When one thinks of Disney, “wild nature” isn’t necessarily the first thing that comes to mind. The man-made waterfalls and animatronic animals of Disney’s Jungle Cruise rides certainly evoke thoughts of far-off tropical locales, but the typical Disney adventure doesn’t stray far from carefully manicured walkways and piped-in theme music.
It’s not that Walt Disney sought to “sanitize” reality. He was dissuaded from using real animals in his nature-themed attractions because they would be unsafe, unmanageable, and impractical. Walt’s goal was to give his guests a sampling of places they would likely never experience in real life. He may have painted the human world in a fantastical light, but his goal with nature and wildlife attractions was reality. The very same team that designs the illusions at Walt Disney World have also created the very real The Disney Wilderness Preserve.
While I’ve climbed real mountains all my life, I can credit Mr. Disney for sparking my fascination with exotic climes. The Sunshine State’s climate ranges from humid subtropical in the north to tropical in the south. Florida’s lifeblood is a 200-mile-long system of lakes, streams, and wetlands that spans the southern length of the peninsula. The network of lakes and streams in the Orlando area are the headwaters of this system, which ebbs south through the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes into the Kissimmee River, which feeds Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades system.
The Disney Wilderness Preserve lies at the heart of this aquatic network and was once a cattle ranch. Disney purchased the bulk of property and donated it to The Nature Conservancy in 1991 as part of a wetlands mitigation plan. The result was a 12,000-acre subtropical wonderland- a timeless snapshot of old-school Florida, and one of the prettiest places I’ve ever seen.
It was mid-morning and cloudy when I started along the 2.5 mile trail that loops through the preserve. The trail winds through a field of saw palmetto before merging onto an old sandy road. After about a mile, a smaller trail branches off into a swampy cypress forest on the shores of Lake Russell, one of the last remaining undeveloped lakes in central Florida.A school of tiny fish in the rusty shallows scattered as I approached, and small waves lapped at the sandy bank. Beyond the shoreline, strands of Spanish moss clung to bare cypress branches, whisking in gently with the breeze. I hate bugs, and bugs hate me (they bite me any chance they get and I smash them any chance I get). Yet despite our eternal feud, I’m glad they’re there, shrouded in grass, anonymously combing their wings. Their tranquil song awakens primal senses while it calms the soul. Dark clouds inched over the lake, almost mimicking twilight. I realized that like the High Uintas in Utah and the Laura Plantation in Louisiana, this was one of the most peaceful places I had ever been.
The clouds broke again as I walked back to the main trail and continued another mile through a young forest and back to the trailhead. I didn’t see much wildlife, but there was enough slithering and rustling in the brush to convince me to stay on the trail. The ground in the area is a sandy white clay that turns black when it’s saturated. It had rained the night before, and there were plenty of black mud puddles to dodge.
I never knew about the preserve prior to this trip, but I’m glad I chanced upon a mention of it somewhere in my research. I’ll definitely be returning to this place.–
Check out The Nature Conservancy’s TDWP website for more information.
Thanks to TNC’s Jill Austin for answering all my questions.