Spot exotic wildlife on a trek through Florida's natural landscape
After driving down a dirt path off of Canoe Creek Road about 45 miles southeast of Kissimmee, past herds of cattle, hawks flying overhead and not a soul to be seen, I arrived in the middle of nowhere.
Seriously, the sign actually says, "The middle of nowhere has been discovered."
After a long day in the hustle and bustle of downtown Orlando, this nature getaway was exactly what I needed. The weather was in the 70s, with a cool breeze in the air as I strolled through this adorable animal park, so new that the wood used to make the boardwalks does not look weathered one bit.
For starters, let me say, as a longtime Florida resident, I have come to love the massive oak trees festooned with Spanish moss swaying in the breeze. And I always get a thrill from encountering a pride of peacocks, which is what happened as soon as I entered the 13-acre park. So, this place immediately had my heart.
Located about 45 minutes from the theme parks, this little-known getaway on the beautiful shores of Cypress Lake at the headwaters of the Everglades provides a cozy home for regional animals such as the Watusi, a breed of cattle originally native to Africa that are known for having distinct horns that can reach up to eight feet.
Nearby, there are deer, water buffalo, emu, wild boars and, of course, prehistoric reptilians (American alligators). To interact with the animals, visit the tropical bird aviary or the hands-on alligator demonstrations.
Beyond the animals, Wild Florida offers airboat tours. At times you'll hit 50 mph and other times you'll sit still to soak up the scenery and learn about your surroundings. Choose from a day trip or a sunset tour. There's even a nighttime tour where you'll hear the hum of crickets and frogs while being surrounded by the red glow of gator eyes. Eeks!
As you glide through the sawgrass, you are bound to see birds, eagles and gators. The one thing you won't see: any human activity. This nature preserve is untouched. In fact, it's likely what Florida must have looked like when Ponce de Leon showed up some 500 years ago.
I ended my trip with a walk over to the zebras, and to my delight, I found a zedonk-a cross between a donkey and a zebra. I had read about them before, but had never encountered one up close. For that alone, it was worth the drive. I mean, where else can you see a zedonk?
After that, I saw two small pigs in the pig pen and took a jaunt on the extensive boardwalk system surrounded by towering cypress trees, the neon-green duckweed that covers the water and the rays of light that made everything look so dreamy. It was the perfect low-key afternoon. No crowds, no traffic jams. Just right.
If you're able to find some time between the theme parks and family attractions in the Kissimmee area, consider sneaking away to spend a few hours soaking up the peacefulness that is Wild Florida. If you are a nature-lover, you won't regret it. This is Old Florida at it's best.
Order or view the Kissimmee Area Guide to find other treasures around the area.