Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens
On the other side of the tourist bubble, an hour and change northeast, lies another detour treasure, the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens.
First thing’s first - the Botanical Gardens are the Zoo. That might sound like a fast one until you see the sign in front of an impenetrable thicket of foliage. Sure, there are dedicated patches of local flora in appropriate bloom, but for all intents and purposes, the park is one big, lush jungle. Don’t worry, though - the predators are well-fed.
A cock-eyed trail through the wilderness leads explorers past dozens of animals, only a handful of them native - black bears, alligators, lizards and the like. The rest are impressively exotic. Giraffes. Warthogs. A rare Indian rhino. Big birds. Bigger cats. The works.
For a relatively small outfit, the Central Florida Zoo boasts an impressive herd, some of it record-breaking - visitors can study the southeast’s largest collection of reptiles at their own peril.
But there’s more to it than fur and scales. A miniature train circles the grounds. A zipline course zig-zags between its tallest trees. A water playground, a necessity for most of the year, provides cool respite for the tiniest guests.
Which is a bit of a clue. Given the scale of the zoo, it’s best suited for family trips. Couples or lonesome travelers might want to wait for one of its seasonal overlays before making the drive. Then again, it’s minutes from the rest of Sanford, an eminently walkable town. Might be difficult to make a full day out of the Central Florida Zoo, but it’s a lot easier with a walk along the Lake Monroe marina and an outdoor dinner at Hollerbach’s, one of the best German restaurants in the state.
Even among the heaviest hitters, Gatorland is the only long-standing Central Florida attraction that feels like an institution. It opened four years after World War II ended. The park’s original train, dubbed the Ol’ Iron Horse Express, was the area’s first ride. The iconic, 15-foot-tall, concrete jaws out front, though no longer doubling as the entrance, have announced the attraction to Orange Blossom Trail traffic for 60 years and counting.
It is Central Florida tourism primordial, immortal, and no trip can be complete without pitching some gator chow to an attentive, toothy audience.
Even with decades of renovations, the 110-acre park feels like Old Florida. The boards along the boardwalk still creak. The gators still jump. The flamingos still strut. That rustic ambiance is worth the price of admission alone, but fortunately there’s more to do than just wax nostalgic.
“The Alligator Capital of the World” houses over 2,000 American Alligators, many of them rescued, across various lagoons and enclosures. They range in size from six-inch infants to adults the length of compact cars. The Breeding Marsh, the biggest habitat, is criss-crossed by ziplines and staked out with an observation tower for a bird’s-eye view of the action. Crocodiles hang out in the back with a chatty kookaburra. A centenarian tortoise poses patiently for photos. Birds of every description bath themselves in the polite company of capybaras. Panthers, bobcats, and servals - oh my.
A bone-soaking play area keeps kids cool and a peaceful swamp walk keeps adults meditative. For additional fees, visitors can ride those wheelchair-accessible ziplines over gator-infested waters, ride the Gatorland Express, or take a Stompin’ Gator Off-Road Adventure into the brush.
The word “authentic” gets thrown around too often in general, but Gatorland more than earns it. This is what Central Florida is all about in a convenient, day-long package. And just like the radio spots say, you can get in for less than the price of parking at those new-fangled theme parks.