While Florida is full of well-known animal theme parks, including Sea World and Disney’s Animal Kingdom, there are so many animal encounters that receive little to no notoriety. During my Ultimate Florida Road Trip, I experienced the state’s wildlife up close.
Manatees, Space Coast
The greater Orlando area is the best region to spot manatees in the wild because the surrounding rivers are shallow. I saw them while kayaking Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and stand-up paddleboarding in New Smyrna Beach. They aren’t too shy when it comes to human activity, so be careful or you could find yourself accidentally swimming with them, known as a “manatee car wash.” Crystal River is another great place for them.
While there are hundreds of species of animals to see at the world-famous Brevard Zoo, my favorite was the platform where guests can be eye level with giraffes looking for a snack. You can purchase food for them to lick out of your hand.
- Brevard Zoo, Melbourne
Alligators, St. Augustine and Everglades
You can’t come to Florida and not see an alligator. I had a few opportunities to see them, particularly on an airboat in the Everglades, their natural habitat, but also at a park devoted entirely to the species. They love the brackish water but can be found sunbathing throughout the day. They’re even the namesake of Alligator Alley.
Key Deer, Florida Keys
This subspecies of the white-tailed deer are only found in the Florida Keys and include a protected population of around 800. I was lucky enough to see one standing on the side of the road while driving back north but didn’t get to snap a photo.
- National Key Deer Refuge, Big Pine Key
Fish, Fort Lauderdale and Key Largo
I can’t mention Florida wildlife without mentioning the fish and other creatures that inhabit the water. During my days snorkeling and scuba diving, I saw Moray eels, nurse sharks, rays, conchs and all manners of colorful fish.
Peafowl, St. Augustine
The Fountain of Youth’s main attraction may be the water, but the peafowl, plural for male peacocks and female peahens, are a close second. They wander freely around the park, spreading out their plumage and showing off for tourists.
Cats, Key West
While you may be saying, “Cats aren’t wildlife! They’re domesticated animals!”, you haven’t seen the ones in the former home of Ernest Hemingway, known for having extra toes. Also, look out for the roosters that wander the island as they own it.
- Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, Key West
Many of these activities were sponsored through partnerships or VIP passes with local tourism boards, but all opinions remain my own.