One of my favorite things about Orlando is the amount of thought that has gone into creating a great experience for those who come to visit. The theme parks alone have thousands of people dedicated to designing and planning out every guest experience. From the rides to the road design and landscaping, it seems that just about everything has been planned out. Sometimes though, this hyper-designed world gets to be too much and you just need to spend some time out in nature.

For this weekend adventure we wanted to take that step back to the natural world. We swim in the cool waters of a natural spring, explore a nature preserve, and go orange picking. We tried to keep everything on this trip within about a 30-minute drive of Orlando. Along the way we stopped at some great places to eat and collected some really wonderful stories. Orlando has so much to offer in terms of getting out into nature. We invite you to find your own adventures and send us your comments so that we too can try something new. Before you do though, come with us and try to imagine a world where you are walking through the trees and feeling the nice spring air pass by.

Friday

Our adventure begins on Friday after work. We pick the kids up and head straight to Orlando. On this trip we decided to stay somewhere outside of the crowded tourist areas. We chose the Springhill Suites at Flamingo Crossing located on highway 429, just outside of the Western Way entrance to Disney World. There isn’t a lot of development around the hotel and the large grassy expanses next to it are a great place to spot sandhill cranes.

Wanting to ease ourselves into our nature weekend we decided to head over to Jiko at the Animal Kingdom Lodge for dinner.   We purposefully arrived an hour before our reservation so that we could walk around and look at the animals grazing on the hotels property.  Our first stop was the animal viewing area at the back of the hotel. To get there, just walk directly through the hotel’s main lobby toward the rear exit. A flight of stairs will lead you down to a set of glass doors that empty out onto viewing area. Here you can see zebras, giraffes, wildebeest, ankole cattle, and a wide range of other African animals. Our kids were excited to point out the family of rabbits leisurely hopping among their larger neighbors.

If you walk a little further, you will find a fire pit where Disney employees offer marshmallows for roasting and chocolate and graham crackers for making smores. While the kids enjoyed this pre-dinner appetizer we walked around to the other side of the hotel to see more animals. At this viewing area you can see pink flamingos and just a little further down are more giraffes and other hooved animals. There is also a playground in this area, which we let the kids play on until it was time for our reservation.

Once at the restaurant we noticed is how well Jiko incorporates the feel of being outdoors. Large windows look out onto the greenery outside and a flock of bird statues fly above the diner’s heads. After being seated we ordered the charcuterie and cheese plate to start and for our entrees we had the Durham Ranch Elk Loin, the Botswana Seswaa-style Beef Short Rib, the kids Grilled Steak, and the kids Macaroni and Cheese. While everything was delicious, the short rib just melted apart and was amazing. We finished our meal with a Keoke Coffee while the kids each had the paint-your-own African Shield Brownie.

After dinner we finished our evening with a short walk back to one of the wildlife viewing areas. There hotel guides were providing guests with night-vision goggles to see the animals in the darkness. It was a really unique experience and a great way to end the day.

If you would like to see the animals at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, but are not up for Jiko, stop by the hotel bar or one of the hotel’s three other restaurants: Boma – Flavors of Africa, Sanaa, and The Mara. For a wildlife alternative, look at the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens, located in Samford, Florida (about 30 minutes north of Orlando).

 Saturday

On Saturday we began our outdoor experience in earnest. We started with a quick stop at First Watch on Sand Lake Road for breakfast. The restaurant does not accept reservations, so it’s a good idea to get there early on the weekends as it tends to get busy after 9am. We enjoyed the Farm Stand Breakfast Tacos, the Eggs Benedict, and the Elevated Egg Sandwich. They also make a pretty delicious avocado toast. We finished our meal excited to get outdoors.

Our first stop was Kelly Park. While few people outside of the Orlando area have heard of Kelly Park, it is one of the closest places to Orlando where you can swim in the clear waters of a Florida spring. This Orange County park is in fact designed specifically to highlight Rock Spring, allowing visitors to either tube or swim down a 25-30 minute run. The run begins in the main section of the park where a large swimming area dulls the current allowing visitors to leisurely float in the cool waters of the spring.

If you would like to venture outside of this relaxing area of the park, you can float downstream where the waters form into a small river. We chose to forgo the tubes and swim along the current.

In the water, we consistently saw fish swimming alongside us and beautiful flowers lined the edge of the river. Unlike most places in Florida where tubing is common, the water in this spring is never deeper than 3 of 4 feet, making it easy to slow down or stop if you would like to do so. We floated the entire length of the run and walked back for another trip.  We stayed at the park for some time, swimming or just sitting in the sun to enjoy its warmth. When we finally made our way to the exit we stumbled upon a raccoon and watched him looking for food along the path. It was a good end to our little adventure.

In all, we found Kelly Park to be a wonderful gem of a park. It was well maintained and could serve as either a leisurely afternoon float or an adventurous swim. The $5 entrance fee per car ($3 is you have 2 people or fewer) makes it a nice contrast to the expense of most Orlando attractions. If you do visit Kelly Park, be sure to arrive early as it becomes crowded on the weekends. Additionally, the park does not rent tubes, so if you would like to tube the river rent one at the outfitter just outside the park or bring your own.

After our fun at Kelly Park we decided to maintain our outdoor theme and drive to Hunger Street Tacos for a late lunch. Located in Winter Park, Hunger Street Tacos not only has a wonderful outdoor seating area, but it also has some of the best Mexico City-style street tacos in Florida. While the food at Hunger Street Tacos is delicious, the first thing that strikes you is the beautiful art adorning the building. Large murals by the Lapiztola art collective grace the walls. They transform what would otherwise be a lackluster space into something entirely exciting. I really appreciate the thought that went into the art and how it makes sitting in the open air and eating such a great experience.

For lunch we started with chips and guacamole and then ordered a taco de suadero (with seared brisket, onion, cilantro, avocado-tomatillo salsa, and lime), a taco campechano (with seared brisket, chorizo, onion, cilantro, avocado-tomatillo salsa, and lime), a squash blossom quesadilla (with squash blossoms, Chihuahua and Oaxaca cheeses, sautéed onion, garlic, epazote, and salsa roja), and two of the kids brisket and cheese tacos. The food was delicious and made for a perfect meal after spending our morning swimming at the spring.

After lunch we drove over to the Tibet-Butler Preserve for one last walk through nature. This Orange County park is a great place for a leisurely stroll and it’s only a few minutes outside of the main Disney areas. The park hosts an environmental center with exhibits outlining Florida’s native flora and fauna. I particularly enjoyed the exhibit explaining the rejuvenative effect lightning fires have on Florida’s native pines forests. The kids, however, headed straight over to the baby alligators.

Outside the environmental center are tortoise habitats and a butterfly garden. If you walk further on you will reach the trailhead where you can choose from a number of short hikes. Along the way elevated walkways provide a path through the lower areas, while wide paths take you through the woods and clearings.

Although the park is just outside the main tourist areas, this walk makes you understand just how remote Orlando must have been before Disney World and the other theme parks arrived. Having enjoyed our day outside, we drove back to the hotel where we had some snacks for dinner and put the kids to bed.

Sunday

Sunday morning we woke up ready to pick some oranges. Before we set off for the groves though, we stopped for breakfast. We decided to go to what has become an Orlando breakfast institution, Keke’s Breakfast Café. Keke’s has expanded from its original Conroy Road location to locations across the city (and you can now find Keke’s outside of Orlando). What I like best about Keke’s is that it not only makes good food, but that it doesn’t hold back.

Take for instance their Florida Waffle. The waffle itself is delicious, but there is an entire truck-load of fruit on top of it. Usually I don’t agree with these excess portion sizes, but having the kids fill up on fruit was pretty nice. Expecting this, we ordered the Florida waffle and eggs benedict for the table. Everything was wonderful and we left ready to pick some oranges.

The Orlando area has a large number of pick-your-own options (including options for picking blueberries and strawberries). We chose to stop at the Showcase of Citrus on US-27 in Clermont. The Showcase is only 11 miles from the Springhill Suites, which makes for a quick trip to the country. Driving out, we noticed citrus groves appearing along the road. A large Showcase of Citrus sign soon appeared and we knew we were there.

In the main building you can sample the different varieties of citrus grown on the property and look through the huge variety of citrus-related products in the store. If you are planning on going orange picking, you will need to stop by the cashier to buy a bag for your fruit. We decided on a medium-sized bag, which ended up being more than enough.

Just behind the main building is a small petting zoo. The kids loved petting the pig and miniature pony. They could have stayed there all day, but we slowly moved them out to the orange groves. Once there we realized just how far the property extends. Luckily the Showcase provides a map marking exactly where the different varieties of citrus are located and an accompanying chart that reveals which variety is currently in season. Even if you aren’t too excited about picking your own oranges, I would recommend a walk through the groves. The trees that were in bloom had such an incredible smell and the ones with ripe oranges looked like they were just bursting with color.

We ended up filling our bag to the brim and slowly made our way back to the main building. On the way we looked at the huge 4×4 trucks the Showcase uses for their tours. The trucks are so big that they need a ramp in order to load everyone onboard. We decided to leave the tour for another day and walked back to the petting zoo.

While the kids were playing, I snuck into the store and bought two creamsicles (these are soft serve ice cream mixed together with an orange slush made from the oranges on the property). The kids immediately saw what I had and we all sat down and started eating. Despite the amount of fun we had picking oranges, the creamsicles were the hit of the day. We sat there looking out over the orange groves and wondered why we don’t spend more time out in nature.

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