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(This arti­cle may or may not con­tain affil­i­ate links. What does that mean?)

When my hus­band told me at the begin­ning of Novem­ber that he had vaca­tion days to use or lose come Jan­u­ary, that’s all I need­ed to start plan­ning some­thing fun.  Since we live in New Eng­land, Flori­da seemed like the best place to trav­el to in Decem­ber. It’s not too far, not too cold and has lots to do, includ­ing see­ing wildlife that you won’t see any­where else in the country.

 

 

Winter Getaway to Florida 

 

Kayaking in Cocoa, Florida 

After pick­ing up our rental car, we head­ed to our first adven­ture, kayak­ing at sun­set in search of bio­lu­mi­nes­cent comb jel­lies.  Our reser­va­tions were with Cocoa Kayak­ing at 4:30 pm. Unbe­liev­ably, we saw dol­phins work­ing togeth­er to hunt by push­ing fish toward the shore with waves they cre­at­ed. We admired birds like ospreys sit­ting in the trees, and learned all about the dif­fer­ent kinds of man­grove trees as we kayaked through them.

© Paula Vogler

The sun set, scat­ter­ing a gor­geous orange hue across the sky and that’s when the fun began! Our guide, Cameron encour­aged us to scoop beau­ti­ful lit­tle jel­lies into the nets sup­plied by the tour com­pa­ny.  Unlike their sting­ing coun­ter­parts, a comb jel­ly is harm­less, so you can gen­tly stroke its ten­ta­cles and watch as it glows blue! In fact, even pass­ing near them in a kayak or catch­ing them in the net makes their blue bio­lu­mi­nes­cent radi­ate.  Comb jel­lies are typ­i­cal­ly seen from Octo­ber through March but from June through Novem­ber, it is the bio­lu­mi­nes­cent plank­ton that will light up the water around your kayak.

Where to Stay in Cocoa, Florida 

We spent one night at the Best West­ern Cocoa Inn in Cocoa, FL which was just 30 min­utes from the kayak meet­ing point and 30 min­utes from Mer­ritt Island, where we planned to go the next day. It has love­ly facil­i­ties, an out­door pool, and a com­fort­able bed.

 

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge 

 

 

 

An Anhin­ga, a bird found all over Flori­da includ­ing at Mer­ritt Island, can often­times be found with its wings spread, dry­ing it feath­ers and mak­ing it appear larg­er than it is © Paula Vogler

 

A sec­ond day out in nature at Mer­ritt Island Nation­al Wildlife Refuge is a won­der­ful way to spend time soak­ing up the sun and breath­ing in the clean, fresh air, par­tic­u­lar­ly if you love birds. Stop in at the Vis­i­tor’s Cen­ter first and then head out on the 7‑mile Black Point Wildlife Dri­ve.  If you want to get out of the car, there are short walks and trails in the refuge as well. There is a rea­son­able $10 entrance fee per car. Don’t for­get binoculars!

 

A Grey Heron takes flight among Roseate Spoon­bills, White Ibis and Blossy Ibis on Mer­ritt Island. © Paula Vogler

 

Animal Kingdom Lodge 

It almost does­n’t seem right to vis­it Orlan­do and not stop in at Walt Dis­ney World, espe­cial­ly if there are free things you can do there. To con­tin­ue the nature-themed vaca­tion, head to the Ani­mal King­dom Lodge, which is only 75 min­utes from Mer­ritt Island, and check out some of the African ani­mals that call it home. If you stop at the concierge, you can pick up a copy of their “Ani­mal View­ing Guide” that will tell you all about what you might see, from giraffes and zebras to gray-crowned cranes and wilde­beests. Head­ing to the sec­ond floor of the hotel will give you the best view of the grounds but going out the back door to the actu­al area where the ani­mals might be will get you the clos­est to them.

 

Wilde­beests and giraffes are just some of the ani­mals you might see behind the Ani­mal King­dom Lodge at Dis­ney World. © Paula Vogler

 

You can also grab a bite for din­ner at the buf­fet in Boma, one of the three restau­rants in the Ani­mal King­dom Lodge. While it’s not free, it is def­i­nite­ly worth the $49 ($27 for ages 3–9) as you get to sam­ple soups, sal­ads, entrees and desserts from over 50 African coun­tries, with some Amer­i­can dish­es as well.  Din­ner is served from 5:00–9:30 pm and reser­va­tions are rec­om­mend­ed. You can check out the lat­est buf­fet offer­ings here.

 

Some of the many dishes available at the buffet at Boma, one of the restaurants at Animal Kingdom Lodge at Disney World. -attr Paula Vogler

Buf­fet at Boma, one of the restau­rants at Ani­mal King­dom Lodge at Dis­ney World © Paula Vogler

 

Disney Springs 

We opt­ed to vis­it Dis­ney Springs in the evening (free park­ing and just a 15-minute dri­ve from the Ani­mal King­dom Lodge!) to walk around, watch the vol­cano on top of the Rain For­est Café ‘erupt,’ try free choco­late sam­ples at Ghi­rardel­li, take lots of pho­tos and enjoy what­ev­er enter­tain­ment we hap­pened upon. There are also many Lego cre­ations spread through­out Dis­ney Springs, includ­ing the enor­mous water drag­on that seems to be spring­ing from the lake.  The Lego Store has some fun sculp­tures that will thrill fans, both young and old.

Buzz Lightyear and Woody soar above the walk­way at the Lego Store. © Paula Vogler

 

Where to Stay Near Disney Springs 

We stayed at the Embassy Suites by Hilton in Lake Bue­na Vista which was about a 15-minute dri­ve from Dis­ney Springs.

Swim with Manatees 

 

One of many man­a­tees that glide grace­ful­ly by on their way to warm up at the springs. © Paula Vogler

 

On the morn­ing of the last day, dri­ve a lit­tle over an hour and a half from the Embassy Suites by Hilton to Bird’s Under­wa­ter Man­a­tee Dive Cen­ter in Crys­tal Springs for the chance to swim with and observe these gen­tle giants.  There are oth­er man­a­tee swim com­pa­nies out there but Bird’s is on the water (rather than meet­ing at a pub­lic dock some­where) and gives you a full wet­suit (not just a top) to help keep the chill away if it’s one of the cool­er morn­ings, as well as a mask, snorkel and fins. On the boat, you can try hot choco­late, tea or cof­fee dur­ing the win­ter months and redress in a small, enclosed chang­ing area after you are fin­ished swim­ming. Three times are typ­i­cal­ly offered for tours (6:30 am, 11:00 am and 2:00 pm) last for 2–3 hours. 

  We went at 11:00 am and saw near­ly 50 man­a­tees includ­ing some babies warm­ing up in the springs! The man­a­tees are amaz­ing, so grace­ful and so BIG with many even cov­ered in bar­na­cles.  Some are inquis­i­tive; one stopped in front of my hus­band, looked him in the eye and reached out a flip­per to feel his wet­suit. I was so sur­prised by the inter­ac­tion I could­n’t get my cam­era up quick­ly enough to snap a pho­to. Peak man­a­tee sea­son is Novem­ber-April and tours cost $65 dur­ing that time, $60 the rest of the year.

 

Bar­na­cles almost like sequins on man­a­tees © Paula Vogler

 

When You Go

 

 

There are plen­ty of non-stop flights from LAX to Orlan­do (MCO) and if you are opt­ing for a Fri­day-Mon­day trip, you could use Fri­day as your trav­el day, stay at a hotel in Orlan­do and then fly home on Mon­day evening after swim­ming with the manatees.

 

Car rentals

To see things in Flori­da beyond Mag­ic King­dom walls requires a car but short term rentals, say from Fri­day night until Mon­day night, are typ­i­cal­ly under $100.

 

Paula Vogler is a writer and reporter for many local papers in Mass­a­chu­setts where she calls home. She is an avid trav­el­er who has been to all 50 US states (many more than once), 20 coun­tries, and 5 con­ti­nents and is always ready with one foot out the door to set off on a new adven­ture. As one philoso­pher said, “The world is a book and those who do not trav­el read only one page.”