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. Explore the other corners of Florida to see the state’s wildlife up close.
Manatees, Space Coast and Crystal River
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, along with A Day Away Kayaking on Merritt Island and East Coast Paddle in New Smyrna Beach.
While there are hundreds of species of animals to see at the world-famous Brevard Zoo in Melbourne, 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. It’s as close as you can get to the African animals without your passport.
Alligators, St. Augustine and the 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 since they’re cold blooded.
They’re even the namesake of Alligator Alley, a roadway across the Everglades. You can also spot the creatures at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park in St. Augustine and on an airboat tour from the Sawgrass Recreation Park in Weston, near Fort Lauderdale.
Key Deer, Florida Keys
This subspecies of white-tailed deer are only found in the Florida Keys and are a part of 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. See them for yourself at the National Key Deer Refuge in 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. Get up close on an excursion with SEA Experience in Fort Lauderdale or Rainbow Reef in Key Largo, two of the best outfitters in the state.
Peafowl, St. Augustine
The Fountain of Youth‘s main attraction may be the healing water that inspired Ponce de Leon, but the peafowl, plural for male peacocks and female peahens, are a close second. They wander freely around the St. Augustine park, spreading out their plumage and showing off for tourists. Admire them as they wander the archaeological site.
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. The current cats are related to the originals that “Papa” himself purchased.
See them for yourself at the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum in Key West, one of the most popular attractions on the island. There’s a cemetery for the dearly departed critters. Also, look out for the roosters that wander the island as they own it.
Many of these activities were sponsored through partnerships or VIP passes with local tourism boards, but all opinions remain my own.