By Sarah Sekula, published in Where Orlando magazine
To spend a day soaking up all the quiet respites that Central Florida has to offer, first put on your most comfortable footwear. Then sneak away for a fun-filled trip through Mother Nature’s vast offerings in Central Florida. The natural parks here are just as plentiful as the theme parks. In other words, you can’t go far without coming across a serene spring, sun-loving wildlife or hiking trails shaded by majestic oaks. Better yet, many of these delightful destinations cost next to nothing.
This 50-acre botanical garden is Orlando’s equivalent to The Secret Garden: a maze bursting with color and unusual greenery. Take a guided tour of the southern-styled grounds, chill at a concert or just run amok through the giant bamboo stalks, hyper-manicured lawns and camellias, which bloom from October through March (they have the world’s largest collection). Better yet, its location on the shores of Lake Rowena affords a fitting view of the sunset. Check the website for special events throughout the year. 1920 N. Forest Ave., Orlando/407-246-2620. www.leugardens.org.
The Nature Conservancy’s The Disney Wilderness Preserve
Located just south of Orlando in Osceola and Polk counties, this little-known getaway protects the headwaters of the Everglades ecosystem. Its 12,000 acres provide a cozy home for hundreds of wildlife species, including bald eagles, snakes, bobcats, Florida scrub-jays, sandhill cranes and gopher tortoises. Plus, there are 2.5 miles of hiking trails among the pine flatwoods available to visitors who want to learn about the preserve’s resident plants and animals. Choose from a shorter hike to Lake Russell, lined by bald cypress trees and ideal for youngsters, or the full loop, better suited for teens and adults. And don’t worry, the pathways here are generally wide, flat and easy to follow. 2700 Scrub Jay Trail, Kissimmee/407-935-0002. www.nature.org.
Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour
The lakes here are so charming, it’s no wonder all types fancy the Winter Park Scenic Boat Ride, a 12-mile tour that’s been around for more than 50 years. Glide by towering cypress, tropical birds and magnificent mansions, including the residence of a former world champion whistler. Your guide will point out the sights, including the architecture of James Gable Rogers, a legendary figure in Winter Park’s mid-century heyday. The hour-long, off-the-beaten-path tour is the perfect way to while away the afternoon and scope out historic Winter Park’s true beauty (a.k.a. Rollins College, Kraft Azalea Gardens and the Isle of Sicily). A word of advice: The pontoon boats are not covered; wear a hat and lather your limbs with sunscreen. 312 E. Morse Blvd./407-644.4056 www.scenicboattours.com.
DeLeon Springs State Park
Before you hit the water at DeLeon Springs State Park (an hour’s drive from downtown Orlando, near DeLand), load up on carbs at the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Grill & Griddle House — an all-day breakfast joint inside the park where you cook flapjacks, complete with your favorite toppings, at your table. (The menu also includes eggs, breakfast meats and burgers.) From there, plunge into DeLeon Springs, which flows into the Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge and has been welcoming visitors since the 1880s. The refreshing, 72-degree water is perfect for a 9 ½-mile jaunt via kayak, canoe or paddle boat. If you still have energy, trek the trails. Note: Turkey, deer and gators traverse these pathways, too. With 18,000 acres of lakes and marshes to explore, it’s easy to keep busy. The difficult part is leaving! Especially since the entrance fee is only $6 a car. Note: This is a popular park on the weekends, so get there early to claim your picnic spot under the shade of a towering tree. 601 Ponce DeLeon Blvd., DeLeon Springs/386-985-4212. www.floridastateparks.org/deleonsprings.
The Zipline Safari attraction at Forever Florida gives guests the chance to propel through a 4,700-acre wildlife conservation haven. In other words, you’ll breeze through seven ziplines, perch atop nine aerial observation platforms and clamor across two sky bridges. In fact, the high-flying adventure takes you through nine beautifully preserved ecosystems. Once the ride is over, trot down a section of the Florida Trail, one of eight national historic pathways running from South Florida to the Panhandle. And stop at the animal education area, where you’ll be treated to an up-close look at a puma, alligators and other animals. Nearby, the Crescent J, a picturesque Florida ranch, features a living museum of Spanish Colonial Cattle and Florida’s unique Cracker Horses. And guided tours via coach safari or horseback are available. A popular choice is the 2 or 3-day overnight horseback excursion where guests camp out in the rugged landscape. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot a bald eagles or an owl. 4755 N. Kenansville Rd., St. Cloud/407-957-9794. www.foreverflorida.com.