Orlando Ecotourism Attractions and Activities
By Andrew Meacham
Between Ocala National Forest and Walt Disney World Resort, the John F. Kennedy Space Center and Sea World, Orlando gives everyone a different look.
But beneath the glistening jewels the world sees lies the cool and beating heart of the state, thousands of lakes and the wildlife that attracted the Timucua and then the Seminole Indians.
Now we are learning ways to enjoy our environment and do what we can to preserve and rebuild it.
Sometimes that’s by getting down in the muck to cut out invasive species with a machete. More likely, the idea of traveling “responsibly” is about being aware of just how fragile an ecosystem is and trying to keep it alive, among other principles espoused by the International Ecotourism Society.
Birds passing through
If you start off in Orlando, a visit to the Orange Audubon Society Program will give you a chance to view some of the best avian photography while supporting the effort to support Florida’s endangered birds. Located at the north tip of the Harry P. Leu Gardens, the Audubon gallery also overlooks Lake Rowena.
A half-hour northwest of town is Lake Apopka. Purchased by the state from farmers in 1996, the state’s fourth-largest lake, is making a comeback. Readings of wildlife-damaging phosphorus are now at half their 1980s levels, thanks to ongoing restoration efforts.
Take the audio tour on the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive, which holds the record for most populous inland single-day bird count, with 174 distinct species, taken on Dec. 25, 1998. The drive is 11 miles, there’s a 10-mph speed limit and pull-over opportunities are limited, so allow two hours to complete it. It’s open on weekends only.
The North Shore Birding Festival, which draws avian photographers from across the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, returns yearly in January. Proceeds benefit the Orange Audubon Society.
Blue Spring State Park lies 45 minutes north of Orlando on Interstate-4 East. Jacques Cousteau once filmed the plight of the manatees here as they sought escape from colder waters. The park still forbids swimming from November through March for their protection.
The Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge offers a shot in the arm for conservation, even in the face of the space program. Through 140,000 acres of acquired land by NASA in 1962 and subsequent acquisition by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the area is home to scrub habitats that are disappearing elsewhere. Information about events, guided tours and lifetime passes is available here.
Plunge right in
Just 11 miles north of Orlando, Wekiwa Springs State Park lies like a thick furrow of shade. Hiking trails of 5 or 13 miles will get you acquainted with the surroundings, and maybe with the occasional bobcat or black bear.
The area is loaded with state parks, and some are particularly distinctive. Naturalist John James Audubon wrote of the circular motion and alleged healing powers of the cool waters within what is now De Leon Springs State Park, about an hour south of Orlando.
Hikes, Bikes, Horseback
Hikers and bicyclists make their way through Lake Apopka Loop Trail, a separate 18-mile route that’s open seven days a week. This guide gets you started. Apopka is also a major horse town, with dozens of trails covering 374 miles. Waters Edge Stables, Oakmore Equestrian and Central Florida Equestrian Center are all located within blocks of Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive.
If you’re ready for it, the Paisley Woods Bicycle Trail could prove an uplifting ride. This is a spectacular 22.2-mile loop on the south end of the Ocala National Forest, offering lots of pine and oak and unbroken views. The trail isn’t paved, but mountain bikes (2” to 4” tires) can handle the terrain, which extends to Clearwater Lake Recreation Area and campground on the southern end. Spare inner tube and repair kit recommended.
If you want to get a feel for Central Florida ecology, spend time at its lakes. Paddleboard Orlando offers a 90-minute starter lesson and tour of Lake Killarney and nearby lakes. Kelly Park is the locals’ choice tubing spot. Rent inner tubes or bring your own. Water from a natural spring flows into Wekiwa Springs State Park, where the water stays 68 degrees year round.
FOOD AND DINING
Chefs from Luma on Park and Prato in Winter Park (five miles north of Orlando), and K Restaurant and The Rusty Spoon (both in Orlando) are James Beard Foundation ‘Best Chef’ semi-finalists. They and others on this list of recommended farm-to-table dining spots pledge to stick to local ingredients.
Farmer’s markets offer locally grown fruits and vegetables plus hard-to-find items such as orange blossom honey harvested at Dansk Farm in Winter Haven. The Orlando Farmers Market offers a downtown date-night ambiance, with a paddleboat cruise around Lake Eola among several varieties of swans.
Bus, Trolley, Rail
The Lynx bus system is good for the downtown business district, the I-Ride Trolley for getting around International Drive. SunRail will take you to 12 stations across three counties. For more precise transportation other than your own, you’re better off with a taxi service. But there are ecologically friendly alternatives.
Green Lodging Program
Since 2004, Florida has encouraged innkeepers to improve sustainability standards, including water and energy conservation, through less frequent changing of towels and linens, efficient showerheads and low-flow toilets. The Green Lodging program isn’t just an attaboy; it also rates participants on a scale of one to four palm trees.
Of the lodgings listed in the state, only five have a perfect four-palm rating. And four of the five are in the Orlando area. They are: The Wyndham Garden Lake Buena Vista Resort, the Wyndham Bonnet Creek Resort, Marriott’s Cypress Harbour Villas, and the Wyndham Cypress Palms Kissimmee.
Top ratings from the Green Lodging Program aren't the only consideration, however. The Legacy Vacation Resort Orlando-Kissimmee, for instance, has a 2-palms rating from the state program, but it also is a member of the 1% for the Planet, whose members contribute at least 1% of annual sales to environmental causes.
Blue Spring State Park, 30 miles north or Orlando, has campsites and rental cabins, and is a 3.5-mile canoe paddle up the St. Johns River from Hontoon Island State Park, which makes for a peaceful day trip. Timucuan Indians are believed to have been the island’s first inhabitants. They left a shell mound behind.
A Growing Trend
A recent survey by Travelocity reports that more than a quarter of American travelers say they plan to spend part of a trip volunteering this year.
The same survey found that Orlando stands at No. 7 among the top 10 U.S. cities for volunteer destinations, with start-ups such as Clean the World Orlando, which recycles hospitality soap, and the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida.
Bright and Early
Thirty minutes west of Orlando lies the 128-acre Oakland Nature Preserve. The photos on the site give you an idea why they call it a hidden jewel. The preserve accepts volunteers, including same-day workers for a Saturday morning’s work. Prospective volunteers need to have arrived by 7:45 a.m. to receive orientation, instructions here. You might be asked to blow leaves, do light office work, remove invasive plants, prepare soil or help in plantings.
Orlando Wetlands Park, about a half hour south of Orlando in the town of Christmas, Fla., has a colorful history going back to the 1830s, when Brig. Gen. Abraham Eustus built Fort Christmas as a Seminole encampment. The threat in recent decades has come from phosphorus and nitrogen. It’s useful for fertilizer, not good for aquatic life. The park accepts volunteers age 18 or older.
Friends of Lake Apopka might not be the kind of group that changes its website every week, but they are well worth watching.
At Do Good Date Night, Kristin Manieri, of Orlando, combined a catered group meal and games with packing food and school supplies for kids and families around the world. Events can last just a couple of hours at a time, a mixture of food volunteerism and maybe even romance.