Published: July 2010
Orlando’s Wild Side  

Orlando’s Wild Side

by Sharon Spence Lieb

Orlando’s thrill-a-minute theme parks and attractions are why this Florida town is America’s #1 family vacation destination (; 800/972-3304). But did you know Orlando has a wild side, too? We discovered where to swim with dolphins and get up close and personal with gators, panthers and Florida cracker cattle.

At Discovery Cove (; 877/434-7268), Orlando’s tropical island oasis, nature lovers swim with and learn about dolphins. You’ll also snorkel with tropical fish and manta rays, hand feed exotic birds and relax on a sandy white beach.

Yoko, a gorgeous gray 14-year-old dolphin, swims up to me for a kiss and a hug. “Give her a friendly pet, and she’ll be your best friend forever,” says Brad, her devoted instructor. Standing in waist-deep water, Brad shares fascinating dolphin facts.

“Did you know dolphins eat a wide variety of fish, squid and crustaceans, like shrimp?” he asks. “They swallow their food whole.”

Brad tosses a fish into Yoko’s wide, toothy smile; it’s gone in a gulp.

“Dolphins are social animals,” Brad continues. “They swim in groups and communicate danger by slapping their tails on the water. They emit sound waves, called echolocation, enabling them to navigate the ocean and find food. Dolphins live 25 to 40 years. We determine their age by counting the rings on the inside of their teeth.”

Yoko seems to comprehend what Brad is saying; she’s nodding and squeaking while he speaks.

“Sharon, are you ready for the ride of your life?” Brad asks.

I wrap my arm around Yoko’s muscular dorsal fin. Next thing I know, Yoko speeds me along in a giant splash across the pool. Yoko glides to a graceful stop, and I let go, exhilarated. Surfing with a dolphin, how phenomenal is that? Yoko is a first-class celebrity; she sticks around for more hugs, kisses and photos. I’ll always treasure my close-up encounter with this gorgeous mammal.

After our thrilling dolphin swim, we relax in our private beach cabana, sipping cold sodas. Then it’s time for snorkeling with manta rays and photographing exotic birds.

The afternoon flies by. We’ve enjoyed a mind-blowing wildlife encounter, just minutes from downtown Orlando.

The next day, we drive an hour south of Orlando to visit Forever Florida Eco-Safari (; 407/957-9794), located in rural St. Cloud. We climb into a funky “Coach Safari” for a tour of Florida’s wetland and prairie areas.

“Back in the 1940s, cows out here lived wild and free,” says Carolyn, our guide and driver. “They had to be hunted for food. But now we have 10,000 cracker cattle, grazing peacefully out here. We’re also home for hundreds of birds, like hawks, eagles, cara cara and sand hill cranes.”

“Ever see any dangerous critters?” I ask Carolyn.

“I’ve seen bobcats, wild hogs and plenty of gators,” she laughs. “But we’re safe in the Coach Safari, so no worries!”

Forever Florida encompasses 4,700 acres of untamed wilderness, natural streams and dense cypress forests. At summer camp, kids learn about ecology and conservation, and they visit with Jasmine, a 4-year-old captive Florida panther. Visitors can also try the new Zipline Safari for a high-above-the-treetops’ view.

“Florida is so much more than beaches,” says Carolyn. “We’re a living, breathing, thriving ecosystem. You just never know what you’re going to see.”

Take it from me: Orlando is way more than great theme parks. Discover her wild side.