By Shaun Finnie
We couldn’t go any further. Through the dense tree cover we could see that the path ended in a primeval, alligator-infested swampland lake. Behind us we could hear the vultures crashing through the trees, over a hundred of them, getting closer with every wingbeat. The early morning mist added to the eeriness of the situation, taking us back to a time before Disney, a time before the arrival of any European settlers, a time before time.
It was a very different kind of rush to any thrill ride – and we loved every second of it.
This is a part of Disney’s world that most tourists don’t often visit; 12,000 acres of the kind of Florida Walt would have seen when he flew over the area in his plane, Ear Force One, looking for an East Coast location to turn his dreams to reality. It’s situated just outside Poinciana at the headwaters of the Everglades ecosystem, about fifteen miles to the South of the theme parks – an easy (even to a foreigner like me) half hour drive.
There are two walking trails open to visitors with the longest being about two and a half miles, and it’s very easy hiking, like walking through a meadow for the most part. However be warned that apart from the aforementioned lakeside section much of the property is open fields and scrubland with no shade at all. If, like me, Florida weather is much hotter than you get at home then I’d definitely recommend that you take a hat and some liquids with you.
What is there to see there? Well that completely depends on what nature wants to provide when you’re there. You’ll probably spot some birdlife along the way, as we did with those vultures. We had seen them gathering for quite a while before they dropped into the woods directly in front of us. Naturally they became a little curious when we followed them in and quite a few came down to ground level to have a look at us, but within a few minutes they were off again, no doubt searching for some easier and deader prey. Other birds occasionally ran out of the grasses or flew into the branches of the scant few trees dotted around: if ornithology is your thing then they provide an excellent leaflet listing what species visit the area at what time of year.
But the ground-based animals will mostly be resting up during opening hours. So while you may spot deer or bobcat tracks, the odds of seeing the creatures themselves are pretty slim. Not so the gators though; we saw a five footer hauled out in the midday sun. Naturally, we gave him a very wide berth. Many of the 1,000+ plants and animals that call the preserve home are endangered species, so ask when at the Adventure Center what to keep an eye out for when you arrive.
The preserve is not open to the public every day, so it’s worth giving them a call before you set off. Entrance is free (though they would greatly appreciate any donations) and apart from the friendly staff, we didn’t see another person in the four hours we were there.
Will you enjoy it? That’s completely up to you. If you like lonely walks through desolate natural environments then you probably will. However if you expect everything under the Disney banner to provide the same level of detailed entertainment as Walt Disney World then maybe not. But at least consider a visit. Sometimes we all need a little break from the magnificent madness of the theme parks, and by donating this land to The Nature Conservancy, Disney have provided it. But for us it was the vultures that made it extra special.
The Nature Conservancy’s Disney Wilderness Preserve
2700 Scrub Jay Trail
Kissimmee, FL 34759
Phone: (407) 935-0002
© Shaun Finnie 2012
Shaun Finnie is the author of ‘The Disneylands That Never Were’ and countless articles about the Walt Disney Company.
A short segment featuring South-Eastern Big Eared Bats. Jennifer Milikowsky talks and shows the research being done at The Disney Wilderness Preserve. This segment is part of the Kissimmee Basin: the Northern Everglades documentary. http://www.NorthernEverglades.com or FaceBook Kissimmee Basin Northern Everglades.
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