
Recommended Public Access:
Osceola Lane: Accessible dune crossing, shower. A good example of Cocoa Beach public access, this has a small metered parking area and a basic dune crossing. The beach is broad, with nice sand, and you might run into a surfing school in session. It’s close to 520, to cut down on long drives up and down A1A, but inexpensive, making this a good couple-hour beach, if not an all-day beach. You’ll find similar offerings as you continue up Ocean Beach Boulevard (Ridgewood Avenue once you cross into Cape Canaveral).
Recommended City Parks:
Lori Wilson Park (1500 N. Atlantic Ave.): Accessible dune crossing, nature trail, beach rentals, restrooms, picnic facilities, playground, food vendors (when available), full-time lifeguards. We love Lori Wilson and recommend it for a convenient, pretty beach. Parking can fill up, so note that there is a separate, south entrance with a second parking lot. We think Lori Wilson’s greatest perk, besides free parking, is the full-time (not seasonal!) staffed lifeguard stands.
Alan Shepard Park (SR 520 at Ocean Beach Boulevard): Accessible dune crossing, beach rentals, restrooms, picnic facilities, food vendors (when available), full-time lifeguards. Located at the end of 520 and behind Ron Jon’s Surf Shop, you’ll find $10 for all day parking. This offers access not just to the beach and facilities, but also the shopping district around it, including Ron Jon’s, Starbucks, Cocoa Beach Surf Company, and numerous boutiques and restaurants. You’re also within striking distance of the Cocoa Beach Pier, if you’d like to take a walk down the beach.
To get to Cocoa Beach from Orlando, take SR 528 to I-95 southbound, then take SR 520 east to Cocoa Beach. Or follow 528 to Port Canaveral, then take A1A south.
Cape Canaveral: Well, it’s Close and it’s Free. Cape Canaveral sits between Port Canaveral and Cocoa Beach. The city offers a lot of public access — some of it with free parking, some of it without. To find the beach, which retreats from A1A midway from Cocoa Beach, you can drive up Ridgewood Avenue, pausing at each cross-street to peek down and see if there is any parking at the end of the road.
Cape Canaveral’s beaches are wide thanks to a beach rehabilitation project undertaken some years ago. They are also grayish in color and tend to have tiny crushed shells mixed into the sand. That’s thanks to the deep-sea ocean floor that was dredged up and pumped onshore to create beach.
If you have a very limited amount of time to enjoy some beach, by all means visit Cape Canaveral. But if you can spend the time to drive south and dig your toes into some real beach sand, you should.
Cape Canaveral, like Cocoa Beach, is very tourist-oriented so there’s plenty of dining, from chains to local eateries like Preacher Bar, Florida Beer Company, and the variety of seafood and waterfront dining at The Cove in Port Canaveral.
Recommended Public Access:
Johnson Avenue and Ridgewood Ave.: Accessible dune crossover, shower, about six parking spaces. Although not particularly different from any other public access beach spots in Cape Canaveral, Johnson is one that does offer parking (not all of them do) and is a good example of the broad beach.
Recommended City Park:
Cherie Down Park (8330 Ridgewood Avenue): Accessible dune crossover, restrooms, picnic pavilion, showers. A little hidden, Cherie Down Park is at the north end of Cape Canaveral, where Washington Ave. meets Ridgewood Ave. It’s the only spot in Cape Canaveral with a seasonal lifeguard stand.
To get to Cape Canaveral from Orlando, take SR 528 to Port Canaveral, and exit onto A1A south.
When visiting any beach, keep in mind that just like at the theme parks, arriving early is key, especially in the summertime and at Spring Break! Cocoa Beach is also host to several large surfing events during the year, so keep on top of their events calendar as well.
Of course I don’t have to remind you to wear sunblock, but since I got a sunburn in the making of this article, wear sunblock! And don’t forget — never, ever walk on the fragile sand dunes. You could be disturbing endangered species of all kinds, including sea turtle nests, to say nothing of breaking down the coastline’s first defense against storm surges.