Millions of people visit Orlando and miss the very best part.

I understand the draw of the theme parks, but Orlando is also a great base for discovering the authentic Florida of clear cold springs, gnarly cypress knees in mysterious swamps and hiking trails under majestic arching live oaks.

I’ve visited the Orlando many times to explore the natural attractions, and these spots would make memorable additions to a visit to the area.

Here are some of our favorites we recommend to those who want more than theme parks in their Orlando visit.

The bridge over Big Creek at Lake Louisa State Park in Clermont. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The bridge over Big Creek at Lake Louisa State Park in Clermont. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Lake Louisa State Park in Clermont

This big beautiful park is just 20 minutes from Disney theme parks, but is a natural world with 20 miles of hiking trails, small lakes and streams and great cabins. Located on the east end of the vast Green Swamp, you’ll find wildlife, hills, cypress swamps and forests. Visitors for whom orange groves are exotic will enjoy hikes through forests that were once groves. In winter, the fruit (which you can sample) decorate the forest like ornaments on a Christmas tree. If you can extend your visit by a day or two, consider renting a cabin here. They are modern, well-equipped and have lovely views of a small lake from their big screen porches. There’s a campground too.

Lake Louisa State Park
7305 US-27
Clermont, FL 34714

Swimmer explores Rock Springs Run at Kelly Park. (Photo by Bonnie Gross)
Swimmer explores Rock Springs Run at Kelly Park. (Photo by Bonnie Gross)

Kelly Park and Rock Springs Run

The clear water and rocky shores makes Rock Springs in Kelly Park a spectacular sight. Just 40 minutes from the theme parks, Rock Springs Run is great for swimming, tubing and kayaking. The entertainment complex in Disney World is called Disney Springs and recreates a Florida spring. Really? Wouldn’t you rather see the real thing? Go to Kelly Park instead. This is also a great place for picnics and camping.

Kelly Park at Rock Spring
400 East Kelly Park Rd.
Apopka, FL 32712
(407) 889-4179

Wekiva River near Katie's Landing.
Wekiva River near Katie’s Landing.

Wekiva River Basin

Kelly Park is located in this vast ecological preserve that offers an abundance of recreational opportunities with unique exposure to Florida’s great outdoors. Two places worth considering for an outing: Wekiva Springs State Park and Wekiva Island, both about 40 minutes from the theme parks.

Wekiwa Springs State Park offers swimming in the spring water plus kayak rentals and 25 miles of hiking trails in a dense tropical forest. This is a wild place; one of the few where black bear thrive. The Wekiva is one of two Florida rivers designated as Wild and Scenic by the US Department of the Interior.

Wekiwa Springs State Park
1800 Wekiwa Cirle
(407) 553-4383

Another way to access the river is via a commercial operation called Wekiva Island. Located on the river, it offers a party-like atmosphere with canoe, kayak, and paddleboard rentals, a boat launch, a food truck and a bar serving beer and wine.

Wekiva Island
1014 Miami Springs Drive
Longwood, FL 32779
(407) 862-1500

Paddling on Single Creek (Photo: Miosotis Jade via Wikimedia)
Paddling on Single Creek (Photo: Miosotis Jade via Wikimedia)

Shingle Creek

This regional park is the closest scenic paddling destination to the theme parks – within 25 minutes. It offers either guided tours or rentals of kayaks, canoes and standup paddleboards. Shingle Creek passes through an unspoiled cypress swamp, a green world of dappled shade where you have a good chance of seeing wildlife. Some call it a “real life jungle cruise.”

The Paddling Center at Shingle Creek
4266 W Vine St.
Kissimmee, FL 34741
(407) 343-7740

Camelias blanket the ground during spring at Leu Gardens in Orlando. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Camelias blanket the ground during spring at Leu Gardens in Orlando. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Harry P. Leu Gardens in Winter Park

Just 30 minutes from the theme parks, this 50-acre botanical garden is full of blooming flowers, tropical plants, scenic vistas and easy-to-walk trails. There’s even wildlife — visiting here, I saw two otters playing in the central lake just below the overlook. It would be easy to spend several hours wandering and admiring this beauty spot. Admission is $10.

Leu Gardens
1920 N Forest Ave.
Orlando, FL 32803

Tibet-Butler Preserve

If you don’t have a lot of time and just want a walk in nature near the theme parks, this gem is 15 minutes from the Magic Kingdom. Trails and boardwalks pass through marshes, cypress swamps, pine flatwoods and scrub with chances to spot wildlife from deer to eagles to gopher tortoises. There’s a large nature center here too. Here’s the trail map for the preserve.

Tibet-Butler Preserve
8777 Winter Garden – Vineland Road
Orlando, FL 32836
(407) 254-1940

Moss Park and Split Oak Forest Park

About 30 minutes from the theme parks, these two adjacent parks offer an expanse of forest and hiking in the 2,000-acre forest. Wildlife is abundant — mostly deer and sandhill cranes —  and there is camping and kayaking in the two adjacent lakes.

Moss Park
12901 Moss Park Road
Orlando, FL 32832
(407) 254-6840


Manatees at Blue Spring State Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Manatees at Blue Spring State Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Blue Spring State Park

This terrific park is the longest drive from the theme parks — an hour — but we think it’s worth it. In the winter, Blue Spring attracts hundreds of manatees to its crystal-clear spring run. It’s memorable to see these sea cows – and they are the size of a cow – floating blissfully in the spring. When the manatees leave in the spring, Blue Spring is opened to kayakers, swimmers and people floating downstream on tubes. You can rent kayaks and canoes here to explore the St. Johns River year-round. There are great cabins here as well as a campground.

Blue Spring State Park
2100 West French Ave.
Orange City, FL 32763.
(386) 775-3663.