By WARREN RESEN, Florida Outdoor Writers Assoc. member
Photos by Jeanne O’Connor
It took a trek to the jungles of Panama for me to learn what the world’s image of Florida is really like.
Stopping for a rest in a local village, a young boy approached our group and asked, in Spanish, where we lived. I answered “En la Florida.” His reply was, “Oh, la casa de Mickey Mouse.” I don’t think that needs translation. Unfortunately, this image is also prevalent in most of this county. Thankfully, there is more to Florida then “The Mouse.”
Long before Disney, Florida was a kindlier, gentler, less crowded place. However the dollars brought in by the Magic Kingdom and the employment it provides contributes greatly to the economic engine that drives the economy of the state.
For an average family of four, the cash outlay during a week’s visit to The Magic Kingdom can represent a major portion of their disposable yearly income. Fortunately, there are places where visitors and residents can still visit in Florida that will not break the bank.
In Central Florida, about a half-hour northwest of Orlando is Seminole County, long considered to be just a bedroom community to its more glamorous sister. It has been a place so laid back, I think it safe to say that most Floridian’s couldn’t locate it on a map. And yet there it sits, almost dead center in the state and home to some of Florida’s remaining natural beauty.
Seminole County boasts that it is “the epitome of extraordinary natural beauty.” Yes it can claim that distinction, but the county has also kept and restored the historic charm of its older communities and has places to stay and dine that are generally much more reasonable on the wallet, at perhaps one-third the price of the better known, more heavily frequented tourist hot spots to the south.
Nature starts at Wekiwa River State Park with its 6,900 wild acres and crystal clear spring fed river. The park offers a myriad of outdoor activities and nature experiences and it probably looks the same as when Timucuan Indians inhabited the area.
A little bit of history here. It comes as a surprise to most people when they learn that the Seminoles were not the original Native Americans in Florida. They were the last Native Americans to arrive, long after all of the other original tribes had disappeared from the peninsula.
My introduction to Seminole County started with an unusual airboat tour, not through swamps, but cow pastures and to a zoo offering a challenging ropes course. Then came a delightful luncheon cruise on the St. Johns River where the movement of wildlife was real, not computer controlled. Finally, I ended with a stroll through Sanford, a charming city most Floridians associate only with the Auto Train. And there was more.
I’ve been on many airboat rides over the years, but this trip with Capt. Bruce of Central Florida Airboat Tours was unique. Instead of the usual showy maneuver of cutting through cattails, we skimmed across the northern end of Lake Jesup and roared through flooded pastures as cows scampered to get out of our way. At one point we left the water and came to rest on a 1,000 year old Indian shell mound, sitting high above the surrounding fiends, to a enjoy panoramic view and a picture taking session. And yes, we did see ’gators, turtles and birds.
Taking off from land on an airboat and returning to water was an equally unique experience, possibly akin to a plane leaving an aircraft carrier, but in a much smaller way of course.
Capt. Bruce operates out of C.S. Lee Park west of Sanford. Information about his schedule and offerings is available at centralfloridaairboattours.com.
You’ve most likely been to a zoo before, but I don’t think you have ever seen anything like the Central Florida Zoo in the Sanford area. Yes, they have all of the requisite animals, but they also have the ZOOm Air Adventure Park. I’ve never experienced anything like it.
The courses were designed to blend with the environment. You swing, climb, balance, and zip from tree to tree and get a bird’s-eye view of the zoo as you travel over logs, through barrels, across rope bridges, nets, and suspended disks and finish up with a series of long zip lines. There are courses for adults and children. The degree of difficulty was surprising, at times challenging, and it is something you do all by yourself. There are no cars taking you through the motions with computer generated backgrounds.
Go to the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens web site (www.centralfloridazoo.org) to view videos of this unique experience.
If you are comfortable only on concrete, then a visit to Historic Downtown Sanford, along the St. Johns River, should be on your short list. This city is known by many only as the Auto Train Depot. But there’s a lot more to it then that. The historic buildings have been restored to their old grandeur and charming antique shops, art galleries, boutiques, restaurants, sidewalk cafes and museums line the main street.
A lunch or dinner cruise on the Rivership Romance from downtown Sanford into the St Johns River, which flows north into Jacksonville and then into the Atlantic Ocean, is a delightful and relaxing change of pace. This three deck 100 foot long ship, whose keel was laid almost 70 years ago, has been refitted for comfortable cruising, dining and entertainment. Sitting on one of the open decks and listening to the narration about the area’s history and environment, after just having finished a delicious lunch is delightful. The ship has a fascinating history about which you will learn by taking the cruise. Their web site is www.rivershipromance.com.
Accommodations are all over the place, literally, from basic motels to upscale offerings in Lake Mary. They offer the visitor a wide range of prices and choices. Don’t be confused though when some hotels include Orlando in their name or location. That’s just a marketing gimmick to give you an idea of geographical location and latch on to their famous neighbor’s reputation. Then there are the addresses, many of which can be equally confusing. International Parkway in Lake Mary is not to be confused with International Drive in Orlando.
Of course, every type of restaurant known to man is within easy driving distance, without the traffic and crowds of nearby Orlando. You are familiar with the nation chains and what they offer. But when traveling, it’s always fun to try local offerings for a change of pace. My feeling is that if you only frequent the chains, why travel? You might as well stay home.