I don’t know a single kid who doesn’t love animals. So, when my sister-in-law, Lori, wanted to take a break from Florida’s theme parks and take the kids on a different kind of adventure, I had a great idea: what about an animal-themed getaway? Since the kids were already coming to visit me in Kissimmee, I knew there were plenty of animal attractions nearby and we wouldn’t have to drive far. Lori and I brainstormed some ideas and then we shared the idea with the kids the next day.
The kids were SO excited! They loved the idea, and we had a fun evening before our trip, looking at brochures and online to see what was possible (way more than we ever imagined). We finally decided that everyone should choose a place. Before we knew it, we were off to see gators and sloths and horses—oh my!
Gatorland was 12-year-old Michael’s top choice. Known as the “Alligator Capital of the World,” Gatorland has more than 2,000 American alligators and three rare white leucistic gators—only 12 of these gators exist in the world. There are other animals in the 110-acre park, including endangered Florida panthers, African animals, and the Mile of Monsters, where you can see snakes, scorpions, and other cool critters.
There are several animal experiences that really get your blood pumping. You can zipline over gators, become a Trainer for a Day for one-on-one time with your favorite animals, or try the new and exciting Stompin’ Gator Off-Road Adventure that takes you through a gator-filled swamp in a monster truck—the boys nearly lost their minds.
The whole family loved this place, even us grownups! The Close Encounters show was funny and educational, watching gators jump out of the water at feeding time was awe-inspiring, and we all saw things we’d never seen before. It’s a definite must-do for anyone interested in animals.
Dillon, age 8, chose Dinosaur World. We obviously couldn’t interact with live dinosaurs, but the park did an amazing job of making us feel like we were. The dinosaur sculptures are life sized and so well painted that we had no trouble pretending they were real. They’re also placed in natural settings, which made it easy to let our imaginations run wild. We were even sneaking around, pretending to hide behind the plants!
The kids really enjoyed the Fossil Dig, where they got to search for fossils in the sand and keep the three they liked best. We also loved exploring the Prehistoric and Fossil Museums. Dillon almost won a prize at the “Triviasaurus Rex” game show by answering dinosaur-related questions.
Dinosaur World was a nice counterpoint to our adrenaline-fueled morning at Gatorland. There are lots of silly photo ops. It has a low-key vibe that lets you unwind and have a different kind of fun. Knowing that there’s no food service in the park, we brought our own lunches and enjoyed a relaxing break at the covered picnic pavilions.
Kids never tire of going to the zoo, so it was no surprise when Callie, age 9, chose the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens for day two of our animal adventure. There’s a lot to see, with more than 400 animals as well as an insect zoo and herpetarium.
We had lots of hands-on time opportunities with the animals, which all the kids loved. There’s a petting zoo with goats, alpacas, llamas, and a rooster. We paid a little extra to feed and pet a giraffe, which made Callie so incredibly happy. We also added on the rhino encounter and got to pet them!
In addition to the animals, the zoo has a lot of things for kids to enjoy: a playground, splash pad, carousel, and small train. Within the zoo (but with separate admission) is ZOOm Air Adventure, an aerial course through the tree canopy that lets you look at the zoo from the point of view of a bird or monkey. There are courses perfect for kids, and our group had a blast flying through the air.
This one was my pick, because I’ve been there twice and I was excited to share the experience with Lori and the kids. Wild Florida is really, really cool. We took an airboat ride across Cypress Lake and saw egrets, bald eagles, and herons. Our guide also pointed out a wild alligator, which put the kids into a wide-eyed trance that I think was a mix of shock and excitement. Seeing gators in the wild from a boat is much more intense than seeing them in a zoo!
After the airboat ride, we went to Wild Florida’s Wildlife Park. The park’s goal is to inspire conservation by connecting people to animals and it does a great job. The exotic animal show had the boys squirming on the edge of their seats with excitement and Callie adored the baby goats in the petting zoo.
Everyone’s hands-down favorite, though, was the sloth animal encounter, where we got to pet and feed Gus the sloth. Lori told me that even now, months later, the kids are still talking about it. Though we only did the sloth encounter, the park has encounters for lemurs, porcupines, gators, and albino gators, too.
Beautiful scenery, stories of Florida’s cattleman, and riding horses through the prairie—it doesn’t get much better than that! Horseback riding at the Lazy H Ranch was Lori’s pick—her kids had never been and she knew they’d love it. Abby, the owner, made everyone feel at ease as soon as we arrived. We got to meet the horses and she did an amazing job teaching the kids the basics before we headed out.
The kids were nervous at first, but soon, they were all grinning from ear to ear as they bobbed up and down in their saddles. The horses are all very calm and friendly, so we were able to relax and enjoy the view. We rode through open grasslands, through 100-year-old oak hammocks, and near Lake Tohopekaliga. Along the way, Abby told us all about the area and Kissimmee's cowtown heritage.
It was a truly beautiful day. As we were riding, I heard Lori telling the kids stories about when she was young and had horses. At one point, I heard Dillon and Michael talking (still) about alligators, trying to spot some in the lake. It made me realize that connecting with the animals allowed us to connect with each other in a much more meaningful way. It was a magical way to end our Kissimmee animal adventure.