By VISIT FLORIDA staff
The 10-foot gator sunning itself in Lake Cypress seems oblivious to the airboat and its seven passengers just two feet away.
On a delightful end-of-winter Florida day, the water is still a little cool but the air is warm enough for full-body reptile sightings. By summer, only their heads are usually visible.
The leader of this airboat tour, Capt. George Hastings, spends a good 10 minutes at a standstill, allowing tourists to snap photos and sharing information about the gator, which all the while rests in quiet repose.
Wild Florida park co-owner and founder Sam Haught couldn’t have asked for a more perfect experience. This was just how he envisioned it when he opened his attraction four years ago in an undeveloped area of Osceola County called Kenansville.
“We’re big on (wanting) you to see what Florida used to look like,” Haught said from a 600-foot dock that takes visitors through the sawgrass and to one of seven waiting airboats at the head of the northern Everglades. “There are lots of airboat tours, but we guarantee you won’t see any development.”
What you will likely see are bald eagles, alligators, moorhens, red-winged blackbirds, limpkins and cattle. Did we mention alligators?
The alligator population in the 4,200-acre Lake Cypress is 1,100.
“He knows we’re here, right?” Fred Ziegenhagen, visiting from Oconomowoc, Wis., asks about the large gator. When the boat’s engine is restarted, the gator jumps, and so does Ziegenhagen’s wife Heather.
Guests can choose from a 30-minute, one-hour, private or sunset airboat ride.
“I loved it – it was great,” says Heather Ziegenhagen said as she disembarks from her first airboat ride.
The owners of Wild Florida park always envisioned the attraction offering more than just airboat rides and have recently expanded their wildlife offerings and meeting space. With nearby Orlando such a hotspot for conferences, a lot of corporate groups are looking for unique attractions that also offer large meeting facilities. Wild Florida opened a sophisticated 200-seat banquet room in February. The attraction hosts several corporate evening events each week, Haught said.
The ever-expanding wildlife park is intended for guests to explore at their own pace. The park, Haught said, logs 400 to 500 visitors a day. Many arrive on tour buses, and school groups bring children for field trips. The Ziegenhausens heard about Wild Florida through the concierge at their hotel.
Haught likes to brag that Wild Florida is the only official half-day attraction in the area. Experiencing all of Wild Florida takes about three to four hours.
One of the highlights of the wildlife park is a 2-acre alligator retention pond.
“It’s a cool gator hole,” Haught said. “It’s the first (Department of Environmental Protection-approved) licensed retention pond/gator pond in Florida.”
The park has an arrangement with local Fish and Wildlife Commission officers to bring trapped gators to the park, and about 50 currently make their home here.
The rest of the wildlife area has been divided by continents. Why feature animals from all over the world at a park called Wild Florida?
“We want to encourage education and understanding of animals from all over the world, not just here in Florida,” said Haught, a self-professed animal lover. “You can see animals on the Internet, but when you interact with them up close, it’s unforgettable. When we understand an animal, we feel more strongly about conserving it and loving it.”
Guests can see a cotton-top tamarin, African-crested porcupine, hornbills, a Sulcata tortoise, Moluccan cockatoos, a two-toed sloth, aracaris (medium-sized toucans from South America) and ring-tailed lemurs. An African area features zebras, a zorse and a zedonk and will eventually add Ankole-Watusi cattle and water buffalo.
The Florida exhibit features an Osceola turkey and white-tailed deer. Haught is hoping to get a permit to include a bobcat as well.
A highlight for Haught is the serene and shady Hawk Swamp, which features a 1,500-foot boardwalk through wetland habitat.
“We wanted to build it so guests can really immerse themselves in it,” he said. “It’s one of my favorite places. It’s one of the best places to bring our kids. There are lots of signs (describing the animals).”
Rick Deryck of Millville, Mass., agrees. Now that his kids are grown, Deryck said he tries to turn the annual family trips to Florida into something more than visiting theme parks.
“We used to go to Silver Springs,” Deryck said. “We like to get away from all of the busy theme parks. We love stuff like this.”
His friend Anne Flynn of Blackstone, Mass., was busy bird-watching.
“This is incredible, to just be here and listen to all the birds,” she said. “It’s awesome.”
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Wild Florida park
WHEN: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays
LOCATION: 3301 Lake Cypress Road, Kenanasville (about 45 minutes from Disney World)
TICKETS: Airboat rides run from $22 to $60 per person; admission to the Wildlife Park is $18 for adults and $15 for children
CONTACT: Call 407-901-2563 or visit www.wildfloridaairboats.com
- 3 minute read
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