Getting down and dirty with Mother Nature requires a little bit of guts and a lot of gusto, resulting in pure glory for those granola munchers in your back seat. Whether you’re a grizzly bear or a teddy bear when it comes to the great outdoors, Central Florida has just the right fit for your wilderness excursions.
Written by Jenny Fauser
Photography by Abby Liga
Modeled by Justin, Angela, Jake and Gracie of Orlando
Shot on location at Wekiva Island
You prefer to traverse the jungle via the beaten path. Making friends with the forest is a priority to you, but you’re not quite ready to take Pocahontas and her little sidekick paddling over any waterfalls. Take camping up a notch. Put away the preschool pop-up tent in her room and grab the inflatable air mattress; it’s time to welcome her to the woods.
CAMPING Well, more like “glamping” (glamour + camping)
If you’re nervous about those lions and tigers and bears, Disney’s Fort Wilderness provides quality time with Mother Nature without getting the mother of all meltdowns from your kids. Boat rides, bike paths, an outdoor movie, Chip ‘n’ Dale, sing-alongs, ﬁreworks from the boat dock, campﬁres, a fabulous kiddie pool, playgrounds galore, ponies to peer at and, oh yes, great campsites (with clean restrooms always nearby) make this place a ﬁve-star destination. Forget grilling your meals; hit the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue for dinner and a good ol’-fashioned jamboree instead. Even in the woods, the Disney magic works!
Nestled along State Road 535 near Windermere, the Tibet-Butler Nature Preserve is the place to take your novice nature lovers. Pine needle-covered paths, a bridge over a swamp and a lush forest surround you as you hike with your tots (or older kids). Afterward, visit the hands-on nature center to learn about the plants and animals you’ve discovered. Plan to peruse the preserve any day of the week except Monday and Tuesday, when it’s closed for maintenance. 8777 S.R. 535, Shore of Lake Tibet-Butler, Orlando 407-876-6696
Sing with me, “Just a boy and a girl in a little canoe …” The Wekiwa Springs State Park canoe trip is easy breezy for your tiny Indian braves. You’ve got your choice of tooling around the open area (likened to a lake-filled swimming pool) near the marina or voyaging further down the waterway to catch a peek at the wildlife. Keep in mind, this is an up and back trip. Be sure to account for that as you sing your way down the river.
1800 Wekiwa Circle, Apopka 407-884-4311
You want your kids to love the outdoors and realize the practicality of having a portable potty and your minivan within walking distance. Short trips, helpful gear and new challenges are just what your tree huggers need. Grab the sunscreen and battery-powered Coleman lantern, and let’s explore our environment.
Surveys show that Trimble Park has the best and prettiest campgrounds. With natural amenities and wildlife viewing, and not too far away in Mount Dora, this is the place to take the family. 5802 Trimble Park Rd., Mt. Dora 352-383-1993
Come on, now, is anyone surprised that Disney is the sponsor of The Nature Conservancy in Florida? Check this out; take your hikers on a 2.5-mile looped adventure in hopes of spying bald eagles, bobcats, deer and, well, perhaps our favorite lizard friend — the gator. Spur off the beaten path out to Lake Russell, one of Florida’s few untouched pristine lakes. Be sure to wear lots of sunscreen and a hat; the path can get warm without a lot of shade to cool you off. 2700 Scrub Jay Trail, Kissimmee, 407-935-0002
The all new Wekiva Island was conceived as an environmentally responsible oasis, a gathering spot, a place that through its natural splendor brings people together. Rent a canoe or launch your own for a quick run to Wekiwa Springs State Park. Or, make a day of it and take the river route to Rock Springs, and enjoy the sparkling scenery and wildlife as you paddle down the river. When you’re bored with the oars, rent a river-bana and chill a while as you sip grown-up drinks from the on-site bar, The Tooting Otter. Seriously, Tooting Otter. Wekiva Island has officially made canoeing posh.
1014 Miami Springs Rd., Longwood, 407-862-1500
You think the term “car camping” is ridiculous. Your summer project with the tykes was carving your own canoe out of the tree in your neighbor’s backyard, and last Christmas Santa brought everyone hiking boots and a compass. Watch out, wilderness, hear you rrroooarRRR!
Warning: Your Ocala National Forest trip will be hard-core. The challenge will bond you and your troopers. You’ve got to hike into the forest, bring your own supplies and use leaves as toilet paper. Okay, maybe not that extreme; you can bring your own roll of Charmin. Also, bring your camera, as bald eagles are particularly common around Lake George. Hopkins Prairie is reputed to be good for observing scrub jays and sandhill cranes. There are many black bears in the forest as well. From Ocala, take Florida Highway 40 east to the visitor center. 352-625-2520 www.myfwc.com
You’ll feel a million miles away from it all on the Barr Street trailhead segment of the Florida Trail, located outside of downtown Oviedo. You’ll enjoy following orange trail blazes through shady trails and riverfront views as you hike along the Econ River discovering animal footprints and native birds. Escape to this special retreat as you slowly wind back and forth throughout the Little Big Econ State Forest. The kids will love the bridge over the Econlockhatchee River. It’s a 4.9-mile hike until you hit the Snow Hill Road trailhead. Be sure to pack a snack and your camera — you’ll want to see what’s around the next curve on this not-to-miss trail. Don’t forget to bring your mosquito repellent; you will be using it often. www.floridatrail.org
The Little Big Econ State Forest canoe run is an eight-mile BYOC (canoe) event. Alligators, river otters, migratory waterfowl, wood storks, limpkins and herons will be your mates for this voyage. The site is located in Seminole County, 3.3 miles east of Oviedo. We recommend launching at the intersection of County Road 419 and Willingham Road. A small paved lot is available for parking where there’s a sign indicating canoe/kayak launch. The river runs north from County Road 419 and enters the Little Big Econ State Forest turning east. The take-out spot is at Snow Hill Road. Ideally, if you’re ready to brave a canoe adventure of this caliber, you should have two cars. Drop one off at the Snow Hill Road lot, and take the other one with the boats up to the 419 put-in. 407-971-3500 www.canoe-suwannee.com/Econ.htm
TIPS FOR CANOEING WITH KIDS
• Plan your location and route.
• Create meal menus and only purchase food items you need.
• Check equipment to make sure it’s in good condition with all parts intact.
Packing & PLAYing
• Freeze all the food and liquid possible so perishables last longer.
• Flip-flops are a necessity. Middle-of-the-night bathroom breaks are much easier when you can just slip on shoes quickly.
• Don’t forget s’mores, a fun and tasty treat the whole family can enjoy (especially for the reluctant campers).
• Essentials: trash bags to keep your campsite clean and the critters away.
• Leave behind the daily toys. Instead, bring a ball, kites, his bike and perhaps a deck of cards.
• Establish boundaries as soon as you arrive. Fire pits are off-limits to kids. Create an imaginary perimeter around the fire pits.
• Know where the nearest ranger station is in relation to your campsite.
• Bring a first aid kit.