It seemed like a bit of a misnomer…going to visit what is essentially a zoo called “Wild Florida”. But after learning that this central Florida attraction is actually a sanctuary for rescue animals, abandoned exotic pets, and even misguided alligators who stray into someone’s private pool, I found myself enjoying the opportunity to get up close and personal with some of these creatures. And what made the visit even better, was that this Cypress Lake property also offers airboat rides – and what’s a visit to Florida without an airboat ride!
A Rescue Zoo
Located right on the shores of Lake Cypress, less than an hour south of Orlando, Wild Florida bills itself as an ‘Airboats and Gator Park’, because it offers both adventure tours (on airboats and swamp buggies), as well as a sanctuary-cum-zoo that is home to over 200 animals.
It’s always sad to think that people mistreat or discard pets of any kind, but it is especially sad when those animals are exotics. Which is why it is nice to know that places like Wild Florida take these creatures in and provide a place where they can live that is safe and comfortable.
I was surprised by the sheer variety of animals and birds who call this place home, including both North American species and others that come from around the planet, like zebras, watusi, and these beautifully coloured, somewhat camera-shy macaws.
Not so shy was this grey crowned crane, an absolutely stunning bird that I had first seen in the wild in the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. It was sad to see this proud beauty in a cage after watching them roam free under an African sky, but knowing that this one at least had found a home after being rescued was some consolation.
There were also sloths (one of which had given birth here recently), and a whole community of playful black and white lemurs that were about as cute as it gets when it comes to posing for photos.
The alligators are of course, the headliners at Wild Florida, and they come in all sizes, from baby gators like “Fluffy” who is accustomed to posing for “gator hug selfies”, to full-grown behemoths who are much more intimidating at up to 15 feet in length and weighing in at almost 1000 pounds.
I steered clear of getting anywhere near these big boys, other than capturing one mid-leap with my camera.
Many of Wild Florida’s gators found their way here because they were identified as ‘nuisance gators’, alligators larger than 4 feet in length who have taken up residence on golf courses, private property or other locations where they might pose a threat to people or pets. Since they can’t be relocated without causing more territorial problems with native gator populations, Wild Florida gives them a home here, where feeding them is part of one of several wildlife encounters that are offered to visitors.
TIP: If you are interested in turning the tables on these predators and seeing how they taste, you can always sample some Gator Bites at Wild Florida’s Chomp House Grill!
Cypress Swamp Boardwalk
Nothing screams Everglades like Cypress trees, and Wild Florida has its own mini-swamp on the property with a raised boardwalk that allows you to stroll through this waterlogged forest in comfort. What I learned from the guide here was that these strange ‘bumps’ protruding out of the water from the cypress’ submerged roots are called ‘knees’ and are believed by some to assist the tree is bringing oxygen to its roots.
However, it seems like all botanists don’t agree, and some argue that the knees act more like a buttress for cypresses that grow in swamps, so that the trees have more stability on their soggy footing.
Airboat Ride – a Florida Must
With all the talk of Everglades and mangroves and cypress swamps, a visit to Florida without taking at least one airboat ride is a missed opportunity. Because these high-speed boats are the best way to tour these environments. And for those of us grownups who remember the television series ‘Gentle Ben’ from the 60s, what more reason do you need to hop on board one of these swamp speedsters.
Here’s a glimpse of what that experience looks like on Cypress Lake. The noise you hear is one reason why you need to wear noise-reducing headphones on the boat. The other is so that you can hear the Guide point out some of the features on the lake – like ancient cypress trees who have survived for generations, and of course, lake-dwelling gators!
Between the alligators who call this lake home, and the cows who like to graze here in the shallows, Cypress Lake is definitely not for swimming. But it is very pretty, and an airboat ride out on its waters is a great opportunity to spot herons, eagles, and other wildlife.
A Tame Sort of ‘Wild’
With its beautiful location on Lake Cypress, the airboat rides it offers and the animal encounters at its rescue zoo, Wild Florida has something for every member of the family – even if this is a tamer sort of ‘wild’.
TIP: Admission to the the Wildlife Park is free if you purchase a Wild Florida Airboat Tour (and why wouldn’t you!) But note that animal photography is not normally allowed because the Park encourages you to buy photos from them instead, which helps fund the costs of maintaining the animals. I was part of a group tour hosted by Experience Kissimmee, so we had been given special permission to take photos.