I love living in Florida — especially for the climate, outdoor offerings, and fresh seafood. I’ve especially enjoyed getting to know so many attractions that give up-close-and-personal animal experiences. From admiring furry, lovable creatures to understanding the issues and dangers facing Florida wildlife, here are some awesome animal encounters that animal lovers will go wild for, no pun intended.
Disclosure: I have been hosted by several of these places as a travel writer. All opinions are my own.
1. Safari Wilderness In Central Florida
In the heart of Central Florida is Safari Wilderness. I thought this was just like any other drive-through zoo until I had the pleasure of visiting. Tours are conducted in customized safari-style vehicles that roam around 260 acres of wilderness surrounded by Florida’s Green Swamp. You will see rare and exotic animal herds, including eland, Watusi cattle, zebra, axis deer, and sitatunga, often at arms distance.
Don’t worry about the sun; the vehicles have canopies. You can also tour Safari Wilderness via camel, kayak, and ATV, if that better suits your style.
My husband and I were giddy with excitement over hand-feeding the ring-tailed lemurs, giraffe, and camels. My favorite Safari Wilderness animals were the adorable water buffalo with so much personality that I didn’t even mind getting their saliva all over my hands and arms. A 90-minute safari experience runs $119 per person and is a memory to cherish. Safari Wilderness is a Florida agritourism project with licensing from the USDA.
Safari Wilderness is six miles north of I-4, between Orlando and Tampa. While in Lakeland, consider visiting the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College, admiring the blooms and sculptures at Hollis Garden, or seeing the notable Frank Lloyd Wright buildings at the FSC campus. In addition, you may fancy a tasty salad, Eggs Benedict, or burger from Frescos Southern Kitchen and Bar in downtown.
Pro Tip: The ride is bumpy. Be prepared for jostling, and for all you ladies, wear a good bra. Also, stay hydrated.
2. Loggerhead Marine Life Center in Juno Beach
The Loggerhead Marine Life Center is my favorite turtle rescue site. It is currently undergoing a massive expansion, but the new, improved facility will be amazing. Here you will find tanks of injured sea turtles, mostly from boating accidents. The level of animal care is to be commended at these types of facilities.
Each turtle is named and has his story posted on the tanks so you can see the progress and rehabilitation. Once the sea turtles are well, if possible, they are re-released into the ocean, often with a send-off party from the locals. It is easy to fall in love with every one of them and shed a few tears hearing about the turtle’s injuries.
When your visit to Loggerhead Marine Life Center is complete, pop over to The Malted Barley for gourmet pretzels and cold craft beer. Pair your pretzel with the apricot butter — you’ll thank me later.
Fun Fact: If you’ve been to Providence, Rhode Island, you may recognize The Malted Barley. I first had it there and nearly turned off the highway on two wheels to get my salty fix when I saw it on US Highway 1.
3. Lion Country Safari In West Palm Beach
Lion Country Safari is a hidden gem, though you may see it on billboards around Florida. This drive-through attraction takes you through sections that house exotic animals in a natural habitat. There are 400 acres of the Gir Forest, Ruaha National Park, and Serengeti Plains (and other habitats), where you will find giraffes, lions, white rhino, chimpanzees, and gibbons. Not only is Lion Country Safari a zoo offering, but there is an Adventure Park with rides, animal habitats, shopping, a cafe, and snack shacks.
The tropical birds are my favorite part of Lion Country Safari’s Adventure Park, with budgies, kookaburra, macaws, flamingo, lorikeet, and hornbills. Lion Country Safari has sloths and llamas, two top-rated animal attractions at the moment.
Premium Experiences (up-close-and-personal features) include giraffe painting and a “birds and brushes” experience. Lion Country Safari was ranked in “10 Best Safari Parks” by USA Today in 2021.
Pro Tip: Lion Country Safari is actually in Loxahatchee, 20+ minutes west of West Palm Beach. Plan to spend two to three hours at this attraction.
4. Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens in Sanford
Not only is the Central Florida Zoo a pristine habitat for birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians, but there is also a ropes course, zip line, botanical garden, and obstacle adventures.
Animals you will see at the Central Florida Zoo include playful North American river otters, leopards, warthogs, spider monkeys, and porcupines. Barnyard Buddies is a kid-based area with alpaca, donkeys, goats, llamas, and chickens, but as a kid-at-heart, these petting zoos are typically my favorite parts of the park.
Don’t miss the zoo’s herpetarium, where you will find an impressive selection of native Floridian and venomous snakes (green mamba, cobra, vipers, python) from around the world. Even if you are scared to death of snakes, the cute panther chameleon is worth stopping in to see. If you’re traveling with grandkids, they will adore the whimsical carousel and Wharton-Smith Tropical Splash Ground.
After your Central Florida Zoo visit, drive to historical downtown Sanford for one of the best German meals of your life at Hollerbach’s.
Pro Tip: Parking is free, and this is a walkable zoo.
5. Turtle Hospital In Marathon
Driving through the Florida Keys is a dream of many, but often people pass by essential places vital to our communities. The Turtle Hospital is one of those in the Middle Keys. Tours give in-depth information about turtle casualties — much like Loggerhead, only in greater depth — and lead you around the space, all the while introducing you to some of the residents. There was also a turtle feeding where we were given lettuce leaves to hand feed the cuties. You’ll end up with excellent pictures at this accessible venue with close-up encounter opportunities.
Marathon is on 13 islands in the gorgeous Florida Keys. You’ll find world-class fishing (reef, flats, and deep-sea), so consider spending some time whetting a line. Then, make it an overnight with a stay at the lovely Faro Blanco Resort & Yacht Club, a modern hotel sitting on the Gulf of Mexico with complimentary parking and Wi-Fi.
Pro Tips: The Turtle Hospital’s education center and gift shop are open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Programs (tours) run on the hour from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and last roughly 90 minutes.
6. Everglades National Park
Get a stamp in your national park passport book as you enjoy one of Florida’s only national parks. The Everglades National Park is unlike any other landscape in the country. 1.5 million acres of protected subtropical wilderness encompasses wetlands, forests, and prairies.
I recommend taking a ranger-led tour or an airboat adventure that has you gliding across the canals and “rivers of grass,” which is a fun time without even seeing gators. However, you will see American alligators on this excursion, and hopefully many of them. Trained eyes (myself included after living in Florida for ten years) can spot the ridges on their backs from far away as the gators float along the water and sunbathe on the banks. The company I liked best for airboat tours is Everglades Holiday Park in Fort Lauderdale.
7. Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park In Micanopy
Florida is bursting with state parks — 175 to be exact — but Paynes Prairie Preserve is one of my favorites. This unique area, the LaChua Trail, has a handicap-accessible boardwalk that runs about 1.5 miles. When you get to the observation decking, dozens of gators are resting on the banks, just waiting to be the star of your many photographs.
You can hike the path, too, skipping the well-maintained boardwalk, and on this route, you may encounter wild-roaming buffalo. Yes, at Paynes Prairie, bison and gators (and a few horses, too) coexist in this natural environment that is like a little dose of heaven.
Suppose you wish to extend your trip to nearby Gainesville. In that case, I recommend hitting up one of the inns in Gainesville’s Historic Bed and Breakfast district, namely Magnolia Plantation, with great rooms, beautiful property, and a complimentary breakfast. Then, enjoy Satchel’s Pizza (the Satchel Salad is a must — you will thank me later) or Blue Gill Quality Foods’ tasty fare for lunch or dinner.
Note: Due to the possible dangers of wildlife and snakes, pets are not permitted on the LaChua Trail.