While many visitors to Walt Disney World wouldn’t even think of leaving the property, others feel differently. Locals are always looking for new things to try in the area. Folks who visit Walt Disney World frequently (for example many Disney Vacation Club owners) sometimes like to step out of “The Bubble” and try something different while visiting. And visitors who do not have annual passes, who are staying more days than they have tickets to visit the parks, are often searching for alternative places to experience. While there are many, many things to do close to Walt Disney World, this blog is going to focus on a few natural, beautiful and relaxing parks/preserves that are less than an hour’s drive from The World. All are absolutely free!
Many people only think of Central Florida as a place to go on rides. But there is a whole other part of Florida waiting to be discovered and enjoyed. I am referring to the beautiful state parks, lakes, and nature trails that can be found throughout Central Florida. I’ve been to a number, and while I enjoyed them all I have found three that I am particularly fond of. I am going to start with the one that is tamest and end with the one that is a bit more adventurous.
Eventually it will stretch 36 miles, but right now the West Orange Trail is “only” 21 miles long. There are various Stations and Outposts along the way, all with a variety of things to do. Most people, especially those with kids, will park at one of the Stations/Outposts and explore that area of the trail.
The trail is completely paved, so if you are traveling with anyone who is disabled this trail is wheelchair accessible. You can find places to hike, jog, walk, skate, bike (Heads up: State law requires anyone under 16 riding a bike to wear a helmet) enjoy a butterfly garden, and more as you make your way along the path. Dogs, as long as they are leashed, are welcome. There are playgrounds for the kiddies in some spots. The West Orange Trail is very well maintained.
Although there are water stations along the way it’s always recommended you bring water if you’re taking a hike, especially in the hotter months of the year. Some, but not all areas of the trail have restrooms. As well, some spots have picnic tables and grills.
Because the whole path is paved you don’t have to worry too much about insects, but if you’re prone to getting bitten it’s a good idea to bring bug repellant. The West Orange Trail is a great family option. Easy to walk on and follow without getting lost, yet you will experience the sights and sounds of nature along the way. One last thing: The Chapin Station, where the main office is located, has a beautiful memorial garden. For a reasonable fee a personalized brick can be custom made in honor of a loved one who has passed. I have a brick there in memory of my Mom.
A slightly more “wild” place, but still very doable for most is James A. Van Fleet State Trail. This is part of “Rails for Trails” a program that takes old railroad track paths and converts them into walking trails. Many of these trails connect, and the plan is eventually they will go up the entire East Coast. The trails are paved but along the way are offshoots that are small unpaved trails that go a bit into the woods, and then wind back onto the paved path. I would estimate the unpaved portions are about a quarter of a mile long. In these offshoots, you are literally walking through the woods, surrounded by tall beautiful trees.
Similar to The West Orange Trail, there are multiple points of entry for James A. Van Fleet. Another similarity is that it’s a very long trail, from start to finish a total of just over 29 miles. There are restrooms along the way. The paved path is tree lined and for the most part very shady. It’s great for walking, running, biking, blading, etc. Leashed dogs are welcome, and this is one of my personal favorite spots to take my dog, Mickey. He loves the nature trails and gets in a lot of good sniffing. 😊
I’ve seen a number of water birds here, as well as chipmunks and squirrels. I’ve never seen it crowded, even on weekends. Picnic tables can be found in three separate areas along the trail.
I have saved the “wildest” for last! Circle Bar B Reserve in Lakeland is an awesome wildlife experience.
Depending on what time of year you go you may see any of the following: butterflies, bobcats, otters, raccoons, squirrels, or rabbits. Additionally, there are a variety of water birds as well as a number of birds of prey, including bald eagles. And you will also more than likely see many alligators, especially if you take the trail that is called Alligator Alley.
Yes, this place has a ton of really cool wildlife. If you have the option of choosing when to go, the fall is the best time to view the most creatures. There are MANY signs making it clear to stay away from the alligators. This is not a zoo, the animals are not in cages. This is a place where the wildlife and nature come first, and people are expected to be respectful and careful.
There is an awesome scenic overlook along one of the paths, and I always see bald eagles in this spot. I also always see folks with nice cameras taking photos of the eagles. The overlook has bench seats to sit and relax. The paths are mostly shady, but they are not paved. They are nicely cleared and there is no uphill climbing involved, but it’s a more difficult hike than the first two spots I wrote about. By the way, due to the high abundance of alligators and other creatures, there are no dogs allowed here.
I imagine some of you are thinking “What is she, crazy? I am not going anywhere that alligators can attack me!” For the most part, they are in the water and you’re on a path far enough away to feel safe. But on occasion they do wander onto a path. The rule is that the alligator has the right of way. Do NOT try to pass by or get close, walk away if you see any up ahead.
Circle B Bar Reserve has a Nature Center in the parking area. It’s free, very informative and uses games and other fun ways to teach interesting things. It is closed on Mondays but open the rest of the week.
For more information and directions to the places I have mentioned:
West Orange Trail: 407-654-1108
James A. Van Fleet State Trail: 352-516-7384
Circle Bar B Reserve: 863-668-4673