When most people think of the Kissimmee area and Walt Disney World®, images of castles and characters come to mind. So many come to Central Florida for the fantastical theme parks—however, so many others are looking for a more natural side of the Sunshine State. For those people, there’s another Disney just down the road.
Our journey started with my wife, our three young kids and myself. We left our resort, Legacy Vacation Club, and headed south. The landscape quickly shifted from restaurants and hotels to cattle roaming in open fields next to neighborhoods filled with homes. We were leaving the land of tourists and pushing toward rural Florida. We knew we were in a different place when a bald eagle swooped over the van and landed in a nearby tree. Nature was calling, and for once it wasn’t from one of our kids in the backseat.
As we pulled up to The Disney Wilderness Preserve, an archway greeted us. Beyond the gateway, fields of long grasses stretched for hundreds of yards before giving way to pine forests. We parked for a moment to take some photos of the sign. All we could hear was the gentle breeze blowing through the grass and trees. The sun was low in the blue sky, just cresting over the pine forest when we hopped back in the car. As we drove along a winding road that bisected one of the large open areas, we saw more of the land—swaths of earth covered in spiky palmettos and tall, longleaf pines.
We pulled up to the welcome center and were greeted by one of the volunteers. She was very helpful and happy to see us. While she was about to start a guided hike, we decided to explore on our own to let the kids go at their own pace.
Before we headed out, we learned that Disney purchased the land as a trade-off for future expansions of Walt Disney World. Whatever land they would use to build more hotels and theme parks, that same acreage would be purchased and set aside for conservation. Today, the Nature Conservancy maintains the land.
Once a cattle ranch, the preserve was covered with Bahiagrass and live oaks. In order to restore the preserve to its pre-ranch state, the Conservancy changed the water table in a way to allow native plants to flourish.
Before we set off, the volunteer handed us a laminated guide to help us identify everything from plants to animal tracks, plus two pairs of binoculars for the boys (our youngest is not yet two, so she’d have to rely on her own eyesight). Their eyes grew wide as they first peered through the spectacles. They were ready for adventure.
We soon set off on the trail, stopping often for the boys to look up through their binoculars and watch hawks soar high above. In nearby ponds, we watched turtles sun themselves on logs. With every new sound, every hawk cry or twig snap, the boys fixed in that direction with their binoculars.
We kept following the main trail, which was 2.5 miles. With three children and a stroller in tow, we decided on the shorter route. As soon as we passed out of view of the welcome center, we entered an area dotted with longleaf pines and continued to follow a path cut through palmettos that towered over both boys. From the pines to the palmettos, this was what Florida looked like before man.
Soon we came upon a cutoff that led to Lake Russell. As we started toward the lake, the land began to change. The pines gave way to balding cypress trees, having lost their tops from winter. Cypress roots jutted from the ground like stalagmites and green ferns covered the soft soil of the forest. Through the trees we could see the sunlight shimmering off the lake. More cypress trees covered the shore and stuck out of the water like wooden pylons holding up a beach pier. The weather was perfect that day, but the cool breeze coming off the lake was like someone turning on an air conditioner. We stayed and explored for a bit, using the binoculars to peer across the lake.
As we left, we stopped as we heard a noise—a rat-a-tat-tat on wood. I knew what the sound was immediately. Looking up in the trees, we soon found the woodpecker, its little red head beating against a dead tree in a hunt for insects. The boys were excited since it’s something we don’t see or hear in the city. In fact, what you hear and what you don’t hear is one of the most exciting aspects of the preserve: the stillness of it all, the sounds of insects gently humming, the songs of birds carried along the winds—the same wind rushing through the grasses and pines. It’s all very peaceful, even when the kids are busy asking questions. Thankfully, for many of those questions we had our handy laminated guide, so our oldest could point out things that we were seeing. He’s our little scientist, and he was in his element.
By this time, we had one of the kids in the running stroller, but it wasn’t a problem. The trail was well marked, maintained and level, making it not very strenuous or difficult to traverse.
The trail that we took was a big loop, so as we started back we could see the welcome center in the distance. By that time, other people had started on the trail, their bright clothing sticking out in the sea of green foliage. We noticed that we could easily hear other people far across the preserve as the sound carried over the low grasses.
As we finished our trek, I realized how special this place was—especially for travelers. A visitor might know that Kissimmee has theme parks, but they haven’t experienced what Florida was, and is, without taking a hike on the preserve’s trail. As frequent theme park goers, this was a welcome break from routine—a chance to reconnect with nature and ourselves. This place is where people can experience real Florida without having to venture too far away from the thrills and excitement from the parks. The best of both worlds.