Easy Florida Eco-Adventures on the Space Coast

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Did someone say adventure? Well, it’s out there, and it’s right outside of your favorite Disney destinations.

We all know by now that Florida is way more than theme parks, right? And the great outdoors is finally getting its due, with animal encounters and adventure parks all over the place these days. Even within Disney’s Animal Kingdom, guests have the opportunity to get out of the ride vehicle and right into the animal exhibits with the Wild Africa Trek. Zip-lining, close encounters with wild animals, hanging bridges — just in case the Kilimanjaro Safaris are too tame for you.

Disney Ship Manatee Park - Natalie Reinert
A Disney Cruise Line ship peeks over the mangroves at Manatee Sanctuary Park in Cape Canaveral.

But maybe you’re not so into the swinging rope bridge over the crocodile pond. Maybe you’d just like to get a good look at the native flora and fauna. After all, Florida’s a unique place. Well, there are quieter, gentler adventures you can find on your Florida vacation. And if you’re staying at Cocoa Beach or Cape Canaveral, even just for a day before or after your Disney cruise, you can get easily out there and explore Florida’s wild wonders — without even getting out of your car, in some cases. There are easy Florida eco-adventures on the Space Coast that will open up your eyes to Florida’s wealth of wildlife, wetlands, and true wild spirit.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge – Black Point Wildlife Drive is an easy way to get a taste of Florida wetlands. From saltwater marsh to pine uplands, from alligators to eagles, the Black Point Wildlife Drive was designed to show guests the remarkable number of ecosystems that exist along Florida’s shorelines. And it does so against an unforgettable backdrop: the rocket launch and production facilities of Kennedy Space Center. 

The Wildlife Refuge offers hiking trails, fishing, observation towers, a manatee observation deck, and unspoiled Atlantic beaches, all while serving as a buffer between Kennedy Space Center and the communities of the Space Coast.

NWR Visitor's Center - Natalie Reinert
The excellent Visitor’s Center gives an overview of the habitats and wildlife out in the refuge.

The Black Point Wildlife Drive gives an easy introduction to the refuge, especially on hot days when a hike is just out of the question. Try an animal-spotting drive early in the morning or one to two hours before sunset for the best animal viewing. On a recent late afternoon in January, we spotted eleven alligators either out sunning or swimming in the road-side waters, plus dozens of species of waterfowl and wading birds, including the migratory white pelican.

Just remember to drive slow — there’s room for the folks in a hurry to get around you — and peer into sunny canals along the road and grassy shorelines to see the alligators that others miss. Although the website suggests you can get around the drive in just 40 minutes, we spent two hours and loved it all.

gator - Merritt Island - Natalie Reinert
Slow down – shiny scales give away a big gator that at least six other drivers passed without noticing!

There’s a $5 fee for the drive, payable either at the refuge’s excellent Visitor’s Center, or in an honor-system envelope box at the drive’s entrance.

The Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is accessible from Titusville, about a half hour’s drive north of Cocoa Beach. Take 520 or 528 to 1-95, then drive north to exit 220, Garden Street. Follow Garden Street about 4 miles east, over the Max Brewer Bridge, to the refuge, the follow signs for the Visitor’s Information Center and the Wildlife Drive. Check the website before you go for possible closures due to space center activity.

Playalinda Beach and the Canaveral National Seashore is located to the east and north of the Wildlife Refuge, and it’s easily accessible by just driving right through the refuge. Playalinda Beach, the southern end of the Canaveral National Seashore, begins just a short distance north of Launch Complex 39B, formerly used for space shuttle launches. The north side, Apollo Beach, has more facilities, but it’s only accessible from the north entrance in New Smyrna Beach.

Canaveral National Seashore - Wiki photo - joneboi
Canaveral National Seashore’s unspoiled beaches. – Wikipedia photo user: joneboi

Both offer one of the most natural beach experiences Florida has to offer, but for our purposes, Playalinda is easier to reach from the Orlando and Cape Canaveral areas. Head here for peace, quiet, shore birds, and sand with no one’s footprints in it but yours.

You’ll pass the massive Vehicle Assembly Building, one of the largest buildings in the world, and rocket launch complexes on the way there. Sea turtle nests, rare birds like the Florida scrub jay, natural sand dunes that protect the barrier islands, and quiet sandy beaches await you at Playalinda. It’s a world apart from the hotel-lined shores in Cocoa Beach. There’s also no life guards, snack shacks, showers, or beach rentals here, just restroom facilities, so be prepared to rough it a little.

There’s a daily park fee of $5, payable at the toll booth upon arrival. From I-95, take exit 220 (Garden Street) and proceed over the Max Brewer Bridge, as above. Once in the wildlife refuge, bear right onto SR 402 and follow the signs. Get more information, including closures due to space center activity, at the National Park Service website.

egret - Viera Wetlands Park-Natalie Reinert
A Great Egret at the Viera Wetlands Park.

The Viera Wetlands Park, formally known as the Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands, is an even easier way to get a taste of Florida’s wetlands, see a few alligators, and call it a day without ever getting out of your car. And bonus, it’s close to shopping and dining at a nearby shopping center, The Avenue. If you don’t have a lot of extra time but you want to get a glimpse of Florida nature, Viera Wetlands Park is a great option.

Located in the community of Viera, about a half hour southwest of Cape Canaveral, the wetlands park is really a collection of man-made freshwater ponds that are attached to the nearby water treatment plant. These wetland parks are becoming wonderful places to spot birds and alligators in Central Florida (Orlando Wetlands Park, in east Orange County, is another nice choice). The raised embankments provide a wide driving, biking, and walking road and offer a great view of the wildlife in the ponds.

We recently walked around the ponds at the park and spotted a nesting Great Blue Heron feeding young, several alligators (including some real monster-sized ones), and a collection of waterfowl including every sort of egret and heron you could think of. There’s an observation tower to climb up and get a view of every pond, and in the distance you can see the prairie and scrub habitats that lead out to the St. John’s River.

Get to the Viera Wetlands Park by taking 520 or 528 to I-95, then driving south to exit 191 (Wickham Rd). Turn right onto Wickham Road. At the roundabout, take the second exit onto North Wickham Road. Follow it to the sign that says “road ends,” and the park will be ahead of you.

Manatee Sanctuary Boardwalk - Natalie Reinert
A view from the boardwalk, with the Disney Dream peeking through the palms.

Manatee Sanctuary Park is the ultimate in low-impact, convenient, five-minute eco-tourism. Located in Cape Canaveral along the Banana River, this little park includes a fitness trail, a grassy playing field, a picnic pavilion with restrooms, and its centerpiece: a boardwalk along the riverfront that gives not just great views of the Disney Dream and Fantasy when they’re in port, but of a popular manatee snack bar. The manatees have been coming here for years, long before the hotels and condos went up nearby. Now, on warm days you can head down to the far left of the boardwalk and peek into the mangrove cove, where the manatees come to slurp away at vegetation.

Manatee Sanctuary Park is located at 701 Thurm Blvd. To get there from Port Canaveral, take A1A south to Central Boulevard, turn right, then take a right on Thurm Blvd. The park will be on your right. From Cocoa Beach and other points south, turn left onto Central Boulevard. Visit the website here for more information.

Easy, convenient, low-impact adventure is out there! Go and see the wild side of Florida. No zip lines required.

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Natalie Reinert

One of those Florida locals who can usually tell you if it's going to rain by the sun angle and the feel of the air, I'm an avid weather fan and a certified weather spotter for the National Weather Service's SkyWarn program. I tweet about Central Florida weather at @WeatheratWDW. As I work for Walt Disney World, please note all of my views are my own, and do not represent the views of The Walt Disney Company. All information shared in my posts comes from publicly available sources.

5 thoughts on “Easy Florida Eco-Adventures on the Space Coast

  • February 20, 2015 at 1:34 pm
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    Thanks for the article. A suggestion for a future topic would be things to do on the Gulf Coast. We’re doing a combination Universal and Siesta Key vacation in June and while we’re pretty familiar with the Siesta Key area some pointers for other interesting things to do on the Gulf side would be appreciated.

    Reply
  • February 20, 2015 at 3:52 pm
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    Thanks Brett! Would you be interested in more about the nature side of things, or are you looking for just a little bit of everything?

    Reply
    • February 21, 2015 at 11:57 am
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      Natalie – I’m open to hearing about anything, but in particular we’ve heard that you can canoe in the Myakka park. Maybe more information along those lines? We’ve got the beach area covered! Thanks!

      Reply
  • February 22, 2015 at 8:04 am
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    You may want to warn people about the last parking lot on Playlinda, lot/beach 13, or even walking that way if parked further down the beach…for those unaware they may be rather surprised to find that it’s clothing optional in that area

    Reply
  • February 23, 2015 at 12:44 pm
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    LOL Vance… that is a loooooooong way down if you’re entering from the Playalinda side – about four miles, I think. I’ve never needed to venture that far for secluded beach.

    I believe the clothing-optional stretch of beach is much closer to the parking lots in Apollo Beach, but that’s the north entrance, so you’d be heading all the way up to New Smyrna to enter – not very convenient to Orlando or Cocoa Beach vacationers.

    My guess is that MOST people who finding their way to the clothing-optional beach (which are unofficial, by the way) are doing it on purpose!

    If you’re not sure where to park or find wheelchair access to the beach, by the way, Florida Rambler breaks it down lot by lot: http://www.floridarambler.com/florida-best-beaches/apollo-beach-canaveral-national-seashore/

    Reply

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