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While Florida is known for its abundance of sunshine and picturesque coastline, its diverse landscape allows visitors the chance to also have some truly memorable animal encounters. From exciting safaris attractions to outdoor adventures in one of our national parks, visitors can choose from a variety of family-friendly wildlife experiences. Go on thrilling water boat rides through the Everglades, take a bird watching tour of a Sanibel’s wildlife refuge or interact with playful dolphins in the Keys. From alligators to manatees, here are the best animal encounters you can have in Florida.
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An expansive park spanning across 60 acres, Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa is home to an array of exotic animals. From manatees to tigers, monkeys and rhinos to African elephants, koalas, and orangutans, visitors are spoiled for choice. The zoo’s most popular attractions include the feeding giraffes treats from a feeding plateau and the chance to touch a stingray, while an exciting jungle safari ride takes visitors through the animal exhibits. Head to the petting zoo to feed playful goats, explore the park’s natural habitats, or watch one of their engaging educational shows for a memorable day of family-friendly animal encounters.
Located an hour outside of Panama City in Chipley, Seacrest Wolf Preserve provides a humane sanctuary for displaced captive wolves on a verdant 400-acre farm. A non-profit organization with an extensive outreach program, the philosophy at this preserve is to educate others on the vital role wolves play in the natural world. It’s here that visitors have the rare chance to get up close and personal with these beautiful creatures and take scenic walking tours through large natural habitats. You’ll have the chance to encounter Gray, Arctic, and British Columbian wolves and have unique hands-on interaction along with plenty of once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunities.
Considered a quintessential Florida experience, a visit to the Everglades National Park is the place to go to find the state’s fiercest alligators roaming in their natural habitat. Just a short drive south from Miami, the big city buzz will feel like world’s away as this 2,500 square mile swampland is a natural oasis. Hop on one of the popular airboat tours offered throughout the area or take a journey through the Anhinga Trail to spot abundant wildlife, from alligators popping up to the surface to wading birds such as blue herons and egrets. For a bird’s eye view of the area, climb the 65-foot observation tower in Shark Valley, or take a boat tour through Florida Bay for a chance to see crocodiles, manatees or dolphins.
Considered by biologists to be one of the most significant nesting areas for loggerhead sea turtles in the Western Hemisphere, Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge is one of Florida’s most treasured areas. Located in Melbourne Beach, this refuge stretches more than 20 miles along an undeveloped patch of the coastline and is the second most important loggerhead nesting beach in the world. With its beaches being host to more endangered green turtles in the United States and home of the rare leatherback turtles, reservations must be made to go on one of the guided turtle watches offered in June and July. Here visitors will be able to see as many as 1,000 nests per mile.
Located on Grassy Key in the Florida Keys, the Dolphin Research Center is a non-profit educational facility. Visitors who want to meet some of these playful creatures can interact and observe them in their natural habitat with the help of an expert guide. Combining an educational approach with a thrilling animal experience, here visitors can interact with dolphins being rehabilitated, sign up for a “Researcher for a Day” program to help with cognition studies, or go on a “Dolphin Encounter” swim. This waterfront facility is where visitors can spend a day of learning how to care for marine mammals through narrated behavior sessions and educational presentations.
Set on 870 square miles of a dramatic landscape of pristine watershed in Lakeland, Safari Wilderness Ranch is the perfect blend of ranch, safari and theme park, where hundreds of animals roam, and visitors can create memories that last a lifetime. In what feels like miles from civilization, the combination of open vistas and hundreds of grazing animals are highlighted by leafy bay trees and cypress domes. Experienced guides take visitors on a range of adventures, from a customized Vehicle Safari spotting eland, red lechwe, sitatunga, and springbok to a Kayak Safari to explore freshwater areas. For something truly unique, go on a Llama Trek or Camel Safari through the ranch’s various ecotypes, and you’ll feel like you’ve left Florida and stepped right into Africa.
Just 30 minutes outside of West Palm Beach animal enthusiasts will find a unique animal excursion like no other. The only drive-through safari in the state, Lion Country Safari in Loxahatchee boasts more than 900 animals on its property. For a peek at large herds of waterbuck, trucks, and rhinos, visitors can take a 5 mile drive through this amusement park and even spot lions, chimps and giraffes meandering through the grassy expanse. There is also a walk-through portion of the park called Safari World, where visitors can observe a variety of colorful birds and fish. Perfect for all types of travelers, kids will love the variety of rides and water sprayground, while adults might enjoy a personalized program with a guided walking tour.
Nestled in Titusville near Cape Canaveral, the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge offers a chance to soak in pristine natural surroundings. Less than an hour from Orlando, visitors can explore this protected area where manatees peacefully graze and sea turtles lay their eggs. Spanning across 140,000 acres sitting beneath the Atlantic flyway, this area is also a hotspot for migratory birds where over 330 species make their home here at least part of the year. For a day of spotting bald eagles, bobcats, and even alligators, visitors can drive along the 7-mile Black Point Wildlife Drive, take a walk on the lush footpaths, or take a kayak out for a leisurely day of adventure.
Located in Crystal River on Florida’s west coast, Three Sisters Springs is a natural inlet on the east side of Kings Bay. With five natural springs, this 57-acre oasis is known for its unspoiled and undeveloped spring habitat, making it a prime manatee viewing area. Manatees can be seen from land or boat, with an on-site trolley tour taking visitors to a boardwalk where manatee viewing is abundant. To swim with these gentle creatures, visitors must schedule a tour or watercraft rental with independent vendors. Receiving extra protections as a designated manatee sanctuary between November and March, water access can be limited depending on the number of manatees in the water.
Consistently ranked as one of the top aquariums in the country, the Florida Aquarium in Tampa appeals to visitors of all ages. Boasting over 20,000 animal and plant life species, visitors can meander through the aquarium’s maze of sea turtles, moray eels, and stingray exhibits. Make sure to stop by the popular shark tank area, or venture past alligator-infested waters before observing the playful otters. Ring-tailed lemurs and colorful chameleons are nestled in the Journey to Madagascar area, while the Burmese Pythons are a fascinating attraction in the Wetlands Trail exhibit. After a day of exploring the aquarium, kids can cool off in the outdoor “Explore A Shore” area with waterslides and geysers.
Located on Sanibel Island, J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge was originally developed as an opportunity to conserve the mangrove forest on the island. Today, visitors can explore the 6,300-acre refuge that covers almost half of the island and experience some of Florida’s most beautiful wildlife. While you might spot a crocodile or alligator, most visitors come to see the area’s variety of colorful birds, from herons to cuckoos, ospreys, and Roseate Spoonbills, as it is along their southern migratory path. Hiking and biking through the trails are a popular activity, in addition to a drive or open-air tram along Wildlife Drive.