Central Florida is known for its world-class theme parks, and it’s easy to overlook its natural attractions when you’re planning your holiday. There is so much more to enjoy about Orlando and the surrounding areas, we think it would be a shame to visit without seeing the Real Florida and its natural beauty.
Boggy Creek Airboat Rides
Boggy Creek is a family-owned company we know well and thoroughly recommend for their daytime and night rides on Lake Toho and East Lake Toho, at the headwaters to the Florida Everglades. All of their captains are U.S. Coast Guard Master Captains, they’re knowledgeable about the local wildlife and they meet the strictest levels of boat safety.
Flying across the lake at 45mph, stopping to observe a pair of beady reptile eyes peeking just above the water’s surface or gliding quietly alongside a swimming gator.
- Where: Boggy Creek Airboat Rides has two launch sites, in Kissimmee and in Orlando.
- How To Get There: The Southport Park location is just 30 minutes south of Highway 192, the main tourist route through Kissimmee. East Lake Fish Camp location is off of State Road 417 on Big Bass Road, just 10 minutes from Orlando International Airport, and it has the benefit of an on site restaurant.
If you’ve taken a daytime ride in the past, sign up for a night ride. It’s a completely different—and ultra-thrilling—experience once the sun goes down. You can spot the gators easily because their eyes glow red!
Florida is the ‘alligator capital of the world’, and we’re always impressed by the fun, creative ways Gatorland finds to show off the state’s number one wildlife draw. Check out the Alligator Breeding Marsh from the safety of the boardwalk, be wowed by the bravery of the reptile wranglers, then embark on a night-time adventure along the gator marshes armed with nothing but a flashlight and a gator expert.
Getting up close to gators is a real thing, but adrenalin junkies won’t want to miss the Screamin’ Gator Zip Line, a real doozy of an experience. Strap into the harness and hang on to your hat, ‘cuz you’re going for the ride of a lifetime! Speed along four separate zip lines, the most daring of which soars right over the breeding marsh. And don’t even get us started on the swinging bridge you have to cross. With 1,200ft of zip line excitement at heights up to 56ft and speeds up to 30mph, the Screamin’ Gator is not for sissies. But the thrill factor is undeniable; a real must-try adventure!
- Where: Gatorland can be found on the South Orange Blossom Trail in Kissimmee.
- How To Get There: Take either Osceola Parkway or the Central Florida Greenway (Highway 417) to the Orange Blossom Trail. Go North from Osceola Parkway or South from the Greenway.
Purchase a packet of gator food and take it to the pond with the smaller gators. You’ll get more activity out of them than you will the larger gators, and their mad scramble makes for memorable pictures!
Wekiwa Springs State Park in Seminole County is a scenic trek into the unspoiled wilderness, with miles of hiking trails, pristine rivers, horse rides, canoeing and kayaking, for an up-close view of the natural beauty that makes Florida so special.
Picnic in the peaceful surroundings while Great Blue Herons hunt along the shores nearby. Swim in the warm springs, go bird watching, or spend some time chatting with the interpreters in the Nature Center. No matter what you choose to do, it’s a blissful retreat from fast-paced Orlando..
- Where: Wekiwa Springs State Park is located just north of downtown Orlando.
- How To Get There: Take I-4 East to exit 92 and State Rd 434.
Afraid you’ll come across an alligator while canoeing or kayaking along the river? Don’t be. While it’s likely you’ll see a gator (hopefully many!), they have no interest in a close encounter with humans and will keep their distance. The exception to this is if you purposely interfere with or harass them, or attempt to separate a female from her young. Be smart, be respectful, and enjoy the thrill of seeing these magnificent reptiles in their natural environment.
Homosassa Springs and Crystal River
One of the most memorable experiences any visitor to Orlando can have is getting up close with the state’s iconic mammal, the gentle manatee. Serene and slightly reclusive, they make their homes in Florida’s rivers and warmer waterways, and it’s a five-star thrill to see them from the underwater observatory at Homosassa River. It’s even better floating among them with on organised Swim with the Manatees tour.
Attend a Manatee, Alligator or Wildlife educational programme, bring a picnic, enjoy a hike, or go bird-watching.Just north of the Springs, the Crystal River adds more opportunities to get up close with the wildlife, with a number of companies offering swim-with-the-manatees trips.
- Where: Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is located north of Clearwater along the Gulf Coast.
- How To Get There: Take Highway 91 to State Road 44, then to Highway 19
Never feed or harass a manatee. They are heavily protected by State and Federal laws and offenders will receive stiff fines or imprisonment. But do take lots of pictures. Fat, slow and shaped like an overstuffed, whiskered sausage, they’re surprisingly adorable!
We’re talking serious cowboy country here, and if you’ve ever wanted to channel your inner buckaroo, this is the place to do it.
Trail rides into the Florida scrub are experiences never to be forgotten, with horses matched up to your skill level, from beginner to experienced riders. If you’re not overly ‘horsey’, the Coach Tour into the wilderness onboard a big-wheel swamp buggy is for you. Have thrill seekers in your group? They’re well catered for at Forever Florida’s eco-adventure park, with a zipline complex, a zipline ‘roller coaster’, a bungee-style plunge, and the incredible Cypress Canopy Cycle, a bicycle-style contraption suspended from a cable running through the treetops and over the swamplands (relax…it’s easy!).
- Where: Forever Florida has its own restaurant and is located in Holopaw south-east of Kissimmee.
- How To Get There: Head east on Highway 192 and south on US 441. It’s about an hour from the main tourist area but is well worth the drive.
Sign up for the Starlight and Moonlight Zipline tour at Forever Florida on Saturdays for an even bigger thrill. You’re likely to see wildlife that doesn’t venture out in daylight.