The Natural Side of Orlando

The Natural Side of Orlando photo

For most people, Orlando is synonymous with theme parks, those man-made attractions created in some cases to resemble wild places from around the world. But, believe it or not, Orlando has a natural side, a side where you can commune with nature Florida style — and all without taking out a second mortgage on your house.

Orlando lies within the semi-tropical zone. And while you may not run into alligators amidst the tall grass of the Everglades, you can find lots of them in the Black Hammock Recreation Area. The best way to experience this natural area is to take an airboat ride tour of Lake Jesup and Bird Island. More Florida gators live in Lake Jesup than any other place in Florida. After your ride, visit the free wildlife exhibit or just spend time relaxing with a cool drink by the lake.

For a more adventurous day out, go to Forever Florida and take one of its eco-safaris. Journey deep into this 4700-acre ranch and wildlife conservation area, with its nine Florida ecosystems and an endless array of natural flora and fauna including alligators, black bears, as well as the endangered Florida panther and nearly 200 species of birds. You'll find a fully-guided adventure tailored to your level of adventure and comfort. You have a choice of experiencing the reserve on horseback or in the air-conditioned comfort of a small motorcoach. For a real thrill, try soaring through the treetops on the Zipline Safari.

Beyond the wild natural world, Orlando is well known for its gardens. One of the most beautiful is the Harry P. Leu Gardens. Here, landscaped gardens and lakes, set in nearly 50 acres of land, feature plants and flowers gathered since 1936 from around the world. Included in this floral array is the largest rose garden in Florida and America's largest camellia collection outside of California. The Leu House, Harry P. Leu's former home set within the grounds and dating back to the 1880's, has tours every half hour showcasing Florida living at the turn of the 20th century.

If you love orchids, then you won't want to miss a visit to the World of Orchids out in Kissimmee, featuring thousands of blooms in an enclosed tropical rain forest, the World of Orchids is a working greenhouse shipping orchids and other plants nationwide. Its huge acre-sized greenhouse displays nearly 1,000 orchids in a natural jungle setting, with streams, waterfalls, and squawking parrots, all in a controlled climate of warm, humid air. Be sure to explore the adjacent wetlands along the 1,000-foot boardwalk. The best part of the World of Orchids is that it's free.

Another place to see exotic plants is at the Historic Bok Sanctuary, featuring acres of intricately landscaped gardens filled with an exotic array of flowers and trees. The gardens, located in nearby Lake Wales, are home to a colony of wood ducks and many other wild birds. In the middle of the gardens sits the famous Bok Tower, with its 60-bell carillon playing music daily at 3P.M.

The largest garden in Orlando, the University of Central Florida's Arboretum covers 80 acres and contains over 600 species of plants, including more than 100 bromeliads, in a cultivated botanical garden. Its cultivated areas currently include a Fern Garden, Rose Garden, Conservatory, Palm Collection, Bromeliad Sanctuary, Cycad Garden, Swamp Habitat, and Wetland Plants Display. It, too, is free.

So if you've done the theme parks and want a different Orlando experience, try checking out Mother Nature instead. Book well in advance for some generous discounts on hotel prices, check flight prices with and you could be enjoying the Florida sun and its myriad attractions before you know it.