Theme Park Alternative: Nature Parks Near the Theme Parks

Nature Parks Near Theme Parks

The theme parks have officially reopened, but many natural parks are located close to the parks offering unique thrills of their own. Skip the crowds (and the socially-distanced lines) and keep things simple by spending the day at a nearby natural park hiking, kayaking, camping and more. Each of these nature parks is located 1 hour or less from the popular Tampa Bay and Orlando area theme parks.

NATURE PARKS NEAR BUSCH GARDENS

Lettuce Lake Park

6920 E Fletcher Ave, Tampa
Distance from theme parks: 15 minutes from Busch Gardens Tampa Bay
$2 entry fee per vehicle

Pack a picnic and head to Lettuce Lake Park, just six miles from Busch Gardens. The 3,500-foot boardwalk and observation tower are a highlight of this natural park set upon a natural floodplain and hardwood swamp forest. You can also rent kayaks when entering the park.

Weedon Island Preserve

1800 Weedon Drive NE, St. Petersburg
Distance from theme parks: 30 minutes from Busch Gardens Tampa Bay

Cross the Howard Franklin Bridge from Tampa into St. Pete to arrive at Weedon Island Preserve. There are more than 3,000 acres to explore comprised of a paddling trail, boardwalk trails and more. This is also a popular spot for fishing and kayaking. You can rent a tandem kayak from Sweetwater Kayaks to cruise the 4-mile loop trail through mangrove tunnels.

Image credit: Sweetwater Kayaks

Honeymoon Island State Park

1 Causeway Blvd., Dunedin
$8 entry fee per vehicle
Distance from theme parks: 50 minutes from Busch Gardens Tampa Bay

While a bit of a further drive, it’s worth it to visit Honeymoon Island State Park. This beloved state park is known for its pristine beaches and crystal clear water. Take a break from shelling and swimming to explore the 2.5-mile Osprey Trail on a hike. You can also hop on a ferry to visit the secluded Caladesi Island, which is only accessible by boat.

ALSO TRY:

  • Brooker Creek Preserve
  • Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve
  • Fort De Soto Park

NATURE PARKS NEAR DISNEY + UNIVERSAL ORLANDO

Bill Frederick Park

3401 S Hiawassee Rd, Orlando
Distance from theme parks: 15 minutes from Universal Orlando Resort; 25-30 minutes from Disney
$5 entry fee per vehicle

Just four miles down the road from Universal Orlando Resort is Turkey Lake, and the park that sits on the shore is Bill Frederick Park. Explore 187 acres and loads of recreational options. This popular park is host to countless events throughout the year. Enjoy boating, fishing, picnic facilities, trails, and playgrounds.

Shingle Creek Regional Park

925 S Bass Rd, Kissimmee (five park sites throughout Kissimmee)
Distance from theme parks: 20 minutes from Disney; 30 minutes from Universal Orlando Resort

One of the most beloved nature spots in Central Florida, Shingle Creek Regional Park offers practically all of the best outdoor activities hiding in plain sight just off of the touristy stretch of US 192. There are five park sites in all, inviting you to explore the dense nature trails and surround yourself with Florida’s natural beauty.

Walk the boardwalk, explore a historic homestead and paddle from Steffee Landing | Image credit: Dani Meyering

If you love aquatic exploration you’ll be glad to know that Shingle Creek itself winds 23 miles through Central Florida and is the headwaters for the Florida Everglades. Consider renting a tandem kayak to explore on the water; The Paddling Center at Shingle Creek (planned reopening September 1, 2020) is highly recommended.

The Florida Midland Railroad crossed Shingle Creek in 1890 and remained in effect until 1950, just south of present day US highway 192, remnants of which can be seen while paddling along the creek. You can hear the bustling traffic of 192 when you first enter the park, but if you head down the main trail or on the creek, you’ll soon escape it.

Shingle Creek | Image credit: Stephanie Patterson

Brownie Wise Park

1150 Aultman Rd
Kissimmee, FL 34744
Distance from theme parks: 30 minutes from Disney and Universal Orlando Resort

This park just 30 minutes from the theme parks is named after Brownie Wise. Considered to be one of the first women at-home entrepreneurs, Brownie Wise developed the “home party” concept of selling products at home, through her incredible sales of Tupperware. At a time when very few women had opportunities to earn any income of their own, Brownie Wise innovated a new way of doing business that was perfect for women trying to find income opportunities.

This 25-acre park, dedicated to her honor, allows for beautiful views of Lake Tohopekaliga, or Lake Toho, for short. There is a kayak and canoe launch and picnic facilities. There is not much shade around the trails so it may be a good idea to visit during cooler weather.

Image credit: Dani Meyering

Split Oak Forest (via Moss Park)

12901 Moss Park Rd, Orlando
Distance from theme parks: 30 minutes from Disney; 40 minutes from Universal Orlando Resort

Besides beautiful wooded areas and trails, the main attraction of Moss Park is its access to the Split Oak Forest. Here you can walk among oak trees, some as old as 200 years. Exploring the Split Oak Forest is definitely for those that love hiking. The trails are at risk of having a new roadway built to run through the forest and concerned citizens are working to prevent that from happening. Go explore the forest for yourself and decide if you want to help. It’s a good opportunity for any couple that wants to do good, together.

Twin Oaks Conservation Area

2001 Macy Island Road, Kissimmee
Distance from theme parks: 35 minutes from Disney and Universal Orlando Resort

Equestrian enthusiasts love this area. Its marshy landscape is quintessential natural Florida. A dock and observation pier provide breathtaking views and a gorgeous photo opportunity. In fact, this entire area is a popular spot for photo shoots for those looking for a wild and natural space. The park is open until dusk. Many people enjoy watching a glorious Central Florida sunset here.

Twin Oaks Conversation Area - Nature Parks near Theme Parks
Image credit: Osceola County

Lake Louisa State Park

7305 US-27, Clermont
Distance from theme parks: 30 minutes from Disney; 40 minutes from Universal Orlando Resort
$5 entry fee per vehicle

One of the largest parks in the entire Central Florida area, Lake Louisa State Park is a must-visit for any Central Florida resident. Explore trails, camping areas, and lakeside docks as cypress, palm, and oak trees provide shade and fresh air. Get out on the water in a kayak, canoe, or paddleboard; there are three lakes you can explore here. One of the features that couples love about Lake Louisa State Park is the variety of accommodations. You can camp, rent a fully-equipped cabin, or enjoy a luxurious glamping experience.

Combine a visit here with a day date in Historic Downtown Clermont.

Makinson Island

Lake Tohopekaliga, Kissimmee
Distance from theme parks: 40-45 minutes from Universal Orlando Resort and Disney

One of the key features of Osceola County is Lake Tohopekaliga, more commonly referenced as Lake Toho for short. This massive lake has three islands, one of which is Makinson Island. You do have to have your own boat transportation to the island, but you’ll be rewards with countless walking trails, surrounded by natural beauty, and there are picnic facilities, grills, and restrooms. If you’re looking for a way to get to the island without your own transportation and stay the night, consider The Paddling Center at Shingle Creek, which offers a catered camping experience.

Disney’s Wilderness Preserve

2700 Scrub Jay Trail, Poinciana
Distance from theme parks: 45 minutes from Disney

Important note: Disney’s Wilderness Preserve is temporarily closed to visitors out of an abundance of caution. Please visit the official website for updates.

Although this massive wildlife preserve is a testament to Disney’s commitment to conservation, it is 40 minutes away from Walt Disney World. Still, it is worthy of inclusion in this list of natural parks near the attractions area because it is by far the largest natural place on our list, and it is all thanks to the Walt Disney Company. This 11,500-acre preserve is home to over 1,000 species of plants and animals. There is a one mile hiking trail which provide fantastic views of marsh land, pine scrubs, and other pure natural Florida sights leading to Lake Russel. Those wishing to continue on a longer hike can continue to 2.5 mile loop. Restrooms and picnic facilities are offered near the preserve’s entrance. There is no fee for entry, though donations are appreciated.

Tips and Information

  • Dress comfortably, with closed toed shoes. I am a big fan of the performance material geared towards fishers, that breath well and provide SPF protection.
  • Bring water and stay hydrated.
  • Pack a few snacks so you can take your time.
  • Take photos, but don’t forget to be present and enjoy the moment.

Feature image credit: Dani Meyering 


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