August 2011: That’s a marketing term – “the real Florida” – used by every roadside vendor trying to talk visitors into seeing an alligator. (Visitors love alligators.) It’s also true, though – the real Florida cannot be found in the theme parks. Or if it can, visitors never know if it’s real, or if Disney paid $500,000 to fake it.
Since Florida is fairly flat, there are no scenic pullover spots along the highways – and climbing a building and looking out from anything higher than the third story doesn’t incite a quick intake of breath. Once up there, most visitors say, “Wow. It sure is flat.”
Florida’s natural beauty is personal: It comes from watching a white egret flying against a backdrop of black storm clouds. It comes from raindrops in a lake as an oblivious alligator lolls nearby. It’s seen in the cumbersome yet graceful manatee as it swims along the Intracoastal Waterway; in the crystal clear water of a natural spring; in the soaring arc of a bald eagle as it crosses a shocking-blue sky; in the tea-colored rivers shadowed by palm fronds and Spanish moss.
For complete information on all of Florida’s state parks – some listed below – go to: A must see: Florida’s state parks.
Here are options near Orlando:
Does Gatorland get filed under “real Florida” or “other amusement parks”? I chose both. To many visitors, “seeing a gator” is the same thing as “seeing the real Florida,” and the main lake at Gatorland has the correct look and feel, albeit with more gators than any actual state pond. All zoo exhibits and small rides can be enjoyed in four hours, making it a good choice on a day pegged for relaxing. It even includes one bizarre exhibit, the Gator Jumparoo, in which they drag raw chicken across a gator pond and make the animals leap for the poultry.
Wekiwa Springs State Park
Wekiwa is a Native American word meaning “spring of water.” Wekiva (with a “V”) means “flowing water.” Both words are used interchangeably, and I don’t think most residents know the difference either.
Wekiwa Springs State Park offers a complete sampling of the “real Florida.” The spring pumps 42 million gallons of clear water per day from underground. (If you go deep enough, Florida sits on top of Swiss-cheese-style rocks filled with pristine water.) With year-round temperatures in the low 70’s, it’s great swimming. Land funnels down toward the spring, and you can throw towels there and lay in the sun or shade. Separately, a walkway winds through different Florida environments, from wetlands to hills. Canoe rentals are available for a small fee, and you don’t have to turn too many corners until you’ve left civilization behind. It has a picnic area, and the cost is reasonable. It’s $6 per carload as I write.
The St. Johns River
Mini-geography lesson: Only two rivers in the world flow north – the Nile and the St. Johns. That’s the kind of thing you tell people after a vacation so they think you actually learned something.
The St. Johns forms south of Orlando. For folks driving to Orlando from the East Coast, I-4 crosses the St. Johns in Jacksonville, and, two hours later, north of Orlando near Sanford. The river can be accessed from a number of marinas, but Sanford is the largest where the St. Johns widens to form Lake Monroe.) Here’s one of the boat rental companies to give you a feel for the rates: http://www.funma.com/html/rentals.html
For those who don’t want to get their feet dirty or actually steer a boat, the Rivership Romance plies the waters of the St. Johns for three or four hours, with either lunch or dinner served en route. At times, they schedule special two-day cruises. It’s not the Queen Mary, but with an air-conditioned interior, it offers a nice balance between “seeing the real Florida” and “not getting my hair mussed, fighting insects, or burning in the hot sun.”
Harry P. Leu Gardens
Located in Orlando proper, Harry P. Leu Gardens has a Deep South, antebellum feel. It takes up 47 acres on Lake Rowena, and has rolling hills, sculpted lawns, rose gardens, walkways, Spanish moss, and 100-year-old buildings that preserve the well-to-do lifestyle of early Floridians. It’s also close to an assortment of art museums and theater if you want to make a day of it.
Lake Kissimmee State Park
If the rich lived at Harry P. Leu Gardens, then turn-of-the-century working stiffs lived in cow camps at Lake Kissimmee State Park. The camp recreates an 1876 stopover for cowboys driving cattle herds across Florida, and rangers stay in character pretending to be 19th Century cattlemen during selected seasons. Lake Kissimmee, Lake Tiger, and Lake Rosalie form the headwaters to the Everglades, and if you visit, you’re out there – civilization isn’t just around the corner. It has 13 miles of hiking trails, fishing, canoeing, boating, and camping.
Bok Tower Gardens
I lied about flat Florida. It has its own mountain range, a fact unknown to most of the world. South of Disney, there is an unmistakable rise in the land called the Lake Wales Ridge. On top of a peak in this “mountain” range — the peninsula’s highest point at 298-feet — is Bok Tower, a giant carillon with 57 bronze bells. It’s built of pink and gray Georgia marble and coquina stone (a seashell mixture) from St. Augustine. The surrounding 128 acres make up Bok Tower Gardens, a botanical work of art – literally. Landscapers look at the grounds as their canvas and plants are selected for their color and texture to complete a 3-D painting. Kids will be bored to death, but it’s interesting if you appreciate the goal. If seeking “the real Florida,” it’s not ideal, but it’s closer than anything in the parks. Note: Squirrels expect handouts and can be very friendly, but that depends on your opinion of squirrels.
Blue Spring State Park
Another of Florida’s natural springs similar to Wekiwa, Blue Spring State Park has one thing the others do not — manatees. When the weather turns colder in winter, a hundred manatees could congregate in the relatively warm headwaters. Since it’s crystal clear, Blue Spring is one of the few areas where you can see a full manatee in the wild. (Usually you just see a walrus-like nose pop out, assuming you’re lucky enough to see a manatee at all.) If visiting between December and March, call first to confirm that the manatees are there. The park also has camping, picnicking, swimming, and canoeing.