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by Kate | August 24, 2011

The last time I was in Daytona Beach was for Spring Break in the early 1990s, so I didn’t really know what to expect when I arrived there for Successful Meetings University Florida.

I mean, I knew from reporting and from talking to planners over the years that my two-decade-old Spring Break memories weren’t reality anymore, but it wasn’t until I walked into my room at the Shores Resort & Spa, our four-star host property, that I really believed it. My room was spacious, airy, and well-appointed. I had a large balcony overlooking the beach and an incredibly comfortable bed (that more than one attendee remarked on!). I suddenly realized I really was in a luxury resort destination. The land of dimies and MTV beach parties started fading from memory, helped along by the incredible beach, ocean, and river views from the rooftop meeting rooms. And a Mai Tai (or two) around the pool that afternoon was the kicker.

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One of the things Daytona Beach is justly famous for is its huge, deep beach and beautiful green waters. Even shared with the occasional car (driving/tailgating on the beach is allowed) there is more than enough room for receptions or other events on the beach, and the swimmers are occasionally joined by dolphins—as I noted jealously from the roof, during one day’s hosted buyer appointments. 

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Still, I got my up-close dolphin moment during the eco-tour I took on a sun-shaded flat-bottom boat with Ponce Inlet Watersports, where our group spotted four dolphins, a manatee, and all sorts of herons and egrets while other attendees lolled around in the sun on a catamaran or flew high up on a parasail. Having wanted to see a manatee for years, choosing the eco-tour was not difficult, and I can now safely report that the ponderous sea cows are not, in fact, majestic, but satisfying to watch nonetheless.

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The other thing Daytona Beach is famous for is Daytona Speedway, home of the biggest, richest, and most famous of NASCAR races, the Daytona 500. About which I care absolutely nothing.

So I felt our lunch tour of the Speedway would be a curiosity at best, although professionally I can recognize that both NASCAR and Daytona Speedway are huge draws for an enormous and fanatic portion of the U.S. population—the Daytona 500 sells out its more 110,000 seats each year!

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Again, I found something unexpected. The museum space with winning cars on display, race videos, and driver shrines is well designed for groups, and they put out an excellent spread. Ours lunch was centered around an enormous pile of crab and lobster claws and crawdads. But the tour itself is what really surprised me. Even on a tram pulled by a pickup, driving around the 2.5-mile oval with its steeply banked turns really brings home what it means to be in a car that can do it in less than a minute by itself and under three in heavy traffic. 

And standing in one of the most popular spots for groups—the winners’ circle—I caught a bit of the excitement. I may not watch NASCAR, but it’s impossible to be an American and not to have seen clips of the cars roaring around tracks at 200-plus miles an hour, or know the names of the giants of the sport, like Richard Petty, Jeff Gordon, and the legendary Dale Earnhardt, who won at Daytona Speedway, and, in 2001, died there. 

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So yes, that is me, standing on the winners podium with a goofy grin, like any other NASCAR fan in a hallowed place. 

- Leo Jakobson