Florida may owe its name to flowers and foliage, but fauna in the Sunshine State—be it wild or purebred—is every bit as picturesque. From fish to fowl, here are the best spots for observing any of the Sunshine State’s diverse animal inhabitants.
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
Snowbirds get a lot of press in Florida, but native species are a colorful lot as well, and at this 140,000-acre sanctuary along Cape Canaveral visitors might see several dozen types of either in a single day. Look for storks and herons wading along the waterline, scan sandy shores for killdeer and lesser yellowlegs and spot songbirds or birds of prey in the skies and everywhere in between, all from the vantage point of a picturesque driving trail. Guests will have more fun with binoculars, which are available for purchase at the Visitor Information Center along with free tips for beginner birders. Go.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park
Whether it’s scuba diving, snorkeling or taking it easy on a glass-bottomed boat, travelers are sure to spot something swimming in this undersea park off the coast of Key Largo. There’s a 30,000-gallon saltwater aquarium in the Visitor Center to whet guest’s appetites, but the real fun takes place in the 25 miles along the Atlantic. The reef is a living wonder that provides a home for myriad species of fish, rays and turtles and an iconic photo opp—the statue named Christ of the Deep. Also, sharks. But mostly at night. Go.
Long Island may be rightly proud of The Hampton Classic, but when a locale trademarks its own moniker “the Horse Capital of the World” you can bet they’re not horsing around. Enthusiasts can get up close and personal with former and future champions via guided tours of area horse farms or schedule a trail ride along the Florida greenway with Cactus Jack to look for great horned owls, fox squirrels and gopher turtles. For the saddle-shy, carriage rides and driving tours are an equally scenic option. Go.
The only Orlando souvenir with more kitsch than a pair of mouse ears is a tall tale about shining for gators, and at the Gator Night Shine visitors can opt for cheap thrills and the relative comfort (and safety) of wooden walkways. Grab a flashlight and a fistful of hotdogs and gamely follow your guide into the night at the Alligator Breeding Marsh, then wait for the telltale glow of hundreds of pairs of eyes. Go.
Blue Springs State Park
Like all Long Islanders, manatees prefer a little extra warmth come winter, which is good news for fans looking to catch a glimpse of these gentle giants in the wild. At Blue Springs State Park in Volusia County, guests won’t even need a snorkel to enjoy the herds of sea cows who come to bask in the 73-degree waters of the St. John’s River’s largest spring. Take a river cruise or simply meander along the boardwalk for a view of these Zen-like creatures. Go.