Table of Contents[Hide][Show]
- Find Florida Wildlife at Shark Valley in Everglades National Park
- Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
- Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
- J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge
- Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
- Florida Wildlife: National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key
- Bonus Wildlife Sighting at Robbie's Marina
Florida is a top family vacation destination, but it’s so much more than beaches, theme parks and mini-golf courses. It’s also teeming with Florida wildlife, from manatees to alligators to a spectacular array of birds. Help your kids take time to slow down and look around them as they learn to appreciate the wild beauty of the state of Florida.
I grew up in Florida, with parents who loved nothing more than to take a Sunday drive and look for wild animals. We’d visit nature reserves, remote beaches and national parks, all in the hopes of adding another sighting to our family “life list.” I’ve tried to impart that interest in nature to my own daughter, and I think it’s working. She’s always game for a walk in the woods, and always ready to save a bee, or even a snake! Visiting Florida with her now, as we do every year, and sharing the special places I explored as a child, has only helped strengthen her love and respect for nature.
Here are some of our favorite state parks, nature reserves and pristine areas where kids and parents can get a taste of Florida wildlife. Note that in most places, the dry season of November to March, when animals congregate in and near springs and waterholes, is the best time for wildlife sightings.
TravelingMom Tip: Opening days and hours are subject to change without warning. Always check the website or call ahead before heading to an attraction or event.
Find Florida Wildlife at Shark Valley in Everglades National Park
Less than one hour by car from downtown Miami, the Shark Valley Visitor Center is our favorite place to get a real feel for the Everglades and the mighty River of Grass. Narrated tram rides take about an hour and stop at an observation deck, and you can also walk a paved road that runs next to a canal packed with fish, turtles, and alligators—so many alligators! We’ve also seen baby herons, deer, gopher tortoises and even an elusive otter at Shark Valley, all in broad daylight. The path is safe and alligators are rarely aggressive. But keep a hand on your little ones at all times and remember, if you spot baby alligators, Mommy gator is somewhere close by.
There are cold drinks and snacks for sale, and picnic facilities. The nearby Miccosukee Indian Village is campy, but it does have a sit-down restaurant—with gator bites (fried alligator tail) on the menu!
Part of the National Audubon Society and located about 30 minutes east of Naples, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary offers easy access, via a flat, 2.5-mile, mostly shaded boardwalk, into zones of wet prairie and marsh, pine woods, and old-growth Bald Cypress forest. Quiet kids and adults are rewarded with animal sightings at almost every turn. Kids can also easily identify Bald Cypress trees, thanks to their “knees’—knobby roots that grow out of the swamp water.
Along the boardwalk, you’re likely to spot turtles, frogs, and abundant birdlife, including barred owls, ibis, limpkins, herons and Pileated Woodpeckers. At the Lettuce Lake near the end of the boardwalk, our daughter was able to look down—from a safe distance—on a big mamma gator with 35 babies squeaking nearby. In the 25 years I lived in Florida, this is the only place I ever saw a black bear in the wild. These shy megafauna try their best to avoid humans, which is why we only saw its backside as it scooted away on the boardwalk. But still—we saw a bear!
There’s a sit-down snack bar attached to the excellent visitor’s center and gift shop. Otherwise, head back towards I-75 for more dining options.
Located about 90 minutes west-northwest of Orlando, this state park is part of a vast system of underwater springs and caves. It is a winter home for the state’s beloved gentle giants—Florida Manatees. These slow-moving, endangered herbivores love the warm freshwater that bubbles from central Florida’s springs. At Homosassa Springs, an underwater viewing area called the Fish Tank lets visitors watch them swim, eat, and do what manatees do best—chill out! There are boat rides, a stroller-friendly boardwalk and a number of captive wild animals that can’t be released back into the wild—including, alligators, black bears, flamingos, and oddly, the oldest hippopotamus in captivity.
There are picnic pavilions and a cafe in the park.
Just a few miles north of Homosassa Springs, Three Sisters Springs is part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge which is part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This is one of the few places where visitors can legally swim with manatees during certain times of the year. Take note though: while these docile giants are completely harmless, their size is intimidating. We prefer to leave them in peace and watch from the shore. To the east, Blue Springs State Park offers manatee viewing in the winter, and swimming, snorkeling and tubing in the summer months, when the manatees have moved on.
This wildlife refuge on Sanibel Island, just off the coast from Fort Myers, is known for its remarkable variety of resident and migratory birds. More than 245 species either pass through or take up house (or nest) here. Look for roseate spoonbills—definitely the refuge’s stars, as well as white pelicans, Bald Eagles and a huge roster of herons. Challenge your kids to spot nesting Yellow-Crown Night Herons, who build their nests over alligator habitats to protect their chicks from raccoons—clever birds!
The refuge’s 4-mile Wildlife Drive is open to vehicles, bikes and walkers, and tram rides are available. Older kids interested in nature and birdwatching will feel right at home here, while younger ones might need some coaxing. Our daughter was 6 when we visited. While she was engaged when we would spot animals, she did get easily bored with the process—and she was hot. Start at the visitor center for information and hands-on displays, and pick up a kid-friendly guide to the refuge’s animal life. Remind little ones that for the best chance of spotting birds, turtles, raccoons and other critters, they need to move slowly and quietly.
The visitor center sells cold drinks, and there are casual eateries all over Sanibel Island.
This is located on Florida’s Space Coast and a terrific add-on to a trip to the Kennedy Space Center (which is fantastic for kids of all ages). The refuge is a critical refuge to more than 500 species of birds, reptiles, mammals, amphibians and invertebrates who thrive in the barrier island’s varied habitats. This is a great place to spot Bald Eagles, shorebirds, migrating songbirds and the curious Florida scrub-jay, a threatened species. There’s a healthy population of bobcats here, too. You can drive or bike along 7-mile Black Point Wildlife Drive, set off on wildlife trails or sign up for free, kid-friendly interpretive programs. Don’t try to do the wildlife refuge and the Space Center in the same day or you’ll risk a meltdown—trust me on this one! Instead, save the refuge for the next day, combined with some beach time (see below).
TravelingMom Tip: Bring along a picnic lunch. Then, when everyone’s had enough wildlife watching, head to secluded Playa Linda Beach and let the gang run off some steam. Otherwise, you’ll need to head back to the mainland to find a place to eat.
Florida Wildlife: National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key
Find the aptly named Key Deer at Big Pine Key and neighboring No Name Key. The endangered Key Deer, a tiny subspecies of white-tailed deer, is found only in the lower Florida Keys. These cute little deer get no bigger than a Golden Retriever. You can best spot them in the early morning and early evening hours, or along one of the wildlife trails near the visitor center.
Unfortunately, the animals have learned to associate humans with food, and may come around looking for a handout. Teach your kids respect for nature by resisting the urge to feed Bambi, no matter how adorable he is. Familiarity with humans leads to run-ins with the #1 threat to Key Deer—automobiles. In order to see the deer, you really do have to get out and walk. We know it’s tough for little ones to stay quiet on a nature trail. Tell them that’s the only way the deer will come out of hiding!
TravelingMom Tip: For good fun that’s just fine for kids, head to the No Name Pub on Big Pine Key, where the food and vibe are low-key and there are at least 100,000 autographed dollar bills hung from the ceiling!
While you’re in the Florida Keys, don’t miss a pit stop at Robbie’s Marina of Islamorada. Up to 100 wild tarpon gather around the docks here. For the price of a bucket of fish, you can feed these massive, toothless beauties. This activity is best for older kids, since you have to lay on the dock and reach down to water level, baitfish in hand. The tarpon sometimes jump out of the water to grab a fish. I’ve had my whole hand disappear into a gaping maw of a mouth!
It’s fun and exciting for little kids to watch these mighty, harmless fish, but leave the actual feeding to adults, teens and mature tweens. The tarpon are only interested in the fish, but they are huge and intimidating—even for adults—as they lunge from the water. Plus the inside of their mouths are like sandpaper and can scratch up little (and big) hands. Our daughter thought she wanted to try, but changed her tune when she got closer to the fish!
There’s a super-casual restaurant on-site, as well as boat rentals, fishing charters and guided eco- and snorkeling tours.