by Kelly Green, a.k.a. SeaWorld Mommy
Want to have a wild time in Central Florida? Get up close and personal with some of the natives (and transplants) who live here.
1) Discovery Cove, Orlando
There are so many unique interactions inside Discovery Cove by SeaWorld, we’re calling this a five within a five!
- Snorkel with the fish & rays! Grab your best snorkeling set and dive into a reef-like oasis. For those who aren’t scuba-certified, it’s a chance to rub “elbows” with huge sting rays as they gracefully glide past you, swimming in and out of the schools of tropical fish. Little kids, too, can enjoy swimming in the Grand Reef, though squeals have been heard when a big, dark cartilaginous fish glides by. OK, adults have been known to jump a bit the first time, too!
- Swim with a dolphin! There are only a handful of places where you can swim with dolphins, that don’t require a cruise ship first. Visitors can add on this experience which includes some interaction time, a “ride” where, to be precise, the dolphin swims, and you pretty much just hold on, and a kiss!
- SeaVenture! Ever see those iconic underwater diving helmets? At SeaVenture they hoist those bad boys onto your head, and you descend the ladder for your walk-through underwater tour. Divers hand you a variety of cool creatures to examine (I held a sea urchin), and you “walk” up to the glass with sharks on the other side. Bring your underwater camera. Because of the angle, it looks like you’re right in there with them!
- Bird Aviary! Speaking of photo ops, the birds perched atop a loved-ones arm (or head!), is a must-see/do. Three separate chambers are home to birds of every color and description. Tip: Go when you first arrive when you’re in your street clothes. The birds are ready for breakfast, and you’ll be able to take photos of the family before you’re all in matching dive suits. Spoonbill selfie, anyone?
- River Otters! You can’t actually swim alongside the river otters (and if you take a close look at their sharp little claws as they speed through the water, you’ll realize this is a good thing!), but you can swim next to them with a glass wall between you that sure makes it LOOK like they’re right next to you!
Discovery Cove is SeaWorld’s boutique water park. Listed are the five within a five, but trust me… There are loads more!
2) Safari Wilderness, Lakeland
Since Safari Wilderness is right here in Central Florida you might not think it’s possible to have a little piece of Africa or Asia in our midst, but off the beaten I-4 path is a bumpy jeep ride where you’ll see zedonks, kudu, AND water buffalo that will eat right out of your hand! Note: Don’t freak out watching your small child’s hand so close to that enormous mouth! The tour lasts about 90 minutes, and if you’re so inclined, you can add on the lemur experience and take a stroll inside their habitat, too. You’ll also have the option of a camel ride! Seriously! Right here in Central Florida!
3) Wild Florida, Kenansville
Wild Florida hopes visitors see Florida the way it used to be 1,000 years ago… in its natural un-developed condition. Being “out in the middle of nowhere” sure makes that easy, yet surprisingly they’re only 45 minutes from Orlando’s theme park central. Guests can take an airboat ride to view Florida’s natural ecosystem , then explore the park where you’ll find a petting zoo (we saw a goat about 2-minutes old on our visit) as well as both Florida native and world-famous animal species. Some animals even wander around (like the peacock that seemed overly-interested in our afternoon ice cream).
Through the end of this summer you can add on an interaction with baby bobcats that will be the highlight of your visit, I guarantee! Duke and Duchess are two of the cutest kittens I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. Just like their domesticated cousins they like to tousle with their friends, pounce on bystanders in their way, and pat their paws hesitantly into pools of water (then saunter RIGHT over you with their wet paws!). For $20 per person you can add on this experience, that’s not to be missed.
Other exciting animal encounters include visiting with the Two-Toed Sloths, Porcupines, or the Silver Fox. How often do you get to say you’ve pet a porcupine?!
Want more? Sign up for Keeper For A Day where you get to actively participate in preparing food for the animals, plus enjoy private interactions, or maybe the Half-Day Adventure Package that includes an airboat ride, tours, lunch, hands-on alligator demonstrations.
4) Busch Gardens, Tampa
Though giraffes have the same number of neck vertebrates as humans, their surprisingly large ones allow them to tower above guests on the Seringetti Safari at Busch Gardens, even over the guests riding on the open- air jeep-type vehicle. We recently took the tour and couldn’t get over how friendly they were. I have fed them before, so I DID remember how loooong their purple tongues are! Bring your appetite for adventure. The giraffes will bring their appetites for lettuce. Note: Have gobs of space on your camera to take pics, or just buy the ones their skilled photographers take. You’re going to want lots!
Want to hold the state’s iconic reptile? You know, without the threat of being nibbled on, I mean? Gatorland is home to over 1550 gators and crocodiles, and guests have the option of holding one or, as part of the “Adventure Hour” experience even feed them while standing a few scant feet from their enormous jaws. Beware: You might be surprised HOW close your child was to them when inspecting your photos later!
Want to combine gator holding with go cart/amusement fun? Visit FunSpot on International Drive, where Gatorland has opened a mini-version of their attraction right inside called Gator Spot (admission is just $6 per person). They showcase alligators up to 12 feet including the extremely rare leucistic (white) alligator. Critter holding ops are available. Last time I was there I had a snake around my neck and a gator in my arms while my son held both a baby gator and a lizard!
Would you like to interact with the gators from afar without leaving your hotel? That can be done, too. Gaylord Palms Resort features the “Best of Florida” exhibit, home to 15 juvenile alligators and 30 native species of turtles as part of a 10-year partnership with Gatorland. We’ve been there when the handlers were out so we got to hold a baby alligator before hoping off to Cypress Springs Water Park. Insider tip: All summer long (2015) Kids eat free at Villa de Flora, MOOR, Wreckers, Sora and Old Hickory.