With 663 miles of coast calling to beach lovers, theme parks in Orlando and surrounding areas for thrill seekers, and nightlife in Miami for people who like to party, there's plenty to do in The Sunshine State. But where do animal lovers go? Here are six places where you can spot endangered animals both in captivity and in nature.
Ask any Floridian and they'll tell you the American Alligator is nowhere near endangered—they'll probably point you toward the nearest golf course to find one. In fact, this animal is labeled "least concern" under the IUCN Red List. However, Gatorland is a great place to learn about these ancient animals and meet other endangered species native to Florida. Last spring, two new faces, Neiko and Lucy, brother-sister Florida panthers, arrived at Gatorland. They were raised by a conservationist and needed a bigger habitat, so they moved to Gatorland where they're able to educate visitors on the plight of the Florida panther. There are fewer than 200 panthers left in Florida, and the number keeps decreasing as their habitat keeps shrinking. While there are many things to do in the Orlando area, it's worth paying a visit to Gatorland to learn about what makes Florida's animals special.
Tampa: Busch Gardens
Employees joke that Busch Gardens is a brewery tour that got out of hand. It started as a tour of the Anheuser-Busch brewery and beer gardens, and quickly became a park with botanical gardens, birds, animals, and—finally—thrill rides. Today, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay has seven roller coasters and is home to 250 species, 20 of which are endangered. Depending on what part of the park you're in, you'll be able to learn about animals from all over the world. There's the Myombe Reserve with Gorillas and Chimpanzees, Jungala with tigers and orangutans, and Walkabout Way, where visitors can feed their favorite Australian animals—kangaroos and wallabies. If you're staying in Orlando to visit Disney and the other theme parks, you can take a shuttle from the city to Busch Gardens and back. There are many things to do in the Tampa area, but Busch Gardens is a fun trip for thrill seekers and animal lovers alike.
Bradenton: The South Florida Museum
There are many places to see manatees in Florida—SeaWorld Orlando and Crystal River are just two—but if you want to see the oldest manatee in captivity, you need to visit Bradenton. Snooty is the beloved resident of the South Florida Museum and is celebrating his 66th birthday this year. At 1,100 pounds, this 9-foot 8-inch long manatee has greeted in his lifetime.On top of Snooty, the South Florida Museum has a planetarium, fossil collection, and a wealth of history about Native American tribes in the area. Whether you're a history buff, animal lover, or future astronaut, you'll enjoy the museum and city of Bradenton.
Miami: Gator Park
If you're staying in the Miami area, it's worth leaving the beach to explore the Everglades. One of the best ways to do that is by airboat. Gator Park Airboat Tours show visitors more than their namesake reptile; they also spot soft-shelled turtles and several species of birds only found in Florida. Plus, the experience of high-tailing it across the Everglades on an airboat is something your family won't forget. When you get back to dry land, check out some of the shows at Gator Park to learn about endangered Florida wildlife and meet some of their resident peacocks, snakes, and macaws.
Melbourne: Sea Turtle Preservation Society
If you're looking to spot endangered sea turtles in Florida, there's no better way to see them than by taking a sea turtle walk on the coast. You'll arrive around 8:30 p.m., follow the guides to learn about these elegant animals, and watch the Loggerhead sea turtles nest. Floridians take extra precautions to keep sea turtles and their babies safe during the summer. First, they avoid beachfront lighting and draw their blinds to make sure the turtles follow the moon back to the surf instead of getting confused by street lamps. They also remove trash from the beach whenever possible and avoid all areas of known sea turtle nests marked by researchers. If you want to learn how to protect these animals while watching them complete the circle of life, check to see if there is a turtle walk near you. They're not just in Melbourne; you can find them all over the Florida coast.
Jacksonville: Zoo and Gardens
We've covered just about every corner of Florida except for the north, but there's no shortage of endangered species to see there. Jacksonville Zoo (which has the witty slogan, "more to see, more to zoo") has 92 acres of animal exhibits and more than 25 educational programs. On top of animals, the zoo also has several species of plants that correspond with the animal exhibits around them. Parenting magazine named the Jacksonville Zoo in their top 15 out of 2,000 surveyed zoos. Check the website for special discounts like Father's Day coupons and to find out about special events held by the zoo. Animal birthdays are common, along with conservation fundraising events like "Bowling for Rhinos." The keepers and staff work to make the zoo a place where visitors can see endangered species and interact with them to form a close connection, all while learning something along the way.
Florida offers many opportunities to see endangered species. When you arrive, look to see what conservation groups are nearby. These experts know the ins and outs of the area and can take you to meet some gators, see the sea turtles, or get up close and personal with a manatee.