Tops on the list is a visit to the Disney Wilderness Preserve, which is part of the Nature Conservancy. This 12,000-acre preserve is located just south of Orlando, on Lake Russell. More than 1000 species of plants and animals are there, in a protected place that is like stepping into old Florida, before all the hotels and tourists and businesses took over.
The preserve started out as the country's first "large-scale, off-site wetlands mitigation project;" it will celebrate 20 years of successful conservation in 2012. Disney purchased and donated an additional 8500 acres in the early 1990s, as well as donating funds to keep the preserve safe and contribute to restoration and "wildlife monitoring."
And there is a lot of wildlife to see. Native species living in the preserve include birds such the bald eagle, sandhill cranes, and red-cockaded woodpeckers. There are mammals like the Southeastern big-eared bat and the fox squirrel, and native reptiles such as gopher tortoises. Florida panthers have even been documented on the preserve.
Native flora is another great reason to visit. Hundreds of plants exist at the preserve, in a cypress swamp and freshwater marsh. There is a renewed and rejuvenated longleaf pine forest, its spectacular canopy sheltering more plants, like the saw palmetto. Colorful flowers dot the landscape as well, making this an incredible place for photo opportunities you absolutely will not find anywhere else.
The preserve is closed on weekends, but it is open every weekday from 9am to 5pm, except on major holidays (when it is closed). Plan a visit and remember to give them a call at 407-935-0002 - sometimes access is partially limited due to ongoing conservation activities and seasonal flooding.