Couples + Family

Move Over Mouse. 4 Spots Where Local Endangered Species Are Stars

Sea turtles, manatees, and more, are stars of Orlando wildlife. (Photo: petesphotography/thinkstock)

Although a certain cartoon character and his animated friends are the undisputed animal stars of Orlando, there are plenty of opportunities to visit with real-life animals, too. Here are a few of the best.

Bird’s the Word

Just north of Orlando in Maitland is the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey, a sanctuary that focuses on rescue, rehabilitation and release of the injured among Florida’s native bird populations. Here, you can view bald eagles, ospreys, kites, owls and falcons. If you visit in the spring during “baby bird season,” you can attend the annual Baby Owl Shower, wherein a donation for the center’s seasonal influx of baby birds gains free admission. There’s also a man-made wetland and exhibits highlighting local conservation efforts.

See a Sea Cow

Visit Crystal River, about an hour and a half northwest of Orlando, to snorkel with docile Florida manatees. Although a small group of these gentle giants is present year-round, the best time to see them is between November and March, when large numbers of them flock to the 72-degrees-Farenheit waters. Your visit will start with a morning boat tour; once in the water, you’ll be asked not to approach the wild animals, but rather to let the friendly, curious creatures come to you. Don’t worry: They’re known for strong predilection for belly rubs.

Walk the Walk

Lucky for Orlando visitors, up to 90 percent of all loggerhead sea turtle nesting in the United States takes place on Florida’s Space Coast, about an hour and 15 minute drive southeast of downtown Orlando. Take advantage of the opportunity to see the turtles during peak season (June and July) on a Space Coast Sea Turtle Walk. You’ll arrive at one of three designated spots around 8:45 p.m., where a guide will give a brief presentation before you are led to the location to observe quietly while a turtle lays her eggs. Just note that you will need to make reservations in advance.

Into the Wild

In the battle between nature and development, the latter often wins. Back to Nature Wildlife Refuge, located on 20 acres of Orange County conservation land near Lake Nona, exists to level the playing field for native animals from raccoons to bobcats, as well as abandoned exotic pets such as emus and lemurs. You can visit with roughly 25 resident animals before checking out the refuge’s ongoing work to rescue, raise, rehabilitate and release into the wild as many animals as possible.