Two things you’ll find in abundance in Florida are alligators and green space in public parks and gardens. During my family’s December visit to Sarasota, the weather was perfect for outdoor exploration; sunshine, breezes, and low humidity! These were the three best places we found to discover gators and gardens in the area.
Myakka River State Park
One of Florida’s largest and oldest state parks, the Myakka River State Park is off the beaten path, but still technically within Sarasota. It’s worth seeking out and spending an entire afternoon enjoying a nature walk, canoeing or biking. The narrated seasonal Tram Safari tour through shady oak and pine forests is also a must. Make the effort to seek out the Canopy Walkway, a pedestrian bridge suspended 25 feet in the air connecting two wooden towers.
Our goal at this park was to take a ride on the world’s largest covered airboat. The Myakka Maiden and Gator Gal are twin vessels, both 53 feet long. During the 45-minute ride on Upper Myakka Lake, our captain and narrator Jamie pointed out visible wildlife along the way. We saw a lot of beautiful birds we don’t get to see up north, like egrets and herons, as well as osprey and bald eagles. Of course, the main attraction is the alligators, and since up to 1,000 gators live in this lake, it’s easy to spot a few peeking their heads above the water.
Sarasota Jungle Gardens
The Sarasota Jungle Gardens, which opened in 1939, is one of those old-time Florida tourist attractions that offers more simple fun than high-tech adventure, which is exactly why we enjoyed it. My daughter adopted the make believe role of jungle explorer as she followed the red brick canopied pathways through the dense palm hammocks; there is a total of 100 different palm species in all. We stopped along the way to observe wildlife, both out in the open and in protected animal habitats. Highlights included the outdoor alligator pen and the indoor Reptile Exhibit with a collection of albino creatures — a turtle, cobra, and python — as well as a close encounter with a flamingo family.
There are also several daily wildlife, reptile and bird shows. Jeremiah, the animal trainer, introduced us to Cheyenne, the Red-Tailed Hawk, Francis, the Great Horned Owl, and Spike, the African Pygmy Hedgehog, providing plenty of information about their life habits, as well as giving the kids the opportunity to pet Spike.
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
On the shore of Sarasota Bay, the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens is a pleasant tropical surprise in urban surroundings. For families, the Ann Goldstein’s Children’s Rainforest Garden, which opened in November 2013, makes it worth the visit. The centerpiece is the 100-year-old Banyan Tree with an extensive root system that our kids enjoyed climbing over. There’s a challenging Canopy Walk and Rope Bridge that gives you a view of the rainforest from 27 feet above. Activity huts were scattered around the Kids’ Corner, offering them the chance to draw and make their own crafts. On a hot day, you can stand by the waterfall and get cooled off by the mist.
We also spent time strolling around the Butterfly Garden, and walking along the Mangrove Bay Walk, enjoying views of the Sarasota Bay and the Ringling Causeway Bridge.
– Traci L. Suppa
Traci L. Suppa drags her small-town family to see a quirky array of the world’s largest, longest, or tallest things, and blogs about it at Go BIG or Go Home.