A visit to Orlando, Florida is bound to make its way into every family’s travel plans at least once and, more than likely, the excursion will include at least one visit to a theme park. It could be Disney Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Universal Studios, etc., and most would agree that a trip to Orlando just doesn’t seem complete without a visit to at least one of these popular attractions. But Orlando and the surrounding areas of Florida are about more than popular cartoon and movie characters. The area also has a natural side and one that families should consider visiting is the Disney Wilderness Preserve, a natural area located just minutes from Orlando and very close to the neighboring suburb of Kissimmee.
How did the Disney Wilderness Preserve come into being and why does it maintain the Disney name? Well, the history of the area goes back a relatively short time, to the early 1980’s when the area was populated with cattle. Once the cattle ranch was closed, it was assumed that the area would be transformed into a residential/business area with housing complexes and possibly a business park or two. But a short time later, Disney stepped in, purchased the land, and made the decision to return the area to its natural state. Working with the Nature Conservancy, the state of Florida, and various environmental organizations, the restoration process began. Disney then turned the region over to the Nature Conservancy, one of the largest and most successful nature- related non- profits. The preserve is still run by the Nature Conservancy today, even though it still bears the Disney name.
What to Expect
The Disney Wilderness Preserve is all about getting back to nature. As guests arrive, they will be greeted first by a few buildings. Contained within these buildings are offices and a learning center where they can discover more about the preserve, its history, and its mission. The buildings pride themselves in being as green as possible and are constructed with solar panels and other modifications to minimize environmental impact. Once visitors complete their education, they can proceed to the main attraction, which is the preserve itself. There are different trails to hike with the opportunity to discover native plants, flowers, and wildlife. It is a good idea to have a camera ready, as you never know what may lie ahead.
Disney Wilderness Preserve offers hikers/walkers two trails: A short 1 mile trail and a longer 2.5 mile trail. Both take the nature lover through wetlands, trees, and the shores of Lake Russell. The longer trail offers a more intimate look at the preserve and the two paths are equally strenuous, which by Florida standards means they are not strenuous at all. Florida is very flat so there is no need to worry about climbing or descending. The choice of trails really comes down to individual time constraints. Regardless of which route is selected, guests need to come prepared with sunscreen, insect repellent, and plenty of drinking water, as Florida can get quite warm during the summer months and dehydration is always a possibility.
Location and Hours
The Disney Wilderness Preserve is located at 2700 Scrub Jay Trail in Kissimmee, Florida. It is open only during the week, Monday through Friday, between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. The preserve is closed on weekends and on major holidays. Visitors should call the preserve if they want to hike the trails, just to make sure that the trails are actually open for hiking on that day. If restoration or some other activity is taking place, the trails may be closed so it is best to call first.
A Change of Pace
Families who decide to visit Orlando almost always add one of the theme parks to their agenda, but as the Disney Wilderness Preserve demonstrates, there is more to Florida than animated characters and amusement rides. I visited the preserve when I was in Florida recently and I found it a nice, relaxing diversion from the usual Orlando experience. There were very few people around when I visited and I had an opportunity to walk the trails, view the wetlands, encounter some wildlife, and snap some photos. It was nice to get away from the noise and crowds in the city and I was definitely impressed at the quietness of the experience. In fact, among the positive qualities of Disney Wilderness Preserve, I actually found the silence one of its best. It was hard to believe that a large, bustling, tourist- driven metropolitan area was so near. With few other people around and no sounds from the city, it was tranquil, peaceful, and relaxing.
As for the scenery, the Disney Wilderness Preserve isn’t anything spectacular. You are not going to see amazing geological formations, waterfalls, or anything else that takes your breath away. It isn’t like that. It is, however, a nice little piece of nature located in close proximity to Orlando and a visit here presents a nice change of pace from the usual man- made Orlando attractions.
Plan Your Visit
Contrary to popular belief, Florida is not just a state comprised of resorts, theme parks, and tourist traps. The state does have a natural side and it can be experienced first- hand at the Disney Wilderness Preserve. There is no admission charge, so a visit fits perfectly within the limits of any family budget. The Nature Conservancy gladly accepts donations, but the attraction is otherwise free of charge.
A family trip to Orlando is almost an American rite of passage and millions visit the region each year. The theme parks certainly have their appeal, but the Disney Wilderness Preserve offers an attraction of a different sort and it makes a great addition to your vacation agenda. It’s a nice change of pace and its quietness, greenness, and natural qualities make for an almost therapeutic departure from the usual Orlando adventure.
Copyright 2013, Bryan Carey