Natural Attractions Are Alternative for Theme Park Clients

Reed Travel Features

TALLAHASSEE -- Although theme parks remain popular with Florida clients, agents should not overlook the chance to suggest a visit to a natural attraction, as well. These include caverns, Everglades National Park, unspoiled seashore, state and national forests, a giant sinkhole and bird sanctuaries. Following is a sampling of natural attractions.

* Florida Caverns State Park, north of Marianna, features seven lighted cave rooms with stalactites, stalagmites and gray bats. For information, call (904) 482-9114.

* Everglades National Park, with more than 1.4 million acres, is closest to Miami, Naples and the Florida Keys. It has more than 3,000 species of birds, alligators and other animals; 465,000 acres of sawgrass, 25 types of orchids and some 1,000 different seed-bearing plants. The Shark Valley Visitor Center (south of Naples) and the Main Visitor Center (west of Homestead) provide good orientations. For information, call (800) 445-7724.

* Devil's Millhopper Sinkhole State Geological Site, northwest of Gainesville, is 117 feet deep and is accessible by steps. For information, call (904) 955-2008.

* Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary occupies 2,600 nautical square miles on the Atlantic and Gulf sides of the Keys. Guests will find fish, coral reefs, mangrove islands and seagrass beds. For information, call the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, (305) 451-1202.

*At the Florida Audubon Society-Madalyn Baldwin Center for Birds of Prey, Maitland, visitors can see birds undergoing rehabilitation for poisoning, wounds and ill health.

* Florida Space Coast visitors can take in Canaveral National Seashore, the adjacent Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Scottsmoor Marsh and Turkey Creek, any of which can be combined with a visit to the Kennedy Space Center near Titusville. Toured by canoe, Turkey Creek is home to the West Indian manatee, alligators, turtles and aquatic plantlife. For information, call (800) 93-OCEAN. The Best Western Space Shuttle Inn, Titusville, offers seven-night commissionable Earthwalks packages to nature areas for individuals and groups of eight or more. Fifteen-seat vans are used for transportation. For price quotes, contact Els Van Engelenburg, the inn's co-owner, at (407) 269-9100.

* The Conservancy of Southwest Florida's Naples Nature Center borders a tidal lagoon and includes a natural-science museum with a serpentarium, a 3,000-gallon aquarium, a wildlife rehabilitation clinic, guided trail walks and free miniboat tours. Canoes and kayak rentals are available throughout the year. For information, call (941) 262-0304.

* The conservancy's Briggs Nature Center is the launching point for canoe and boat rides to bird-watch and collect shells on Key Island in Rookery Bay. For information, call (941) 775-8569.

* Big Cypress National Preserve in Ochopee, 35 miles south of Naples, is home to alligators, herons, bald eagles and the endangered Florida panther. For information, call (941) 695-4111.

* National Audubon Society's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary features the largest strand of virgin bald cypress trees in the U.S. The 11,000-acre sanctuary, 20 miles north of Naples, offers a self-guided tour on a newly extended 2.25-mile-long boardwalk. For information, call (941) 657-3771.

* The Lee Island Coast (Fort Myers area) is home to the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Calusa Nature Center, Sanibel Island, shelling beaches and other areas. For a pocket-size nature guide to the Lee Island Coast, call the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau at (800) 533-4753, ext. 499.

* From the Anna Maria Island area (near Bradenton), Manatee Airboat Tour operates one-hour trips to the barrier islands aboard the six-passenger Turbulence. For information, call (941) 795-5353. Also in the Bradenton area, the Cortez Fleet operates four-hour boat trips on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays to Egmont Key, at the mouth of Tampa Bay. A walking tour enables visitors to see remnants of Fort Dade, built in 1900; a lighthouse; the endangered gopher tortoise, and sea turtle nesting areas. The trips cost $14 for clients age 15 and older; $12 for seniors, and $8 for children. For information, call (941) 794-1223.

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