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Find nature in Florida, not just theme parks

The greater Orlando area is well-known for sprawling strip malls, chain eateries and theme parks. But there are plenty of options for people who want to get wild and get off the well-worn tourist path.
/ Source: The Associated Press

On a recent chilly evening, I looked up and saw more stars than I ever had in the Florida sky. I was 45 feet above the ground and my heart was racing. Then, I stepped off my platform into an inky abyss. I could barely see the glimmer of a swamp below.

Attached to a harness and a cable, I flew through the forest to the next platform. The hum of the zipline and the occasional night bird were the only sounds in my ears.

This was no Central Florida theme park ride — it was a starlight zipline tour on a ranch south of Orlando. For a weekend, my husband and I trekked around the area in search of a wild Florida, away from the manicured and manufactured.

The greater Orlando area is well-known for the obvious: sprawling strip malls, chain eateries and, of course, enormous theme parks promising fun and adventure.

At some point, a person might get sick of the parks. Tired of roller coasters. Cannot take another cartoon character.

Then is the time to get wild and get off the well-worn tourist path.

There are plenty of possibilities. From the starlight zipline tour to water-skiing to off-road safaris both motorized and walked, there is much more to the area than most tourists ever dream of.

A good, low-key beginning is a hike through a very different kind of Disney park.

Located in Kissimmee, 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Walt Disney World, the Disney Wilderness Preserve is a 12,000-acre (4860-hectare) park owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy. Other than bathrooms and a few picnic tables, the preserve has no amenities — unless you count the vast swaths of green and gold saw palmetto foliage, flanked by majestic cypress domes.

Before you arrive in the park, plenty of fast-food and supermarket offerings await the tourist who wants to bring along a picnic lunch.

There is no admittance fee to the preserve — it is donation only — and there is a small stand with flyers and maps, advising where to hike and what to see along the way.

The wilderness trail can be broken up into an easy, 2.5-mile (4-kilometer) hike or an easier 1-mile (1.5-kilometer) stroll. Because it is Florida, the trail is flat — but because it is Florida, it also is quite possible that the trail may be wet, so wear proper shoes (leave the flip-flops in the car).

We sidestepped the muddy areas and concentrated instead on the sound of the wind fluttering through the longleaf pines. We were there on a Saturday, and aside from a couple and their baby in a stroller, we had the place to ourselves.

A little more than a half-mile (three-fourths-kilometer) in, we detoured onto a spur to picnic near Lake Russell. It is a rarity in central Florida, because it is one of the few lakes that has no development along its shoreline. As we munched on our sandwiches, we admired the Spanish moss dripping from the trees and read about how the lake is actually the headwater of the Everglades, and its water flows some 200 miles (320 kilometers) to the south.

We saw few animals on the rest of our hike, except for a pair of tall sandhill cranes, but the trail guide said alligators, deer and even the occasional bald eagle have been spotted in the preserve.

A cattle ranch experience
Our next stop took us 45 miles (70 kilometers) southeast to St. Cloud, where an eco-ranch named Forever Florida is nestled among cattle ranches and orange groves.

This 4,700-acre (1,900-hectare) property offers coach safaris, camping, ranch experiences, horseback rides and zipline tours. We chose the latter two — a one-hour horseback ride and a "starlight" zipline tour.

The terrain is similar to the Wilderness Preserve in Kissimmee, only you see it from a different perspective — in my case, it was on the back of a small horse named Taffy.

Our leader was a man named Turkey Creek Gary, a self-proclaimed cowboy complete with Wrangler jeans, spurs and a gun nestled in a hip holster. (We didn't need to ask if it was real; we read in the brochure about the alligators, black bears and diamondback rattlesnakes that roam the property).

As we left the stable, a red-shouldered hawk cruised above our heads.

Gary led our group of five and our horses down a dusty trail and into the thick woods.

And into the water. The horses dutifully waded belly-deep into a river, and Gary told us that this was a similar trek taken by early Florida explorers.

Gary reassured us that alligators in the river would not attack our horses; in fact, the only alligator we saw was at the end of our tour, when we spotted a two-foot baby gator sunning himself in the fading daylight.

Safety before zipline tour
After dinner, we were back on the ranch for the zipline tour.

We were driven to the zipline area on a giant dune buggy-monster truck hybrid, and on the way we saw a family of deer, two wild pigs and a bunny.

Most tourists who know of zipline tours are familiar with those in Central America and other destinations, where the participant glides past treetops attached to a harness, pulley and cable. Forever Florida's tours are similar, except that we opted to do the nighttime zipline instead (daytime tours are available as well). There are seven ziplines and two suspension bridges on this tour; you can soar at speeds of up to 25 mph (40 kph) on the longer lines.

The guides gave us a safety briefing (stressing the need to wear "brain buckets," or helmets), then we walked about 10 minutes into the pitch-black woods.

Even though I had zipped through trees in both Costa Rica and Nicaragua, I felt a pang of anxiety as I climbed the first platform, a four-story structure, in the dark. With no development nearby, there is no light pollution as in other places in Florida; the thought of stepping off the platform into the darkness was just a tad unsettling.

One by one, our group zipped off. It was my turn.

With the help of my guide, I pushed off the platform and into the darkness. By the time I reached the next platform — a guide was already there to catch me, help me onto the platform and unhook me from the zipline — the only thing that hurt were my cheeks, from grinning so hard.

The anti-theme park
We spent the night in St. Cloud at the Lakeside Inn, a clean, $35-a-night roadside motel on the shore of Alligator Lake, which also boasts cheap and monster-sized breakfasts in its diner.

The next morning, we drove to Clermont, a small town north of Walt Disney World. We passed by several fresh fruit stands — mostly tomatoes, oranges and strawberries — because we had a reservation at Revolution Off Road.

Run by Kevin Jowett, a former rally car racer from the Britain, and his wife, Revolution offers ATV, dune buggy and 4x4 adventures on Jowett's large property. There also is a lake where a Canadian watersports pro gives lessons in water-skiing and wake-boarding. A wake-board is a short, wide water ski.

It was a bit too cold for watersports — we Floridians do not go into the water if it is colder than 80 degrees (27 C) — so we opted for the ATV safari.

Kevin fitted us with helmets, gloves and goggles and explained how to be safe while on the machines. While my husband was excited about racing off into the woods, I was a bit more hesitant, mostly because I have read my fair share of ATV horror stories. But Kevin soothed my fears, and said I could go as slowly as I needed to feel comfortable.

He put us through a training course, where we practiced turning and braking. Then we headed onto a trail that wound through the property, past lakes and pines. I started to feel more comfortable and pressed the gas lever with my thumb a little harder.

About 15 minutes later as I powered through a puddle — spraying my ATV and myself with mud — I began to wonder if I was the Danica Patrick of four-wheelers. (Patrick is the first major female competitor in American professional auto racing.)

Kevin took us up small hills, over logs and through sand.

By the end of the tour, I was covered in mud — not something that would happen at any theme park.