Your Guide to Florida Zoos, Refuges and Preserves
By Lauren Tjaden
If you feel in need of a shudder, Orlando’s Gatorland has the perfect recipe. You can watch huge alligators gliding silently through the swamp, prehistoric, massive creatures, looking for a mate or a meal. You can even see them leap out of the water – four feet or more- for a treat.
If you’re more in the mood for beauty, the cheetahs of Busch Gardens Tampa Bay should do the trick. Built for speed, long and lean, these spotted cats are a study in acceleration, strength, and predatory skills.
And if you’re hoping for a laugh, you can’t do better than feeding grapes to ring-tailed lemurs at Giraffe Ranch, which will grab the goodies from your fingers with their own limber hands.
Wild animals are fascinating, diverse creatures, and your family can see and learn about them at zoos and preserves all across Florida. Read on to discover the offerings in your neck of the sandbar.
Take a tour with McCarthy Wildlife Sanctuary, the number one rated attraction in West Palm Beach, to see over 200 animals that include squirrels, hawks, owls and panthers, as well as to interact with a small animal like a parrot. The thrill factor comes from being able to get so close to these amazing animals, much closer than in a zoo or on a safari ride. Don’t forget your camera; the photo opportunities are colorful and unique. Appointments are required.
Dolphins, sea lions, sea turtles, fish, sharks, stingrays, alligators, and birds: Theater of the Sea has been sharing them with visitors in up-close-and-personal shows and interaction programs since 1946. There, you can meet a dolphin – and even get pulled around the lagoon by one- as well as interact with sea lions and swim with sharks. This family owned facility is nestled in the heart of the Florida Keys, half way between Miami and Key West.
The 43-acre Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens celebrates nature, family and animals. To say it’s a landmark in Collier County is an understatement; 2019 marks its 100th year as a botanical garden and its 50th year as a zoo. Animals that include bears, tigers and panthers are showcased in exhibits along a path of about a mile through the tropical garden, planted in 1919. The zoo offers events that include yoga, camps, holiday events, and even free days.
Zoo Miami is touted as the largest zoo in Florida, encompassing a staggering 750 acres, and it’s the oldest one, too, with a history that can be traced back to 1948. As the only sub-tropical zoo in the continental United States, it utilizes south Florida’s balmy climate to keep a wide variety of animals -- more than 3,000 animals across 500 different species -- from Asia, Australia, Africa, and the Americas, making it different from any other zoo in the country. The lush exhibits mimic the animals' natural habitats and allow you to enjoy beautiful and endangered wildlife at a safe, yet remarkably close range. With events, activities like feedings, rides and kids zones, as well as personal tours, it’s sure to make your whole gang smile.
Located in eastern Sarasota County, Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary provides a permanent home for dozens of exotic animals, offers placement for animals in need, and works to educate the public about animal care and conservation. This large-animal rescue was founded in 1987 by Kay Rosaire, who has a family history of animal training that goes back generations. The nonprofit sanctuary features demonstrations and training sessions that are included with tickets.
The Palm Beach Zoo, home to over 550 animals and 190 species, many endangered, invites you to go wild with a visit to their 23-acre lush, tropical park. The non-profit zoo offers a wide variety of events and education programs, including overnight adventures and camps. They’ll even host your birthday party. The zoo sponsors conservation projects all over the world.
Beautiful and relaxing, Butterfly World, located in Coconut Creek, provides fluttery acres of delights, from exotic butterflies to amazing birds. Holding bragging rights as the first of its kind in the Western hemisphere and the largest butterfly park in the world, the park is also home to the country's largest free-flight hummingbird aviary.
Gatorama was an original Florida roadside attraction, started in 1957 by a colorful character of questionable reputation named Cecil Clemons. While now a respected establishment, Gatorama is still the place to play wild. It offers adventures that range from child friendly, like the Uncle Waders Catch A Gator Pond, where your little ones can climb into a pool of baby gators and learn how to catch the critters, to the infamous Face to Face, an encounter that will allow you get extremely close with Big Daddy, a toothy resident of massive proportions. The ultimate adventure is the Fast Hands No Hands Challenge, where you lean over the edge of a bridge as hungry Gators and Crocs leap out of the water to snag a snack from your grip.
At Monkey Jungle, a historic Miami area attraction, “humans are caged and monkeys run wild!” Established in 1935, 300 primates live here much as they would in their native habitats, most running free on the 30-acre preserve. Experience the thrill of watching them in oh-so-close animal encounters in one of the few protected habitats for endangered primates in the United States, the only one that the general public can explore.
Lion Country Safari promises you’ll make treasured memories at its drive-through safari and walk-through amusement park. When the 660-acre park opened in 1967, it was the first drive-through safari park in the country, introducing the concept of a ‘Cageless Zoo’ to animal lovers. It offers animal displays and encounters, animal feeding experiences, five rides, and more. You’ll find the park in Loxahatchee, in Palm Beach County.
Located in Miami, with a 75 year-history, Jungle Island combines the thrills of a theme park with an eco-adventure. It offers a vertical wind-tunnel, where you can experience flying without a parachute, private tours, a secret-escape room, overnight adventures, camps, events and more. After all that action, a unique animal show like Winged Wonders or Wild Adventures will give you a chance to relax. Remember to take a selfie with one of the park’s iconic parrots at the entryway.
An oasis of calm and beauty, the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory invites you stroll among lovely gardens, with pathways that wander through waterfalls, flowering plants and lush trees, all brimming with free-flying butterflies and small birds. The Conservatory also boasts a learning center, a gift shop and a gallery.
Safari Wilderness Ranch, located in Lakeland between Tampa and Orlando, isn’t a zoo, and it doesn’t have crowds or lines. Instead, it promises a natural adventure, where you’ll tour large herds of exotic game on 260 acres of pristine wilderness in customized safari vehicles. A more adventurous mode of transport is aboard a camel. Don’t forget to interact with the ring-tailed lemurs, primates with a gentle touch that feels remarkably like a human baby. Reservations are required.
Located in Palm Harbor, The Suncoast Primate Sanctuary Foundation provides a permanent home to former laboratory animals, retirees from the film industry, and personal pets that had nowhere else to go – over 100 animals in all, including chimpanzees, orangutans, monkeys, reptiles, tropical birds and more. You’re invited to come learn what’s unique about each of these individuals and why the Sanctuary has come to love them.
Releasing a once-injured bird back into the wild and watching it fly away has got to be one of the top feel-good experiences of all time, and Seaside Seabird Sanctuary, located in Indian Shores, knows how to make it happen. Open to the public, with over 100 birds on display, this non-profit rescues, treats, and rehabilitates 2,500 - 3,000 sick and injured wild birds annually, with the goal of releasing them back into the wild. Complete with emergency facilities, a surgical center, and indoor and outdoor rehab areas, the Sanctuary welcomes visitors seven days a week. The photo opportunities alone are worth the visit. Admission and parking are free.
Crocs and gators and snakes, oh my! Croc Encounters Reptile Park and Wildlife Center in Tampa offers self-guided tours, but a guided tour will get you a much closer look, as well as feeding demonstrations, photo ops and some hands-on experiences. Please call ahead to schedule.
Have you ever wanted to swim with tigers? How about alligators? It’s true; you can actually experience these adventures at Dade City’s Wild Things Zoo. The zoo prides itself on being anything but ordinary, offering intimate, guided tours where you can ask questions and get up close to all of your favorite animals. You can even have your wedding in the park’s gorgeous botanical garden.
Lions, tigers, jaguars, bobcats, and lynx: Big Cat Rescue is home to all of them and more. This animal sanctuary near Tampa rescues and houses exotic cats as well as rehabilitating injured and orphaned native wild cats. It’s devoted to ending the abuse of big cats in captivity, and preventing their extinction in the wild. You can visit the cats on a guided tour, but reservations are required. Book early, tours fill quickly.
ZooTampa at Lowry Park is a lifesaver—literally. It’s rescued hundreds of manatees in the wild for nearly three decades, and continues that tradition today. That means a fascinating experience for you; you can visit the Zoo’s manatee patients and watch its life-saving care in real time. You can also interact with animals in up-close encounters, take part in the Zoo University, and even bring your little ones to the Zoo and enjoy story time, games, sing-a-long, arts and crafts, and an animal mingle on Toddler Tuesdays. Afterwards the fun with the critters, can cool off onboard a boat in Roaring Springs for a family trip along a flowing stream. Hang on when you hear the roar of the water – it finishes with a three-story splashdown!
Life at the Central Florida Animal Reserve revolves around the big cats it serves, including lions, tigers, leopards, and cougars. You can see and learn about these magnificent animals on a guided walking tour. Reservations are required.
Brevard Zoo is all about wildlife conservation through education and participation. It focuses on responsible, passionate care for the animals and connecting visitors to the natural world through a unique, enjoyable Zoo experience. Nestled in Melbourne on 75 acres, the facility is home to more than 900 animals spanning 195 species. Besides exploring the exhibits, you can feed giraffe, kayak through Expedition Africa, mingle with lemurs and more. The Zoo also hosts a steady stream of events, like ‘Safari Under the Stars,’ which boasts tasty food and drink, world-class entertainment and a thrilling live auction, as well an appearance by legendary animal expert and wildlife conservation champion Jack Hanna.
Heralded as one of the largest zoos in all of North America, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay embraces more than 200 species of animals, from the exotic to the endangered. Your gang can experience one-of-a-kind adventures there, connecting up-close to and feeding animals. You can even watch Busch Gardens Tampa Bay's team of veterinarians in action as ‘The Wildlife Docs,’ now on the CW network, following the exciting and challenging lives of a veterinary staff that cares for over 2,000 animals.
If you want to feed a giraffe, go on a camel safari, and thrill to the spectacle of large herds of zebra, antelope and other animals on open grasslands, Giraffe Ranch is the place to go. Located in Dade City, this working ranch specializes in exotic species as well as domestic cattle and horses. Tour the property with an expert guide; options include 4-wheel drive vehicles, llamas and even Segways. Reservations are required.
Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens invites you into their lush, tropical world, home to some of our planet’s rarest animals as well as local wildlife like the Florida black bear and the American alligator. Learn about the animals in the Keeper Chats, take a spin on the carousel or hop aboard the miniature train. The adventurous can try a unique zip lining adventure, but it’s a given the whole posse will want to cool off at the Wharton Smith Tropical Splash Ground. Nighttime experiences, camps, events and homeschool experiences round out the fun.
Attractions and rides! Characters and entertainment! Exotic animals in the wild! Restaurants, safaris, treks and more! There’s hardly anything you can’t find at Disney's Animal Kingdom. The animals are spectacular and rare, like Western Lowland Gorillas, the world’s largest primates, and Asian Tigers, feared predators that make lower species tremble. But it’s Disney, and that means the adventures are just beginning. You can enjoy high-speed thrills and immerse yourself in The World of Avatar; delight to musicals, and meet and greet your favorite Disney Characters. After dark, the action continues with Rivers of Light, a music-filled water and light show.
A sign at Gatorland jokingly warns ‘trespassers may be eaten.’ While you don’t need to worry about becoming a snack for the toothy residents of the park, you can expect plenty of thrills and goosebumps at the old-time Orlando attraction, open since 1949. You can see alligators galore, from tiny grunts to 14-foot monsters, and if that’s not enough adrenalin, the thrilling Screamin’ Gator Zip Line and Stompin’ Gator Off-Road Adventure will positively get your heart pounding. Visitors can also enjoy a free-flight aviary and petting zoo as well as fascinating animal shows.
GatorWorld Parks of Florida, located in Wildwood, features a drive-thru park where you can view gators lounging in roadside pools – but the end of the drive is where the fun really starts. Brave visitors can feed a frenzy of young gators from a raised platform, dangling a pole over the hungry mob. If you feel like holding something warm and cuddly after the action with the reptiles, an encounter with a bunny rabbit in the petting zoo is bound to please. The park also serves as a sanctuary and rescue facility for alligators.
Enter the slithery domain of Reptile World Serpentarium, a working venom factory in St. Cloud, to see dangerous snakes ‘milked’ for their valuable venom. Reptile World ships the venom worldwide for use in medical and herpetological research. The plain-Jane, cinder-block building houses hundreds of venomous snakes, including an impressive 13-plus foot King Cobra, a sleek Black Mamba and all four of Florida's venomous snakes, as well as Monitors, Bearded Dragons, alligators, crocs and more.
Seacrest Wolf Preserve in Chipley offers an unforgettable experience, taking visitors on a walking journey into generous natural habitats that are home to Gray, Arctic and British Columbian wolves. Become part of the pack in this rare, hands-on experience, interacting with the Seacrest Wolf Ambassadors as you learn about this amazing keystone species.
Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary rescues big cats from serious situations and provides them with loving, forever homes. Ranked number one of 157 things to do in Jacksonville by TripAdvisor, a visit includes a walking tour, where you can see and ask questions about tigers, lions, cougars, leopards, bobcats, arctic foxes, and coatimundis. It’s fascinating to watch how keepers enrich the zoo animals’ lives with opportunities to do something with their time, giving the animals mental stimulation and physical exercise. Following your tour, you’re free to wander on your own and revisit the animals.
St. Augustine is the country’s oldest city, and it’s home to one of Florida's oldest continuously running attractions, The St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park, which opened in 1893. An oldie-but-goodie, the park is the only place in the world where you can see every living species of crocodilian, as well as birds, reptiles, fossils, and more. In the unlikely event that the Python Cave and the Land of Crocodiles should leave you feeling sleepy, a trip over the zoo on its zipline is sure to wake you up.
You’ll find Uncle Sandy’s Macaw Bird Park Parrot Rescue and Sanctuary in Pensacola, a non-profit that rescues and cares for unwanted parrots and other exotic birds. The parrots are gorgeous, colorful creatures, and you’re invited to come enjoy and interact with them. Remember your camera.
Forest Animal Rescue, located in Silver Springs, is a true sanctuary, offering exclusive guided tours only twice a month, led by one of the sanctuary’s founders in their Land Rover. But they’re worth it; you can see black bears, tigers, lemurs, and more, and your visit helps support the animals. Registration and prepayment are required.
The award-winning Gulf Breeze Zoo promises 50 acres of wild adventure, and it lives up to the hype, showcasing over 800 animals from around the globe. Experiences include hand-feeding giraffes, an interactive petting area, alligator feeding and taking selfies with the colorful birds in the free flight Australian aviary. A guided Safari Train ride through the 30-acre African preserve, home to rhinos, hippos, and orangutans, rounds out the fun. Conservation is a fundamental mission of the zoo, and it encourages visitors to join them in making a difference.
With over 2,000 animals and 1,000 plants, it’s hardly a wonder that Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens is heralded as one of the city's premier attractions. Its first-of-its-kind botanical garden is inside of the zoo, included among the animal exhibits, making for a beautiful, lush experience. The zoo’s offerings include a train, after-dark adventures like night hikes and sleep-overs, as well as camps, tours, events, scavenger hunts and special experiences like zookeeper for a day. Make sure to save time to visit The Range of the Jaguar, a two-time national award-winning South American exhibit, and Stingray Bay, a fun, interactive exhibit where you can pet and feed the stingrays. The zoo is active in animal conservation.
History, nature, and wildlife join on 52-acres of the Tallahassee Museum, an iconic Tallahassee attraction for over 60 years. This top-ranked Florida museum features living exhibits of native Florida wildlife as well as nature trails and native gardens. Adventure enthusiasts can also enjoy an overhead view of the park in the Museum’s zip line and aerial adventure course.
The Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo in Gainesville is one of only two teaching zoos in the nation, a unique 10-acre facility that showcases a diverse collection over 75 different species of animals maintained by over 200 students. Stroll the wheelchair accessible trail through the shady trees to enjoy Bald Eagles, monkeys, kangaroo and many other mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. The zoo also offers events ranging from holiday affairs to musical extravaganzas and more.