Ah, Orlando. The land of the Big Mouse. Sure, this central Florida destination has loads to offer, but let’s face it: Walt Disney World’s theme parks are probably the biggest draw for visitors in the area.
Wandering the grounds of Disney, you’d never guess that there are sanctuaries of nature hidden right amid the coasters.
The Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival offers green-thumb enthusiasts the chance to appreciate an astounding panorama of landscapes. The "Gardens of The World" tour – a three-hour walking experience through the World Showcase – allows visitors to examine how carefully planned landscaping is a crucial element in conveying an authentic sense of place for each of the 11 nation’s pavilions.
Formerly known as the Living Seas, The Seas with Nemo & Friends pavilion at Epcot contains one of the largest man-made ocean environments with a complete coral reef inhabited by sharks, tropical fish, rays and dolphins – in all, more than 60 species. An imaginative mix of fantasy and real sea life, the major facility is dedicated to man's relationship with the underwater world. Whimsical and visually stunning, the attraction magically delivers ocean conservation messages.
Certified divers can experience Epcot DiveQuest, a exploratory program for Walt Disney World guests inside the pavilion's saltwater environment. For snorkelers, the Seas Aqua Tour provides an immersive plunge into the aquarium. Native Floridians and visitors alike delight in watching the tranquil sea life below.
Greenhouse magic takes place at Epcot’s The Land Pavilion. Guests on the Living with the Land attraction can see an experimental greenhouse – where produce is grown for Epcot restaurants – and take a first-hand look at an aqua environment, the Aquacell, with alligators and fish. The greenhouse nurtures crops that are native to many worldwide environments, including rice, sugar cane and bananas.
The Behind the Seeds greenhouse tour provides guests with a one-hour long indoor walking tour to discover the secrets of how The Land Pavilion grows delicious produce indoors. See the future of agriculture and learn the advance, and often experimental, techniques to grow hydroponic crops with little or no soil.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge offers a unique opportunity – a room with a view. And how! What a phenomenal sight to open the window any time of the day or night and take in a savannah that’s home to more than 30 species of wildlife. I’ve seen giraffes, zebras, wildebeest and East African Crowned Cranes, to name a few. I stepped out onto the balcony at 1 a.m. and came face to face with a pair of giraffes – a memory I’ll cherish forever.
A working 43-acre wildlife reserve, Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge offers opportunities for guests to meet with African cultural representatives and the animal care team. It’s all quite unforgettable, considering that the typical image of a theme park entails rides rather than rhinos.
While you’d expect to see animals at Animal Kingdom, what’s less expected is the real-life, unrehearsed drama of watching a veterinarian and his medical team through picture windows as they tend to their African charges – more than 200 animals in all – giving birth, getting checkups or undergoing treatments. You can even relay questions through an attendant to the vet staff about the animals’ diets, habits and personalities.
Strap on your pith helmet and ready your binoculars before boarding the Kilimanjaro Safari of Animal Kingdom where you’ll get to see the wild animals of Africa – wallowing in waterholes, grazing the savannah’s grasses and reclining under trees. Zebras, lions and giraffes live naturally in the grasslands, pools, waterfalls and lush green forests. With no fences or visible barriers, the animals are separated in secret ways into agreeable groups.
In the center of the park is a tree like no other – the spectacular Tree of Life, which depicts 325 animals, from the regal lion to the playful dolphin, carved into the tree’s roots, trunk and branches. Rising 14 graceful stories and stretching 50 feet wide, its branches beckon: Come take a closer look.
At Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge, guests can actually enter a serene animal reserve for an up-close personal encounter on the Wanyama Safari experience. Offered in the afternoons, seven days a week, adventurers gather in the lounge area at Jiko - the Cooking Place with a guide who readies the group for a viewing safari. Up to 12 people can board a specially designed vehicle for a bird's-eye view of a typical African safari.
I can’t resist the allure of Typhoon Lagoon, where water enthusiasts like me can snorkel in Shark Reef, a massive saltwater pool. You can go fin-to-fin, so to speak, with exotic marine life including stingrays, schools of colorful tropical fish and leopard and bennethead sharks.
If you don’t feel like getting wet, watch snorkelers through the underwater portholes of a wrecked ship in the center of the reef. A real stress-buster is Castaway Creek, a meandering, 2,000-foot stream circling the lagoon where you can tube through a misty rain forest and a hidden grotto and see a spectacular view of Typhoon Lagoon and its many activities.