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Explore Nature Florida with Children

Every year, families across North America pack up the kids and head south for a week of fun in the sun. And when it comes to ideas of how to keep the little ones in tow entertained, the Orlando theme parks are certainly the most obvious choice. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find any advertisement for a Florida vacation without that unmistakable pair of mouse ears somewhere in the picture.

And while Disney Parks and Universal Orlando are a must, there are those days you just don’t want to deal with busy crowds, long lineups and inflated prices. Fortunately, there is no shortage of family-friendly activities in the south-central region of Florida. Here are just a few suggestions.

Take an Airboat Ride

Located about a half hour drive from Winter Haven, Camp Mack’s River Resort is situated right on Lake Kissimmee and is a true retreat from the bustling surrounding cities. A few turns from the main road and you’re suddenly out in the middle of the forest.

Known primarily for its trophy bass fishing, Camp Mack also offers RV camping, cabin rentals…and airboat rides, which are a total blast. Zooming around the lake in a 14-passenger airboat is exhilarating; and there are plenty of opportunities to slow down and photograph a variety of wildlife, including birds, deer, and the main attraction, alligators.

Rides generally run every two hours between 9:00 and 3:00, with a recent addition of personalized sunset cruises, which offer wine and cheese on an appointment-only basis. Prices vary according to group size, and more information can be obtained from the camp’s website.

Explore a Garden

Despite its looming neo-Gothic tower perched right on top of the highest point of the state, you might never know Bok Tower Gardens was there unless you went looking for it. And what a shame. This peaceful sanctuary, located in Lake Wales, was created by philanthropist Edward Bok in 1928 and dedicated by Calvin Coolidge in 1929.

“Make you the world a bit better and more beautiful because you have lived in it.” These words, emblazoned across the entrance to the park, were spoken to Bok by his grandmother. Originally from Holland, Bok was a longtime editor of the Ladies Home Journal in the late 19th century. The tower, gardens, and bird sanctuary he built along with Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and Milton B. Medary, landscape and building architects, were designed to honour this belief of his grandmother’s and her words still permeate the atmosphere of the place today.

Although many of the visitors to Bok Tower Gardens are of an older generation, the little ones love the setting just as much and are encouraged to visit by those who run the park. The office loans the younger guests discovery kits complete with magnifying glasses, bubbles and guides on how to spot butterflies and various plantlife. Giant koi circle in the pools surrounding the base of the tower, just waiting to be fed. And of course there are the carillon bells, which give the singing tower its pretty name. They are heard every half hour with two daily concerts in the afternoon.

In speaking with Cassie Jacoby, Director of Marketing at Bok Tower Gardens, her passion for Bok’s creation was clear. She spoke of journalist and author Richard Louv, who came up with the concept of Nature Deficit Disorder. Louv’s belief is that our children’s lives are presently dominated by technology and by extension, severely underexposed to nature. This divorce from the outdoors has led to a decline in the younger generation’s physical and emotional health.

Bok Tower Gardens attempts to provide that reconnection between children and nature by offering a peaceful, happy place open to exploration. It is open from 8:00 to 6:00 365 days a year; general admission is $12 for adults and $3 for children.

Go on a Safari

Ever fed grapes to a hungry lemur? Or ridden a camel through herds of Red Lechwe? Ever actually heard of a Red Lechwe? Or Scimitar Horned Oryx? How about Watusi cattle?

In March of this year, Safari Wilderness Ranch opened its doors to offer visitors an up close and personal encounter with exotic wildlife. What’s nice about this park is that the number of visitors is strictly limited (up to 500 per day); you don’t need to worry about encountering any crowds or lineups across the 260-plus acres, as the emphasis is on quality, not quantity.

A definite highlight is the lemur feeding experience. These adorable little animals, made popular amongst youngsters by Sacha Baron Cohen in the Madagascar movie series, are extremely gentle and amazing to watch as they politely take grapes from your hand. Contact the park for more details as this activity is also limited to a certain number of guests per day.

In another twist on most parks, you can actually choose just how you want to experience this massive landscape. The standard vehicle tour is aboard a safari truck, which has stadium seating for 20 and a covered canopy. For those who want a bit more of a unique experience, camel-back tours and Haflinger horse-drawn carriage tours are also offered. Prices vary according to which you choose, and all tours are by reservation only.