Summer really isn't the best time to take a hike at the Disney Wilderness Preserve in Kissimmee. You'll likely have the 12,000-acre swath of restored Central Florida ecosystems pretty much to yourself, but that's because the sun will beat mercilessly down on your head and the trails might just be underwater.
But come fall, when the temps dip and rain abates, you're in for a treat. The trails wind through flatwoods, scrubs and wetlands. As you walk along a pond, you might see a gator make a grab for a fish or a bald eagle cruising through the treetops. There are two hiking loops, one a mile long and the other just more than two miles, but if that's too much, just head to the shores of Lake Russell. There you'll find picnic benches and an enchanting view of one of the last undeveloped lakes in all of Central Florida.
The preserve, in case you hadn't realized it by now, has nothing in common with its titular theme-park neighbor. In fact, the name reflects that it was established in 1992 to help offset the loss of wetlands incurred by Disney and other large developments in the area. It is actually an old cattle ranch undergoing a 20-year restoration to a more native state.
Until July, the preserve was closed on weekends due to ongoing restoration activities and a dispute with the IRS over its nonprofit status. It is owned by the Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental organization, but they were charging admission and running a store on the premises, which rubbed the IRS the wrong way. Instead of challenging the ruling, the Nature Conservancy closed the store and stopped charging admission. Nowadays they ask for donations, but entry is free.
So a glimpse into what Central Florida looked like before it was strip-malled and subdivisioned to death is now yours, free, seven days a week. It's always wise to call ahead just to make sure they aren't closed, however. This is one place in Central Florida that still uses fire as a natural means of rejuvenation, and they close the gates when burning. (2700 Scrub Jay Trail, Kissimmee; 407-935-0002)
— Bob Whitbyafeedback@orlandoweekly.com
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