CHRISTMAS, Fla. – Central Florida is home to many beautiful parks, beaches and waterways, but here’s one you may not have heard of: Orlando Wetlands Park. In fact, it’s not even in Orlando, about 25 miles east of Lake Eola in the Christmas area.
This hidden gem is not just an outdoor attraction, but serves an important purpose by naturally filtering reclaimed sewage water.
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Paul McNamara is a volunteer leading free tram tours at Orlando Wetlands Park.
“Most take what we see out in our backyards for granted. We see maybe a blue herring in a pond in the backyard, kind of take that for granted,” McNamara said. “When you come out here to the wetlands park, you see how Orlando’s taking care of the water and how this is a working park.”
Riding along the more than 1,600 acres of wetlands, you’re bound to see what may feel like an infinite number of different animals, plants and breathtaking views. Beth Alderson has visited the park several times, traveling from Palm Bay with her family.
“Just being out in nature and seeing all the birds and the water’s beautiful, it’s just a beautiful environment,” Alderman said.
But the park is not there just for looks, it was manmade in the 1980s with an important job: to clean and treat sewage from the Iron Bridge Regional Water Pollution Control Facility more than 15 miles away.
“On a given day, we typically get about 16-18 million gallons a day of reclaimed water that’s flowing into the wetlands,” said Orlando Wetlands Park Manager Mark Sees. “Here at the influent boil, the water boils into the wetlands. This is where the water begins a 30-day journey where it slows down, and this is where now all the wetlands and the plants and the microorganisms and all the wildlife begin to utilize and tie up and polish out the excess nitrogen and phosphorus, thereby cleaning the water.”
The water looks crystal-clear as it flows through the park, attracting strong vegetation, Florida wildlife and visitors from all over.
“I just love the freshness of the air and being outside is my happy place,” visitor Amy Armstrong said.
Some visitors take advantage of the free tram tours, but there’s a new way to experience the wetlands by foot.
“If they want to walk, but don’t want to have to walk very far or have to take the tour, the new Cypress Boardwalk puts them right in the middle of the habitat,” McNamara said.
The Cypress Boardwalk is a new attraction spanning about a half-mile, connecting Osprey Boulevard to Limpkin Lane and Bobcat Trail.
Snapping pictures, Angie Vasquez is a frequent visitor and said the boardwalk gets her closer to nature.
“Before, we had to look through binoculars or through a lens to see what’s going on on this side of the wetlands,” Vasquez said. “This is my first time being on the boardwalk, this is amazing. It is a great attraction. A good way to interact with animals and not be too close. It’s less intimidating.”
Some visitors said the boardwalk is in the middle of all of the wetlands activity.
“It cuts right across probably the most wildlife-abundant stretch as far as I can see, of the entire wetlands, and it looks like all the people coming out here with their cameras and binoculars are having an absolute ball. You’re spotting everything from the boardwalk,” said David Liu.
The city of Orlando is also investing in a new education center that will highlight the importance of the wetlands park. City leaders hope the new attractions will garner more appreciation for the outdoors.
“This gives you a glimpse of ‘real Florida,’ but you’re still connected with the people. I think that’s what the boardwalk was meant to be, to connect people with nature,” said Imani Kline.
Visitors can visit the park seven days a week, between sunrise and sunset at 25155 Wheeler Road in Christmas. Parking is located at the entrance to the park and is free of charge. Motorized vehicles are not permitted inside the park.
Only passive recreation activities are permitted at the park. These include photography, wildlife viewing, hiking, the use of non-motorized bicycles and horseback riding. Vehicular traffic, boating, swimming, flying of drones, hunting and fishing are NOT allowed.
The volunteer-led tram tours at Orlando Wetlands Park are first-come, first-served and free for groups of ten or less:
- Friday and Saturday 9 a.m.-3 p.m. (all year)
- Sundays (September-March)
The Orlando Wetlands Festival takes place Saturday, Feb. 18, and will be held entirely at Orlando Wetlands Park!
The event is free for all ages including environmental exhibits, guided hikes and tours, live animals and presentations, demonstration trucks and equipment, kids’ activities, a native plant give-away, door prizes and more.
Guided Hikes & Tours
- Photography (Beginner and Intermediate options)
- Native Plant Identification
- Aquatic Critter Crawl
- Air-conditioned bus tours
- “Hay” rides
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