M. Timothy O'Keefe / Alamy
Kristin Harmel
January 12, 2015

Orlando might be known for its thrill rides, its elaborate character experiences, and its theme park adventures, but some of its most enchanting attractions are straight from nature. From the many chances to interact with wildlife at SeaWorld to the opportunity see the many species that roam the beautiful savannahs of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Orlando has a leg up on any zoo in the world. You’d be hard-pressed to find a city where you can get this up close and personal with such a wide variety of animals. And this doesn’t even count the native wildlife: the giant sandhill cranes, the beautiful white egrets, the fearless ducks who live in the theme parks, and even the alligators who lurk in ponds and sometimes on golf courses (although you’ll want to steer clear of these!). If you’re an animal lover, there are few better places in the States to vacation. Here are my favorite animal attractions in Orlando:

Discovery Cove

This SeaWorld park is simply stunning. Your ticket buys you an unlimited day of snorkeling with tropical fish and stingrays, feeding exotic birds, and interacting with otters and marmosets—plus breakfast and lunch, and all the snacks and drinks you want. Don’t miss the highlight of the day: a 30-minute swim with dolphins. Your ticket also includes 14 consecutive days of admission to SeaWorld and Aquatica.

Kilimanjaro Safaris

One of my favorite Walt Disney World attractions overall, this Animal Kingdom experience is a must-see for any animal lover. Board an open-air safari vehicle for an 18-minute guided ride (with some fun theming!) through Disney’s 110-acre Harambe Wildlife Reserve, where 34 species of African wildlife roam. See lions, gazelles, warthogs, white and black rhinos, elephants, warthogs, giraffes, zebras, cheetahs, and more!

Antarctica: Empire of the Penguins

This unique SeaWorld attraction is part ride, part animal encounter, which adds up to an incredible, immersive experience. One of SeaWorld’s newest attractions (and their biggest expansion to date), this family-friendly experience shows visitors life through the eyes of a penguin and ends with a visit to a colony of hundreds of Antarctic and sub-Antarctic penguins.

Gatorland

Not far from the better-known theme parks, you’ll find this family-owned 110-acre park that calls itself the Alligator Capital of the World. Your relatively inexpensive ticket gives you an opportunity to visit a petting zoo, experience a free-flight aviary, and see tons of alligators, including four very rare white gators. Don’t miss the alligator wrestling show! For an extra fee, ride the 1200-foot Screamin’ Gator Zip Line, which flies over crocodile and alligator marshes.

One Ocean

This popular SeaWorld show features Shamu—the park’s signature orca whale—and emphasizes the idea that we’re all part of the same world, above and beneath the waves. Orcas not your thing? SeaWorld also offers several other wonderful animal shows, including Blue Horizons – featuring dolphins and birds – and the comedic Pets Ahoy – featuring dogs, cats, pigs and more, all rescued from animal shelters.

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