By KELI SIPPERLEY | The Tampa Tribune
Published: May 18, 2011
Not far from the theme parks that draw throngs to Central Florida is an attraction with vistas and thrills equal in scope and polar opposite in substance.
A breathtaking 4,700 acres of mostly untouched wilderness stretches from every direction of the visitor's center at >Forever Florida, about an hour southeast of Orlando. Visitors are invited to explore these wilds by big-wheeled buggy, horseback, or up to 55 feet in the air on a half-mile zip-line adventure.
The eco-tours are offered by Florida EcoSafaris, the adventurous side of the Forever Florida operation, which also includes Crescent J Ranch, a working cattle ranch, and the Allen Broussard Conservancy.
The tour starts with a short hike on a section of the Florida Trail, one of only eight National Scenic Trails in the country. The zip-line course then takes explorers high above the unspoiled paradise on a journey that includes seven zips and two sky bridges over three ecosystems.
Nervous? Don't be.
"You just have to trust your equipment and your guide," says Megan Talbo, 22, a zip-line guide since the attraction opened about two years ago.
The guides makes the experience more than memorable — they make it remarkable. Their energy and good-natured humor kept our group laughing from the moment we stepped into our harnesses.
For the inexperienced and the trepid, the guides simultaneously calm jitters and sear the most important safety instructions into your head with witty warnings: The only thing you really have to remember is not to touch the cable, they explain, pointing to a jar labeled "fingers" for emphasis.
Other than that, zippers need only follow the guides' instructions at each tower — and step off the ledge.
What a view. As I stood on the tower awaiting my turn to zip, the wind rustled – and, with a storm approaching, sometimes howled — through the trees. The sweet scent of blooming flora and fresh air stirred memories of tree houses and childhood adventures. More than any theme park ever has, the zip-line tour made me feel like a kid again: brave, sweaty, and free to squeal in a race through the trees, feet dangling over a small pond as George, a hefty and reportedly precocious alligator, lounged at its edge. I imagined him gazing skyward with longing each day as zippers careen above his head.
If you've got an active one, this is the place for imagination to reach new heights. Tarzan impersonations, a jubilant "WOO-HOO!" or quiet contemplation — clip, zip and go with it, cares to the wind. The two suspension bridges, which zippers navigate while safely clipped to the zip line, may as well have been bridges to Terabithia or Oz.
In July, adventurers will get a new, more relaxed option for sailing over the treetops. The Cypress SkyCycle, the first ride of its kind in the United States, will allow guests to bicycle over pine flatwoods and wetland forests while suspended from high-tension cables. Think of it as an hour-long trail ride.
In the meantime, those who haven't gotten their fill after they've zipped their last zip can visit the animals. There are a number of animals in captivity at Forever Florida; some are rescued, others were once used as educational ambassadors. They include macaws, African tortoises, and exotic cats.
If you're still not ready for the adventure to end, hit the trials on horseback for a view of the wilderness from a different perspective.
Trail rides are offered in one-, two- and three-hour increments, and can be purchased in combination with the zip-line tour or separately. My guide, David Swogger, said he's been riding horses for 48 years.
Forever Florida in St. Cloud has been his "office" for nearly four years, and his titles run the gamut from supervisor of maintenance to kitchen help and trail guide. He does it all, and seems to know it all — making the ride as interesting as it is fun.
The property is home to an abundance of wildlife, Swogger said as we set out on the trail. If you stay alert, you might spot hogs, deer or a Florida panther. Both a male and female panther have been sighted several times, and there might be cubs on the way, he said.
A black bear, estimated to be about 350 pounds, also has been spotted on the property. I admit, I contemplated which one of us the bear and the panthers might prefer for a meal: me or my horse, Cherry. But I quickly put such thoughts out of my head. I assumed Cherry could do more than the slow and steady amble she kept up throughout our adventure, which included a swim/trot in water up to her belly. Cherry is not a fan of getting her hooves wet, Swogger told me later, but she was a good sport about it.
Though I didn't get a lucky glimpse of big cats or black bears during my ride, I did see several alligators sunning themselves, including an up-close look at a mother gator surrounded by a handful of her tiny offspring. Precious and a little scary — but mostly precious.
As we made our way through the trees, Swogger also explained the history of the property, a story as beautiful as the land itself.
Landowner William Broussard, a 10th-generation rancher from Louisiana, and his wife, Margaret, raised their children at Crescent J Ranch. Their son, Allen, spent most of his childhood exploring the surrounding wilderness and grew up to be an ecologist with a passion for preserving Florida lands. When Allen passed away at age 29 from complications of Hodgkin's disease, his family resolved to do what they could do to foster his dream and preserve his legacy.
Piece by piece, the family purchased the land surrounding Crescent J Ranch, and the Allen Broussard Conservancy was born. The land Allen roamed as a child now makes up the 3,200 acres of conservation area, a project funded in part by profits from the Florida EcoSafaris adventures.
Because the property is a conservation area, there is no hunting allowed. The only exception is the wild hogs, because they have a tendency to reproduce at an alarming speed and tear up the land. But even the hogs get a reprieve here: When they get to be a nuisance, they are trapped and moved to acreage reserved just for them. It's only when that area becomes overpopulated that a hog roast or two is planned, Swogger said.
There are no invasive species on the property, Swogger said, as he pointed out several plants I couldn't believe were native, including the carnivorous pitcher plant, a beauty that looks more like a work of science fiction than a backyard bloomer. Huckleberry bushes, sensitive briar, and bachelor buttons also dot the landscape.
There are three priorities at Forever Florida, Swogger said: fun, education, and safety. As thunder began to shake the skies, he turned us back to the stables and offered me a rain check. Not worth taking any chances, he said.Keep the weather in mind when you head out to Forever Florida. Tours will run in light rain, but thunderstorms will cause delays or cancellations. Rain checks are cheerfully issued.
And I 'm happy to have an excuse to return soon because, truth be told, I'm smitten with the place. Who knew real life could be this much fun?
If you go
Forever Florida is located at 4755 N. Kenansville Road, St. Cloud (on State Road 441 southeast of Orlando)
Zip tours and horseback rides must be reserved in advance by calling 1 (866) 854-3837.
Zip line cost: $85 for adults and children ages 10 and older who meet the 70-pound minimum weight and 275-pound maximum weight requirements.
Horseback cost: one-hour, $40; two-hour, $60; three-hour, $80. Riders must be 12 or older, and children must be accompanied by an adult. (Children as young as 10 may ride if they have previous riding experience; call for information.)
Cypress SkyCycle: When it opens in July, one-hour rides will be $45 per person. Participants will need to be at least 10 years old and weigh no more than 275 pounds.
Combination zip line/horseback packages are available for a reduced cost. Visit www.floridaecosafaris.com for details.
Other off-the-beaten path adventures in Central Florida
•ZOOm Air Adventure Park, located inside the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens, 3755 NW Highway 17-92, Sanford, offers three treetop courses, which include rope bridges and zip lines. Admission to ZOOm Air is separate from zoo admission. The park opens at 9 a.m. daily (closed Thanksgiving and Christmas Day). Reservations are not required. Call (407) 330-0767 or visit www.zoomair.us for pricing and information.
•Located near Lake Wales, the Westgate River Ranch, 3200 River Ranch Blvd., River Ranch, offers resort amenities and a variety of adventures on an authentic dude ranch. Swamp buggy tours, horseback rides, a skeet shooting range and a petting zoo keep guests of all ages busy. June room rates start at $99 a night. Call (863) 692-1321 or visit www.wgriverranch.com.
•The headwaters to the Florida Everglades start in Orlando, and Boggy Creek Airboat Rides, 2001 E. Southport Road, Kissimmee, was the first to operate in the Central Florida area. Open since 1994, the operation has a fleet of boats that accommodate up to 17 passengers. Daily tours leave every half hour; $25.95 for adults, $19.95 for children ages 3-10. The Extreme Swamp Safari, a VIP experience according to the company's website, takes visitors into remote areas the regular tours don't include. The 45-minute excursion is $54.95 per person. Night tours and other options are offered. Call (407) 344-9550 or visit www.bcairboats.com for information.
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