Almost 90 million people visit Florida every year with Orlando and Disney World the most popular destination. Of the 1 million Brits who descend on Orlando each year and it’s entirely possible that 999,999 people love it, but I know one person doesn’t and that’s me. I have been to Florida for the last 6 years running and I just couldn’t give a rat tail about seeing Mickey Mouse and Disney world.
To be fair, there is lot to do in Orlando. Universal and Disney do have some great rides and I imagine it’s absolutely magical if you’re a family with young children. The fireworks are always fun and the weather is certainly better than anything we have back in England.
But this year we decided to try something new, Alternative Orlando if you will, and visited a few of Orlando’s State Parks in one day.
State parks are a great, cheap alternative to the expensive and overcrowded theme parks nearer the city. Most parks will only charge you a few dollars per car (not person) for parking and will let you roam free within the park and swim in the waters… as long as there haven’t been any crocodiles or giant alligators spotted nearby.
Sadly, our first choice of park, Blue Spring State park (about an hour north of Orlando), had a 9ft alligator sighting that morning so swimming in the stunning lagoon there was out of the question. However, we were able to rent a couple of canoes and sail down the river into the lagoon.
The sun was shining and we worked up a light sweat steering the canoe through trees and near the banks of the forest, always keeping a careful eye out for alligators.
To get to the lagoon we had to sail down the river and take a right into the lagoon. As soon as we left the main river the water became shallower and gradually more and more transparent. As we neared the spring we could see right down to the river bed and realised we were surrounded by hundreds of (big!) fish swimming in shoals under and around the boat.
Up ahead was a viewing area for the land lovers and a group of people were pointing at something and were quickly becoming very excited. Someone shouted towards us “there’s a manatee coming your way”.
Manatees are known as the cows of the sea. They are big creatures, often two and a half meters long and weighing around 300 kilograms. Blue Spring State Park is famous for Manatees since the animals retreat there during the colder season between December and March. The spring remains a nice 72 degrees throughout the year. In late march and April the Manatee venture back out into the rivers, lakes and even to the sea when it is warm enough.
We were incredibly lucky to see a manatee in late April. It’s a huge animal that, like other sea beasts are incredibly elegant and graceful in the water. Manatees can swim up to 30 miles per hour but thankfully our host kept it slow and sedate and allowed us to keep up with him as he journeyed to the river.
The manatee was incredibly friendly and twice came right up to the boat to get air and inspect us. Sadly after a couple of minutes we were back in the murkier waters of the river and the manatee swam onwards on his voyage and we navigated ourselves back to the canoe rentals.
Seeing the manatee up close was a wonderful experience but in the excitement we probably forgot to take in the beauty of the lagoon at Blue Spring which was really quite stunning.
Eager for a swim we got back in the car and headed towards Wekiwa Springs State park which we were told today were alligator free. Wekiwa is about 40 mins north of Orlando and its main attraction is the hot springs swimming area. Whilst not as picturesque as Blue Spring, Wekiwa does have one very cool feature.
Whilst most of the swimming area is a nice 4 to 5 foot depth, the corner of the swimming area has a deep fissure where the hot spring feeds up into the area and then nearby river. If you can get your hands on some good goggles and a snorkel, or if like us you’re lucky enough to have some locals lend you a pair, you can free dive down into the source of the hot spring and explore the underwater caves there.
As a word of warning it’s not easy. First you jump off a rock into the crevice and then grab an overhanging rock and throw/push yourself down to the next level where you can explore the caves.
The upwards current and the pressure meant that it was difficult for an amateur diver like me to spend too much time down there but it was still a thrill to be able to explore this underground world. If it hadn’t been for a friendly diver who we saw disappear under the water for a couple of minutes (!) on our way out of the park, we would never have known about it or been able to explore. Unfortunately there’s no photographic evidence of me free diving so you’ll have to make do with some of Rachel.
For some reason I had got it into my head that tubing would be a great idea next. I haven’t been tubing for a decade and 10 years is probably enough time for me to forget that I was pretty bad at it the first time round. Undeterred, we got back in the car and headed to Kelly Park and the Rock Springs Run.
We rented tubes from the bar just outside the park and immediately wondered how we were going to get 6 massive tubes into a car with 6 people already in it. The answer? Stack them on the top of the car and hope they don’t fall off. We gingerly drove into the park and made our way towards the spring.
Having dropped the rest of the group off and then parking up the car, I was last into the water with my tube. Handling the task of mounting my tube without getting wet with all the grace and elegance of a drunk Bambi. I was at least 50 meters behind the rest of the group by the time I had maintained any semblance of control of my floaty boat.
The tube run is great fun though. Surrounded by nature, gently falling down the lazy river and keeping your eye peeled for deer, fish, raccoons, turtles and other animals, it’s a great way to wind down a long day of exploring.
It seems in the last 10 years I’ve become significantly less attractive… to bugs at least. The mixture of water, impending dusk and half naked humans meant that we were essentially a travelling picnic for bugs who made a meal of a few of our group, but thankfully I escaped the feeding frenzy.
The best thing about tubing was the fact the river took us off the beaten path and into the park. With the exception of passing one picnic area, the river took us into the forest and away from any human noise or even signs of life. It was peaceful and natural whilst till being fun and inherently silly.
When we finally reached the end of the river run I wanted to go straight back to the top and go again. Sadly, our group was hungry so we reluctantly restacked the car with our tubes, headed out of the park and set the SatNav for the bright neon lights and drive throughs of Orlando.
Until next time…
Last modified: 27th February 2017