For a company that has gone from zero to top speed in just seven years and welcomed more than 100,000 guests last year, you’d think they might be happy to take stock and draw breath for a while. But you’d think wrong!
In fact, it is rare in Central Florida for anyone to stand still for a moment. It’s just not in the region’s DNA. To be in business means to be constantly looking for the next thing, the next lure, the next attraction. And that was never better illustrated than by our most recent visit to Wild Florida.
This wonderful natural attraction in south Osceola County, south-east of Kissimmee and about a 45-minute drive from Walt Disney World, is a genuine taste of the real Sunshine State, offering airboat rides, ranch buggy rides, animal encounters and their unique Gator Park. It is set on the eastern edge of Cypress Lake and is surrounded by untouched countryside in every direction. Or ‘the middle of nowhere,’ as they like to call it.
Wild Florida recently expanded both its tours and its facilities, as well as transforming its wildlife park into more of an alligator experience, as befitting the local residents (and yes, there are plenty of gators in the lake!), and added a kids play area.
They have expanded their Chomp House Grill and enhanced the covered picnic pavilion, but that apparently, is not enough. We took a walk around with owner Sam Haught, and he explained all the upgrades that are on the menu for this year.
“To start with, we are altering the main gator pond to provide bleacher seating for our gator show. You won’t ever see gator wrestling here, but our guests have told us they want to see and hear more about these animals, so that’s what we’re going to provide.
“We have also just added some crocs, so we’ll be looking to showcase them with bleachers as well. They came from an Everglades alligator farm, where they had a surplus of crocs this year and were in danger of having to euthanise some, so we were happy to take these two so our guests can learn more about them. We may bring more in, too, as we have plenty of space.”
Sam was also keen to point out that Wild Florida only takes in animals that have been injured and can’t be released, that have become pests (like most of those in the gator pond), or ones that have become too big for owners to handle, like the forthcoming new panther exhibit.
“The panther was privately owned,” he told us, “And the owner just decided it had grown too big and expensive to keep. It can’t be released into the wild because it has been ‘imprinted’ by humans, so we were asked to take it in. We are always looking for new exhibits that we can bring to guests that highlight Florida’s natural and conservation aspects, so this will allow us to showcase another important animal in a responsible way.”
Walking around the Gator Park, it was noticeable how much more they have added in recent months, with new photo opportunities and hands-on animal encounters, including their lovable lemurs.
Another new highlight this spring should be the arrival of animal trainer extraordinaire Andrew Biddle, who will work with many of the gators and other animals, including the Florida Panther.
The real secret of Wild Florida, though, remains its people, as there is a real eco-awareness about the staff that underpins the mission statement to promote a connection with the state’s wildlife while inspiring education and conservation.
We spoke to photographer Jake, who offers visitors a chance to have their picture taken with ‘Fluffy,’ a three-year old gator at the new photo kiosk adjacent to the gator pond. “Everyone thinks he is way softer than they think,” he told us. “They think he might be scaly hard or slimey, but he is all muscle and everyone is always super-impressed. The best part of this job is that you get to look really cool – the worst part is that you sometimes get peed on!”
We passed the exhibit for Kramer the umbrella cockatoo, and Sam paused to have a few words with the eye-catching bird. “Kramer was the victim of a divorce,” he explained. “He was donated to us by the husband after his neighbours complained about the noise. This breed is one of the most demanding for attention but he gets on really well here. He says lots of words, including, occasionally, a few you’d not expect to hear! But he loves having an audience, especially if you dance with him. Occasionally, a visitor will bring a dog, and then Kramer will sniff and bark as well.”
Kramer’s neighbor is an Australian Kookaburra, with its outlandish ‘laugh,’ while one of the most popular exhibits with British visitors is that for the raccoons. “They are a big hit,” Sam confirmed. “They are so cute to European visitors, even though we see them all the time here in Florida. My favourite animals are Duke and Duchess, our bobcats, who were also donated to us by owners who could no longer keep them. They are just like domestic cats and will happily follow you around. They get on very well together and we are hoping for some babies this spring.”
We stopped to talk to animal keeper and education manager Billy, who told us some more secrets of the Wild Florida approach, “My whole working career has been with animals,” he said. “I went to SeaWorld in Cleveland when I was 6 and that was where my passion for working with animals started.
“Our education department here is at the forefront of all our animal shows. We deal with guests all day long to make sure everything goes smoothly and that we ensure the story of the animals is told properly. The lemurs are usually the most hilarious. They are like teenagers but they all have different personalities. In the lemur interaction, they know they are not supposed to jump on guests’ heads, but they will try it if they think we’re not looking!”
Among their husbandry secrets, Billy revealed that they often use Italian seasoning (the cooking version) to get Duchess on the scale for her regular weight check-up – “It’s like cat-nip to her. She loves it!” – while Duke likes to give the animal handlers a friendly head-butt. “Our male zebra is also target-trained to my hand, and we use food-orientated positive reinforcement with most of our animals.
“The best thing, though, is that we are always thinking of different things we can put in the exhibit habitats to keep the animals entertained on a daily basis. For the lemurs it might be something like bamboo with a string of berries or grapes on it. When you let them out in the morning, it is like a big party as they rip it all apart. It is one of the most fun things to see.”
With that, it was time to leave Wild Florida behind for another day, having been royally entertained ourselves by the lemurs, and raccoons, and gators, and bobcats, and red foxes, and, especially, the birds. “See ya later!” cackled Kramer as we left. And we will definitely be back!
If you have questions about any aspect of Florida, be sure to go online and ask Susan and Simon on the ATD forums, on this link: https://www.attractiontickets.com/forum/forum.php.
Liked this post? You may also like...