Nature/Outdoors

Alligators Unlimited- Airboat Nature Tours (38 miles : 55 minutes)

Alligators Unlimited Airboat Nature Tours- www.airboatnaturetours.com

This is one of our favourite things to do when we are in Orlando and we will probably repeat the experience each time we are over here with different friends and family as it is so enjoyable.

Captain John was the guide that we have been out with now on two occasions and he is fantastic, having been born and bred in “The Swamp” so he really knows the area. Cost is $50 per person but each time we have been we have had a $5 discount per person. The ride on the airboat lasts approximately an hour and is one of the best experiences. We have been now in November and in May and as the seasons change so too does the experience in terms of what wildlife we saw. On each ride we have seen alligators, so many different birds such as herons, falcons, eagles and buzzards. In May we saw wild deer grazing at the edge of the water. As much as the wildlife is wonderful we also enjoy the ride itself and when it goes at a nice speed it is just exhilarating. Captain John told us that they very best time of year to see the alligators there is in March.

We have been twice since this and on both occasions we loved it. Our friends whom we took here and then to The Marsh Landing Airboat Tours said they preferred this one, but to be honest both places put on a wonderful trip and you won't be disappointed with either.

The last time we visited was in February 2018 with my sister, her husband and their two teenage children. It was an activity loved by all and we saw about 8 alligators as well as a turtle, a bald headed eagle, osprey and many other birds. Sadly Captain John has moved away from the business but we were taken out by his father who was equally as good.

In our opinion this is a must do activity when you are staying here and is only 55 minutes away by car. As it is situated near to the Segway Tours backtrailfla.com that you can do in Lake Kissimmee State Park just 10 minutes away we have done both in one day, together with having a picnic which was very nice and a great change from shopping or theme parks.

 

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Orlando Airboat Rides (19.7 miles: 35 minutes)

The name of this airboat company is Marsh Landing Airboat Tours and is situated in Kissimmee at: 2830A Neptune Rd, Kissimmee, FL 34744

We booked an airboat tour with them in March of this year (2017) as a party of 8. We took the advice of their website and went for the longest tour which is 120 minutes and were so glad that we did as you truly don't want this experience to end! From the moment that our airboat got onto the open lake, which is about 5 minutes from where you board, we saw a bald headed eagle. From then on it was just a question of where to look next as so much fantastic wildlife. We saw about 10 ospreys on various nests and diving into the water as well as a wide variety of other birds such as egrets, ducks, sandhill cranes, grey herons and hawks.

Our guide, Captain Ken, was very knowledgeable about the lake and the wildlife and as well as knowing where to locate them he also told us some very interesting facts about what we were seeing. We saw quite a number of aligators of different sizes which was what we had specifically hoped to see.

We will be back in Florida in November this year and next February and on both occasions we would make this a priority to do again, even with my nieces who are just 3 and 5. We can't recommend this high enough.

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Dolphin Boat Trip (95.5 miles:- 1 hour 41 minutes)

We have visited St Pete's three times now and on the last two occasions been on one of their public dolphin watch boat trips, each time with a group of friends. We have been on the 12pm booking time on each trip and saw dolphin both times. We would recommend booking in advance.

This really is a fabulous way to spend two hours and at $35 per adult for a two hour trip on a beautiful sailing boat, seeing dolphins swimming in their natural habitat it is great value and we all thoroughly enjoy every minute of it. You even get  a free water or soda on the trip which is very welcome as it can get hot out on the water.

We have not yet done the Sunset Sail but would very much like to in the future.

To drive to St Pete's from the villa it takes around 1 hour 45 minutes and is motorway nearly all the way. We have come down and stayed overnight to make the most of being at the coast but on our last trip we drove from the villa and back in one day and it wasn't hard at all and if anything it was nice to not pay out for additional accommodation by paying for a hotel when we could get home to the villa easily enough.

We parked in the large free car park next to the mooring at Dolphin Landings Charter Boat Center 4737 Gulf Blvd,St Pete Beach Florida 33706 and walked round to the IHOP for breakfast about 5 minutes walk away. There is also a nice french bakery called Cafe Soleil  right next to Dolphin Landings where we have also had breakfast before or even good just for a coffee.

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Sarasota Bay Explorers ( 130 Miles :- 2 Hours 29 Minutes)

We did this boat trip in combination with a visit to Mote Aquarium back in 2015 when we were heading back towards Orlando after a few days down on the Gulf Coast. It is quite a drive from Orlando for the day to visit Sarasota and the various delights that it has to offer such as the Sarasota Bay Explorers Boat Trip but it is a fantastic experience and worth doing if you get the opportunity.

The Mote Aquarium itself is well worth a visit. However, the real highlight for us was the boat trip which lasted one hour and 45 minutes during which we saw such a range of wildlife including dolphins, a turtle and lots of different birds especially pelicans. We loved it when the marine biologist who was leading the trip put a net into the sea and then pulled it out a couple of minutes later and put the contents into a tank of water for us all to see. There was a real range of fish and sea creatures including a puffa fish. The children on board especially enjoyed this and were able to experience seeing things close up. All of the creatures were treated professionally and with great care and then returned unharmed back into the sea.

On part of the journey we moored up at a small island and disembarked for a short walk to see and learn about the birds there. 

The boat itself has plenty of seating which is under a canopy to keep the sun off. You can walk around the boat safely and easily whenever you want to.

The cost of this trip is $27 for adults and $23 for children which we thought was well worth it.

The boat trips go from Sarasota Bay Explorers, At Mote Aquarium
1600 Ken Thompson Pkwy.
City Island, Sarasota, FL
941.388.4200

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Blue Spring State Park (76.1 miles:- 1 Hour 35 Minutes)

We spent a day at Blue Spring State Park in March of this year, 2017 and were absolutely "blown away" by how beautiful and idyllic it is. The previous day we had booked for six adults to go on the St Johns River Cruise  sailing at 1pm. As it was March we were also really hoping to see manatees which come inland during this time of year. We would definitely recommend you book in advance. 

This was, for all six of us, one of the best days of our whole holiday! When we drove into the state park and parked in the large free car park we were all in awe as to how lovely it was, with the trees hanging with spanish moss and the wooden boardwalks running along the side of the river and through the trees. This boardwalk in itself was a real pleasure to walk along and look at the birds and the manatees from the various observation platforms. The manatees were an amazing sight and clearly visible, as were the shoals of fish, as the water is crytal clear.

You have to arrive a couple of hours before the cruise because they shut the gates to the park when they get too busy. There is a small hut selling very tasty wraps, coffee, ice creams and soft drinks near the boat. A short walk up through the woods along the boardwalk there is another shop selling food too.  Next time we take friends or family here we will take a picnic as there are picnic tables available. 

The cruise down the river was outstandingly good and we saw so many alligators, turtles and birds of various types including birds of prey. We were laughing towards the end of the trip because we saw so many alligators and birds that we didn't know where to turn our heads next to take it all in!

As well as having the river cruise available there are other great options including kayaking and canoeing and we saw several groups of people enjoying these activities and said we would like to kayak here another time. Whether we will feel a bit daunted by the fact alligators share the water remains to be seen but it didn't seem to worry the people we saw. 

When the manatees are at Blue Spring State Park certain activities are not available, such as swimming and the hiring of inner tubes that people use to float down this natural "lazy river". Again this is something we would love to try at a different time of year. You should check their website before you go to see when the manatees are here.

We drove from the park to the coast at New  Smyrna Beach when we left after our cruise at around 4pm, as the Atlantic coast is about 45 minutes drive away. It was worth it for us as had a lovely meal and showed our friends the coast. It was however dark by 6pm so limited in what we could see and not something I would do with young children for the additional driving involved. 

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Cycling around Celebration (15.3 MILES:- 25 MINUTES)

When we were on holiday in November 2017, with some friends, we decided to explore Celebration by bike for a change rather than having a walk (which  is what we have done every other time). I would have to say that it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable things that we did during the holiday. We hired bikes through Kissimmee Bike Rental  which is located at the far end of the main lake in a car park near to the Bohemian Hotel. We chose to pay extra for a guide to come with us and were very glad we did because until taking the tour we had no concept of just how big Celebration actually is. It was absolutely beautiful cycling along, at a very nice leisurely pace, seeing some amazing wildlife along the way. The woods have boardwalks all the way through them which makes the cycling so easy, as do the paths all the way around the various lakes. The houses in Celebration were a sight to behold too, and we even cycled down the road on which Desperate Housewives is filmed. Having enjoyed a bike ride here so much I would make it a must do activity on future visits, although next time we will probably just hire some bikes without a guide with us and go off and explore by ourselves. I really do recommend this for people of all ages. 

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Sea Screamer Dolphin Tour (87.1 MILES:- 1 HOUR 38 MINUTES)

If you want to enjoy seeing dolphins in their natural habitat then a ride on the Sea Screamer Dolphin Tour in Clearwater is something I would recommend. Unlike other dolphin boat tours that we have been on which were on a yacht and therefore by their very nature a very relaxing and peaceful way to enjoy being out in the bay spotting dolphins the Sea Screamer is more of thrill adventure. The boat itself seats about 40 people and is a speed boat and the trip is more around speed and fun. I would recommend booking your places in advance as it is a popular activity.

The skipper will slow or stop the boat when any dolphin are spotted and passengers can freely walk around the boat to get the best views. One of the key highlights of a trip on the Sea Screamer is when it picks up speed and dolphins can then be seen following the boat and jumping out of the water and playing in the wake which is a really lovely sight. It is also very enjoyable moving at speed across the water and feeling the sea spray on your face and just taking in the sights of Clearwater Beach. 

The only negative for us in our party was that the skipper would keep putting on loud music whenever he picked up speed, including playing Van Halen's record "Jump" to accompany the dolphins jumping in the wake. For us, although it made us laugh, it did seem a bit corny and detracted from what is a beautiful experience observing such wonderful creatures in the wild.

The trip lasts about an hour and we thought it was good value at $24 per adult (less for children). If you are thinking of spending a day at the Gulf Coast it is less than 2 hours drive from our villa at Watersong and I would definitely recommend a dolphin boat ride. Personally I think I preferred the more tranquil experience on a yacht from St Pete's but there is no denying a ride on the Seascreamer is a lot of fun and quite a highlight and I would imagine would appeal slightly more to children and young adults.

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Snorkel with Manatees (106 MILES:- 1 HOUR 56 MINUTES )

If you are in Florida between November and March then that is the time when manatees come to the inland waters to enjoy the warmer climate. Earlier this year we went to see them at Blue Springs where we were able to observe them from viewing platforms while they rested in the crystal clear water. When we went back to Florida in November one of our friends was really keen to be able to swim with manatees and so was delighted to find a company that offered the chance to Snorkel With Manatees over at a place called Homosassa near Crystal Springs. 

We phoned and reserved our places in advance, which I would totally recommend you do as it is too far to go without a reservation. The trip over by car was very pleasant as it took us north of Orlando near to the Florida Turnpike where the traffic was light and nearly all the journey was through countryside. When we found the place we checked in with them, watched a safety video which also went through the do's and don'ts of what you should do when in the water with the manatees. As very docile, gentle creatures you have to be very carfeful that you don't disturb them. In the water we were all given a "noodle float" so that we could support ourselves without kicking and splashing our legs. After the video we were each lent a wet suit, which was included in the price, and which we all changed into at the office. You would of course take swimming costumes with you to wear under the wetsuits. Then we got back into our own car and followed the skipper of the boat in his car down to where the boat was docked.

The trip from the mooring to where the skipper hoped we would see some manatees was about 30 minutes down river and what a beautiful ride it was! Beautiful houses line the river banks and we saw some great wildlife such as osprey. There is even a little island next to where the boat was moored called Monkey Island on which we saw about 15 monkeys.

When we got to the spot where there were some manatees, the boat stopped. At first we enjoyed watching then from the deck, then we were given a snorkel and mask each and carefully got into the water and floated over towards them. Everything is very well controlled with the manatees well- being of key importance and there are even rangers who came round on a patrol boat to make sure that the manatees were not being distressed or even disturbed in anyway. We were able to get up close to about 6 of them and I didn't feel they even knew we were there. It was a wonderful and memorable experience and one of the top highlights of our holiday.

Before we set off for the boat we had pooped across the road to a cafe to buy and coffee and a takeaway sandwich each. We called back in after the boat trip for another coffee and we were so glad we did. The cafe is part of The Olde Mill House Gallery and Printing Museum and the owner was one of the most interesting and welcoming men we have met. He showed us round the museum, which was of great interest to us especially as my Dad and Grandad had been printers and two of our friends with us worked in printing and graphic design. The owner is a Blues singer and his music was playing on a CD in the cafe and we all ended up chatting to him about his music and buying copies of his CD. I would really recommend calling into this Museum and cafe. It was a great end to a fantastic day out.         

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Circle B Bar Reserve (35.5 Miles:- 41 MINUTES)

We had had Circle B Bar Reserve recommended to us a couple of times from different people before we got the chance to visit for the first time in March this year (2018). It made a nice change to travel down the I4 in the opposite direction from Orlando as we drove to Lakeland where the reserve is located. 

What a beautiful place it turned out to be and it is a perfect place for a walk. There is a large and very good Visitor Centre with leaflets and exhibits particulalry nice for children. Entry to the reserve is free as is parking. 

When you get there you discover that there are various different trails that you can choose for your walk. We were particularly keen to head towards the Alligator Alley Trail so we headed off in that direction. The paths are very well laid out and easy to follow. As it is Florida there are no hills either. The reserve is very pretty with some beautiful trees and a large lake (probably more than one lake but we just walked to one on this occasion). Unfortunately we discovered that Alligator Alley has been closed since the hurricane last year which caused some damage. However, we did still see a really large alligator which was exciting. There are many fantastic birds here and we saw osprey, buzzards, a hawk, egrets and coots to name a few. However, the real highlight was seeing Great Horned Owl sat on its nest. 

There are picnic tables in the reserve and on the next occasion we visit we will take a packed lunch with us and enjoy a picnic in the great outdoors. I can definitely see us enjoying many a nice walk here in the future and really recommend as a change from the theme parks.

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