Although it’s part of the Tampa Bay Area, Dade City feels about as far away from city life and theme parks as you can get. Instead you’ll find a flourishing small town among rolling farmland, with a sociable downtown, and a massive tract of wilderness on its eastern flank.
I can’t help but bring up the sheer quantity of events around Dade City. As well as a festival to celebrate the Kumquat crop, there’s a huge renaissance fair, and one of the biggest and most terrifying Halloween haunts in the state.
In the area you can hike or paddle past soaring bald cypresses on the Withlacoochee River, call in at little museums, zipline through live oak woods, and even feed giraffes by hand.
1. Downtown Dade City
Radiating from the intersection of Meridian Avenue and US 98, Dade City has a downtown that warrants some exploration.
I found a lot of unique independent businesses here, around a handsome old courthouse with regal live oaks on its lawns. The Pasco County Courthouse dates to 1909 and has a Classical Revival design.
In January, this landmark sets the scene for Dade City’s signature Kumquat Festival, which I’ll cover below. On the surrounding streets you can browse shops for antiques, gifts, jewelry, books, pet accessories, and a lot more.
There’s a lot of local places to eat and drink, running the gamut from New American to classic southern cooking.
2. Pioneer Florida Museum and Village
You’ll be transported back to Old Florida at this open-air museum on a large plot of forested land in Dade City. It’s the perfect place to learn all there is to know about life when the state was first settled.
Opened in the 1960s, the Pioneer Florida Museum and Village has an ensemble of restored buildings on-site.
These include a one-room schoolhouse, the turn-of-the-century Trilby train depot, a Methodist church, and the two-story Overstreet House (1860). A number of displays showcase artifacts, including citrus farming tools and household objects.
Best of all for me were the costumed interpreters showing off time-honored skills, from churning butter to weaving, washing, cooking, blacksmithing and tilling.
3. Scream-A-Geddon Horror Park
Maybe not good news for scaredy cats like me, but one of Florida’s best haunts is in Dade City. Every fall, a group of local actors and horror imagineers get together to create a unique, interactive and truly frightening haunted house experience.
There are six haunted houses on-site, each with its own theme, and changing with each new season. For example, one of the main ones when I was here was Breach. Perfect for post-pandemic anxiety, this involved a horrifying outbreak at a biolab.
There’s also Monster Midway, with food and spooky midway games, as well as the clown-themed Bonzo’s Beer Garden.
4. Kumquat Festival
One crop grown in abundance around Dade City is the kumquat, a small and zingy citrus fruit. Delicious in desserts, roast meat dishes, and marmalades, kumquats are normally eaten whole, with their thin peel on, unlike other citrus.
Every January since 1998 there has been a one-day festival in Dade City to honor this fruit. As a kumquat novice, it was the perfect chance for me to see what it’s all about.
The Kumquat Festival is a large-scale event, bringing close to 50,000 people to the city, and featuring hundreds of vendors. You can sample kumquat salsa, candied kumquat, kumquat cookies, kumquat pie, kumquat marmalade, kumquat smoothies, and so much more.
5. TreeHoppers Aerial Adventure Park
The largest aerial park in Central Florida is in Dade City, offering the perfect intro to the world of high ropes and ziplines. Across 10 different courses, there are more than 100 elements to conquer at Treehoppers Aerial Adventure Park.
The location is half of the fun for me, in a beautiful stand of live oaks, with Spanish moss, and views of lakes. You’ll make your way from treetop to treetop, via cable, wood, and rope bridges.
Most exhilarating of all are the ziplines, which show up on all of the courses. There’s a Little Lemurs Course for children up to six years old, while everyone else can choose from Easy (yellow triangle) to Crazy (double black diamond).
6. Withlacoochee River Park
On the edge of the Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve to the east of Dade City there’s 400 acres of beautiful nature by the Withlacoochee River.
Above all this is a fine place to do some hiking, with more than 13 miles of trails. One option is a paved 1.7-mile trail that can also be used for activities like bicycling and rollerblading.
You’ve also got a nature trail meandering around the perimeter for 3 ½ miles, passing through deep forest. My favorite feature here is a wooden observation tower, with a near-complete view of the entire property from above the treetops.
There’s also tent, cabin, and RV camping, kayak access, fishing access, a playground, and several shelters.
7. Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve – West Tract
Something that thrills me about Dade City is the presence of a vast, 110,000-acre expanse of protected wilderness effortlessly close.
On the east side of the city you can escape to remote mixed hardwood forest, pine flatwoods, and prairie. Now, the name “Green Swamp” makes this place sound forbidding. But I discovered very easy hiking terrain, with only isolated cypress swamps in the West Tract.
At the headwaters of four major rivers, including the Withlacoochee, it’s all an immense playground for outdoor adventure.
In the West Tract alone you’ve got 60+ miles of multi-use trails, including a stretch of the Florida National Scenic Trail. There’s also fishing, horseback trails, primitive campgrounds, backcountry camping, boating, and paddling.
8. Joy-Lan Drive-In & Swap Shop
The last remaining drive-in theater in Pasco County is just off US 98 in the north of Dade City. The Joy-Lan Drive-In first opened in 1950, and has come through some tough times, including a closure in the mid-1990s.
When I compiled this list, there were just half a dozen such theaters still operating in the Sunshine State. It’s a nostalgic experience for older visitors, and a novelty for newcomers.
You can listen via an FM radio, while there are old-school speakers still available, as well as a snack bar where you can stock up on treats before the show.
Meanwhile, the flea market stirs to life as early as 5:00 am on Saturdays and Sundays, and is packed with scores of vendors.
9. Giraffe Ranch
Yes, it’s possible to interact with giraffes outside of Africa. In fact, you can do just that at the Giraffe Ranch.
This wildlife park allows you an opportunity to feed giraffes. But, unlike a zoo, the animals roam freely in open habitats.
There’s a number of ways to experience Giraffe Ranch. I did the most typical tour, which is a safari on a special customized truck in the company of an expert guide.
In the space of about 90 minutes I got super close to a host of animals, including giraffes of course, but also zebra, camels, lemurs, watusi cattle, and many more, all in large herds. You can also see Giraffe Ranch from your own vehicle, on a Segway, or even on camelback.
10. Dade City Heritage Museum and Cultural Center
Another beguiling historical structure in Dade City is the old railroad station, built in 1912 by the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. The railroad is still active as a CSX freight line, while the old building became a historical museum in 2018.
When I was here the main exhibition space was filled with interesting items from Dade City’s past. These included archive photographs, paintings, farm tools, posters, railroad memorabilia, and an impressive old switchboard.
Kids and railroad enthusiasts will be pleased with the J.R. Hibbard Memorial Train Room. This features three working HO model layouts, as a tribute to the role of the railroads in Dade City’s history.
11. Pasco County Fair
Taking place across the last full week in February, the Pasco County Fair is a rural celebration that has been thriving since 1948.
Every year there’s a slew of agric competitions, for anything from swine to rabbits, plants, poultry, goats, and beef. Indeed, FFAS and 4-H activities are still prominent at the fair, but there’s a lot going on besides.
I’m talking, all kinds of non-agri competitions, pageants, outlandish entertainment, a lot of bluegrass and gospel music, and midway rides and games.
What would a county fair be without indulgent food? Well, rest assured Pasco County Fair delivers in this regard, with everything from turkey legs to funnel cakes.
12. Steph’s Southern Soul Restaurant
There comes a time when nothing will satisfy me like some Southern cooking. If you’re the same, then Steph’s Southern Soul Restaurant on the north side of downtown Dade City will hit the spot.
This is a no-nonsense cafeteria–style buffet-style, and you’ve got many classics to choose from. Think chicken & dumplings, liver & onions, meat loaf, beef tips, and fried catfish.
All the most popular sides are here, from collard greens to mac & cheese . Scrumptious desserts include timeless favorites such as banana pudding, key lime pie and strawberry shortcake.
13. Dade City Raceway
For something out of the ordinary, the top motocross track in Florida is on Dade City’s southwestern outskirts. The Dade City Raceway has been on the scene for decades, and hosts some of the region’s biggest MX talent on race nights.These take place on Saturdays, about 20 weeks out of the year, and feature competitors from more than 30 different classes, starting extremely young with Pee Wee class.
This facility isn’t just somewhere to watch races, as there’s a weekly schedule of practice and lessons. On Saturdays, you can come for tuition by appointment, whether you want to learn the basics or are on the way to A Class.
14. Snowcat Ridge
Of all the things I expected to see in the Tampa Bay area, a snow park was not up there. But that’s exactly what you get at Snowcat Ridge, a tubing attraction that opens during the winter months.
Rising 60 feet and stretching for 400 feet, the tubing hill is the main draw, but there’s plenty more. For instance, the Arctic Igloo is an indoor snow play area, where you may get to build your first snowman.
Meanwhile, kids can visit with Santa in the buildup to Christmas, and there’s a neat skating ribbon, with an oval for beginner skaters.