Daytona Beach, for non-Floridians or even some Floridians who have spent little time there, conjures mainly images of NASCAR races, motorcycles at Bike Week—the yearly festival that brings in riders from all across the nation—and beaches favored by spring-breakers. The truth is, and I say this as someone who lives in Florida and spends a lot of time in Daytona, the NASCAR races and motorcycle events, while bringing in a lot of tourist dollars and national attention for Daytona, only happen a few times per year and as for spring-breakers, these kids have been heading to Florida’s panhandle beaches and Mexico since the 1990’s, in great part because their rowdy ways wore out their welcome in Daytona just as their parents’ own partying in Fort Lauderdale decades prior made that city discourage college spring-breakers, leaving Daytona an appealing option for a time.
So what is the real Daytona, the everyday experience? It’s one that is actually even more appealing and more exciting in many ways than the popular vision of Daytona Beach and also one that has more going on year-round than many people imagine. For one, Daytona Beach and its neighboring community to the south, New Smyrna Beach, have become hot-spots for East Coast surfing. While not bringing in surfers in the numbers that some beaches in southern California or Hawaii can boast, you’ll almost always find plenty of surfers out at Ponce Inlet in New Smyrna Beach, and Daytona itself can offer pretty good surfing, too. Numerous surf shops have sprung up, and surfing is a key aspect of local culture— certainly as much as auto racing.
It’s important to note also that while the entire city of Daytona Beach is known as Daytona Beach and there is no separate city of Daytona (as some often mistakenly believe), the beach-side part of the city across the Halifax River from the mainland portion has something of a different culture than the mainland. It is on the mainland side where the Daytona International Speedway—home of the famed NASCAR races—is found, as well as the airport, mall, and other trappings of city life. This part of Daytona has grown in the model of many other central Florida communities and could easily be inland (like Orlando) since it doesn’t broadcast its coastal location very openly. Money has been put into parks and renovations to make the riverside shopping district of downtown once again an attractive site for businesses, and those efforts have been very successful: on a Friday or Saturday night, this part of Daytona is busy with restaurants and nightlife, taking advantage of the combination of good climate and historic charm it offers.
Just as surfing is big in Daytona, so is skateboarding. The city made the very wise decision to put a first-class skatepark into its Bethune Point Park, which is also on the mainland side of the city. This skatepark offers skaters a variety of options including a swimming-pool-like bowl to skate and best of all, has lighting which allows it to stay open at night—in the summer, it’s open as late as ten o’clock. There are other, non-public, skateparks in the Daytona and New Smyrna area, also. Some communities might not appreciate skateboarding as a sport, but it’s a sport growing in its number of athletes and popularity and deserves support, just as soccer, baseball, and other youth sports deserve such civic support. The ethos in Daytona with its surfing and motorsports legacy is understandably one that is more accepting of a sport like skateboarding: sports are dynamic, not every kid will want to play football, and all valid sports can offer opportunities for enjoyment and more—that seems to be the Daytona way. And it’s paid off: if you look at the motorsports it’s known for, plus surfing, and now skateboarding’s rise in popularity, clearly sports have become central to Daytona’s image.
This region has produced some serious local talent, too. For example, there are pro surfer brothers Evan and Eric Geiselman and pro motorcross star Adam Cianciarulo. Both Geiselmans are under thirty, while Cianciarulo just turned eighteen: This region is also very youth-centric, with several colleges and youth-oriented sports and the beach. This is a game-changer in the sense that much of Florida is known as a retirement haven and the demographics run heavily into people over fifty, not under thirty. And then there is that world-famous beach: once you cross one of several bridges over the Halifax River—which itself is part of the Intercoastal Waterway and not truly an inland river at all—you’re on the beach-side of Daytona Beach with its many hotels, condos, and miles of beautiful beaches. This area is something of a contradiction: the massive Hilton hotel is everything clean and gleaming you’d expect in an ocean-front resort property, but a few blocks away you’ll find pizza joints that appear to have seen better days and homes that could use a few repairs. The area is safe though, parking is easy between ample street parking and a large parking garage, and, all in all, it’s about everything you’d want in a Floridian beach experience. Near the Hilton stands the Ocean Walk Shoppes, a tourist-oriented shopping and dining complex which also hosts a movie theatre. This complex is fairly new but incorporates a beach-side bandshell and promenade that have been around quite some time.
Following that promenade a ways south (calling it a boardwalk would be incorrect as it’s mostly concrete and stone, but the idea is very much the same) you encounter an area older than the posh and pristine Ocean Walk Shoppes—an old-fashioned carnival midway complete with a large games arcade, various rides, and of course a Ferris Wheel. This is open year-round and forms a great epicenter to the night-time beach experience here for kids and adults alike. If you come down here on a Friday or Saturday nights, it will be busy—just as much as downtown. In the summer, the energy is exceptional, with out-of-town teens and college kids on vacation from inland states enjoying a (probably) once-yearly trip to the beach. A few blocks over to the west, there are bars, surf shops open late, and plenty of places to grab a slice of pizza or burger. There is also a waterpark and much more nearby, all in about a five-block area. The ideal of the American summer teenage beach experience just could not be made more real or vital than one of surfing during the day and exploring this literal carnival come nightfall.
Back across the Halifax River you can find authentic tacos in the northern Mexican style if you’d rather something other than pizza or burgers: Tia Cori’s restaurant stays open to the wee hour of 3:00 AM on Fridays and Saturdays, and on Fridays has a live mariachi band performing—one of the very best I’ve ever heard, actually. The food is inexpensive, authentic, and tasty, and the atmosphere fun and vibrant. Plenty of other restaurants and bars dot this area just as ample options abound on the beach-side, from fast-food chains to locally-owned diners to romantic restaurants. Daytona Beach actually sits in the middle of a group of beach-front communities that run up to Ormond Beach to the north and down to Port Orange to the south. New Smyrna Beach, however, is separated via the Ponce Inlet, so you have to return inland to visit it, but the sense of joined community in these cities is clear. Their fate depends on each other, on tourism, and on the ocean. I can think of very few places in Florida that represent so well in an honest and immediate way what Florida is all about in the popular imagination.