Liliane Opsomer, coauthor of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with Kids, reports on her visit to a little-known attraction, The Disney Wilderness Preserve.
The 11,500-acre Disney Wilderness Preserve is part of critical conservation lands supporting an array of wildlife, including the gopher tortoise, the Florida scrub jay, crested caracaras, sandhill cranes, and the Florida panther.
How It All Started
A unique partnership between Disney and The Nature Conservancy developed when Disney decided to help mitigate impacts on wetlands caused by their theme park developments. In 1992 the Walt Disney Company purchased a former cattle ranch and provided funds for The Nature Conservancy to restore this 8,500-acre sensitive habitat.
Next, Disney transferred ownership to The Conservancy, which is making sure that this ecologically significant land is protected forever. Orlando Aviation Authority joined the effort by adding 3,000 acres in 1995, bringing the preserve to its current 11,000 acres of protected lands. Preservation efforts have included the elimination of non-native, invasive plants and grasses, as well as the removal of excessive shrub and tree growth.
Current work by The Conservancy includes a partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on a program to return the red-cockaded woodpecker to the preserve. Another project is a wood stork rookery. For this, The Conservancy partners with Disney’s Animal Kingdom to monitor and closely study the ancient and endangered wood storks when they flock to the preserve each spring.
Two Trails Invite Visitors to Discover The Disney Wilderness Preserve
If you have a little time on a hot summer day, consider hiking the 1-mile trail leading to Lake Russell. From there, for a longer experience, you can opt for an additional 2.5-mile loop alongside cypress swamps, saw palmetto, and a longleaf pine forest.
Be on the lookout for fall-flowering ixia, terrestrial orchids, and Catesby’s lily; scout for some of the more than 1,000 species that call the preserve home. Either way, make sure to spend time in the small discovery center before your hike.
Guests must register at the Information Center prior to setting out on the trails. Make sure to wear appropriate footwear; also bring a hat, sunscreen, bug repellent, and water. We recommend that you set aside at least 2 hours to hike the entire trail, rest stops not included. Smoking is not allowed and neither are pets, weapons, and alcohol. Stay on the trail at all times and do NOT collect plants or animals.
The Disney Wilderness Preserve is a model for sustainable development and state-of-the-art conservation management. It is a perfect place to unwind from the hectic days in the theme park.
How to Reach the Preserve
The Nature Conservancy’s Disney Wilderness Preserve is located in Kissimmee, about 40 minutes outside of Walt Disney World. The preserve is open 9 a.m.–4:30 p.m. daily November through March, Monday–Friday April through October.
Contact information: The address is 2700 Scrub Jay Trail, Kissimmee, FL 34759. Please keep in mind that weather affects the trails. Please call the preserve at 407-935-0002 to check accessibility before heading out. For more information, visit their website. There is no fee to visit the preserve, but donations to the Nature Conservancy are appreciated.
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