Adventures on the Water in Central Florida
From a turret in Cinderella's castle, there's a good view of the Magic Kingdom, and it extends farther than you think. If Orlando boasts the princess' quarters, Seminole County is her backyard paradise.
Just 15 minutes north of Orlando's major theme parks, 2,000 lakes and waterways promise adventure, from the majestic St. Johns River to the sprightliest of springs; from lakes teeming with creatures big to creeks laced with creatures small. Zip around by airboat or glide like royalty on a river tour. On the other side of Orlando, you'll find nature's calling the whole family to dive right in.
Steady your sea legs and climb aboard with the St. John's Rivership Company for a dinner cruise. From your booth's huge window, watch 25 miles of the St. Johns River slip past. You won't miss a single egret or alligator while you enjoy the ship's fresh fare. On deck, spot herons and ospreys amid the cypress and sweeping oaks. Whatever the time, you'll forget it as you chart a course down some of St. Johns' 342 freshwater miles. Temperate and slow moving, you'll be lulled by the river's mysterious charms, including its northward flow and ancient flora.
Say "Hi" to Hammy! This 12-foot-plus, 680-pound gator greets you from his pen at Black Hammock Adventures in Oviedo. Barrel down Lake Jesup, home to more alligators than any other lake in Florida. On the banks at Black Hammock they number in the tens, and from your open vantage on the 12-seater airboat you'll lose count altogether. More than 100,000 years old and 16,000 acres, the lake hosts birds, bobcats and wild boars, and you're likely to see blue heron, eagles and osprey. On your 30-minute trip you'll see it all and at thrilling speeds. Take a night ride, if you dare, and claim an 'I Survived Alligator Sea' T-Shirt for a discounted price with your ticket.
Hooked on the chase? Head to Lake Harney, where Central Florida Airboat Tours steers the family around the backlands of the St. Johns River. Bill's Airboat Adventures offers guided tours on the St. Johns (by appointment only) with airboat tours that even include a shore stop.
Ready to get wet? Wekiwa Springs State Park is a dense semi tropical forest. All 7,800 acres of designated "scenic and wild" land cast you back to the rugged days of the Timucuan Indians. First, sink into the lagoon-like spring. This shallow, jewel-toned water is mild and clear, shaded by the rich, atmospheric foliage of oaks, sweet gum and pine trees. Sunbathe on the grassy bank, or try the quarter-mile walk from the lowlands to the sandy ridges, exploring eight plant communities as you go. Scan the treetops for bald eagles and the brush for black bears, or go horseback riding.
Next, grab your paddles and slide along the Wekiva River. Canoe rentals are available at three liveries. Look for Indian middens and the curious, funnel-shaped sinkholes that surround the Wekiva. Get close to native aquatic plants like pickerelweed and eelgrass, and watch the speckled perch and largemouth bass go by. Discover Wekiwa's delicate ecosystem and tool around in the primitive playground as long as you like.
No kingdom is complete without an enchanted forest. Check out Big Tree Park, which is reopening in February 2013 after its crown jewel – a towering 138-foot, 3,500-year-old bald cypress, the largest in the country, named the Senator – sadly burned down in 2012. The Senator's companion tree, Lady Liberty, still stands and weighs in at a staggering 89 feet. The park plans on planting a clone of the Senator as part of its reopening.
Want to monkey around on land some more? Head to the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens, where you'll find rare and endangered animals.
Still thirsting for thrills? Seminole County is just a hop and a skip from the theme parks and the welcoming shore of Daytona Beach. The area's central location and low hotel room rates make it a great place to use as a base for these types of day trips. After getting your feet wet in the other magic kingdom, you'll have a hard time topping this aquatic adventure.