Once known as the home of NASA employees and 'I Dream of Jeannie,' the Space Coast beach town beckons surfers and families.
- A good vacation destination for Orlando daytrippers and families on a budget.
- Crashing waves and heavy surf are heaven for board sports.
- Somehow feels more authentically Floridian than some other beach towns.
- That crashing surf can intimidate the meek or small of stature.
- Parking enforcement takes no prisoners.
- A historically high crime rate, although that has been waning as of late.
While it may have been the setting of the 1960s sitcom I Dream of Jeannie, Cocoa Beach is better known these days as the destination for surfers and Orlando visitors wishing for a day at the beach.
The coastal town of about 13,000 is an anchor community among Brevard County’s barrier islands. The home of 11-time world champ surfer Kelly Slater has a pervasive surfing culture, and manages to balance its oceanfront hotels and resorts with a good amount of natural beauty, especially on the Indian River side of the island.
Like so much of the rest of the state, European explorers pushed the Native Americans off the land. But a non-native settlement didn’t exist here until freed slaves arrived after the Civil War. A group of businessmen from the mainland town of Cocoa bought the land in 1888, but didn’t develop it.
There was no permanent town until well into the 20th century, when Georgia-born lawyer Gus Edwards bought about 600 acres in 1923, a year after a bridge was built between Cocoa and what was then known as Oceanus. Cocoa Beach was established in 1925.
During World War II, the town’s growth was tied to the 1942 opening of Naval Air Station Banana River, now Patrick Air Force Base. A German U-boat torpedoed two ships off Cocoa Beach that same year.
The city suffered from fiscal issues and local government disputes through the years, but the 1955 establishment of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station fueled a population boom. Cocoa Beach incorporated as a city in 1957, in the midst of a tenfold population increase leading up to 1960. Then NASA moved to town — well, 15 miles north of town, to the Kennedy Space Center.
The economy ebbed and flowed with the space race, suffering as the Apollo program ended but bouncing back with the advent of the space shuttle. I Dream of Jeannie, the 1960s TV comedy about an astronaut and his live-in genie played by Barbara Eden, featured Cocoa Beach as its setting, but the show was never filmed here. (That hasn’t curbed references to show across the town, however.)
These days there’s a certain charm to the city that encompasses the great things about Florida beach towns: A mix of swank hotels and budget lodging, a few high-end restaurants and a raft of greasy spoons, eco-focused outdoorsy adventure options, a memorable beach environment and yes, miniature golf. It has a certain je ne sais quoi that truly makes it stand out among other coastal ’burgs.
It’s got all that, plus a two-story, 12,000-square-foot surf shop that’s open 24 hours a day.
The main gateway for air travel is Orlando Melbourne International Airport (MLB), a small commercial airport in the Melbourne area. It has some regional flights, plus American and Delta routes.
The typical ground transportation options exist here, although it’s going to take you some time to head all the way up to Cocoa Beach. In addition to courtesy hotel shuttles, cabs and the bus, rideshare companies Uber and Lyft are available. The Cocoa Beach Shuttle is among the shuttle services.
Closer to Cocoa Beach is Merritt Island Airport (COI), a general aviation airport for people who like to fly for fun, and also Space Coast Regional Airport (TIX), which is slightly larger and closer to Kennedy Space Center.
By car, there are four highways leading to the barrier islands in Brevard County, all of them connecting with the north-south arteries U.S. Highway 1 and Interstate 95.
A1A, the Martin Anderson Beachline Expressway, heads into Cape Canaveral from the north end of the island, and is the most used thoroughfare for cruise ship passengers looking to hit the seas. A1A turns into Atlantic Avenue as it heads south through Cocoa Beach.
State Road 520, the West Cocoa Beach (or West Merritt Island) Causeway, heads east directly from Cocoa Village on the mainland. This is the most direct route between Cocoa, Merritt Island and Cocoa Beach, and by no mistake leads right to Ron Jon Surf Shop, among other businesses.
Further south, beyond Patrick Air Force Base, S.R. 404 (the Pineda Causeway) and S.R. 518 (the Eau Gallie Causeway) stretch from Melbourne to the beaches. S.R. 404 leads to Indian Harbour Beach and 518 ends at Indialantic. If you end up on A1A from here, you’re in for a decent haul north to Cocoa Beach.
Space Coast Area Transit, which tries hard to avoid going by the unfortunate acronym SCAT, is the public transportation option in these parts. Routes mostly serve Cocoa and Melbourne on the mainland, but Routes 9 (the Cocoa Beach Trolley) and 26 connect Cocoa Beach to Cape Canaveral and the mainland towns.
Cocoa Beach features a bike share program called Zagster, which has several stations in town and in Cape Canaveral.
The city of Cocoa Beach is well aware that its borders cannot truly contain the number of visitors who often flock to town for beach days and surfing events. Its website provides painstaking detail on potentially available parking spaces in an interactive map, which you can find here.
The first thing to know is that the Cocoa Beach Pier has a pay lot and metered spaces on the street. While the meters are priced reasonably, the parking lot costs and eye-popping $15 as of this writing. If you’re lucky enough to get a spot here on the busiest days, you should plan to just make a day of it.
The same goes for Alan Shepard Park, near Ron Jon, and Sidney Fischer Park, both of which are run by the city. The fee again is $15, so be ready with that third mortgage if you’re coming to these spots.
Speaking of Ron Jon, the surf shop has its own lot and is surrounded by metered parking. The Sheraton next door also has a garage.
The city also provides metered parking at the east ends of several streets. There won’t be many spaces (many are limited to less than 10 spots) and parking enforcement does not mess around. White pickups cruise the streets looking for potential citations like sharks circling a school of fish.
Parking stations use a mobile app to help pay for time. Most metered spaces can be maxed out for the day by paying $10.
Of course, there are some free spaces. There are a few dozen spaces around the downtown area, but they are limited to 90 minutes to encourage turnover. Keep in mind that spaces around City Hall are for city business.
The county runs Lori Wilson Park in the heart of the city, and that park features free parking along with its (off-beach) dog park, showers, bathrooms, a boardwalk and more amenities.
These limitations are no big deal in the off-season, but on competition days, festivals, rocket launches or just plain busy weekends, it can be downright impossible to locate an open space. Show up extra early, or find a room at a hotel with guaranteed parking in those instances.
There are annual parking permits available, and surprise! You can even get one if you’re not a resident. The permits allow you to park in meter spaces, but not Fischer or Shepard parks. They also don’t extend that 90-minute limit downtown.
At first blush, it may feel as if the surfers own this town — and you’d be right! Seriously, Kelly Slater has a street named after him and a statue downtown.
But that’s not a bad thing. One trip to the wrack line will show that the waves here are indeed — what’s the word? — gnarly much of the time. Most every day you’ll see surfers in wetsuits paddling out past the breakers, waiting for a good wave. This is an all-day thing, but the true diehards are there first thing in the morning.
Because of this clientele, there’s a friendly, laid-back vibe to the place, which has adopted a California-esque bent for fish tacos and surf lingo. Even with that Left Coast attitude, however, there’s something quintessentially Floridian about Cocoa Beach that is hard to pin down.
There’s the usual mix of lived-in motels and restaurants serving shrimp baskets, but more than anything, the beach caters to a really wide range of people. You’ve got crowds in from Orlando, retirees, families with kids, surfers, shellers and skimboarders. More than a lot of other beaches, you really get the feeling you can plop down on the beach and spend the day interacting with your neighbors under the canopy next to you.
Notable among the usual beach rules (no alcohol, camping, glass or fireworks, etc.) is the allowance for surfcasting, i.e. fishing from the beach. Florida residents are allowed to surfcast without a fishing license, as long as there are no people in the way to catch a stray hook.
No bonfires are allowed without a permit, which are subject to pretty strict conditions. Lifeguards are present in some areas, but not all, so be sure and check for the stand if you want someone looking out for you.
You should note, too, that Cocoa Beach for years has had a crime rate that is statistically higher than average for a town its size. Some of that no doubt is due to the huge influx of out-of-towners crowding the street over the spring and summer months.
The good news is that the city really is making crime a priority, and it has been seeing results. Recently, the crime rate has dipped significantly, with violent crimes seeing drops by a third or more. I’ll note the only time the Beachcomber fam felt nervous in the least during our visit is when a redneck in a lifted pickup took rather vocal umbrage at having to obey traffic laws and stop rolling coal while I parallel parked downtown.
Speaking of protecting things, sea turtles often nest in the area, so Cocoa Beach is very on the ball about marking turtle nests on the beach. Remember these animals are protected, and messing with a nest is a serious offense. The city asks people to observe lighting restrictions from March through October.
And then there’s the question of dogs …
DOGS ON COCOA BEACH
Lori Wilson Park has its own, enclosed dog park, but that’s behind the dunes where there is no beach.
In 2018, Cocoa Beach passed a temporary ordinance allowing dogs on the beach for 12 blocks between South Fourth Street and South 16th Street. Starting that summer, dogs were allowed on the beach from 6 a.m. until 10 a.m. and from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m.
The goal was to see how the beach fared following so many canine visits. Chief among the concerns were the rule that owners had to pick up any landmines their pooches may have planted. Violations carried a potential fine of $250.
As of this writing, the ordinance seems to be working fine. The dog owners I saw were courteous and took care of their pets’ business. The kids, especially, seemed to enjoy having four-legged friends nearby. The city was due to revisit the ordinance to weigh whether it would continue.
Dogs are supposed to be on a 6-foot leash at all times, although this was seldom the case. Beach patrol ATVs did stop people from time to time to make sure people were complying — including stopping one couple who had brought their cat.
The patrol officer told them they had to take the kitty home.
ABOUT COCOA BEACH PIER
The Cocoa Beach Pier — officially the Westgate Cocoa Beach Pier — can be a one-stop plan for beachgoers, especially people only coming in for the day. The 800-foot pier is pretty nifty on its own, serving as a beach anchor on the north end of town.
The pier features five bars and restaurants, gear rentals, showers, a gift shop, fishing equipment and volleyball courts. There are lifeguards in this area, and bands and singers perform at regular intervals.
It’s also right near a prime surfing area, and manages to be close enough to Shepard Park to promote a party atmosphere, but far enough away to feel like its own destination. Most of the buildings along this stretch of the beach are condos, so be aware of treading onto private property.
It’s a little difficult to find, as the stoplight with a sign that directs people to the pier coming in from the north at Atlantic and Hendry avenues actually turns right into the Cocoa Beach Ale House parking lot.
Make your way to the coast and the big barrier is parking: The lot directly in front of the pier, between Meade and Pulsipher avenues, costs a whopping $15 to use.
That’s for the entire day, but still, that’s not a meager amount. The pier is popular, however, and on busy days you may not be able to find a parking space within several blocks.
WHERE TO STAY
Say you’ve got a whole family to put up for a week. Maybe a softball team full of 14-year-olds. Or you just had a baby and want a beach vacation with all the amenities that won’t break the bank. This is your resort. It’s got a pool, a splash park, tennis courts, easy beach access, an arcade, a fitness room, gear rentals and even a gift shop to get postcards and swimsuits, right off A1A in the middle of town. Try the s’mores at the fire pits outside Mambo’s.
If your pockets are a little deeper, head down the street to this mainstay lodging. There’s a fitness room, a business center, a decent bar and a strip of oceanfront that offers upscale-feeling lounge chairs and umbrellas.
A more modern option is this hotel, which features the Cocoa Beach Surf Company store on the first floor (Ron Jon is right next door) and a multi-level parking garage. There’s a pool, fitness center, a place to rent kayaks, surfboards, paddleboards and lessons. The restaurant has a waterfall and the terrace has a hot tub.
If you need a space of your own, with more than one room and a kitchen and maybe room for a four-legged companion, these small units fit the bill nicely. They can often take people on short notice, or for longer stays, as long as you book far enough in advance.
With such a pronounced surfing culture, many of the featured events in Cocoa Beach revolve around the favored sport. Some of the meetups attracts hundreds of surfers and thousands of spectators.
This event at Sebastian Inlet, south of Cocoa Beach, marks the start of the pro surfing season. Big-name professional surfers head to the Space Coast to compete for big bucks.
Speakers and workshops on birding and wildlife knowledge flock to Titusville in January to celebrate the proliferation of snowbirds, among other creatures. No, the real kind of snowbirds.
The mega surf shop sponsors this event in March, to coincide with spring break crowds of crazed young people looking to hit the waves and have a good time. This one is much more lifestyle-focused than competition-based, with paddlesports, volleyball and plenty of beach time thrown in.
The Florida Surf Museum holds this annual competition in June. This one has a family-friendly bent, and benefits the museum and local high school programs.
It’s not all regular old surfing, of course -- there are windsurfing events, too. This one on Merritt Island is focused on serving 8- to 17-year-old beginner racers and adventurers.
Surfing brothers Richard and Phil Salick started this annual Labor Day tradition four decades ago to raise money for the National Kidney Foundation, after Rich was diagnosed with a rare kidney condition that ended his pro surfing career. The competition is billed as “the largest charitable surfing festival in the world.”
For years, a gaggle of surfers have dressed as St. Nick and headed to Minuteman Causeway for this annual Christmas Eve tradition. People pack the shore to watch, and annual vendor sales fund groups like Grind for Life, a cancer charity; the nonprofit Florida Surf Museum; and St. Jude Children’s Hospital
THINGS TO DO
You’ll see plenty of references to the center -- often referred to as KSC -- which is about a half-hour north of Cocoa Beach. The center holds plenty of sway over the region and the town in particular, since it’s been such an integral part of the local economy. Space-suited moon men on surfboards are a common theme. It will thrill would-be astronauts with actual rockets (including the enormous Saturn V), a bus tour of launch facilities and the actual Atlantis space shuttle. Dozens of films and interactive exhibits are strewn across the grounds, so keep an eye on the kids, who may get lost in the throngs or wander off to look at something that catches their eye. There’s no way to see everything in one day, and tickets are pricey — $40 for kids 3-11 and $50 for adults. Check the launch schedule for viewing opportunities, or to avoid the crowds.
Fossils of all shapes, sizes and ages are on display here, both as an educational and an economic attraction. There’s a real museum, of course, which focuses not just on prehistoric animals, but contemporary ones and ancient human cultures, too.
There aren’t actually a thousand islands, but there are 338 acres of largely natural attractions in the Indian River Lagoon along Minuteman Causeway. This is a great place for kayaking, with frequent visits from the local marine mammal, the West Indian manatee. Access is by boat only, but there are hiking trails once you get there.
This mainland zoo is a bit of a drive, but is worth a trip for the Australasia and Africa animal exhibits. There are opportunities to go behind the scenes to see how animals are cared for, or take a kayak trip to see the zoo from a different perspective.
If you don’t mind being 45 feet in the air right next to Atlantic Avenue, give one of the seven ropes courses here a try. There are three different levels of difficulty for courses, which kids as young as 5 can tackle.
This federal refuge is located north of Kennedy Space Center, across from Titusville, but is a great place for a day trip. Among all the attractions is a manatee observation deck.
WATERSPORTS AND FITNESS
Much of the watersports focus here is on surfing, and there is no shortage of surf schools, surf camps and surf lessons you can attend around here. Without picking any favorites, the choices include, of course, Ron Jon Surf School and Cocoa Beach Surf Company’s surf school. There’s also Neilson Surf School, School of Surf, Flohana surfing lessons, the Yoga Surf School and Nex Generation Surf School, plus any number of others.
The key is remembering that you’re not going to just walk in off the street and turn into Kelly Slater in a day. The shops will help you outfit yourself and provide the level of instruction you pay for. If learning to surf is really your thing, look hard at the surf camps, which can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.
This company specializes in kayak eco-tours through Indian River Lagoon and Thousand Islands to look at wildlife and natural oddities. Tours take about 2½ hours, and can be booked for day or night, when there’s a special focus on bioluminescent creatures like jellyfish.
These manatee and dolphin tours add standup paddleboarding to the mix, in addition to kayaks. You also can rent paddlecraft without a tour here.
Even more tours, but also the option to rent glass-bottom kayaks, electric boats and pontoon boats. This business is located directly on the Banana River.
BOAT RAMPS AND MARINAS
The city provides a handy list of parks with boat ramps, including Constitution Bicentennial Park and the appropriately named Ramp Road Park. Island Time Marina is in town, right off the Cocoa Beach Causeway, but Cape Marina is in Port Canaveral to the north. Banana River Marina on Merritt Island faces Cocoa Beach across the Banana River, while Harbortown Marina is a large stop on a barge canal north of A1A. Cocoa Village Marina is in the heart of the action on the mainland.
Lessons are available for not just kiteboarding, but SUP and surfing, too. The instructors meet at a variety of locations around the area, and offer different levels of instruction depending on your skill level.
There are several bike rental places in town, as evidenced by shops with rows upon rows of beach cruisers. This shop has the added benefit of being in downtown Cocoa Beach, and also sells new and used bikes.
If you don’t feel like paddling through your own eco-tour, you can take these trips for large groups. They also charter fishing expeditions, schedule scenic cruises and can set up dinner cruises and weddings.
Early morning and evening classes are available at this gym, which welcomes newcomers and allows your kids to hang out while you drag tractor tires across the room.
PLACES TO EAT AND DRINK
This is the Cocoa Beach outpost of a small, regional chain of family fare, Space Coast-style. There’s a bar, you can order fish and chips, there are surfboards nailed to the walls (the original, which is Indialantic, was started by surfers). The menu features some fairly healthy choices -- the mahi sandwich is a good substitute for a burger, and the Banzai shrimp is unexpectedly spicy — but there’s a list of hot dogs worth trying, too.
A solid choice that includes chorizo tacos and several varieties of carnitas. Combo plates are a real deal if you order right, and it passes my true measure of a quality Mexican restaurant: The chip and salsa basket is free.
A real dive — in a good way — that features live entertainment, multiple theme nights each week, just about every sporting event broadcast on television, and tacos. Lots of tacos. Fish tacos, especially. And a 5-pound burrito challenge. If you finish that beast, they’ll put your photo on the wall, because you deserve that kind of infamy.
Speaking of burritos (sensing a theme here?), this counter-service taco joint also has a burrito challenge. The menu features a 5-pound, 2-foot-long burrito called the Megalodon. Actually, they advertise it as being in excess of 5 pounds, so they can call it the biggest burrito in Cocoa Beach.
A bar most notable for being at the very end of the 800-foot Cocoa Beach Pier, the recently renovated Rikki Tikki Tavern has seating for 100 people and now features food service. Proof that the bar fosters creativity: The signature drink is known as the Pieradise.
Acai bowls, smoothies and vegan-friendly options. If you’re tired of looking at surfboards, take in this establishment’s selection of skate decks. Also: A healthy selection of tea, coffee and beer.
A TV-filled sports bar in Cocoa Village on the mainland, with a covered patio lit by the soft glow of cable sports at all times. The most impressive feat here is a list of all-the-time drink specials that include $3 domestic pitchers and low-priced shooters. There used to be an original location on Cocoa Beach, but it closed. This outpost across the causeway remains
A Southern-inspired menu and a hipster vibe rule the day at this Cocoa Village haunt. Expect lots of greens, grits and fried goodies, but with a modern twist (including live entertainment on the regular). There is a decent beer and wine list, plus seven different kinds of mac and cheese, including lobster, Mediterranean and bacon jalapeno.
A traditional, German-style beer garden in the heart of Cocoa Village. This features the usual German spaetzle and schnitzel, and steins as big as your head filled to overflowing with suds. Please remember the tables are communal, and don’t get bent out of shape when other parties sit down next to you.
If there’s one thing Cocoa Beach has a lot of, it’s surf shops. But this is THE surf shop. Some call it a tourist trap, but it’s really a 12,000-square-foot monument to surf culture, founded by Ron DiMenna way back in 1959. This is not the original store -- that’s in New Jersey -- but the empire stretches from the Garden State to Alabama, and the corporate office is here in Cocoa Beach. The location also has a gear rental shop and a surf school. Don’t worry about the hours, because the souvenir Mecca is open 24/7, 365. Just get the t-shirt and the sticker for your car and be proud you made the pilgrimage.
Then there’s this surf shop, which has set up shop on the first floor of the Sheraton next door. Don’t go hating on them for being right across the street, because unlike Ron Jon, it was founded and is still owned by Cocoa Beachers. Plus, there’s a totally awesome shark tank in the store that is worth the visit on its own. It also has a surf school and beach rentals, plus a restaurant and a Starbucks.
The unique thing about this shop in downtown Cocoa Beach is the fact that owner Tom Neilson makes custom surfboards and stand-up paddleboards. That makes for quite the souvenir compared to those other shops off the highway. Tom keeps his prices reasonable, for both the boards and surfing lessons.
Downtown Cocoa Beach is comprised mostly of two things: Restaurants and art galleries. This spacious working gallery offers classes and artwork for sale. Pick up one or the other, or ideally both.
The broader Cocoa Beach-area microbrewery scene has a few choices, but this is the only game actually in town. Housed in a 1930s house downtown, the selections vary week to week, but the quality is high at this nano-level brewery.
A Cocoa Village draft house that features both its own brews and guest taps. The spacious tasting room also has ciders, wine and sodas, in case you went to a brewery and beer isn’t your thing.
Merritt Island had to get in on the brewing action. This brewery features a lot of fruit-based and dark brews, and often has live entertainment scheduled.
This Cape Canaveral option doesn’t even really qualify as a microbrewery, since this is a bottling plant for brands like Carib, Key West, Swamp Ape, Sunshine State and more. But there is a tap room and you can drink all those beers while you play Jenga, so really, who needs labels?