Theme parks and dinner shows, world-class restaurants and shopping—Kissimmee is a destination famous for fun and excitement. However, it has another side—a wild side. Within a 30 minute-drive you can see animals from all over the world, from barnyard favorites to rare and weird creatures you never knew existed.
So, if your family adores animals, be sure to add these places to your vacation to-do list.
Walt Disney created a world of magic and imagination, but he also had a passion for nature conservancy. In this spirit, Disney’s Animal Kingdom® Theme Park, located in the Walt Disney World® Resort, was born. An accredited zoo and aquarium, Animal Kingdom cares for thousands of animals, from alligators and bats to animals you may never have seen, like an okapi and a golden pheasant.
For a little adventure, hop on an open-air truck and take a safari to see lions, rhinos, elephants, cheetahs, giraffes, hippos, and more roaming free on 110 acres. Also, make time for the Maharaja Jungle Trek, which mimics an Asian forest where you will find animals like tigers, monkeys, flying foxes and Komodo dragons.
There’s a lot to see, but also a lot to learn. Rafiki’s Planet Watch is dedicated to teaching about endangered species and habitat conservation, and even shows you how to help in your own backyard. If one of your kids is dreaming of becoming a vet, they’ll adore Conservation Station, a veterinary clinic where you can watch real animal care procedures and ask questions.
Kids learn so much through touch and play, that’s why Green Meadows Petting Farm in Kissimmee is a “must-do” for families. Little ones can snuggle up to a soft bunny with a twitchy nose; hug an oinking, portly pig; hold a chicken, with its bobbing head; feed carrots to eager goats; crack up as they milk a cow and more. The family can also learn about exotic animals as they visit a Green Meadows’ resident zorse, an Asian water buffalo named Elmer, emus, and more.
And, since parents know kids are full of curiosity, there are guides to answer questions about the difference between a donkey and a mule or if tortoises get cold. Other fun things to do include a tractor-drawn hay ride, a train trip through the swamp where kids can try to spot native wildlife and pony rides for the little ones.
Gatorland has been a popular attraction since 1949, and it’s easy to see why. Adrenaline junkies test their courage on the Screamin’ Gator Zip Line, and for guests with limited mobility, the Gator Gauntlet is an accessible zip line. Both will have you flying over the breeding marsh above more than 130 alligators! There are several behind-the-scenes experiences that let you feed, handle and pose with gators, including Rookie Wrestling and Trainer for a Day.
Those who prefer to be a little less “hands-on” can still find excitement. The Gator Jumparoo show will amaze as trainers get alligators to use their powerful tails to leap five feet out of the water. You can also sign up for Gator Night Shine where, armed only with flashlights and hot dogs, you can spot and feed gators in the marsh.
Gatorland focuses on the gators of course, but there’s so much more to see. They have saltwater and Nile crocodiles, racoons, emu, owls, bobcats, snakes, giant tortoises, flamingos, an informative and silly nature show and more. Also, don’t forget to take the Swamp Walk and seek out all kinds of critters in their natural habitat.
Learning while having fun is what SeaWorld® Orlando is all about. In addition to exciting rides and funny animal shows, SeaWorld lets you get up close and personal with ocean creatures to make memories that last a lifetime. Feel stingrays nibble fish from your hand, look up from below as manatees graze, travel through a tunnel while sharks glide above you, and watch sea lions push each other off of rocks.
At the Dolphins Up-Close Encounter, your family gets an hour of one-on-one time with a trainer and dolphin, where you give the dolphin commands, hold its fins and rub its belly, and learn all about these intelligent, gentle animals. Other encounters let you spend time with walruses, seals, beluga whales, sea lions and penguins. If you want to get even closer, spend a day at Discovery Cove®, where you will experience exciting moments with the animals that make their home underwater, such as swimming next to playful, twirling otters.
Pet a slow-moving sloth or amber-eyed lemur (their fur is wiry!). Slowly run your hand atop the quills of a porcupine. Pose for a selfie with Fluffy the baby gator. At Wild Florida Airboats & Gator Park, you can do all this and more!
Located on Lake Cypress, Wild Florida is part of the headwaters of the Everglades, and home to more than 200 animals from around the world. Along the shady paths you can visit with zebu, water buffalo, zedonk, wallaby, serval cats, hundreds of birds and other interesting creatures.
The park stays true to its name with an impressive showing of native Florida wildlife as well. Learn about the creatures that roam the Florida wilderness, like the Osceola turkey, bobcats, raccoons, deer, fox, wild hogs, and alligators, of course! To see the real Florida in a truly wild, natural setting, go on an exhilarating airboat ride where your guide will help you spot gators, bald eagles, snowy egrets, herons, and countless native plants.
An hour north of Kissimmee in the town of Sanford is the award-winning Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens. See all your favorite animals here and meet some new ones. If your kids are into creepy crawlies, be sure to check out the Insect Zoo and the herpetarium, which has one of the most diverse and venomous collections of reptiles in the southeast United States.
Did you know that Busch Gardens® Tampa Bay is one of the largest zoos in all of North America? With more than 12,000 animals on 335 acres, there’s definitely something to thrill everyone in the family. For an aerial view, see the expansive zoo from up above on the Skyride. For an additional cost, you can experience a realistic safari ride on an open-bed safari truck, through the 65-acre Serengeti Plain® where you can meet giraffe, rhinos, antelopes, and zebras. See and learn about conservation efforts for the zoo’s 30 threatened and endangered species. Be sure not to miss the exciting Cheetah Run, where you can watch as cheetahs unleash their full, breathtaking speed.