Before Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy arrived, Florida’s cast of characters included manatees, alligators, reptiles, herons, egrets and the elusive Florida panther. They’re all still around, along with many other interesting species. The usual suspects are on hand: alligators, flamingos and snakes along with a few unexpected species like Lu the hippo. Yes, a hippo. Here are seven great places to introduce your family to Florida’s real characters—the wildlife.
About an hour east of Orlando, Blue Springs State Park, the largest spring on the St. Johns River, is a designated manatee refuge. An estimated 250 to 300 of these delightful creatures dwell in this area of the St. John’s River. From November through March when the river’s temperatures drop, many of the manatees seek out the consistently warmer waters in Blue Springs for their winter home. And during the summer, families flock to Blue Springs to swim, canoe, kayak, snorkel or take a riverboat tour. A stroll along the boardwalk will give you a view of the manatees as they feed and care for their calves.
At 2,200 square miles, the Florida Everglades is the largest sub-tropical wilderness in the continental U.S. and home to more than 1,000 species of fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals, including the endangered Florida panther. This is the only place in the world where you can find both alligators and crocodiles. Don't miss the Observation Tower at Shark Valley where you can see for miles around and observe the wildlife in the park's swampy habitat.
For the best chance of seeing alligators, rent bikes and take the Shark Valley Loop, a flat, easy trail. Or get up-close-and-personal with the swamp creatures by canoeing or kayaking along some of the 99 miles of marked waterways between Everglades City and Flamingo.
Situated a few miles from the Gulf of Mexico in Citrus County, Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park serves as a rehabilitation and refuge center for injured West Indian manatees. The park's Fishbowl, a floating underwater observatory, is the only place in the world where you can view manatees underwater in their natural habitat without getting wet. Watch through the large plate glass windows as these gentle giants glide by alongside thousands of fish.
Homosassa Springs' most famous resident is Lu the hippopotamus, who celebrated his 57th birthday this year. Born at the San Diego Zoo, Lu has been a resident at Homosassa Springs since 1964. When the park became part of the Florida State Park Service, a focus was placed on wildlife native to Florida. Even though Lu wasn’t native, he was allowed to stay and granted Florida citizenship. In his younger years, Lu was a film and television star with several credits to his name, including the 1960's TV series ”Daktari” and “Cowboy in Africa” and television shows such as the ”Art Linkletter Show.” Today he is enjoying retirement.
Like people, wild animals sometimes need a little help. This is especially true for sea turtles, who often get tangled up in fishing lines, ingest marine debris or are injured by boats. When turtles are distressed, The Turtle Hospital in Marathon, Fla. comes to the rescue. Housed in a former bar called Fanny’s, the Turtle Hospital is the only state-certified veterinary hospital in the world for sea turtles. There’s even a Turtle Ambulance parked outside.
Daily tours are available. This educational experience lasts approximately 90 minutes and provides a presentation on sea turtles and a behind-the-scenes look at the hospital facilities and rehabilitation area. At the end of each program guests are invited to feed the permanent resident sea turtles. If your timing works, you could witness a release of a rehabilitated turtle back into the wild.
Known for its soft white sandy beaches and an abundance of seashells, Sanibel Island on Florida’s southwest coast is arguably one of the most beautiful areas of the state. It’s also home to the J. N. Darling “Ding” Wildlife Preserve. This 6400 acre pristine mangrove estuary provides sanctuary to dolphins, manatees, countless reptiles, and more than 252 species of birds. Walk, bike or drive the four-mile wildlife drive or get out on the water in a kayak or canoe. There are also boardwalk trails through the mangrove forests with interpretive displays along the way. Be sure to stop by the visitor and education center which includes information on the park’s namesake, cartoonist Jay Norwood "Ding" Darling.
Not all wildlife can survive in the wild due to injuries—whether temporary or permanent. For over 50 years, the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) has accepted wildlife in need of care in its teaching hospital. Visitors get a behind-the-scenes look into CROW’s animal care through life camera feeds, interactive displays and daily presentations by staff and volunteers.
During our visit we were introduced to Buddy—an opossum who thinks he’s a dog or cat or anything other than an opossum. His denial makes it impossible for him to survive in the wild. We also met Meena the owl who is missing a wing. It’s estimated her mate spent months caring for her before she fell out of the nest and couldn’t return. CROW subsequently rescued her and her former mate has moved on.
Lions, giraffes, zebra and rhinos aren’t native to Florida, but you’ll find them in abundance at Lion Country Safari. Established in 1967, the AZA-accredited park is Florida’s only drive-through safari giving visitors the opportunity to observe more than 900 exotic or endangered animals. Look for the wildebeest on the Serengeti Plains, giraffe in Hwange National Park and a pride of lions in Gorongosa Reserve.
Lion Country Safari was originally developed by a group of South African and British entrepreneurs who wanted to make the experience of an African safari accessible to families. Rural western Palm Beach County’s year-round outdoor climate provided the ideal location. And, at the time of its opening it was the first “cageless zoo” in America.
In Safari World, the walk-through portion of the park, there’s a petting zoo, merry-go-round, boat rides, water sprayground and the chance to feed giraffes.
Old style Florida entertainment has been the theme at Orlando’s Gatorland since its opening in 1949. And speaking of openings, you actually enter the park through a giant alligator's mouth. Once inside you’ll see snakes, lizards, Florida deer and spiders before heading to Alligator Island - home to hundreds of alligators and even a few crocodiles.
The Gatorland Express train delivers you to the Gator Wrestlin' Arena, where real live cowboys wrestle the snapping gators and climb onto their backs. Think you can conquer a gator? Step in the sandbox in the Gator Wrestlin' Arena and give it a shot with the "Rookie Wrestlin’" experience.
Zip over the action on the Screamin' Gator Zip Line that soars through the air over some of the theme park's star attractions - including Cuban and Nile crocodiles - before heading over the Alligator Breeding Marsh, where 130 giant alligators are watching from below.
If watching and wrestling gators isn't enough, venture into the Alligator Breeding Marsh for an unforgettable behind-the-scenes tour. Stand within a few feet of huge, hungry alligators and watch their feeding frenzy. Your guide will make sure your family isn't on the dinner menu.
Have you experienced Florida’s wildlife?
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Terri Marshall is a New York City based freelance writer whose work includes travel, spirits, and all things chocolate. Terri's work appears in several publications. She has been a featured guest on Peter Greenberg's Worldwide Travel radio program and Denver's KZKO Radio Morning Express show. Terri will not hesitate to go to the source for great chocolate - even if that means hiking through the jungle and picking cacao pods herself.
Happiest when she's globetrotting, Terri has covered destinations all over the United States, Europe, and into Central and South America. Favorite adventures include reindeer driving in Norway and fishing for piranhas in the Amazon jungle of Peru. You can keep up with Terri's adventures on her website www.TrippingwithTerri.com. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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