When you envision animal life in Orlando, you may picture a notorious mouse, a pair of mischievous chipmunks and a couple of goofy pups. But, Central Florida is home to creatures beyond the iconic furry friends at Walt Disney World Resort. In fact, Orlando is actually a haven for a wide array of wildlife! Naturally, you’ll find indigenous animals like alligators, manatees and turtles lounging in their native fresh and salt watery habitats. But you may be surprised to discover rescued and relocated animals, like giraffes, elephants and alpacas also claiming Central Florida’s warm, vast prairie as their home.

(Photo Courtesy of Discovery Cove)

Animal encounters in Orlando range from the wild to the wonderful, defined by unforgettable up-close and personal interactions. Best of all, these experiences intrigue with exceptional education. For example, you can learn about Florida’s diverse ecosystem of mangrove forests, open prairie, estuaries and freshwater springs while uncovering its resident creatures. Or, get to know endangered or threatened animals and, more importantly, discover how you can take part in helping the animal kingdom thrive.

Whether you’re a fan of the slithery and slimy or the fuzzy and flighty, Orlando has experiences to please every kind of animal enthusiast. Here are our picks for Orlando’s most wild animal encounters:

Creepy Crawly

Florida just wouldn’t be Florida as we know it without its unofficial mascot: the American alligator. Meet these prehistoric reptiles at Gatorland, known as the “Alligator Capital of the World,” about 40 minutes south of downtown Orlando. Long before Walt Disney helped Orlando become the theme park capital of the world, visitors began chomping at the bit to check out this family-run attraction. Gatorland remains a healthy haven for alligators, along with other crawly critters like snakes, lizards and tortoises. Dare to explore this wild habitat by shadowing a trainer, climbing aboard an off-road vehicle or soaring above the creature-invested swamp while zip-lining.

(Photo Courtesy of Visit Orlando)

For convenient access to Gatorland and the theme parks, book a stay at Embassy Suites by Hilton Orlando Lake Buena Vista South, just 3.5 miles from Disney’s magical entry gates. Each suite features a private bedroom, separate living area with a sofa bed, microwave, refrigerator, two flat-screen televisions and in-room safe; plus complimentary breakfast and shuttle service options.

To see more Florida wildlife in their natural habitat, unencumbered by barriers, climb aboard an airboat for a Lake Jesup Black Hammock tour. Lake Jesup is home to over 10,000 alligators, as well as a preserve for birds during migration. Feeling nervous? Ease your jitters with a pre-airboat drink at Black Hammock’s Lazy Gator Bar.

(Photo Courtesy of The Black Hammock)

Also Try Nearby…

Learn more about the wonderful world of reptiles at the Reptile World Serpentarium in St. Cloud, or the Reptile Discovery Center in Deland (both are about 45 minutes from downtown Orlando). More than just Florida reptiles, these serpentariums are home to exotic and venomous creatures from abroad, like the king cobra, Bermese python and the African green mamba. Professionals wrangle these beings for a special venom extraction show, an entertaining and educational demonstration used to gather venom for medicinal research and the making of anti-venom.

Fanciful in Flight

Tucked away in the North Orlando neighborhood of Maitland, flock to The Audubon Center for Birds of Prey to marvel winged wonders. This humble conservation center rehabilitates and re-releases birds of prey, such as bald eagles, kites, osprey, owls and even peregrine falcons. Learn about these majestic animals at the Center’s historic home nestled up to Lake Sybelia. And if you need some R&R too, retreat to Homewood Suites by Hilton Orlando-Maitland overlooking Lake Lucien. This property is minutes from downtown Orlando and Winter Park, and conveniently located near highways for easy beach day-trips.

The Avian Reconditioning Center in Apopka welcomes orphaned falcons and invites eager minds interested in understanding more about flying predators. Open to the public on Saturdays, guests can see kestrels, screech owls and hawks undergoing physical therapy and reconditioning in preparation for re-release into the wild.

For bird enthusiasts with a keen eye, take a walk along the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail and put your avian knowledge to practice. With over 17 locations throughout Orange County, the trail is a peaceful perch to view Florida birds and butterflies in their natural setting. Get interactive with the environment and create an account on iNaturalist where you can contribute sightings to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission while interacting with other naturalists.

Under the Sea

Bordered by saltwater on three sides and home to over 30,000 lakes, Florida is no stranger to underwater animals. To maximize diverse sightings, discover all manner of marine life at SeaWorld Orlando. The sprawling, well-groomed theme park grounds are home to Arctic animals, as well as local Florida faunas like dolphins, manta rays and manatees. SeaWorld aims to educate and encourage conservation with their animal experiences by offering the opportunity to get up-close to animals by shadowing SeaWorld trainers as they care for shark, walrus, sea lion, penguin, dolphin and whale populations. New to SeaWorld’s roster of animal encounters is SeaWorld Rescue Experience, a hands-on program assisting the SeaWorld Rescue Team in their daily care for injured and rehabilitating animals.

(Photo Courtesy of Discovery Cove)

For those looking to jump in with both feet, SeaWorld’s sister park, Discovery Cove, offers in-the-water animal interaction with otters, marmosets, tropical fish and even Bottlenose dolphins. Book ahead for this popular splashy opportunity.

A tankful of fishy fun awaits at SEA LIFE Orlando Aquarium, located at ICON Park on the entertaining International Drive. Special tours allow guests to go behind-the-scenes with aquarists and participate in ocean animal feedings. To rest swimmingly nearly, retreat to the newly renovated Homewood Suites by Hilton Orlando-International Drive/Convention Center. This hotel includes a complimentary grocery service so you can stock your suite’s kitchen.

Worth a Day-Trip…

Swim with gentle sea cows at Crystal River under the guidance of Florida Manatee Snorkel & Swim Adventure Tours. A chauffeured scenic hour and 45 minute drive to Crystal River is no hindrance when lolling manatees await in clear blue waters. Crystal River is the only legal area to swim and interact with manatees in the U.S., and worth the guided opportunity to see these gentle giants in their peaceful homestead. Take this tour in the winter months for optimal manatee sightings.

For a truly eye-opening adventure, consider paddling along Crystal River in a clear kayak with Get Up & Go Kayaking. This unique watercraft allows you to see deep into the crystal-clear waters, plus it often attracts curious manatee anxious to discover this odd floating friend.

Just an hour’s drive from Orlando to the Atlantic coast, day-trip to the quaint beach town of New Smyrna. Here the Marine Discovery Center welcomes visitors eager to explore the Indian River Lagoon, the most biodiverse estuary in North America. The Marine Discovery Center boasts “hands-on feet-wet,” tours for curious minds.

Once the sun sets, the magic of the sea awakens as the glow of bioluminescent algae illuminates the creatures swimming about. Book a kayak tour with A Day Away Kayak Tours in nearby Titusville (an hour from Orlando) to experience the shining dinoflagellates after dark.

Home on the Range

Don your khakis and strap on those binoculars for a wild safari. Orlando’s vast plains are home to exotic animals that feel at home on Central Florida’s hot grasslands. Explore over 260 acres of wild game ranch by hopping aboard an off-road vehicle with Safari Wilderness Adventures, located about an hour from Orlando. Or, saddle up for a guided game-viewing safari by camel-back.

For a magical experience, trek through an African savannah at Disney’s Animal Kingdom on the Kilimanjaro Safari. Though only 18 minutes long, the slow safari ride through plains, jungle and wetlands will have you feeling like you’re in the Serengeti. Keep your camera ready for memorable sightings of giraffe, wildebeest, elephants and zebras.

(Photo Courtesy of Walt Disney World Resort)

Wild Florida, flourishing near Saint Cloud, is renowned for its plethora of animal encounters, including interactive experiences with porcupine and ring-tailed lemur. And in addition to the ultra-popular sloth encounters, they often offer sloth yoga!

Unreleasable exotic animals find a safe and loving home at the C.A.R.E. Foundation (Creating Animal Respect Education), a non-profit dedicated to providing a permanent home for animals used in TV, rescued as pets or saved from illegal animal trading. With a fleet of friendly “animal ambassadors,” C.A.R.E. educates visitors about conservation, wildlife and the upkeep of exotic animals.

Just north of Orlando, the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens in Sanford is a haven for wild animals, such as leopards, cheetahs, cougars and even one-horned rhinoceros. Book immersive experiences like a tortious encounter, or be “Keeper for a Day” to learn the buzz surrounding the daily duties of a zookeeper.

Alpacas, mellow Peruvian animals and distant relatives of the camel roam happily in the rolling hills of Clermont just west of Orlando at LunaSea Alpaca Farm. Call ahead to schedule a private tour and learn about the warm wool fleece these quirky creatures are known for. If you’re interested in exploring Clermont even more, stay in either a comfy room or suite at Hampton Inn & Suites by Hilton Clermont.

Other animal encounters in Orlando

  • Back To Nature Wildlife Refuge, Orlando, FL – Visit an array of animals being rehabilitated, like bobcat, raccoons, tortoise, emu and others.
  • Exotic Animal Experience, Orlando, FL – Group and private visitations are available to meet a lemur, kangaroo, wallaby and more.
  • DreamCatcher Horse Ranch Rescue Center, Clermont, FL – Saddle up for trail riding, barn tours and lessons.
  • Gator Golf Adventure Park, Orlando, FL – For a wild round, swing by this mini-golf attraction where alligators serve as your cheering section on each hole.
  • Giraffe Ranch, Dade City, FL – Aside from feeding tall giraffe, consider the Camel Expedition, Segway Safari or Llama Trek.
  • Lukas Nursery & Butterfly Encounter, Oviedo, FL – For a flutter worthy experience, head to this butterfly and bird conservatory, and also tour the botanical encounter with an educational guide.
  • Wekiwa State Park, Apopka, FL – One of Central Florida’s most prized gems, take your time taking in the sights of flora and fauna.

So while a visit with Orlando’s notorious mouse and his furry friends is sure to be magical, also plan to unleash wild fun with memorable animal encounters!

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