Think a lush theme-park zoo is as green as Orlando gets? Not a chance. Eco-adventures abound just beyond the city’s borders.
This city’s numerous theme parks capture the imaginations of millions of visitors every year. But as exciting as these parks can be, there are other, equally satisfying destinations that lie quietly outside town. These places resonate differently—as an answer and an antidote to the sugar rush of amusement park rides.
Central Florida is a naturalist’s haven. Woods, lakes, trails and animal encounters are just waiting to be explored. Venture to the vast untouched lands beyond the headline attractions for activities you’ll rarely find in a guidebook.
It may take a while to get to Forever Florida’s parking lot, since a horseback rider or peacock may be blocking the road. But once inside you’re in a complex that’s a working ranch, an eco-park with guided tours and an adventure facility with ziplining.
Created by the Broussard family in memory of their naturalist son, Allen, Forever Florida aims to preserve Florida’s fragile eco-systems and educate the public about conservation.
Guided eco-safaris run through parts of the 4,700-acre property in covered coaches. These vehicles, commonly known in Florida as swamp buggies because of their oversized wheels, easily traverse the terrain. Your journey may reveal baby alligators or 11.5-footers, white-tailed deer or wild hogs, turtles or spiders the size of your palm. Each tour is different, but the banter is always educational. The guides are knowledgeable about the trees, the duckweed over the water and all the creatures that live among them.
And if you’re interested in the ziplining but don’t want to miss the nature tour? No worries—you can get a mini eco-tour en route to the zipline area.
CANOEING ON THE WEKIVA
Head north to Wekiwa Springs State Park for sublime canoeing and kayaking along the Wekiva River (both the park and the river, spelled differently, are pronounced wuh-KIVE-uh). That locals gather here en masse on weekends is testimony to its appeal as a respite from Orlando’s bustling scene.
If the term Old Florida is appropriate anywhere, this is the spot. One can picture Timucuans or Creeks lounging by the water beneath the oak trees in what is now a wonderland of 7,800 acres, or traversing the 15-mile water trail by canoe.
After paying the $6 state-park entrance fee, drive to the very last parking lot. Past the playground and the shaded picnic tables with barbecue grills is a short trail that leads straight to the river. There you can rent a boat and lose sight of civilization for a couple of hours.
INTO THE WILD
Disney generously donated land to the Nature Conservancy to create the Disney Wilderness Preserve and paid for the site’s restoration. Far off a side road south of its namesake theme park, this 11,500-acre site is essentially a wilderness trail through former ranchland that has been returned to its natural state. It has 2 hiking trails; one is a mile long, the other 2.5 miles. Both trails are wide, flat and well-marked.
Birds abound here. Experienced birders may spot red-cockaded woodpeckers, wood storks and sandhill cranes. On land, animals such as Sherman’s fox squirrels and gopher tortoises make their homes amid the swampy confines.
Be sure to spend a few minutes at the picnic tables overlooking Lake Russell, where cypress trees (and their “knees”) form an otherworldly landscape.
VISIT AN EGG FARM
As you close in on the chicken and duck farm known as Lake Meadow Naturals, on busy Highway 429, you may doubt there could be an eco-spot within even 10 miles. Yet mere minutes from the exit you’ll enter a serene complex containing a working farm, a country store, gardens and, on Fridays and Saturdays, a spot where visitors can pick their own eggs from chickens’ nests.
Children delight in the enclosed area where during hatching season they can pet the chicks. Visitors can stroll around the shaded grounds while the chickens and ducks meander through their pens and barn, clucking (or quacking) happily. All are heritage breeds—including hens that lay eggs with a greenish hue.
FLORIDA BY BOAT
“This is the real Florida, folks,” says the Premier Boat Tours captain as he guides a pontoon boat across Lake Dora, part of the Harris Chain of Lakes, on the way to the Dora Canal. After crossing the lake, he steers the vessel along the narrow waterway, which is shaded by cypress trees. One of them is estimated to be 2,250 years old—dead for more than 300 yet still standing.
The Dora Canal is protected by local, state and federal agencies. Consequently, the verdant foliage is the backdrop for fauna of all kinds. You may see a great blue heron, a tricolored heron and an anhinga lounging near a baby turtle shaded by Spanish moss. On this ride you’ll even glide past an alligator breeding ground.
A SLICE OF AFRICA
After visiting Africa 30 times to lead safaris and participate in international zoo conferences, Lex Salisbury created the Giraffe Ranch—a 47-acre swath of land adjoining an 875-acre wilderness area. Hundreds of live oak trees shade the zebras and giraffes, which guests are invited to feed from the coach that takes them around the savannah.
Animals live well here, each breed penned in an expansive area with species friendly to it. Over the course of a 60- to 90-minute exploration, you’ll probably encounter ostriches, Sicilian donkeys, blackbuck antelopes, llamas, axis deer, warthogs and pygmy hippos. For an extra fee you can feed two Indian rhinos, which gobble up whole apples and wedges of cabbage and pumpkin.
FINDING YOUR PATH
If time is limited or you’d be satisfied with a sliver of eco, plan an outing to the West Orange Trail, a growing 22-mile stretch adjacent to the neighboring county’s 9-mile South Lake Trail. Hop on at any point, such as the Oakland Nature Preserve or the Killarney Station, a remote outpost that has a bike and skate rental shop (bonus: bikes built for two). Then walk, jog, ride, glide or skateboard your way past pretty town centers, playgrounds, residential neighborhoods and undeveloped areas.
You’ll find locals along the path whenever the weather is nice, walking their dogs or heading to Winter Garden’s quaint historic district. About 55,000 people a month find their way to this scenic stretch of Florida along the West Orange Trail.
GET ON YOUR HIGH HORSE
Located within a 14,000-acre reserve, Rock Springs Run Trail Rides is an operator that takes guests 6 and older through hammocks, pine forests and open meadows to spot wild turkeys, deer and bald eagles.
The facility’s 21 horses are all on their second careers. Owner Debra Jamie Zito buys them once they’re done with their more demanding jobs and trains them to take riders of all levels around the property. One is an American Thoroughbred that worked as a polo horse in Argentina. Another is a great-grandson of Secretariat, the legendary Triple Crown winner.
You can even camp in the reserve, by booking a spot near the stables or reserving the Indian Mound or Buffalo Tram site, both reachable only by canoe or kayak.
Forever Florida: foreverflorida.com
Wekiwa Springs State Park: 1800 Wekiwa Circle, Apopka; canoewekiva.com; 1.407.884.4311
Disney Wilderness Preserve: 2700 Scrub Jay Trail, Kissimmee; 1.407.935.0002; nature.org
Lake Meadow Naturals: 10000 Mark Adam Rd., Ocoee; 1.407.399.7670; lakemeadownaturals.com
Premier Boat Tours: 1.352.434.8040; doracanaltour.com
Giraffe Ranch: 38650 Mickler Rd., Dade City; 1.813.482.3400; girafferanch.com
West Orange Trail: orangecountyfl.net
Rock Springs Run Trail Rides: 31700 County Rd. 433, Sorrento; 1.352.266.9326; rockspringsruntrailrides.com