Take a turn off the beaten path on Orlando vacation
Mingle with flamingos. Play Tarzan in the treetops. Ride an airboat across a swamp in search of gators. From a coral reef habitat at a tropical island oasis to the needle tips of a pine forest to a nature preserve in the Everglades, there’s a lot of wild to explore in Orlando.
SWIM WITH DOLPHINS, SAFARI WITH GIRAFFES
Learn how to signal "stick out your tongue" to a dolphin and then hang onto tail and fin for a glide across Dolphin Lagoon with the 400-pound rubbery blubbery mammal. Watch a hairy sloth hook his thick claws over a tree limb, moving like he’s in a slo-mo action sequence. Feed breakfast to a flamboyance of pretty-in-pink flamingos, holding very still while they nibble their bills up your arm, like Gomez Addams when Morticia speaks French.
It all takes place at Discovery Cove, a tropical all-inclusive day resort where you can meet up not only with flamingoes but otters, tropical fish, sharks, armadillos and other animals. (And take note: Discovery Cove is a Certified Autism Center and, through its Park Accessibility Program, has a variety of accessibility options throughout the park, including wheelchairs, service animal accommodations and more.)
Sip wine in a private cabana tucked beneath a bamboo canopy. Float beneath splashing waterfalls in a lazy river. Head underwater for a SeaVenture, looking like a Stormtrooper in your dive helmet and walking along the reef floor to see sharks, rays and schools of fish. Stretch out on a white sand beach and simply be.
Not far from Orlando, off the beaten gravel path in Kenansville, is Wild Florida, a wild-growth safari park where some 200-plus native and exotic animals roam about as they please. Feed giraffes. Cuddle a two-toed sloth. Catch a show headlined by Crusher, the largest gator living at the park. Take a road trip through the newly expanded drive-through safari to see herds of water buffalo, American bison, antelope and wildebeests living their best life on 170 acres of untouched landscape.
Board an airboat for a wildlife tour traversing the swamps, marshes and rivers of the Everglades, skimming over native grasses as you play hide and seek with herons, gators, eagles and cows. Yes, cows. With the surrounding land owned by local ranchers, cows have been known to make an appearance, grazing in the field or cooling off in the lake with a swim.
Wild Florida offers a number of unique animal encounter options (from $24 per person), including lunching with Crusher; painting with the giraffes; and petting and feeding tamanduas, an animal known as a "lesser anteater" and found only in South America’s forests and savannas, watching their 16-inch tongues wrangle their favorite snack — ants.
A FLOAT AND A BOAT
No gators, but you might spot fish, otters, turtles, birds and more on a stand-up paddle adventure on one of Orlando’s local lakes, springs or coastal waterways. Epic Paddle Adventure guides offer beginners a gentle and confidence-building way to safely learn the ropes of paddle boarding and kayaking.
Additionally, a number of themed tours are available, from a night glow tour on Lake Ivanhoe and a sunset paddleboard or kayak adventure to a family-friendly Kids Paddle and Popcorn outing and a Coastal Sunset, Bioluminescence and Glow Paddle that explores Indian River Lagoon as evening falls.
On Winter Park’s Chain of Lakes, the Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour treats explorers to sightings of beautiful flora like swaying palms and ferns, unexpected fauna like swooping cranes and eye-popping mansions, once the winter homes of wealthy tycoons — including one with an alabaster statue holding court on the front lawn and mooning boaters on their way into one of the two man-made canals.
Guided hourlong cruises aboard 18-passenger pontoon boats glide through canals dripping with Spanish moss and connecting several lakes, including Osceola, Virginia and Maitland, as the story of central Florida’s oldest community, founded by monied Easterners in the 1800s, unfolds. Visitors also get a glimpse of Rollins College, a private liberal arts college and Florida’s oldest post-secondary institution, and learn about famous alumni, like Fred Rogers. Rogers also lived in one of the magnificent lake homes.
IN THE CLOUDS, ON THE GROUND
In the jungles of the Orlando Tree Trek Adventure Park, adventurers test their mettle and their skills on an aerial obstacle course suspended above the trees in a natural pine forest. Swing on Tarzan ropes, climb ladders reaching 50 feet up into the sky and leap into hanging nets. Cross suspended bridges, navigate swinging logs, balance on skateboards and soar through the trees on giant zip lines.
"Many people have zip lining on their bucket list," said Pina Barbusci, one of the park’s owners, of the progressively challenging zip lines with nearly 100 obstacles. "It’s definitely a thrill to feel the wind in your face as you hit that adrenaline rush!"
Back on the ground, Dezerland Park Orlando — named for the visionary who transformed a former shopping mall into an 865,000-square-foot indoor playground — gives thrill-seekers a mind-boggling array of adventures, rain or shine and all under one massive roof: Orlando’s longest go-kart track, ax throwing, 12-lane bowling, trampoline park, glow-in-the-dark golf, carnival rides, arcade, a Pinball Palace, a new James Bond Museum and James Bond Restaurant and the world’s largest auto museum.
See the Batmobile. Actually, see two of them. Check out the Stone Age vehicle Fred Flintstone powered with his feet; the Ford Anglia Ron Weasley and Harry Potter crashed into the Whomping Willow in "The Chamber of Secrets"; Inspector Gadget’s tricked out Gadgetmobile; and the 1981 DeLorean DMC-12 time machine from "Back to the Future," among the nearly 2,000 classic and star cars collected by Michael Dezer over the course of a half-century.
Sitting in the midst of all this wild is the Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort Bonnet Creek (www.wyndhamgrandorlando.com), a pastel paradise celebrating 10 years in 2021. The upscale hotel sits along the banks of a 10-acre lake and gives guests access to multiple swimming pools, including a lagoon-style pool and cabanas and two lazy rivers, a mini-golf course, shuffleboard courts, arcade, game room with billiards and ping pong and other family fun. It is a private woodland enclave with beautifully landscaped grounds and lakeside sidewalks weaving around and over Bonnet Bay and encircled by several Club Wyndham properties known as the Towers.
Hotel restaurants include the deep blue Seafood Grille, serving fresh seafood with a Southern twist in a fine dining atmosphere that is both relaxed and comfortable; the lake and poolside Back Bay Bar & Grille; Bar 1521, serving cocktails and food, including sushi; the Barista, with light breakfast offerings; and Tesoro Cove, which offers a hearty breakfast buffet.
The hotel is located within the gates of Walt Disney World (and offers shuttle service to the park) but has enough distance to maintain its sense of calm and serenity. And guests can watch the nightly fireworks show, visible from many of the rooms, from the comfy outdoor seating at the Back Bay Bar & Grill.