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Disney Wilderness Preserve Archives

February 1, 2015

A Swamp Buggy Tour With A Disney Twist

Gary Cruise banner

Several months ago I wrote a blog about the Disney Wilderness Preserve and I told you that I would follow up with a blog about our "Butterflies by Swamp Buggy Tour" there. Well, we had a wonderful time on the tour and here's the blog I promised!

Welcome Sign

Before I describe the tour, I'd like to give a little bit more background on the history of this amazing property, which can trace its origin back to the Clean Water Act originally passed in 1972. Section 404 of that Federal Statute deals with "compensatory mitigation". What that means in simple terms is that any activity which negatively impacts wetlands, streams or other aquatic resources must be offset by compensating mitigation activities (restoration, enhancement, establishment or preservation of resources) in another area.

In 1992 The Disney Corporation was still actively developing the vast Walt Disney World property and much of this development had exactly the sort of "negative impact" referred to above. They were draining and filling wetlands in order to build hotels, parks, shopping areas, etc. The Clean Water Act stipulated that they had to create, preserve or enhance an equal area of wetlands on another part of their property. At the same time they heard about the Walker Ranch, a nearby 8,500 acre tract which was being rezoned for urban development. This huge former wetland area at the headwaters of the Everglades had been ditched and drained many years ago. After extensive logging the property was used as a cattle ranch for several decades before the threat of development arose; the proposal was to convert this sensitive wildlife habitat to residential neighborhoods and golf courses.

Wildlife habitat

More wildlife habitat

Disney purchased the property, turned ownership over to The Nature Conservancy, then worked with the new owner to restore the wetlands. Drainage ditches were filled in, wetlands were restored and wildlife has returned. There is now 47% more water on the property than there was in 1992. The Nature Conservancy describes the Disney Wilderness Preserve as "wildly successful".

These two brochures explain it much better than I can. Click on each of the four images below to see a larger, readable version.

Nature Conservancy Brochure Page 1

Nature Conservancy Brochure Page 2

Nature Conservancy Brochure Page 1

Nature Conservancy Brochure Page 2

Disney scored a very interesting "first" with their preserve. It was the first "off-site" mitigation ever done - the restoration was on property Disney did not own. They restored a huge area of wetlands, enough to offset future development on the Walt Disney World property. Once Disney had set this precedent other companies, including Orlando International Airport and Universal Studios followed suit; they added other parcels of land to the property. The preserve is now almost 12,000 acres or 19 square miles.

OK, that's enough background, lets climb aboard our swamp buggy and I'll let the pictures tell most of the story.

Carol and I, along with our friend and fellow Fort Wilderness camper Al from Missouri, were on the road just after 8:00 a.m. We were excited to participate in this once a year event, part of NatureFest, organized by VisitCentralFlorida.org. They only accept 15 registrants due to the seating capacity of the swamp buggy. It was a glorious, sunny Thursday morning as the three of us drove in the mile-and-a-half long lane from Old Pleasant Hill Road to the Disney Wilderness Preserve's main office and Welcome Centre.

Conservation Learning Center

Conservation_Learning_Center

Butterfly Garden

Butterfly Garden

By 9:00 a.m. we were registered and had met our hosts for the day, the Preserve's Operations Manager Petra Royston and lepidopterists (butterfly experts) Tom Palmer and Sue Farnsworth.

Lepidopterist Tom Palmer

We spent a half hour in the Conservation Learning Centre where Tom gave us an audio-visual prevue of what we would be seeing during the day, then off we went to board our chariot . . . our really big chariot!

Our Swamp_Buggy

Florida Sand Cranes
A pair of Florida Sand Cranes were on hand to see us off!

Petra was our guide and driver; as she drove she gave us a history of the preserve and pointed out plants, trees and points of interest.

Backing away to start our tour

Tom stood at the front of the buggy watching out for butterflies while Sue covered the rear.

Tom watching for butterfiles

We stopped a few times, disembarked and explored the grounds, capturing pictures of the many butterfly species which call the area home. We all had spotting guides to help us identify what we were seeing, but there was no time to look at a list when we were in hot pursuit! Thankfully Sue and Tom were always close at hand to tell us what we were looking at!

Looking for butterfiles

Looking for butterfiles

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Fritillary
Fritillary

Fritillary
Fritillary

After a few miles we came to a sign directing us to Lake Russell; we walked the last few hundred yards to the scenic shoreline.

Lake Russell Sign

Walking to Lake Russell

Lake Russell is unique in several ways! There is no development on the shore of the lake. It is pristine, that's a rare thing in Florida. It is part of the headwaters of the Everglades and is fed by Reedy Creek. Yes, that's the same Reedy Creek which runs through Walt Disney World about 15 miles to the north!

At Lake Russell

Lake Russell

Lake Russell

After spending a few minutes enjoying the natural beauty of the lake we returned to the swamp buggy and continued our journey, stopping often to walk around and snap more pictures.

Petra and Tom watching

Stopped along the Highway

Stopped along the Highway

Ceraunus Blue
A Ceraunus Blue - this butterfly is the size of the fingernail on your pinkie finger.

Soldier
A Soldier

As we made our way south toward Lake Hatchineha our guide Petra explained how the drainage ditches were quickly filled in to restore the wetlands. She described how controlled fire is used in a three-year cycle to stimulate the growth of the longleaf pine forest. This variety of pine remains very small for about 6 years, resembling a tuft of grass while it develops a deep taproot. During this phase its tender bud is protected from the typically low and fast-moving fire by its long needles. Once the taproot is established the tree shoots up 6 feet or more in just a couple of years and is beyond the harmful reach of those fires.

Young longleaf pines

Our adventure took us almost seven miles south to a guest cabin near the shore of Lake Hatchineha where we stopped for lunch. Carol had packed a few sandwiches for us and we enjoyed them on the veranda of the cabin which normally houses visiting scientists and students.

The Guest Cabin

A big Spider
This big guy watched from a nearby tree while we ate lunch!

Spanish Moss

We passed several scientific monitoring stations during our travels.

University of Central Florida research station
A University of Central Florida research station.

NEON research station
This is a National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) station.

According to the NEON web site it is "measuring the physical and chemical properties of atmosphere-related processes, such as humidity, wind, ozone and reactive nitrogen. They also measure net ecosystem exchange or the amount of gas that is exchanged between the atmosphere and the ecosystem".

It's quite an achievement; property that was perilously close to becoming another vast tract of urban sprawl is now a centre for ecological research and training. The Disney Wilderness Preserve is a living laboratory for conservation science!

Our return trip took us past some "snag oaks" - dead oak trees.

Snag oaks

Oaks do not normally grow in wetlands, but once this property was drained they flourished in some areas. These dead oaks are a very clear sign that the wetland restoration efforts are a complete success.

Wetlands

Wetlands

The Disney Wilderness Preserve is home to 26 species of plants and 19 animals that are either rare, threatened or endangered. Petra explained the elaborate efforts that were required when they transported red-cockaded woodpeckers from north Florida and Georgia to the site. The species is on the brink of extinction and the Nature Conservancy is working hard to establish a thriving community at the preserve. Read about their efforts HERE.

We saw two red-cockaded woodpeckers off in the distance, too far away to get any pictures. Fortunately, we did get a closer look at another endangered species on our way back to our starting point. Just before our tour ended we spotted a few Florida Scrub Jays. This bird lives only in Florida and nests in scrub brush, usually only 3 to 6 feet above the ground. Extensive development in the central Florida area had reduced the bird's natural habitat to the point where the population was depleted and the species was at significant risk. Since the Disney Wilderness Preserve was established and the wetlands were restored, the scrub oak has returned and the Florida Scrub Jay is making a resurgence.

Florida Scrub Jay

Florida Scrub Jay

Seeing these beautiful birds was a wonderful way to end our day at the Disney Wilderness Preserve!

The Walt Disney Company continues to fund a number of projects and activities at the Disney Wilderness Preserve. They are committed to conservation! As I said in my last blog, it makes me proud to be a Disney fan!

If you are looking for a very different sort of "Disney experience" why not plan a trip to the Disney Wilderness Preserve. While the swamp buggy tour only happens once a year, there are hiking trails and picnic areas you can enjoy anytime.

Trail Guide

Click on the images above and below to see larger versions.

Trail Guide Map

Here's how to get there: From I-4 take Exit 58 onto Osceola-Polk County Line Road, Route 532 Eastbound. Turn left onto South Orange Blossom Trail (Hwy17-92), toward Poinciana/Kissimmee. Turn right on Poinciana Boulevard and continue approximately 13 miles. Turn right onto Pleasant Hill Road. Turn left onto Old Pleasant Hill Road, Drive approximately ½ mile and turn left onto the Preserve's Scrub Jay Trail.

Carol and I hope you take the time to visit the Disney Wilderness Preserve and that you enjoy it as much as we did!

September 28, 2014

The Disney Wilderness Preserve

Gary Cruise banner

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund and how you can be a Conservation Hero. While I was browsing the Internet, doing research for the blog, I came across an intriguing web page. The headline read "Butterflies by Swamp Buggy at Disney Wilderness Preserve"

Butterfly_Swamp_Buggy_Web_Page

My first thought was, "What better way to enjoy the peace and tranquillity of nature than by chasing butterflies through a wilderness preserve with a swamp buggy?"

My mind drifted back about 15 years to the vacation Carol and I enjoyed at Pelee Island, Canada's southernmost point.

Pelee_Island_map

Every summer Pelee Island is teeming with Giant Swallowtail butterflies and we spent a glorious, sunny summer afternoon snapping pictures of swallowtails. I still have vivid memories of Carol, camera in hand, bounding through farm fields following flitting butterflies. Butterflies can flit faster than Carol can bound so her antics kept me entertained all afternoon!

My second thought was, "Disney Wilderness Preserve? What's that?"

Did you know that there is a big Disney conservation project just minutes from Walt Disney World?

You are not alone . . . neither did I. Not many people are aware of the Disney Wilderness Preserve, just 15 miles from Walt Disney World. It's at 2700 Scrub Jay Trail in Kissimmee.

It's a huge preserve, about 12,000 acres - almost 19 square miles!

The project began in 1992, before the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund was established. The Walt Disney Company heard that an 8,500 acre cattle ranch located at the head of the Greater Everglades Watershed was going to be re-zoned for extensive residential and commercial development. This would have destroyed a huge tract of natural wetlands, as well as habitat for many endangered plants and wildlife.

Disney acted quickly and quietly to preserve this sensitive property. Working with The Nature Conservancy, the State of Florida, and a number of other groups, The Walt Disney Company purchased the property to mitigate its expansion and transferred it to the Conservancy. They were instrumental in the creation of a nature preserve dedicated to wetlands conservation on an unprecedented scale. After the initial purchase The Walt Disney Company provided funds for restoration and wildlife monitoring on the property and they continue to endow a number of on-site projects.

Lake_Russell

How successful has the project been? On their web site, The Nature Conservancy refers to it as "A Model Preserve" and goes on to say, "Land that was heavily logged and ranched for decades has been restored to very near to its original state and once again resembles the descriptions left by the area's first Spanish missionaries."

Sounds good to me - sensitive wetlands preserved as natural animal habitat rather than littered with factories, roads, houses and strip malls. Just another heroic initiative that makes me proud to be a Disney fan!

Palmetto

But let's get back to the swamp buggy and the butterflies. I mentioned the web site to Carol; she immediately said, "We're there in October, let's sign up!" So we did!

This is one of many events which makes up Central Florida NatureFest, an Outdoor and Photography Festival organized each year by the Central Florida Visitor's and Convention Bureau. The cost is a mere $5.00 per person!

Here's how they described it. "Fall is the best time for butterflies in our area when wildflowers are abundant. Disney Wilderness Preserve is a mosaic of habitats such as marshes, lake edges, open meadows, flat woods and roadsides. All of these areas are attractive to butterflies. To be expected here are swallowtails, sulphurs, hairstreaks, crescents, fritillaries, skippers and more.

The Disney Wilderness Preserve is a vast and beautiful natural site and the best way to travel in these parts is by Swamp Buggy. So all aboard the Swamp Buggy and be ready to hang-on while your guides point out butterflies and nature's beauty. This is a spectacular excursion that everyone can enjoy."

Our friend and fellow Fort Wilderness camper Al, from Missouri is joining us. Carol is keen on the butterflies but Al and I are really looking forward to that swamp buggy ride!

I hope to do a blog about the Butterfly/Swamp Buggy adventure so stay tuned! If I can get any good action shots of Carol bounding after butterflies I'll be sure to include them!

In the meantime, here are a few pictures provided by VisitCentralFlorida.org and The Nature Conservancy.

Disney_Wilderness_Preserve

Butterfly_Swamp_Buggy_Tour

Giant_Swallowtail
Giant Swallowtail

Zebra_Swallowtail
Zebra Swallowtail

Can you enjoy the Disney Wilderness Preserve? Yes, you can. The preserve is open daily Sunday-Friday (closed Saturdays and most major holidays) 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. There is no entry fee, but donations are always welcome.

Cypress_at_Lake_Russell

Boardwalk

The 2 1/2 mile hiking loop takes you past the shore of Lake Russell and then offers a closer look at the preserve's natural communities. What will you see? The landscape and foliage includes: cypress swamp, freshwater marsh, scrub, flatwoods and oak hammocks.

Lake_Russell_at_Reedy_Creek
Lake Russell at Reedy Creek

There is a rejuvenated longleaf pine forest with a lush understory of native grasses, saw palmetto and other shrubs. The rejuvenation is the result of "prescribed fire" on the land. They have used "controlled burns" to remove invasive plants that are not native to the area. These fires have resulted in an amazing return to the type of pine forests those first Spanish missionaries saw.

Long_Leaf_Pine_Forest

Pine_flatwoods

Key flowers include the fall-flowering ixia, Catesby's lily and terrestrial orchids.

Rose_rush
Rose Rush

Pickerel_weed
Pickerel Weed

Animal life includes bald eagle, red-cockaded woodpecker, wood stork, sandhill crane, northern harrier and crested caracara. The preserve is also home to the southeastern big-eared bat, Sherman's fox squirrel, eastern indigo snake and gopher tortoise. The Florida panther has even been documented crossing the site!

Sandhill_cranes

Read about the Disney Wilderness Preserve HERE.

Sunset

Next time you visit Walt Disney World, set aside a day for a hike at the Disney Wilderness Preserve.

It looks awesome, I cannot wait to experience it first-hand!



Sincere thanks to VisitCentralFlorida.org and The Nature Conservancy for agreeing to share their photos!

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About Disney Wilderness Preserve

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to All Ears® Guest Blog in the Disney Wilderness Preserve category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

Disney Vacation Club is the previous category.

Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund is the next category.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.