By ATD’s Florida experts Susan & Simon Veness
Explore a little of the 'real' Florida on your next visit!
You’ve come all this way; you’ve invested two full weeks of your holiday time; and you’ve run yourself ragged trying to see and do everything in Central Florida, checking out the world famous theme parks and other attractions.
After all that time, effort and energy, we have only one question for you – have you actually seen Florida?
It’s not a crazy question, as many visitors spend SO much time dashing from park to park and attraction to attraction, that they actually miss what’s right on the doorstep of Walt Disney World, Universal and Co, and that is the real, honest-to-goodness sights and sounds of the Sunshine State.
You won’t find it in the parks, or in the hotels and villas, or on International Drive and the shopping centres. But you will find it just a few miles away, and one of the best places to get your fill of Florida these days is at Wild Florida, the rapidly-growing nature and airboat centre out in southern Kissimmee. It is only 34 miles from Disney, but it is a whole world away in real terms, as it gets visitors into the heart of the countryside, and provides a chance for a unique close-up experience with the flora and fauna that is guaranteed to captivate and enchant visitors from the word go.
Just to start with, Wild Florida advertise themselves as being “in the middle of nowhere,” which isn’t strictly true, as the actual address is 3301 Lake Cypress Road, Kenansville, and they are neighbours to the 15,000-acre Doc Partin Ranch.
But, with the fact there are no other buildings or signs of human habitation anywhere to be seen once you arrive, you could definitely be convinced you are a long way from anywhere. And that’s all part of the rural charm – albeit with all mod cons, like the Gator Chomp Grill, large gift shop and modern restrooms (not ‘toilets’ in America, remember!).
You can choose from one of six different airboat tours, from their standard half-hour jaunt over Lake Cypress to a private night-time tour. All tours need to be booked in advance, which you can arrange right here.
If you haven’t tried an airboat ride before, it is one of the essential ‘real Florida’ experiences. It is a bit like flying at ground level in these amazing flat-bottomed speeders that can reach 40mph powered by the giant rotor behind the captain. They are capable of reaching into any part of the lake and its surrounding wetlands and marshes, skimming over the water, and even solid ground in places.
They are also very low-impact on the environment and can provide close-ups of all the local wildlife, which vary from cattle straying in from the neighbouring ranches to white-tail deer, raccoons and, of course, alligators. Lake Cypress has around 1,000 gators of all sizes, from the latest hatchlings to 13ft specimens, and the airboat captain – who is fully US Coastguard certified – is extremely adept at spotting them and providing close-ups, all in perfect safety.
The lake is also on the Great Florida Birding Trail, hence it is absolutely bursting with birdlife, including bald eagles, ospreys, great blue herons, egrets and sandhill cranes. You’ll be amazed at home much you see – and learn – on your 30 or 60-minute tour, and you’ll be completely immersed in a thoroughly natural and pristine environment.
Once back ashore, you can then visit the Gator and Wildlife Park as part of your tour fee, and see a great variety of animal and birdlife that is both native to the Sunshine State and more exotic (like zebras, African crested porcupines, Australian wallabies and South American tree sloths). Another notable feature is provided by the colourful macaws, many of which have been donated to the park by overwhelmed owners, as these birds need lots of room to roam and enjoy lots of company, which they certainly have here.
If you didn’t see them on your airboat ride, there are raccoons, deer, foxes, bobcats and gators – lots of gators. There are around 100 of them in the central pond, and there are some great viewing spots, plus the chance to feed them – a really novel experience!
We also recommend taking time to stroll along the Hawk Swamp Boardwalk, a beautifully tranquil trail above a genuine Floridian swamp area that feels like another planet (think Luke Skywalker on Dagobah in the Star Wars films).
After all the animal encounters – and there are several exotic animal shows a day, as well as the chance to handle a small gator – you will want to chill out and enjoy a taste of Florida, too, and that’s where the Chomp House Grill comes in.
This rustic kitchen serves up some surprisingly tasty fare, all of which can be enjoyed in their covered pavilion on the edge of the lake. Take your pick from standards like hot dogs and chicken tenders, a pulled pork sandwich and barbecue chicken, or be more adventurous and try the gator, catfish and frog legs in their ‘Swamp Sampler.’ It’s genuine down-home Floridian fare, and it’s mighty tasty, too!
If you have an hour to spare, you might also like to consider Wild Florida’s newest experience, the Ranch Buggy Tour. Climb aboard the giant-wheeled open-air truck and set out on an extensive tour of the Doc Partin Ranch, which is one of the state’s oldest and busiest cattle-producing centres.
You’ll learn about Florida’s ‘cracker’, or cowboy, history (which pre-dates the ‘Wild West’ by more than 100 years) and get another chance to check out the wildlife, which can also include wild pigs, armadillos and wild turkeys, as well as the ever-present gators, which get into every nook and cranny where there’s water.
It all adds up to a truly fascinating look at the Florida you probably never knew existed so close to all the attractions, and it’s a guaranteed 100 per cent natural thrill alongside all the man-made ones.
Now, who’s ready to try some gator tail…?!
If you have questions on this story – or anything else about the wonders of Florida – be sure to go online and ask Susan and Simon on the ATD forums where we're chatting everything Orlando holidays!
To book tickets to visit the incredible sights of Wild Florida, check out tickets for everything from a 30 minute to a night time airboat ride right here.
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