During my two week vacation in Florida my absolute favorite day was when we attended the 16th Annual Orlando Wetlands Festival. We happened upon this festival by chance. We had planned to go to the zoo but after reading a lot of negative reviews on-line I started to look for something else to do. I also had to find something inexpensive and that the boys would be interested in as well as the girls. And somehow I stumbled upon this festival.
This was the description of the festival:
On February 20, 2016, experience this unique wetland treatment system with the entire family. Event co-sponsor, Orange Audubon Society, will lead guided bird-watching excursions. The Florida Native Plant Society will lead native plant identification hikes; while, the Florida Trail Association will be providing wilderness hikes. Bring your camera and join guided photo hike led by professional photographers.
There will be many interactive children's activities (like Out-On-A-Limb kids tree climbing), bounce houses and much more! So bring the whole family and invite your friends and neighbors to this fun, free educational festival. Please leave your pets at home; there are wild animals. Food will be available for purchase. Free admission and free door prizes! For more information: call Orlando Wetlands Park 407.568.1706.
For those who like to sit and ride, guided bus tours will travel along the wetland berms, giving riders a chance to experience firsthand, Florida's wild wetlands. Hay rides will also give riders a chance to relax and take in the scenery.
In addition to the numerous guided tours, there will be bird-banding and mist-netting demonstrations, as well as, live music by Homer Stiles. Featured in the various wildlife shows, many different live animals will be present such as alligators, snakes, birds and many others. Also, the City's Families, Parks and Recreation Department will be giving away free backyard trees in celebration of Arbor Day.
For the nature lover in me, this sounded like a lot of fun. I mean...hiking, bird-watching, animals....what's not to love? Plus, it was all FREE! Admission was free, parking was free, shuttles and bus rides all were free!!!! I said "Guys, I don't know if this will be any good, but it's all free so lets go!" Everyone agreed and off we went to Christmas, Florida!
Using Google-Maps on our Smartphones, we found the place with no problems. Once in the area there were plenty of signs and traffic guards to lead us in the right direction. And we quickly found out the advertisement was true: everything was FREE, no strings attached.
After we walked on the grounds and filled out forms for door prizes (didn't win any) the first thing we saw were lots of vendor tents filled with educational displays about the environment and also lots of educational children's games. We especially loved this rope climbing and repelling activity.
There were so many animals that you could see and handle like this baby alligator, birds of prey, snakes, and opossums.
My daughter Ashley feeling the scales on the alligator.
I see so many opossums at night in my neck of the woods and I usually think they are pretty creepy, but this little guy stole my heart. Isn't he cute?
Eagles are also a common sight where I live, in fact I just saw one sitting on the side of the road eating road kill when I was driving into town; but I still enjoyed being this close to this magnificent beauty!
The festival has grown so large over the years that it is now held in two locations and free shuttles take you from one location to the other. The first part is held at Ft. Christmas Park and the other part is held at the Orlando Wetlands Park. Both are open year round, but the festival is held only one day out of the year.
There is a fort located right in the park, so we stopped and took a look around. This is the entrance with my daughter and her husband standing right in front of the massive doors.
And that is my son walking around the fence that surrounds the fort. There are long, rectangular openings all along the fence that the soldiers must have used to shoot from.
I didn't take any pictures during the show but here are a couple of cuties waiting for the show to begin:
And before all my fellow animal lovers get unnerved by these sweet things being kept in captivity, all of the animals are rescue animals. They were injured animals that different organizations rescued and provided medical care for. Some can be released back into the wild once they are healed, others have permanent injuries and can never be released, so they use them for educational purposes like this festival.
There were many other shows to see: they went on all day. But we only had time to see "Birds of Prey". Some of the other shows were "Jungle Adventures", "Eco Experience", "Native Plants for Your Landscape" "Bats of Florida", and "Venomous Animals of Central Florida".
After the show we hopped on the shuttle and drove to Orlando Wetlands Park. There you had a variety of hikes or rides you could choose from. We chose the "Guided Bird Hike" because we love birds. This was our Audubon tour guide, he was so nice to us. He answered all of our questions and even gave us a lot of ideas of other great places to visit in the Orlando area that doesn't involve theme parks.
He had the most amazing pair of binoculars I have ever seen. Boy, could they see far and with crystal clear clarity. I can't even imagine what they cost.
We only had to hike a short distance before we came to water and began seeing birds. Now I've seen a lot of Florida birds on my few trips down south, but I tell you, I've never seen so many birds in my entire life than what I saw in this park. It was simply jaw-dropping!
Even though I have a nice DSLR camera, I don't have a telescopic lens so I couldn't get many great pictures of these birds; but here are a few.
Large white birds floating in the water...might be herons...I don't know. I'm sure my wonderful guide told us, but I don't remember the names. I was too busy looking at how beautiful they were.
Everywhere you turned there was water; and swampy water at that. It was so uniquely beautiful to me as we have nothing like this in Wisconsin.
Birds were constantly flying in the air above our heads, like these gorgeous white pelicans.
And there were more ducks than I could count, but I really loved these red bill ducks.
In addition to the Guided Bird Hike, they also had a "Guided Photo Hike", "Wilderness Hike", "Native Plant Identification Hike", and a "Guided Wetland Exploration Walk". I wanted to go on ALL of them, but the festival is only one day for six hours, so we only had time for one if we wanted to do anything else.
We decided to do the Guided Bus Tour next because our bird hiking guide highly recommended it. On our way to the bus we were lucky enough to see a bird being banded by a researcher .
They put up all these invisible nets along side the walking paths in the wetlands. We walked past a few, and it was a little hard for even me to see them. The birds fly right into them, then fall into a pouch. From there the researchers pick them up, identify them, and band them to aid in their understanding of bird populations and behaviors.
Now that this cute bird has been banded, he is about to be released by the researcher.
The last thing we did at the festival was go on the Guided Bus Tour; and that was a great decision because we could sit down after being on our feet all day and it was air conditioned so we could cool off as well.
The Guided Bus Tour drives around the Orlando Wetlands Park and the guide teaches you all about the purpose and design of the wetlands. Birds and wildlife species will be observed along the way.
Now, I'm not a scientist, but I am going to try in my best layman terms to describe the purpose of this park and how the entire festival started sixteen years ago as my tour guide informed me.
Back in 1979 the city of Orlando had to figure out what to do with all it's waste water. It decided to pump it 17 miles away to the little town of Christmas, Florida. Well, you can just imagine how the occupants of this rural community felt about having Orlando sewage dumped in their backyard. So the city of Orlando decided to throw a festival to explain what they were doing and how it would be beneficial to everyone and they invited all the citizens of Christmas, Florida. That first festival had three hundred people in attendance and eventually grew to over five thousand sixteen years later. The entire festival is run by volunteers, that is why everything is FREE!
Now here is the beauty in this story. I actually get choked up just thinking about it and I'm fighting back tears as I write this. I know some of you might think that is funny, but I just think it's so wonderful that something as ugly as sewage can be turned into such a beautiful park for people and animals to enjoy.
Back in 1979 there was nothing here but a farm field. Now it's a gorgeous park filled with more waterfowl than you can imagine and all the animals (like alligators) that want to eat that waterfowl! Now there is hiking paths, benches, forests, and lakes, where people can come and view the wildlife.
To explain in the simplest terms of how this was done, after used water is treated in Orlando it is then sent through the seventeen miles of pipe to the Orlando Wetlands Park. Here it goes through a series of seventeen different cells and three distinct wetland communities to remove residual amounts of nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, from the reclaimed water. When we took the bus tour, the guide stopped at several significant cells to explain to us this process. This was one of the first places we stopped. He explained this was the first stop of the waste water when it first came in. You could smell the bleach from the reclaimed water when standing on this platform.
Next, he took us on this deck where you could see the water and the land spread out for miles.
The wetlands is completely man-made, but you would never know it by looking at it. The site is planted with over 2.3 million aquatic plants, including over 200,000 trees.
The reclaimed water travels over forty days through the wetlands park. It flows first into the cells with the deep marsh habitat that contains either cattails or giant bulrush as shown above.
After wards, the water is routed through the mixed marsh and wet prairie cells that contain pickerel weed, duck potato, and other aquatic shrubs. These areas are favored by the wading birds and other waterfowl as seen in my Guided Bird Hike pictures above.
We could see everything from the large windows of our bus and our tour guide explained the park history, functions, and the wildlife as we went.
The final stop in the wetland system is the hardwood swamp. Cypress, pop ash, tupelo and water hickories grow within these cells. However, due to the constant high water levels, the trees have stunted growth. At night, you will find hundreds of black vultures sitting in these trees.
At the end of it's forty day journey through the cells and communities of the park, the water eventually reaches and flows into the St. John's River.
Probably the biggest treat of visiting the Orlando Wetlands Park was seeing live alligators in the wild. We must have seen over twenty of them in one day. I didn't want to get too close for obvious reasons, but here are a few. In this picture there is a very large alligator sunbathing on the grassy bank:
This one I got a good picture of because we saw him from the bus!
I learned not to fear alligators so much on this trip. Their behavior is very similar to snakes (which I have a lot of experience with unfortunately). They are more afraid of you than you are of them (unless people feed them...big no-no because then they associate people with food) and they will quickly run back into the water if you approach. My daughter came very close to one. We were walking on the path blabbing away and never saw the alligator bathing on the bank. Ashley practically stepped on it! But it ran back into the water as fast as it's chubby little legs would carry it.
But if you visit the Orlando Wetlands Park, you will see much more than just alligators! Raccoons, turtles, snakes, river otters, white-tailed deer and bobcats can be seen along the roads and hiking trails. The Orlando Wetlands is home to over 30 species of wildlife that are listed on the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission's Threatened and Endangered Wildlife list.
Well that concludes my Orlando Wetlands Festival travel post. If your not a nature lover, you probably stopped reading this post a long time ago. And that's o.k. with me. This place just holds a special place in my heart. It's a wonderful memory that I really wanted to write about so I will have it documented forever. I just think it's so amazing that something so ugly and worthless as sewage water could be turned into something so beautiful and useful for someone or something else. Our guide told us that when they established this park it was only created as a way to treat reclaimed water. They never dreamt all this amazing wildlife would show up, and once it did, they just had to open the park up to people so they could come and enjoy it too.
So if your ever in Orlando, skip the theme park and visit this park! It's open sunrise to sunset every day! And if you plan on visiting Orlando during the month of February, plan your trip so you can attend this festival. You will not regret it! And if you live in the area and you have never attended this festival....GO!!!!! You have no idea what fun and excitement your missing!
Have a Great Day! Amy
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