If your travel fantasies include snorkeling with a dazzling array of tropical fish, studying the markings on rare parrots and toucans, watching bald eagles soar overhead, admiring blue herons nesting in dune grass or being kissed by an 500-pound Atlantic Bottlenose dolphin, Orlando should be your destination. Yes… Orlando, Florida.
It's an easy weekend destination serviced by frequent and inexpensive flights from most parts of the US; it's a friendly, safe region with enough housing to accommodate even the family on a budget, traveling last-minute.
Don't tell me you've been there, done that or have no interest. There really are sights for the outdoors family who prefer real sloths to stuffed Tiggers, snakebirds to Tweetys, and palmetto bugs to plastic ferns. True – some of it's real… and some of it's simulated – but all of it's alive!
On a recent fall press visit, we spent three days spotting alligators, admiring birds and studying marinelife. Orlando's delivery of genuine wildlife experiences in a controlled and fun setting makes it an ideal destination to introduce kids to ecotourism and a lifelong interest in preserving wildlife.
Airboating in the Upper Everglades
Within 15 minutes of Orlando's packaged animal kingdom is the real thing: a wetlands habitat at the mouth of the Everglades system, where endangered birdlife (including bald eagles, which are commonly seen) coexist with alligators and burly fishermen out for striped bass. We stocked up for our eco-tour with a hearty buffet breakfast, then headed over to Boggy Creek Airboat Rides.
While we were waiting for our adventure, Margie Long, Boggy Creek's proprietress and self-styled wildlife ambassador, explained that Florida alligators are fair game. During the regulated hunting season, hunters can leave their catch with a gator processing plant that uses tail meat for steaks, and gator heads and hides for souvenirs (they cannot be exported from the US). Nothing goes to waste.
Assuring us that gator-spotting was best when the sun was high (alligators' slow metabolism requires the sun's heat to help them digest), she toured us around BoggyCreek's rustic wood cabins and tent sites and the many fishing boats available for rent. It was time to climb aboard our sleek aluminum airboat, a hovercraft that needs only a few inches of draft to navigate the wetlands. It is ideally clean, though extremely noisy.
With padded earmuffs in place, we blasted up and away from the dock and the reeds, hair flying; avoid hats, but sunglasses and outerwear are essential! Our family was always put off by noisy airboats, just like snowmobiles and jetskis, that is until we used these vehicles to access restricted environmental areas. With the rising sun, cool breeze, and broad-winged gulls gliding by, we felt at one with Florida's ecosystem. Although our tour of the huge lake's marshy fringe only lasted 30 minutes, we saw a pair of bald eagles on their nest, blue herons and egrets, anhingas, gulls, ducks and beds of lotus. The highlight: with the "eagle eyes" of Captain Edgar, we were able to watch a nine-foot alligator slither off a muddy islet across the water and into the reeds.
New are a night-time version of the classic airboat tour (where gator activity is almost guaranteed) and Nature Safaris given with a custom built, 18-seat land-rover type of vehicle. The 40-minute guided Nture tour of a working cattle ranch in Kissimmee will show families local turkeys, deer, bald eagles, wild hogs, and of course, cattle, in the context of the area's local history and natural environment.
For another, very different aquadventure, visit the posh suburb of Winter Park, about 30 minutes' north of Orlando. Our son pronounced it "the most expensive real estate in the United States," something he'd probably read in "The Guiness Book of Records." Winter Park is where the multi-million-dollar estates of Walgreens, theme park executives, stars from the Orlando Magic and old citrus money line several fresh water lakes.
The best view is from the water. The Scenic Boat Tour, narrated by guides telling jokes dating back several generations, is a wonderful introduction to the lakes' habitat. After circling the co-eds sunbathing by the pool at the lakefront Rollins College campus, the small touring pontoon boats use Winter Park's recently re-dredged canals to visit Lake Virginia and Lake Osceola, each with its own personality.
In one hour, we were treated to blue and gray herons, gulls, anhingas (a.k.a. snakebirds because they keep their long black necks above water as they swallow fish whole) and peacocks roaming around immaculate lawns. Our guide continuously pointed out the flora, too: sleeping hibiscus ("too tired to open their blossoms"), lithe Egyptian papyrus, live oaks and 200-year-old cypress trees.
It's easy to turn this outing into a day-long exploration of Winter Park. Bisecting the boutique-lined Park Avenue is a landscaped park dotted with palms and water fountains (filled with soap suds as a prank at our visit), proudly called Central Park. Among the single story shops, Peterbrooke's sells their famous chocolate-covered popcorn (samples are free!) Once you've digested, pay a visit to the remarkable Morse Museum and the world's largest collection of Tiffany glass and pottery.
There are many indoor/outdoor cafes for a meal, along the main street and tucked into the small arcades off Park Avenue. When we couldn't find a table overlooking the Maserati, Ferrari and BMW convertibles parked out front of the Park Plaza Hotel, we dined inside at their fine continental restaurant. Of course, we had fresh fish, but even the kids menu had fish fingers and the Key Lime pie was memorable.
Sea World & Discovery Cove
If you've been to any of the SeaWorld marine parks, you know the excellence of their trained animal shows and marine exhibits. Orlando's is perhaps the best of them, a thoughtful tribute to the undersea world with several "behind the scenes" and "trainer for the day" programs enabling kids to interact with the wildlife and the keepers.
What's newer is the simulated tropical ecosystem at Discovery Cove, an authentic Caribbean experience for those who've never been to the real thing. Discovery Cove provides a safe, friendly, spotless and educationally enriching environment in which to interact with marine life, lay about on the beach, sip piña coladas and get splashed by waterfalls. And, it comes without the hassles of Customs, Immigration, changing money or handling language. One hopes that families wary of international travel, who enjoy this real eco-adventure in a simulated setting, may one day journey to experience the "real" environment.
What is most remarkable about the Discovery Cove "resort" is its layout on a large, central Orlando parcel of land (formerly softball fields for Seaworld workers, so we heard). The illusory tropical paradise is never marred by views of a tower, highrise, or rollercoaster track; the habitat is strictly palm fronds, hibiscus, thatched palapas, white tent cabanas and coral reefs.
Getting Wet at Last
Upon arrival, guests with reservations are shown to lockers where they check their clothes and shoes for the day. Wearing bathing suits and biodegradable sunblock, everyone dons a wetsuit vest, at minimum, required for its flotation capacity. The wetsuits also help with the chill. At our October visit, Orlando's air was about 80oF, while the water temperature is maintained year-round at 76oF for the marinelife. Wetsuits in the short-sleeved spring or full styles, even in toddler sizes, are included in the price of each ticket. Another plus: they are flattering to various figures and kids especially feel adventurous and brave wearing them.
The 45-minute dolphin training and swim session permits up to eight people (age 6+) and two trainers to "kiss," "pet" and "swim" with a dolphin – a rare and delightful experience. For children unaccustomed to snorkeling, there is a small, four-foot-deep lagoon filled with stingrays waiting to be fed by helpful, knowledgeable trainers. Here, the youngest members of your family can feel secure holding out fist-fulls of sardine or baby squid, and watch them pulled right out from their hands. If you remember to keep thumbs tucked under fingers to avoid getting nipped, it's very exciting indeed.
You can discover the sky in a fully stocked aviary more impressive than those commonly associated with zoos. The "lazy river" style lagoon propels floaters right under the aviary for a minnow's eye view of tropical birdlife. In fact, kids can get really close up, because in the small netted-in area, naturalists give out bowls of chopped fruit and show children how to sit still and attract birds. To see finches and toucans, peacocks, and dozens of other birds buzzing the miniature musk deer that wander around, is also a treat for all ages.
Discovery Cove (877/4-DISCOVERY) is an educational investment at $179/person plus tax (no children's rates; includes a seven-day SeaWorld Orlando pass (or Busch Gardens pass), snorkeling gear, towel, food and beverages). Reservations are required because attendance is limited to one thousand guests per day. A smaller number include a Swim with the Dolphins session as well ($249/day), and only 24 guests become a "trainer for the day" at $459/day (6-years minimum, children under 13 require adult accompaniment). Exclusive doesn't mean it's not popular. Although you see too many legs dangling while snorkeling in the tropical lagoon, the variety and proximity of southern eels, barracudas, angelfish, sergeant majors and other familiar denizens of the deep is wonderful. And it's not unbearably crowded.
Simulated? Real? You decide. It's Orlando, where wonderful adventures are designed for families to enjoy each other, the beautiful surroundings, and the magic of growing old with Nature.
As a courtesy, the Orlando/Orange County C&VB maintains a registry of same-day (often discounted) hotel rooms for visitors who stop by. Says a spokesperson from the C&VB, "We like the customer to look through our Black Book of last-minute listings in person since we are unable to recommend one property over another." Visitors must come by the center to pick up a referral slip; this ensures that the quoted rate will be honored at the hotel, and that the guest referral is legitimate. The Official Visitor Center is located at 8723 International Drive, Ste 101, Orlando, FL 32819 (407/363-5872, open daily, except Dec. 25, 8am-7pm).
The Orlando/Orange Country C&VB publishes a very handy, free travel guide, which lists many other eco-attractions. Call 800/367-1496, 407/354-5586 or visit www.orlandoinfo.com to obtain a copy, or simply browse the website for more ideas.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.