Photograph by Chris Bickford, National Geographic Travel
During its heyday in the 1950s and '60s, central Florida's original theme park—Cypress Gardens—was known as the "water-ski capital of the world." Four-tier human pyramids on skis and gravity-defying aerial tricks were staples of every performance. Cypress Gardens closed in 2009 (the site is now Legoland Florida), but central Florida remains a water-ski hub—and one of the best places in the world to give the sport a valiant first try.
Swiss Waterski Resort, Clermont
Whether you're a first-time skier or a hot-dogging high-flier, Swiss Waterski Resort has the world-class coaches, sleek ski boats, and rental gear to match your initial skill level and quickly build from there. The multilake (four man-made and one natural) complex regularly hosts regional, national, and international water-ski and wakeboard competitions, and the coaching staff, led by owner and veteran pro skier Clint Stadlbaur, includes multiple water-ski champions. Single lessons are available, but it's the two full-immersion options—six consecutive days of lessons either twice or four times daily—that helps beginners zip (and maybe even slalom) from novices to full-fledged skiers in less than a week. And since world-class skiers and rookies train on the same lakes, when you're not laser-focused on staying upright, you'll be able to watch some daredevil moves off the jump ramp.
World Barefoot Center, Winter Haven
The mantra at World Barefoot Center goes something like this: no skis, no experience, no worries. "We teach people how to ski barefoot, without skis," says world champion barefoot skier Keith St. Onge, who, along with fellow world champion David Small, owns and operates the center. "The skiing is natural and so are the surroundings. We ski in our own nature park, where you'll see bald eagles, ospreys, blue herons, otters, and turtles. It's really an experience that must be checked off the bucket list." St. Onge, Small, and the center's other world-class barefoot instructors can also amaze with circus-like ski moves on their elbows, backs, and hands (for push-ups). For beginners, the skiing is strictly feet first and mainly fall-free thanks to an S-shaped bar called the Seahorse. The Seahorse is attached to a boom extending out from the side of the ski boat and acts as training wheels for rookie barefooters. Skiers don padded wet suits, straddle the Seahorse, hang on to a handle, and zoom across the water's surface.
Where to Stay: The Swiss Waterski Resort offers on-site accommodations, including two-, three-, and four-bedroom villas with private pools, plus individual rooms with full bathroom and a shared common area.
What to Watch Before You Go: For an inside look at the wild world of barefoot water-skiing (including being towed by seaplane), watch a video of the World Barefoot Center instructors at work and play.
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