Natural Alternative to Theme Parks in Orlando
If you’re feeling a little eco-guilt after spending your vacation at Disney World, next time, add a day trip to the Disney Wilderness Preserve in nearby Kissimmee, Florida
A day trip to the Disney Wilderness Preserve in Kissimmee, Florida, near Orlando, provides a sure cure for any eco-travel guilt that may set in the following vacation at Disney World. A partnership with the Nature Conservancy, the preserve is a precious 12,000-acre fragment of vanishing Florida wetlands and forest that is open to hikers, birders, and nature lovers.
Orlando resident Pam B says,
“The preserve is such an anomaly in the midst of Central Florida’s man-made attractions – the Nature Conservancy and Disney have made a wonderful partnership that showcases Old Florida. We’ve spotted bald eagles and the lumbering gopher tortoises. This is an unusual diversion, a 30-minute drive from U.S. Hwy. 192.”
Exploring the Disney Wilderness Preserve
Easy, flat footpaths meander through longleaf pine savannas and thickets of saw palmetto to cypress-lined Lake Russell, one of the few remaining undeveloped lakes in the state. Interpretive markers are set up along the trails, and two cypress-shaded groves shelter a scattering of picnic tables.
The main trail is just under a mile long, leading to the lakeshore, and two more trails are two miles and four miles long. Damaged in recent years by hurricanes, and affected by ongoing restoration and research projects, the trails are sometimes partially closed until they can be opened for safe passage, and/or rerouted. Hikers won’t see Mickey’s paw prints, but they will likely see alligator tracks–wavering lines in the sand bordered by 4-toed imprints.
Guided tours and ATV buggy tours are scheduled on weekends (call ahead for information, 407-935-0002). Admission is $2 for adults, $1 for Nature Conservancy members. Visitors are advised to bring drinking water, sun protection, and mosquito repellent. No pets are allowed.
Rare Florida Birds
Birders, in particular, are happy here, as the preserve helps to protect the headwaters of the Everglades ecosystem and provides habitat for hundreds of wildlife species, many of which are rare, such as bald eagles, Florida scrub-jays, and five-foot-tall, red-headed sandhill cranes.
VIPs in the preserve, red-cockaded woodpeckers are endangered beauties that have been translocated from elsewhere in the Southeast, in an effort to save them from extinction. Conservancy scientists have released pairs of birds into the preserve, which is the natural habitat of mature longleaf yellow pine forest and the creatures have begun to produce and hatch eggs. The woodpecker has speckled bands of black and white across its back, a black cap, and, sometimes, a thin red flash on the side of its head. It’s rasping “sklit” call can be heard on allaboutbirds.org.
A Wetlands Mitigation swap for Disney
Walt Disney Company purchased the preserve property as a trade-off to wetlands areas that the company developed in other parts of the state. The US Clean Water Act requires wetlands damaged by human activity to be mitigated (replaced) elsewhere–it’s called “wetlands mitigation banking”. Disney does also maintains highly developed “green” programs throughout its parks and facilities and donates millions annually to wildlife and conservation initiatives.
The Disney Wilderness Preserve is one of several wildlife management areas near Kissimmee that include the Florida National Scenic Trail and the Great Florida Birding Trail.