6 adventurous ways to explore Florida’s largest theme park

“The Happiest Place on Earth” can no longer hold onto its reputation as Florida’s largest theme park. Bigger than Disney World and Universal Orlando Resorts combined, MiamiLand will appeal to nature lovers and adventure-seekers alike. In truth, MiamiLand is not so much a theme park as it is a concept. Its attractions are comprised of Florida’s beautiful outdoor adventures.

You know about the white-sand beaches and wee-hour dance clubs. What you might not know is that MiamiLand also boasts the only living coral reef barrier in the continental US, one of few chances you’ll ever get to snorkel through mangroves, and the largest marine sanctuary in the country.

In fact, the ecological adventures within minutes of downtown Miami are so numerous you’d never be able to do them all in one trip. But don’t let that stop you from getting started on your bucket list.

Here are six suggestions:

1. Explore the biodiversity of Big Cypress

Towering cypress strands and winding mangrove tunnels are some of the captivating scenery you’ll encounter at the 729,000-acre Big Cypress National Preserve. During the day, discover rare orchids growing along the many trails, and at night enjoy stargazing under a dark sky.

Boasting five biodiverse habitats, Big Cypress abounds in wildlife. The Florida panther, one of the most elusive and endangered mammals on the planet, lives here, along with alligators, black bears, river otters, and over 200 species of birds. Marked hiking trails, plenty of paddling trails, and abundant campgrounds make it an ideal weekend getaway for outdoorsy types.

Stop by the Oasis Visitor Center for advice on what to see. Before leaving, take a stroll on the boardwalk.

2. See the Wildlife in the Everglades

Nature takes center stage in the Everglades, a sprawling subtropical wetland where terrestrial, freshwater and saltwater ecosystems converge and pristine national parks provide a combined 2.4 million acres of sanctuary for flora and fauna.

Possibly the most famous wetlands on earth, Everglades National Park is the largest subtropical wilderness in the country as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here you’ll find coastal mangrove forests, freshwater sloughs, moss-covered cypress domes, and limestone rocklands with towering canopies of pine. Honestly, it’s like nowhere else on earth.

Bird lovers come here to see more than 360 recorded species of birds, including large wading birds like the roseate spoonbill, wood stork, and great blue heron. Interested in reptiles? From partially submerged alligators off the Anhinga Trail to crocodiles basking across from the marina at Flamingo, you can count on running into both of these Everglades icons. 

3. Hike and kayak in Key Biscayne

With MiamiLands’s shallow, calm waters and marine ecosystem, kayaking and canoeing are spectacular ways to enjoy a day with Mother Nature. The island of Key Biscayne is only 8 miles from downtown, and the drive over the Rickenbacker Bridge is spectacular.

On Key Biscayne, Crandon Park features walking trails, with rentals available for kayaking, canoeing, kiteboarding, and paddleboarding. Explore the winding alleys of mangroves, where beaches suddenly appear at low tide. At the southern tip of the island, check out the Key Biscayne lighthouse, a great spot for photos. Climb the winding staircase to the top for a beautiful view.

4. Swim in Biscayne National Park

Biscayne National Park, at 173,000 acres of territory, is the largest marine sanctuary in the U.S. National Park system. The park is 95 percent water, making it the third largest offshore reef in the entire world, home to thousands of habitats. Explorers will find everything from rare and popular bird species along the Biscayne Birding Trail to threatened or endangered species like manatees, hawksbill sea turtles, and American crocodiles. With so much of the park underwater, the best way to explore it is by boat. Go to Dante Fascell Visitor’s Center, about an hour’s drive south of Miami, and sign up for a guided boat, paddle, and snorkel tours.

The reef system in Biscayne National Park offers snorkeling and scuba diving. Colorful fish thrive among the sea fans and coral, including the lovely angelfish (photo, above).

Helpful hint: Help careFlorida’s reefs by wearing sunscreen that is marked “reef-safe,” which does not include chemicals that may damage the sensitive corals.

5. Visit Stiltsville

This collection of shacks directly above the water, built on stilts, sits on a sandbar just a little over a mile away from the Miami shore. Stories about Stiltsville’s history are modern-day legend, dating back to the Prohibition era when politicians and businessmen boated out to the encampment for gambling and bootleg liquor. In its heyday, there were 27 houses in Stiltsville, but hurricanes have taken their toll, and only seven houses remain.

Even though Stiltsville is part of Biscayne National Park, the houses are private property, so climbing up onto the decks is forbidden (local law enforcement has binoculars, so resist the temptation!). Instead, take a swim around the sandbar. The water is shallow and currents are gentle. Bring your snorkel mask too. Colorful fish and the occasional ray enjoy resting in the shadows beneath the houses.

6. Ride an Airboat or Swamp Buggy

For an up-close thrill ride in the swamps of the Everglades and Big Cypress, two special vehicles are at the ready to whip you through the shallow waters: airboats and swamp buggies.

Airboats are flat-bottomed vehicles powered by giant propellers, and swamp buggies are elevated trucks, similar to a Jeep, with canopy tops and huge tractor-like tires. While airboats glide on shallow waters, swamp buggies bounce right through it, powering through wetlands, cypress heads, hardwood hammocks, muddy marshes, and more.

Try either or both, and you’re guaranteed a peek into the Everglades as you’ve never imagined. Check out these great places to ride an airboat or swamp buggy in MiamiLand.

Learn more about MiamiLand:

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