Feeling the call of the wild? Come to Orlando, where you can get up close and personal with amazing flora and fauna at unforgettable zoos and gardens all over town. Explore these unexpected wonders during your next visit!
Additional reporting by Michelle DeMasi.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom® Theme Park
Granted, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park at Walt Disney World® Resort isn’t technically a zoo or a wildlife ranch — but it’s still a great place to see all manner of fascinating beasts. Animal-lovers will particularly enjoy Kilimanjaro Safaris®, which provides an 18-minute vehicle tour of real African creatures in their natural habitats, and Wild Africa Trek, a VIP tour featuring exotic wildlife.
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Self-guided walking tours are also available, including The Oasis Exhibits, Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail and Discovery Island Trails. Still more animals can be seen on the grounds of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, either by booking a stay or making a reservation at one of the resort’s restaurants.
This long-running Orlando attraction is more theme park than zoo or ranch. Regardless, you’ll find no shortage of fascinating reptiles at Gatorland — including the titular mascots — as well as large cats, gentler animals, exotic birds, plant life and fun attractions like the specially ticketed Screamin’ Gator Zip Line and Stompin’ Gator Off-Road Adventure.
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Speaking of birds, Gatorland’s Photographers Pass invites photo buffs and birding enthusiasts to enter the park at 7 a.m. on select dates from March through May. It’s a fantastic opportunity to explore one of the largest and most accessible bird rookeries in Florida.
Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens
Located in Sanford, about 30 minutes north of Orlando’s main tourism districts, Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens presents a relaxing, entertaining and educational experience for all ages. Inside, you’ll find more than 400 animals representing over 150 local and exotic species, including mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds and even insects.
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As the zoo’s name implies, it’s also home to several unique and native plant species — not to mention the chance to get wild on the specially ticketed Seminole Aerial Adventures zip line attractions!
Although Wild Florida is best-known for its beautiful airboat tours, it also features a gator park and a drive-thru safari. The latter has more than 100 exotic animals and native Florida wildlife that includes zebras, watusi, oryx, white-tailed deer, bison, cracker cows and more. You’ll find them in Kenansville close to Walt Disney World.
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Any zoo will let you get close to the featured animals, but Brevard Zoo is the only one in the country that offers a guided kayak tour around an animal exhibit. You can also feed giraffes, get close to a massive rhinoceros and even stroke the scales of a baby gator ... if you dare! Other features include a shaded boardwalk and a kid-friendly lagoon. They’re located in Melbourne on Florida’s east coast, about an hour from downtown Orlando.
ZooTampa at Lowry Park
Although ZooTampa at Lowry Park is a little more than an hour from Walt Disney World on Florida’s west coast, animal fanatics will find it to be worth the drive thanks to more than 1,300 critters in a beautiful, tropical setting. Up-close experiences abound, and the on-site manatee hospital provides the chance to see Florida’s gentle giants year-round.
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Don’t let the name fool you — you’ll encounter a lot more than the namesake creatures at Giraffe Ranch, which offers intimate vehicle, camelback and even Segway safaris. Here, you can hand-feed giraffes and other species while learning about exotic animals and the ongoing conservation efforts to protect them. They’re in Dade City, a little more than an hour northwest of our tourism districts, and reservations are required.
Harry P. Leu Gardens
Featuring 50 acres of gorgeously cultivated gardens boasting more than 40 diverse plant collections from around the world, Harry P. Leu Gardens is located in Orlando’s Audubon Park Garden District close to downtown. It’s also the site of a beautiful, 1880s-era family home, the Leu House Museum, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
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Mead Botanical Garden
Not only does this 48-acre garden feature several different ecosystems, but admission is always free! Other reasons to visit include an expansive butterfly garden, as well as a boardwalk and bike trail that wind through the park. It’s located in Winter Park, just north of downtown Orlando, and open from 7:30 a.m. till dusk daily.
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Kraft Azalea Garden
Also located in Winter Park, this 5-acre public garden on the shore of Lake Maitland is open all year from 8 a.m. till dusk, and admission is free. Billed as the charming city’s “secret garden,” it’s shaded by enormous cypress trees and has unique features like the Exedra, a columned, neoclassical structure that’s perfect for wedding ceremonies and other special events.
Part of the bucolic Gotha community about 20 minutes north of our main tourism districts, Nehrling Gardens is dedicated to the preservation of the historic home and gardens of noted ornithologist and horticulturist Dr. Henry Nehrling. The 6-acre property, which was founded in 1885, is open for self-guided tours Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m., with guided tours being available during Open Garden Days on the first and second Saturday of each month from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. Both options have a requested donation of $5 per person.
Bok Tower Gardens
One of Florida’s oldest attractions, Bok Tower Gardens has been drawing visitors to Lake Wales, about an hour south of Walt Disney World, since 1929. The 250-acre gardens host a wide variety of plant life, including azaleas, camellias and magnolias, as well as 126 bird species, the threatened gopher tortoise and the endangered eastern indigo snake. Its centerpiece is the 205-foot Singing Tower, a neo-Gothic and Art Deco structure with a 60-bell carillon that rings daily.
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